While Novak Djokovic attempts to hold all four Grand Slam titles and Roger Federer guns for his second French Open title, Nadal is fighting for an unprecedented seventh French Open title that would move him past Bjorn Borg and make him the undisputed master of clay.
It's an astonishing idea with little recognition, but bears repeating: Another Nadal French Open victory could make him the most dominant player on a single surface. Only Pete Sampras on Wimbledon's grass could otherwise be considered.
Zeus and Hades
Sampras, with his short, dark hair and Greek heritage is often remembered in traditional white attire, and will forever be the paragon of Wimbledon. His rule on heavenly grass was the pantheon of tennis achievements. He possessed elements of the classic serve and volley style, but with a thundering serve that rained down on opponents like Zeus’ lightning bolts. He wielded an elegant single-backhand that hearkened to the past.
His link to modern tennis was a baseline game that was superior to other big hitters. He featured excellent quickness and court coverage, and a deadly running one-handed forehand.
Sampras’ net game was efficient, clean and ruthless—like a guillotine. Many criticized the monotony of his style, but invincibility is an envious quality.
Nadal, with his fierce snarl and Spanish bravado, could be seen over the years with flamboyant attire, and will forever embody excellence at Roland Garros. Nadal has ruled the hellish clay with an incessant game of torment. His left-handed forehand and vicious topspin forehand whirl sideways like some underworld spell from Hades.
His dominance has created the modern standard on clay with big hitting and defensive control, fast feet and creative angles.
Nadal’s baseline game is grinding and is a version of slow torture, like the rack. Oppositional fans criticize his antagonistic style, but nobody else has won as prolifically on clay.
From 1993-2000, Sampras was nearly unbeatable at Wimbledon, compiling a 53-1 record with seven titles in eight appearances. For his career, he would finish 63-7 at Wimbledon.
Sampras had a more limited opportunity to play on grass with its shorter season. He did not always participate at the Queens Club Championships in London, considered a tune-up to Wimbledon, and was only 2-2 in its finals. Including Wimbledon, Sampras was 10-3 in grass court finals.
From 2005-2012, Nadal has been nearly as stingy at Roland Garros, amassing a 45-1 record with six titles in seven appearances. (A win at the 2012 French Open would give him a 52-1 record and equal Sampras’s seven titles in eight appearances.)
Nadal has had far more opportunities on clay, and he has shown his excellence in non-French Open clay-court tournaments with an astonishing record of 29-4 in finals appearances, including 16-4 at Masters 1000 tournaments, fresh off the recent Italian Open win over Novak Djokovic.
There will come a time when Nadal loses matches at the French Open, which will temper his current run, and maybe his final career totals will be comparable to Sampras’s final record on grass. Quite succinctly, Nadal has obliterated a strong field of opponents on clay for eight seasons now.
Sampras’s primary rival at Wimbledon was flame-serving lefty, Goran Ivanišević. Sampras lost to Ivanišević in the 1992 semifinals.
He rebounded to defeat Ivanišević in 1994 and 1998—the only time Sampras was ever pushed to five sets in a Slam final. Sampras also needed five sets to defeat him in the 1995 semifinals. (Ivanišević got his surprising title in 2001 with Sampras out of the way.)
Sampras mostly rolled through other contenders such as Boris Becker and Andre Agassi, destroying his fellow American in his 1999 renaissance.
Nadal’s titles have mostly come at the expense of Federer, but he has also had to defeat other champions along the way including Lleyton Hewitt, Carlos Moya and a younger Djokovic.
Which player was more dominant for his time? Sampras seemed unbeatable every match at Wimbledon during his great run. It felt as if his opponents had no chance. He could look for a single game to break open a match because his service game on grass was history's most invincible.
He was also lethal in tiebreakers. In 1994, he and Ivanišević served up bullets for two sets, neither able to break the other. But Sampras won both tiebreakers, which caused Ivanišević to drop his head and crumble 6-0 in the third. Sampras never gave an inch.
