The Spanish word for resistance and endurance is resistencia. It’s a word that Rafael Nadal knows well. From an early age, his coach, Uncle Toni Nadal, stressed that a player’s choice is to endure or to surrender.
Nadal’s resistencia can be measured in the rivers of sweat he’s poured onto courts of all surfaces from Mallorca to Montreal and beyond. Before the first ball is struck, his opponents see that sweat pouring off of every inch of his body: drip, drip, drip.
They see his primal energy and the intensity in his eyes and sense that they’re in for an ordeal. That sinking legion of doom fear intensifies for the faint of heart during his pre-match ritual—the ominous jumping up and down, the trademark sprint to the baseline after the coin toss, even his arranging of bottles must look menacing to some because the habit speaks to his meticulous preparation.
In his autobiography, Rafa, the humble Spanish champion neatly summarised his approach to the sport: “Tennis is my passion, but I also think of it as my work, as a job I try to do as honestly and well as if I were working in my father’s glass business or my grandfather’s furniture store.”
Today at the Rolex Paris Masters, Nadal had yet another great day at work, earning his 1,000th victory on the ATP Tour, beating Feliciano Lopez, who walked on the court with a bit of hope and perhaps a healthy dose of fear, but, like hundreds of other Nadal victims who have come before him, left looking like he’d been mugged.
Hundreds of players from around the world know this feeling well, as Rafa’s been deflating egos from Alicante to Zagreb for nearly 20 years. His preternatural capacity to suffer and endure is not new. Competing in Spain’s national championship for under-14s one year, he broke his finger in a first-round match, but won the tournament anyways, gripping the racquet with his four good fingers and the pinky finger dangling.
Over the years, Nadal would endure many more injuries—his knees, wrists, feet, back, hamstrings and other body parts all sidelined him for spells—fueling his doubters, who insisted that he’d never have a long career with his brutally physical style of play. Perhaps no other champion of his calibre has faced and ultimately silenced as many naysayers as Rafael Nadal has.
Rafael Nadal Parera’s road to 1,000 wins officially started at age 15 with a first-round win at the Mallorca Open over Ramon Delgado, a Paraguayan then ranked No. 81 in the world. His triumph netted him 15 FedEx ATP Rankings points and a cheque for $5,850.
It was a good start and he was determined to turn pro, though his mother still wanted him to go to university. The matter was settled when he (supposedly) accidentally left his schoolbooks on a plane one day and decided his school days were over. $122 million in prize money and much more in endorsements later and no one has ever questioned the decision.
A year after his first ATP win, in 2003, he made it to the third round of Wimbledon and finished the year ranked just inside the Top 50 at just 17 years old. But the rippling biceps weren’t there yet, nor were the pirate pants and muscle shirts that would later become his signature look for a time. The early Nadal doubters wrote him off as a clay-court specialist, with one writer calling him a “belligerent, inelegant grinder”.
But when Nadal made it to the final of Wimbledon four times in a five year spell from 2006-2011 (he didn’t play in 2009), winning the title twice, his detractors could no longer dismiss him as a mere dirt devil. When he started beating Roger Federer with regularity on grass and hard courts, some observers in the media and in the tennis establishment reacted with barely disguised hostility.
After all, no one had ever seen a brawny and bold character quite like him before. GQ referred to Nadal as “a side of beef rolling around in the clay… all biceps and pantalones.” A Sports Illustrated writer likened his brash emergence at Wimbledon to a “street thug crashing a cotillion”.
When Nadal was plagued with injuries in 2012 and again from 2014-2017, many we-told-you-so types smugly observed that his savage style of play was catching up to him and precluded the possibility of a long career. Some Nadal sceptics were already writing his tennis epitaph as early as 2015, when he made early exits at Wimbledon and the US Open.
We heard from them again in 2016, when Nadal lost to Fernando Verdasco in the first round at the Australian Open and later that year when he fell to Lucas Pouille at the US Open, prompting one reporter to ask him why he couldn’t perform at his best in big matches anymore.
But even in his “down” years, Nadal still usually won at Roland Garros, his maison, and racked up enough wins elsewhere to make himself an immovable fixture in the sport’s Top 10, where he’s been for a record 789 weeks (and counting).
