RAFA IN WONDERLAND

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Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating Japan's Kei Nishikori in their final match at the Monte-Carlo ATP Masters Series tournament on April 22, 2018, in Monaco. - Nadal, 31-years-old, saw off Nishikori 6-3, 6-2 to become the first man to win a tournament 11 times in the Open era with his 76th ATP Tour triumph. Nadal's 31st Masters title is also an outright record, pulling him out of a tie with Novak Djokovic. (Photo by Yann COATSALIOU / AFP) (Photo credit should read YANN COATSALIOU/AFP/Getty Images)

• This spring, while excelling in Davis Cup and winning his eleventh titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Nadal has scored convincing wins over many of his younger rivals, including Sascha Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and Kei Nishikori. (Though Thiem recently defeated Nadal in Madrid, his third clay victory over Rafa.) Djokovic is still struggling, and Federer is on the sidelines. Which begs two questions: Who can threaten the claymeister in Paris? And is a huge upset on the horizon?
• Pro Steve Stefanki noted, “If there’s anyone who tries to impose their will, it’s Rafa. It’s no accident he has a bull on his shoes. Rafa’s personality and the way he does things is definitely from the Jimmy Connors school. Their games are very hard to play against. And I love the way Rafa understands everything from a full circle. He carries his own water. He doesn’t want to be known as a prima donna. Uncle Toni was great in the way he trained him. He did all the work. It was phenomenal – one of the greatest coaching jobs we’ve seen.”
• Beating Nadal in best-of-five-set matches on clay is said to be the hardest thing to do in tennis. His record in such matches is 95-2. Only Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic have beaten him at Roland Garros. Rafa has won 46 straight sets on clay and is 401-35 lifetime on dirt.
• He will be seeking to equal the record that Margaret Court set at the Aussie Open of winning one Slam eleven times.
• His 10 French titles include three wins over Federer in the finals and one in the semis. Overall his wins in finals have come over six different players. He’s so dominant that none of his finals have gone to five sets.
• An entire decade ago, Pat Cash noted, “With his 22nd birthday eight days away, he’s already the finest player ever to compete on a clay court. He has it all: strength, speed, the ability to unleash an attacking winner from the depths of defense with amazing racket control and power.”
• Rafa’s record against Federer off of clay is 10-13. On clay it’s 13-2. On all surfaces he leads 23-15.
• Rafa contends, “A tennis player must take his example from the hummingbird, the only animal that combines endless stamina with high speed, able to manage eight wing-flaps per second over four hours.”
• The French paper L’Équipe assigned a writer to count how many times Rafa tugged at his backside in a match. It was triple figures.
• After an early win at the French, Nadal noted, “It’s something you can’t explain…these moments when everything comes upon you. All the work you’ve done all these years – the sacrifices. When you reach your goal, it’s an extraordinary moment. For the first time I cried after winning a match.”
• During Nadal’s epic ’09 loss to Robin Soderling, the crowd sided with the Swede and continually chanted “Rob-in, Rob-in.” Nadal noted, “It’s too bad really – at a tournament that means so much to me and is so beautiful – that the public has never made such a gesture to me. But I’m not going to use that as an excuse. I have a lot of years to come back here. I hope one year the public will do that for me.” After the incident, Nadal would lose just one match en route to six titles, and the Paris crowd soon embraced the Spaniard.
• After beating Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in ’08, in the most one-sided men’s final of the Open Era, Nadal said, “I’m sorry, Roger.”
• Has any other elite champion rebounded so convincingly from so many different intense and varied injuries?
• After a rare foot ailment in ’09, he said he was “close to tennis death…I stared the end of my career in the face, and the experience…made me stronger mentally, give me the wisdom to see that life – any life – is a race against time.”
• Federer observed, “For Rafa, on clay, nothing is impossible.”

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