Rafael Nadal dominating on clay barely warrants a headline now. His tennis betting excellence is the status quo, his victories are far from a surprise.
Nadal sealed his ninth Italian Open title on Sunday, yet another astonishing clay-court accomplishment in a career of them. His old rival Novak Djokovic suffered a 6-0 defeat in the first set, the first in 141 previous sets between the pair.
The combination of a well-directed serve, immense stamina and errorless groundstrokes makes Nadal a monster on the clay courts.
You have to go all the way back to 2001 for the last person to win more than one French Open, when Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten made it two in two years.
The Spaniard won four straight from 2005 to 2008, five straight from 2010 to 2014 and won in 2017 and 2018. It is, then, of no surprise that he’s the overwhelming favourite to win Roland Garros yet again in the latest sports betting odds.
While his status as the greatest clay court player of all-time was cemented before 2017, it is that comeback from what seemed career-ending injuries that takes Nadal to a podium above the rest.
No player in the Open Era has won more than six French Open titles. Bjorn Borg is the man with six and fellow Swede Mats Wilander is the next most successful with three.
If Nadal’s career started in 2010 and ended in 2014, he would have been the second-most successful in history.
The lows of 2014 and 2015, the wrist injury, the appendicitis and the end of his 39-match Roland Garros winning streak were a mere twist in this fairytale clay-court career.
The 2016 season was just as challenging, as further wrist issues forced him to withdraw from the French Open and not attend Wimbledon, however.
As he turned 30, Nadal’s time at the elite of the game was coming to a sad end.
It was the 2017 campaign that marked the turnaround for Nadal.
He played his first Grand Slam final since 2014 in Melbourne, losing an epic match to Roger Federer. His game had returned to what we expected, a blend of granite mentality and superhuman fitness.
Then, as Nadal returned to Paris, searching for a 10th French Open, he put on one of the greatest Grand Slam runs of all-time. The Spaniard won the tournament without dropping a set, losing just 35 games (the second-fewest by a male player).
By the end of the year, Nadal was back as world number one.
That bring us back to his old foe Djokovic. In October 2018, Nadal handed number one back to his great rival despite winning an 11th French Open that year.
He followed that with a perfect run to the Australian Open in January 2019 before losing to Djokovic in the final.
Nadal’s win over Djokovic in Rome on Sunday was his first title in months and it came just days before he attempts to threepeat (again) at Roland Garros.
The rivalry has meandered as the pair have dealt with injuries and their form has fluctuated. Djokovic boasts some streaks against Nadal, but the Spaniard still holds the edge on his beloved clay, winning 17 of their 24 meetings.
The way they have returned to not just compete for trophies, but to the same level of superiority, is remarkable.
With Roland Garros coming up, expect Djokovic and Nadal to feature heavily in 888sport’s top tennis tips.
While it might not be much fun for the rest of the men’s game, the return of Nadal to the pinnacle of the sport is a brilliant tale of perseverance and, simply put, greatness.
His victory on Sunday – particularly winning a set to love – reminded us of the level he is still at. Just a few days before his 33rd birthday, after all of those injuries, and Nadal is playing clay-court tennis at a level few, if anyone, can live with.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*