Our 30-Love series returns, not with a look forward—as we did with freshly minted 30-year-olds Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray—but with a look back. Below is but a sliver of Rafael Nadal's record-setting history at Roland Garros throughout his 30 years (he turns 31 tomorrow—happy early birthday, Rafa).
1. Everyone knows Nadal's first French Open: the 2005 edition, which he went on to win. But the Spaniard was slated to play at Roland Garros in 2003 and 2004, before withdrawing from both tournaments with injuries (elbow in 2003, left ankle in 2004). Here is Rafa just days before his 18th birthday, during a photo shoot in Paris.
2. Nadal came into his first French Open off of title runs in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. He won his first two matches in Paris in straight sets, setting up a clash of teenage clay-court talents with Richard Gasquet. The 18-year-old Frenchman had upset Roger Federer in Monte Carlo weeks earlier, and took a set from Nadal in their three-set semifinal in Monaco. But in their third-round match at Roland Garros, Rafa rolled, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, and never looked back.
3. The match everyone wanted to see—Federer vs. Nadal, in a major—came to fruition. The two had met only twice before, and never on a clay court. In their third meeting, for a place in the final, Rafa established the upper hand on the slow surface, winning 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Both men knew that this wasn't the last time they'd collide in Paris.
4. Who did Nadal defeat to win his first French Open title? Many people forget that it was Mariano Puerta, the Argentine whose career was marred by doping controversies. Focusing strictly on their title match, it was one of the most competitive finals Nadal has played at Roland Garros. Puerta won the first set in a tiebreaker, and Nadal squeaked out the fourth and final set, 7-5.
5. Nadal's celebrations are as memorable as his finest forehands. When he won the French Open for the first time, he thought that he'd achieved everything. But as we've seen, once Nadal got his hands on the trophy for the first time, he never wanted to let it go.
6. By the 2006 French Open, it became apparent that it would take a monumental effort, or a choke, to stop Nadal on clay. And I mean that last part quite literally. In his third-round match against Paul-Henri Mathieu, Rafa took a bite of a banana during a changeover, had trouble swallowing it and called for medical assistance. After a trainer checked things out, Nadal returned to action and completed a four-set victory—but not without a scare. "I had a strange sensation," Nadal said. "I preferred to stop before I had a big problem."
7. The first meeting between Nadal and Djokovic got their rivalry—now 50 matches deep—off to a tense start. Djokovic, then ranked No. 63, made it all the way to the quarterfinals before Nadal, and a back injury, did the 19-year-old Serb in. After retiring while trailing by two sets, a still-confident Djokovic offered this: "He's the best on the surface, but he's not unbeatable. That's for sure."
8. Roger-Rafa at Roland Garros, Part II. A few weeks before they played in Paris, tennis' clear-cut top two warred over a marathon five-setter in Rome. Nadal saved match points en route to an iconic victory. Their rematch at Roland Garros wasn't nearly as dramatic, although it saw Federer come roaring out of the gates with a 6-1 first-set win, before Nadal took a fourth-set tiebreaker for the title.
9. Nadal would lose just one set at Roland Garros over the next two editions, in 2007 and 2008. (In both years, he would defeat Djokovic in the semifinals in straight sets.) He began his terre battue tear against a player he would see for years to come, Juan Martin del Potro, then just 18 years old, with a flowing mane.
10. The player who took that set from Nadal was Federer, in the 2007 final. But that was all he could do, as the Spaniard's third French Open title tied him with Gustavo Kuerten, who helped present the trophies.
11. If there could be said to be a peak display of Nadal on clay, it would be at the 2008 French Open. Nadal didn't lose a set—or was even pushed to a tiebreaker—over the fortnight, and he embarrassed Federer in the final, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. And don't forget his fourth-round domination, over fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco (6-1, 6-0, 6-2)...
12. ...and his quarterfinal blitz of compatriot Nicolas Almagro, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.
13. Nadal had beaten Robin Soderling at Roland Garros before, in the first round of the 2006 edition. He also defeated Soderling just a couple of weeks before the 2009 tournament, in Rome, by the score of 6-1, 6-0. But on May 31, 2009, none of that, or any of Nadal's clay-court credentials, mattered to the free-swinging Swede. It was Soderling who dictated play with his groundstrokes, particularly with a lethal forehand. And it was Soderling who prevented Nadal from generating the momentum he thrives on by striking massive serves that cut through the clay. It was Nadal who was triumphant in every match he played at Roland Garros—until now. In an Act of Sod, the underdog shocked the sporting world with a 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2) victory.
14. There had been some bad blood between Soderling and Nadal, stemming from an episode at Wimbledon two years earlier, in which the Swede mimicked the Spaniard's penchant for picking at his shorts before serving, and taking too much time to play. Their meeting at the net, as you'll see after Nadal's missed volley on match point, was anything but conventional—just like Soderling himself.
