On Sunday, Rafael Nadal won his record-extending eleventh French Open tennis championship, and his 17th Grand Slam title overall. To put this in some perspective, Roger Federer, Nadal’s greatest rival, has the second-most title at a single Grand Slam tournament with eight Wimbledon titles. Nadal’s dominance in Paris is unprecedented: since his debut in 2005, he has won 11 of the 14 French Opens contested, going 86-2 in that span (he withdrew with an injury in 2016 after winning his first two matches), including 5-0 against Federer and 5-1 vs. Novak Djokovic. Bjorn Borg has the next most French Open titles, with six.
Nadal’s dominance on clay goes beyond Roland Garros: this year he also won his eleventh titles on the clay courts at the Monte Carlo Masters (one level below the Grand Slams) and at the Barcelona Open (one level further down). After Nadal’s eleven titles at each of these three tournaments, the next most titles that any male has won in the Open Era are Federer’s nine titles at the Halle Open (the same level as Barcelona), and the eight titles won by Federer at Wimbledon and the Swiss Indoor championship, Guillermo Vilas at the lower level Buenos Aires tournament, and by Nadal (again!) on the Roman clay courts at the top tier Italian Open. Adding in his five titles at the Madrid Open, Nadal has won 46 high profile clay court tournaments in Europe alone.
Over the past two years Nadal went 24-1 each year, winning four titles each year and losing only one quarterfinal match each year to Dominic Thiem (Rome in 2017, Madrid in 2018) Nadal went on to thump Thiem in the French Open each year.
The only women to win the same tennis tournament eleven times are Martina Navratilova at the Eastbourne tuneup for Wimbeldon and Margaret Court at the Australian Open, with 11 titles each. Court’s record is an interesting case as seven of her titles came when the Australian Open was limited to amateurs, and she won all of her Australian Opens when it was held in December and thus frequently skipped by many top players from Europe and North America.
Looking at professional golf, the sport most similar in to tennis with its four major championships each year and a similarly sized field in each sport, Jack Nicklaus (the Masters) and Harry Vardon (the Open Championship) each have six victories in a single major. Sam Snead won a single tournament eight times and Tiger Woods has won two different tournaments eight times each. On the LPGA tour, several women have won the same tournament five times.
Simply put, Nadal’s performance on clay eclipses any other athlete’s performance on any other surface. If someone else has been more dominant in their field, their name(s) escapes me. I submit that his ability to play clay court tennis outshines any other person’s achievements in any field — business, medicine, sport, law or science. We are basking in the greatness of the era, and we should appreciate Nadal’s gifts as his career extend well into his thirties.