Shocked. Stunned. Surprised. Tennis’ “s words” probably get thrown around too often, but they are some of the only verbs suited to describe a Rafael Nadal loss on clay. Beginning with his 2005 season in which he went 50-2 on dirt, the eight-time French Open champion is a staggering 274-12 when playing on his preferred surface.
With the Spaniard looking to snap a one-match losing streak on clay this week in Barcelona—a tournament he’s also won eight times—we decided to look back at all 12 of Rafa’s recent defeats on dirt, and rank them in order of magnitude. Or, if you will, shock.
While you might expect to see a name like Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic in this space, Gaudio—who owns as many French Open titles as those two put together—leads off our list for good reason. The clay-court specialist earned his win over Rafa before the lefty dominated on dirt and earned his royal monicker, “King of Clay.” Nadal had won just one clay tournament at this point, while Gaudio was only a year removed from winning Roland Garros. The lopsided set scores proved that the Argentine—who won this match in his hometown—was still a terror on the surface, but the 6-0 first set served as a bit of foreshadowing.
Nadal went on a 15-match win streak after his loss to Gaudio, and it took world No. 1 Federer five sets to end it at the hard-court Miami Masters. As was his wont in his breakout campaign, Nadal immediately entered the next clay-court tournament he could find. Rafa finally ran out of gas against Andreev, five days and two more wins after the final against Federer. More than two years would pass before Nadal would lose on clay again.
You’d think Nadal’s only slip-up on clay in 2008 warrants a spot closer to the top of this list, but I distinctly recall watching a heavily compromised champion at the Foro Italico. Nadal later explained that he wasn’t completely healthy—the start of an unfortunate trend or a poor excuse, depending on who you ask. “Juan Carlos is a very tough opponent, but certainly if you're not 100 percent at a Masters Series event it is very tough,” said Nadal, who took treatment for a blister on his right foot. The writing was on the wall after the first set.
Rafa’s most recent defeat on dirt was more surprising than shocking, and that’s a tribute to Ferrer. The clay-court star has seemingly forever lived in his compatriot’s shadow; he’s 0-8 against Nadal in clay finals. But he also owns six wins against him, two of which came on clay—the first in their first meeting, a decade ago. Nadal quickly turned the tables, but Ferrer has won at least a set in three of their last four clay-court collisions. Last week, Ferrer shed his defeatist attitude and gave Nadal a taste of his own medicine with unusually aggressive shot selection.
Should Djokovic ever defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, he’ll complete a career Grand Slam and another Slam of sorts: Wins over Rafa at the four most prestigious clay-court tournaments. The Serb followed up his wins over Nadal at Rome and Madrid in 2011 (more on those later) by ending his 46-match winning streak and eight-year reign in Monte Carlo.
It was a case of the blues for Rafa two years ago in Madrid, when owner Ion Tiriac installed controversial blue clay at his modernist event. “If things don't change, this will be one less tournament on the calendar for me,” groused Nadal, who echoed top players in complaining that the azure surface was too slippery. His forgettable week ended with a three-set loss to countryman Verdasco despite holding a 5-2 third-set lead.
At this point in 2011, it was becoming clear that we were witnessing something special. Djokovic had won his first 36 matches of the season, which included victories over Nadal in Indian Wells, Miami, and even on red clay. Nonetheless, it was still jarring to see Nadal taken down on his stomping grounds yet again, just days after Madrid. “I'm doing everything I can,” said Nadal afterward. “I can't ask myself anymore now.”
Nole had been knocking on the door all throughout the clay season, but it was Federer who broke it down, a day after Nadal held off the Serb in a four-hour, three-set semifinal classic. The upset snapped Federer’s five match losing streak to Nadal—three of those losses coming in Grand Slam finals—and gave him his long-awaited first title of the year.
Federer. Djokovic. Zeballos. The Argentine was initiated into one of tennis’ elite fraternities by beating Rafa in a clay-court final. Yes, this was Nadal’s first tournament back after a seven-month, injury-induced absence, and yes, Nadal was points away from ending this in straights. But how many others would have—and have—cowed under the pressure of having such a huge scalp within grasp? “This is the game of my life,” said Zeballos, who will always be remembered for this achievement.
What’s the most impressive win of Federer’s career? It would be as difficult a task to take on as building this list, but this match would have to be part of the conversation. Federer looked to be the record-extending 82nd consecutive test Nadal would ace on clay after a clinical first set, but he lost just two more games the rest of the way. Both men pulled out of Hamburg a year earlier after playing a five-set thriller of a final in Rome; for Federer, who notched his first win over Nadal on clay with this performance, it was worth the wait.
It’s tough to overstate how impressive this win was for Djokovic, and how stunning it was to watch. The Serb disarmed Nadal with all-court prowess and a two-handed backhand that both rejected the southpaw’s forehands and terminated points. Djokovic had been making steady inroads on the world No. 1, yet Rafa remained 9-0 against his contemporary on clay. But belief got the better of history, as Djokovic raced to a 4-0 first-set lead and never looked back. The result even seemed to catch Djokovic, who’d won 32 matches in a row, by surprise. “Unbelievable,” he said when it was over.
One of tennis’ “Where were you when…” moments, Nadal’s cloak of invincibility was ripped by the stern Swede as foreboding clouds hung overhead at Roland Garros. A few weeks earlier, Nadal throttled Soderling in Rome, 6-1, 6-0. But everything changed in Paris. Using even his backhand to swing points in his favor, Soderling imposed his power game on Nadal. His serve was damaging, even on slow clay. His forehand was a cannon, singing an unlikely tune thanks to the added time the terre battue afforded Soderling to set it up. It made Nadal look feeble at the French for the first and thus far only time. It was truly—if I may lift a phrase from a colleague of mine—an Act of Sod.