15. Was Nadal's loss to Soderling a fluke, or a blueprint of how to beat him? At the French Open, at least, it was the former. Nadal began a five-year run of championships with a flawless showing in 2010, winning 21 sets he played—including three over Soderling in the final.
16. In six French Opens, Nadal had never been taken to a fifth set. Enter John Isner, the giant server who took a two-sets-to-one lead over Nadal in the first round of the 2011 French Open (by winning two tiebreakers, as you might guess). Nadal would take the last two sets, 6-2, 6-4, but the five-time champion had now entered—and survived—unchartered waters.
17. Nadal has held the "King of Clay" monicker for as long as I can remember, but when he matched Bjorn Borg's haul of six French Open crowns, in 2011, there was no disputing the title any longer. To do it, Nadal defeated, in succession, No. 5 seed Soderling, No. 4 seed Andy Murray and No. 3 seed Federer, who had just handed Djokovic his first loss of the five-month-old season in the semis.
18. In the 2011 final against Federer, Nadal used his brutal brand of baseline tennis to undo the confident Swiss. But he also used his dexterity and nimbleness at net, as this top-ranked rally shows:
19. The 2012 edition of Roland Garros was a critical one for Nadal, who had developed a Djokovic problem. The Serb had beaten the Spaniard at each of the last three majors, all in finals. With Paris as his last stand, Nadal made his way to the final, and a seemingly destined rendezvous with Djokovic, without the loss of a set. He would only lose one in the final, over the course of a two-day, rain-affected match. With a Djokovic double fault on match point, Nadal became the all-time leader in French Open titles, with seven.
20. Not that Nadal was ever in serious danger, but his first- and second-round matches at the 2013 French Open were causes for curiosity. He lost the first set in both, 6-4, to Daniel Brands and then to Martin Klizan—not exactly Federer and Djokovic. Still, it was only the second time Nadal had ever lost two sets at the French Open before the third round.
21. Nadal would win his eighth title at Roland Garros in a forgettable final against David Ferrer; his semifinal was his most memorable match of the fortnight, and one of his most impressive wins ever. It came against Djokovic. Nadal led his rival by a break of serve twice in the fourth set, and served for the match at 6-5. But Djokovic broke back to force a deciding fifth set, which he went on to lead 4-3. As the Independent put it, "A game full of breath-taking drama, highlighted by Nadal being awarded a crucial point at deuce after Djokovic had toppled over the net in putting away an easy winner, ended with the Serb netting a forehand on the third break point."
22. Four hours and 37 minutes after it began, Nadal had defeated Djokovic, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7. Two days later, he had won the title once more.
23. Nadal has regularly celebrated his birthday at Roland Garros—June 3 typically falls during the middle rounds of play, and the Spaniard is almost a given to remain in the draw for that long. In 2014, the tournament and fans gave their best wishes to its greatest champion.
24. Murray hasn't been mentioned much in this countdown, and that's because has has never posed a serious threat to Nadal at the French Open, despite the Scot's success at the tournament. At no time was that more true than in the 2014 semifinals, when Nadal obliterated Murray, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1. "You can go out there with, you know, all the tactics in the world," said Murray, "but when he’s hitting the ball like that, it’s very difficult to put the ball where you want to."
25. Djokovic came so close to knocking off Nadal at Roland Garros and 2013, but wouldn't get any closer in 2014. He won the first set of their final—their third consecutive match in the semifinal stage or beyond—but ultimately fell in four drama-free sets. It was French Open title number nine for Nadal.
26. Nadal knows the French clay courts like no one else, but he also knows a bit of French, as he showed after yet another win over Almagro at Roland Garros, during the 2015 tournament:
27. Finally, in their seventh encounter at Roland Garros, and in only their second meeting before the semifinal round, Djokovic cracked the Nadal code. It wasn't wholly unexpected—Djokovic was on a 27-match win streak to begin the season, while Nadal had lost five times on clay—although the anticlimactic 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 score certainly was. “When you lose in the way I lost today, all you can do is accept it,” Nadal said afterward. Incredibly, Djokovic would not win the tournament.
28. All appeared to be going to plan for Nadal at last year's French Open—he trounced Sam Groth, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, and then beat Facundo Bagnis, 6-3, 6-0, 6-3. He even struck this tweener winner against the Aussie:
29. But a wrist injury forced the 29-year-old to withdraw from the tournament before his third-round match against countryman Marcel Granollers. "I came here to win the tournament, and that means playing five more matches," Nadal said at his press conference. "According to the doctor, that would be impossible, as there is a 100 percent chance something will break."
30. In Nadal's last match as a 30-year-old, today, he gave us something we'd never seen before throughout his run at Roland Garros: a 6-0, 6-1, 6-0 victory. The unfortunate recipient was Nikoloz Basilashvili, and it marked the first time Nadal has lost just one game during a match at the French Open.