T365 Recall: Rafael Nadal goes from young gun to King of Clay during 81-match winning streak on red dirt

With the 2020 clay-court season decimated due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is only right that we get a wee bit nostalgic about Rafael Nadal’s dominant spell on the red dirt from April 2005 to May 2007.

The clay-court tournaments, with the exception of the French Open for now, have been wiped off the remainder of the 2020 tennis calendar due to COVID-19.

Unless Roland Garros organisers can convince their fellow tennis officials to slot the French Open in later in the year (September 20-October 4 is the date they have in mind), then we will have no more clay events in 2020.

It will no doubt be a dagger through Nadal’s heart as he is the King of Clay after all.

Rafael Nadal starfishes at French Open 2019

But let’s take you back to the time that he wiped all before him on the red dirt.

His extraordinary spell started on April 11, 2005 at the Monte-Carlo Masters and came to an end on May 14, 2007 when he lost in the Hamburg Masters final against his nemesis Roger Federer.

During that time he won 81 matches, beat 52 different players and collected 13 trophies, including three titles at Roland Garros.

Having made his breakthrough in 2004 when he won his maiden title on the clay in Poland in August, Nadal was just setting himself up to become the dominant force on the surface.

After being beaten by Igor Andreev in the quarter-final of the Valencia Open in 2005, the Spaniard started his unbelievable run when he opened his Monte-Carlo Masters campaign with victory over Gael Monfils.

He beat Guillermo Coria 6-3, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 in the final and at the age of 18 he became the youngest ATP Masters 1,000 title winner since Michael Chang in Toronto 15 years previously.

The New York Times said it was the day “Nadal came of age on clay”, little did they know that he would go on to become the king on the surface.

A week later he was collecting another trophy and the papers were again singing his praises as he beat compatriot Juan Carlos Ferrero in the Barcelona Open final.

Next up was the final warm-up event for Roland Garros, the Rome Masters, and he made it three clay-court titles in less than a month as again he beat Coria in the final, but this time he needed five sets to see off the Argentine.

“This was the best match of my career,” the young Nadal said. “It was such a tough match. I’m so happy to have won, it’s unbelievable.”

And so at the age of 19 he arrived at Roland Garros for his maiden French Open on the back of 17-match winning streak on the red dirt.

Nadal breezed through the opening week like an old pro and he came up against Federer in the semi-finals, but the top seed and world No 1 was dispatched 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 as the young gun set up a final encounter with Mariano Puerta.

The unseeded Puerta gave the teenager something to think about as he won the first set, but it was all Nadal after that as the Spaniard won his maiden Grand Slam in Paris at the first time of asking.

“I played with my best head and my best tennis. He played unbelievably and there were times when I thought I might lose,” he said.

Of course he finished his clay campaign with titles in Bastad and Stuttgart while he also won two Davis Cup matches for Spain on the surface.

Roll on 2006.

This time he went through the clay season undefeated as he successfully defended his Monte-Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open, Rome Masters and French Open titles while he again won two Davis Cup ties.

By 2006 the Nadal-Federer rivalry was in full swing and the Spaniard was definitely getting under the Swiss player’s skin as he beat him in the Monte-Carlo, Rome and Roland-Garros finals. His win at the French Open was his 60th consecutive victory on clay and it also stopped Federer from holding all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at 2006 French Open final

“This is a fantastic victory and an incredible moment in my career as a tennis player,” the 20-year-old said after successfully defending his Roland Garros crown.

History repeated itself in 2007 as Nadal again won the Monte-Carlo Masters and yes, Federer was once again the man he defeated in the final, while he also had more success in Barcelona and Rome.

This time, though, he added the Hamburg Masters to his schedule and, unsurprisingly, he made it to the final where he would meet his old foe Federer.

It proved to be a step too far as Federer snapped his 81-match unbeaten run on clay with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 victory.

“His streak was phenomenal – 81 matches in a row on clay is fantastic,” Federer said of his opponent. “I have a lot of respect for him.”

Nadal was gracious in defeat saying: “If I have to lose against anyone, then he is the man. I am not sad to lose to the best in the world.”

He added: “Now I have to start another [streak].”

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