He’s won more than 60 matches in a season a remarkable nine times, hitting his top number in 2008 with 82 wins. Since failing to win a major in 2015 and 2016, he’s roared back with six more majors since and he’s not close to being done at age 34. Nadal recently remarked to ATPTour.com, “Winning is not normal, and I am always very aware of that”.
The statement could apply to most tennis players but not the southpaw from Manacor. Over the past 15 years, he’s won an average of 64 times per season. That is definitely not normal, but then again, nothing about Rafa is. It isn’t his mind-boggling statistics or all the wins and titles that are most impressive, it’s how he’s done it all with class, grace, humility and sportsmanship.
In fact, an argument can be made that Nadal’s finest hours haven’t come after any of his 1,000 wins, but instead after some of the 201 losses. For example, when he lost to Steve Darcis, then ranked No. 135, in the first round of Wimbledon in 2013, it was clear he was hampered by a knee injury. But when reporters pressed him to talk about the injury after the match he refused to make excuses, just as he always has. “Now is not the right time to talk about my knee,” he said. “The only thing I can do is congratulate my opponent. It is not a tragedy, I lost, it is sport.”
It is that kind of sportsmanship that’s earned him legions of fans around the world, including plenty of converts who may not have been sold on him back in the pirate pants days. He’s a tough guy full of contradictions; he likes to wear pink and loves to cook; he’s afraid of dogs and stepping on lines on the court, and he likes to take an ice cold shower before matches. He’s won 1,000 matches but he signs that many autographs in a single tournament.
"If all goes well, we’ll have time to analyse [the greatest-ever debate] when our careers are over."
His resistencia has given tennis fans ample opportunity to get to know him over the years, and so, with his superstitious ticks, his endearing accent and his aw shucks habit of crediting his opponents after he beats them to a bloody pulp, we feel we know him like a member of our own family. These days, Nadal sceptics are becoming an endangered species who are relegated to muttering to themselves in bus stop shelters and mental institutions, if you can find them at all.
Will he surpass Lendl, Federer, and Connors on the all-time match wins list? At 83.2% his career winning percentage is higher than Lendl (81.5%), Connors (81.8%), and Federer (82.1%). As players inch closer to retirement, their winning percentages nearly always decline, so this comparison is premature, but it’s worth noting that Nadal has compiled his gaudy stats while sharing the stage for his entire career against Federer and Novak Djokovic, two of history’s greatest champions.
Nadal’s odds to break the all-time wins and other records will rest as much on his family and his team as it will depend on his own performance. Perhaps no player’s success has ever been more closely intertwined with his family life and his closeness with his team, relationships that have kept him healthy and motivated. Tennis is an individual sport, but Nadal’s equipo is the tribe that’s helped make him the champion that he is.
Nadal’s 1,000th win is a testament to his resistencia. But he won’t gloat or take a victory lap. When asked by ATPTour.com about his place in tennis history after capturing his 13th Roland Garros title, he modestly demurred, like he always does.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me much,” he said of his records. “I’m happy with my career. At the moment, it’s clear that I’m one of the two (top players in the sport’s history). We’ll see what happens in the next few years: what Djokovic does, what Federer does when he returns and what I keep doing. If all goes well, we’ll have time to analyse it when our careers are over.”
With all due respect to Nadal, he could win another 20 majors and another 1,000 matches and even on his deathbed, he’ll never declare himself the greatest. But many others, including plenty of one-time Nadal sceptics, have already done just that.
A month after his first Roland Garros triumph, Rafael Nadal clinched his 100th match win by dismissing American Hugo Armando 6-1, 6-2 in the Stuttgart second round. It marked his 30th victory during a record 81-match winning streak on clay spanning 2005 to 2007.
Fresh off his Masters 1000 title in Indian Wells, Nadal claimed his 200th career win in the Miami fourth round against Argentine teen Juan Martin del Potro, 6-0, 6-4. It was his first career meeting against the future US Open champion.
Nadal went the distance for his 300th match win, withstanding 35 aces as he overcame Ivo Karlovic 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 7-6(4) in The Queen's Club quarter-finals. Nadal went on to win his first grass-court title and followed at Wimbledon with triumph over Roger Federer in the final.