Because of his powerful serve and attacking nature, Sampras is credited as being more of an aggressor than Nadal. His points and games are much shorter on grass, and therefore the dominance might seem easier.
However, grass games at that time meant you could lose your momentum in a hurry. A slow start could spell doom, and Sampras could not afford lapses or expect to wear down his opponent physically.
Nadal oddly enough only won the French Open title one time as the No. 1 seed. Though he has proven his dominance, it was never a given he would win as long as Federer opposed him. The media and fans predicted his fall on many occasions, only to see him holding the Musketeers Cup once again.
Because of his grinding defensive style, Nadal has generally received less credit than a player like Sampras or Federer. His points and games are longer on clay, which many will cite as praise or caveat, but his endurance and stamina are important assets to his dominance.
Nadal's dominance feels different. Against his top opponents, there is initially more uncertainty about winning, but it almost always produces his consistent championship result, and the post-match write-ups about how obvious his dominance was all along. The Rome victory over Djokovic is an example.
It’s a little harder for a more unorthodox or defensive style to win critical acclaim, but is Nadal any less dominant?
The greater the opponent, the better Sampras played. He demonstrated this many times against Ivanišević, Becker and Agassi, but also against Courier, Chang and others. He was a clutch player with his ability to win key points and big moments. Sampras was not known for winning many epic matches because his wins were usually so dominant.
His lone Wimbledon loss in the midst of this run was in 1996 to the big-serving Dutchman, Richard Krajicek, who won in straight sets over two days involving rain. Krajicek held a lifetime 6-4 record against Sampras, and he did go on and win the Wimbledon title.
Following his loss to Krajicek, as reported by Sandra McKee in the Baltimore Sun, Sampras said, “I felt a little tight, that maybe my time had come."
Krajicek also said in the same article that he could pressure Sampras by giving him a taste of his own medicine. “I notice that if I keep attacking him, he does start to miss. He can hit great passing shots, but you just have to keep going at him because he is such a dominant player.”
In 2001, Federer also defeated Sampras with his own serve-and-volley pressure.
Still, Sampras showed championship composure by keeping his cool whenever he was passed. He had the mental strength to go back to his roots, to keep serving and finish it off at the net. He never seemed to get rattled, even in his few defeats.
Avoid the Marathon
Nadal has also been the mentally toughest player of his generation, and his relentless style and attack are still grounded in patience. He knows his opponent will have to grind out excellence for three sets out of five, which has been almost impossible.
The only way to pressure Nadal is to have big groundstrokes. Robin Soderling's 2009 victory over Nadal—the only French Open defeat of his career, came from hard-hit strokes. He overpowered Nadal with 61 winners and Nadal managed only 33.
Soderling also talked about needing belief and mental strength to beat Nadal, as reported by Howard Fendrich in the Huffington Post. "I felt if I can win one set," he said, "why not the second one, and then the third one?"
Federer and Djokovic have also used their forehands and power with their rare win against Nadal on clay.
Early in his career, Nadal lost the first sets in his first two French Open finals, but never needed a fifth set to finish the job. There are times his opponents can get on a roll and seemingly take control, but it rarely lasts.
In the 2011 French Open finals, Federer had a brilliant start in the first set with a 5-2 lead, but a slice backhand fell short, and from there his game and confidence seemed to erode. Had Federer won that first set, things could have been different, but Nadal is never defeated after one set.
Who is more Dominant?
Though Sampras and Federer each won five U.S. Open titles, they were also defeated there. The more neutral hard courts bring in more competitors and make it more difficult for one player to dominate as thoroughly.
Bjorn Borg had the most difficult double dose of domination ever with his combination of French Open and Wimbledon titles coming in three straight years (1978-1980).
Federer won his double dose of Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles from 2004-2007.
But for one dominant player on one surface, Nadal has a chance with a seventh title to put himself alone with Pete Sampras, and in the eyes of many to surpass Sampras because of his extra-proven success on clay in an age of top-heavy competition.
The tennis world will soon see if Nadal can stand alone on Mount Olympus.