When the lights go out at the All England Club and fans stream out of the gates in awe of a day’s play on the pristine lawns, it is likely that Rafael Nadal will be the subject of some of their discussions.
With two titles (2008, 2010) and three runner-up appearances (2006-07, 2011), the Spaniard has left an indelible mark on the grass of Wimbledon, characterised by his hunger for victory and a huge capacity to adapt. It’s clear that his grass-court magic isn’t just natural instinct, but rather the fruit of a life of hard work.
Few are more familiar with the work of the Mallorcan than Francis Roig, a permanent member of his coaching staff since 2005. The Mallorcan spoke to ATPTour.com about Nadal adapting his game to grass, which has been an essential component in establishing his legacy.
“The first time I saw Rafa play on grass was around 2002 or 2003,” Roig recalled. “At the time, I was still coaching Feliciano Lopez and I hadn’t started working with Nadal. Rafa came to play in the juniors. He didn’t have anyone to rally with, so I played with him that day.”
The stories of Wimbledon that had been shared by his Uncle Toni were etched into Nadal’s mind and his determination to master the surface was evident in every shot. Inside the walls of the All England Club, steeped in history, was a wide-eyed young man who would do anything to progress.
“From the first moment, I could see that he was very capable of adapting to grass,” Roig said. “A few years had to go by before he would earn confidence and the knack for playing on it. But Rafa has a quality, among many, that I think is incredible and makes him different to the rest. He knows how to overcome adversity like no other.
“Little by little, he started to learn how to play on grass. I think that this is one of the things that sets Rafa apart, that he always finds solutions. These situations are where he has demonstrated that. People who thought he wouldn’t be able to play well on grass have seen that he did.”
As time has gone by, the Spaniard has become a revered player in London. With a 53-12 record at Wimbledon, Nadal has enjoyed a long history of success at the season’s third Grand Slam. From his first final just a few weeks after turning 20, to his assault on the title last year at age 34, he has consistently found a way to contend for the trophy.
“There was a turning point on grass for Rafa. At first, he played with huge intensity that intimidated his opponents. He played at a very fast rhythm and was able to move much better than now, as he was much younger,” Roig said. “Later, he showed such a huge evolution in his game that, to me, he practically played better on grass than on hard courts. I think he produces better tennis. He likes playing on grass when he has time to adapt, although it’s true that the grass and current balls are maybe slower than before.”
Nadal’s most recent showings at Wimbledon will make him one of the favourites to win at next year’s event. Few have doubted his ability to contend for another trophy in London and he’s provided plenty of evidence that he has more outstanding grass-court tennis to give.
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“He has played stunning tennis in the past three editions. In 2017, he lost in the fourth round to Gilles Muller in a match that could have gone either way. He was playing well enough to do something big that year at Wimbledon. He came close in the past two years,” Roig reflected. “You have to expect anything from Rafa. It wasn’t his favourite surface, but he adapted by searching for solutions and he is great at that. He competes every day. You can never write him off in a match or for things in his career that seem difficult. You always have to expect that he’s capable of the best.”
History can attest to that. Nadal reached the Wimbledon final on five consecutive occasions between 2006-2011 (he withdrew from the 2009 event due to knee tendonitis), an achievement that only three other men (Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Roger Federer) have accomplished in the Open Era.
“Playing five consecutive finals at Wimbledon is quite a feat,” Roig said. “It’s true that a few years have gone by where he didn’t play well and injuries didn’t help him. In addition, he has always had the handicap of arriving on the grass somewhat depleted after Roland Garros. It takes a very big toll and you have to take that into account.
“But it’s not just his five finals. It’s also the semi-finals he has recently played. I would rate him very highly among Wimbledon players. It goes without saying that you’d have to place him among the best players in history on any surface.”