Nadal lost on his Davis Cup debut in 2004, but has since gone undefeated in 29 singles matches. Kicking off the 2009 Davis Cup final against the Czech Republic in Barcelona, he defeated Tomas Berdych 7-5, 6-0, 6-2 to earn his 400th career win. Spain swept the tie, 5-0.
Nadal celebrated another milestone win in Barcelona, reaching 500 by defeating Croatian Ivan Dodig 6-3, 6-2 in the ATP 500 semi-finals. Nadal remained unbeaten in eight Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell appearances from 2005 to 2013, and won three more titles here from 2016-18.
After being sidelined for seven months, Nadal made an impressive comeback in 2013, winning 10 titles and finishing as the year-end No. 1. His 600th career win came in March at the BNP Paribas Open, as he rallied to defeat Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the final.
Nadal needed only 15 months and 113 matches to reach his next milestone, but he was made to work for No. 700. Playing Martin Klizan in his Wimbledon opener, Nadal battled from a set down to prevail 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 in three hours.
Nadal became the eighth player to join the 800-match wins club as he defeated home hope Thomaz Bellucci 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the quarter-finals of the Rio Olympics. Nadal, who had won singles gold in 2008, left Rio with a gold medal in doubles alongside Marc Lopez.
For his 900th match win, Nadal continued his dominance at Roland Garros and against Richard Gasquet. Nadal, who improved to a 16-0 record against the Frenchman with his 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 rout, would go on to win the clay-court major for an 11th time.
Matching the best clip of his career, Rafa needed just 113 matches to move from 900 wins to 1,000 wins, reaching the milestone when he defeated fellow Spanish lefty Feliciano Lopez 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-4 in his opening match at the Rolex Paris Masters.
"I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion. As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players."
"Some matches that we had against each other were a great turning point in my career. I feel they have made me rethink my game... [The] encounters have also made me the player I am today, without a doubt."
"[I'm in awe of] the intensity, his fighting spirit, his speed, movement on the court... It's not very easy to hit winners or play aggressive shots that are going to lead to more defensive balls."
"He’s an example to everyone... The whole of Spanish sport is very proud of him."
"I think he's the greatest fighter ever in this sport... I admire him, the way he is on the court. His attitude is something that's close to perfection."
"[He's] like a lion in the middle of the jungle. He's a fighter. He knows how to play the important moments every single time."
"For me he is the best athlete, not just in tennis, but the best athlete in history."
"He’s been playing for so many years at such a high level, producing surprises every season. He’s a true one-of-a-kind! ...He’s also a great person. I’m lucky enough to know him quite well and to have shared many moments with him."
"Beating Nadal on clay is literally one of the toughest things in sports... But it's also tough for Rafa, because every time he goes out there, players swing for the fences and have nothing to lose. That's what makes him so great, because he's getting everyone's best shot."
"He’s always showing that he’s from another planet. When you are opposite him and knock up with him, even if it’s just three balls, you can see that the ball comes back in an otherworldly way."
"He's my biggest idol. He's one of the reasons I play tennis... [He is an] unbelievable competitor. Just from him I have the never-give-up mentality."
"From before you go out on court it is already a roller coaster, because he’s already warming up and jumping and on a mental level it is a little deflating. You know that he will make you play until the final point. Rafa is mentally the best there has ever been."
"Rafa, apart from being a great player, a great person, a great fighter, is an example for youth, for children who play tennis through his image... He never accepts defeat."
"When he beat me (for the first time) he was very shy, very nervous and he told me he was sorry. I also understood that it would be the first of many times he would beat me… He has produced everything that he promised back then, and more."
"It was a game of chess, every point was endless, you had to win the point five times and it was a spectacular challenge."
"He manages to compete in almost every point, even when his tennis is not it’s best that day. Rafa is the king of knowing how to adapt to any situation in the match."
"He takes you to a very high level of stress which is difficult to maintain for the whole match. That’s why it’s so difficult to play against him."
"He is like a boxer who constantly jabs. It totally wears an opponent down."