The Beaten Earth: Rafael Nadal in Paris

Rafael Nadal is seeking his tenth French Open title. What is it about his style that makes him so successful in Paris but so unloved by Parisians?

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Jun 2 2015, 12:35pm

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

When Rafael Nadal plays on la terre battue, or the beaten earth, as they call the clay at Roland Garros, in front of royalty in the lower bowl of Philipe Chatrier Court, he exhibits a sort of incongruous mastery. This year, Nadal has defeated Quentin Halys, Andrey Kuznetsov, Nicolas Almagro, and most recently, American sniper Jack Sock, to improve to 70-1 at the French Open.

But Nadal's first crowd-given epithet within these confines was "the ogre." The first time he entered the tournament, as an 18-year-old in 2005, he endured boos in the early going but went on to hoist the Coupe de Mosquetaires. He has done so every year since but one. When he arrived at the final that first year, one broadcaster commented, "Rafael Nadal has walked onto court as if he absolutely has shares in the place."

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The French wish he didn't. After the French crowd supported his opponent Robin Soderling en route to Nadal's sole defeat here, in 2009, Rafa's uncle Toni, who's coached him since age four, told reporters, "I think the French don't like it when a Spaniard wins," adding, "Wanting someone to lose is a slightly conceited way of amusing yourself. They show the stupidity of people who think themselves superior."

Now Nadal heads into what could be the most dramatic match of his career, against this year's favorite, Novak Djokovic, who will seek to foil Nadal's grail, La Decima, en route to his own crowning achievement, the career Slam. Nadal's play has sharpened over the course of week one, but he arrived at Roland Garros on the heels of surprising losses in Doha, Madrid, Monte Carlo and Miami—by his own admission, the roughest patch of his career. Critics alleged he was mentally at half-mast. With remarkable candor, he confessed to a lack of confidence and relaxation one would've thought impossible for Nadal.

These days, the king of clay is strangely humble about his road to a tenth Roland Garros title. Winning here is familiar for him, and he executes his victories in a businesslike manner, restraining himself where he used to emote more outwardly. He rarely drops a set at the French—Monday's four-set victory over Sock took him longer than it should have, but Rafa is in no hurry.

He has maintained his notoriously methodical rate of play this year, often exceeding the time allowance on changeovers, to the point that umpires prompt him with a "s'il vous plaît" and he remains seated, unfazed. These are the terms of his reign. When an umpire in Rio this February assessed a penalty for the delay, Nadal told him in Spanish, "I will make sure that you don't arbitrate me anymore." And so it was; the French Tennis Federation saw fit to grant the Spaniard's wish. As if to flout the consequence of any schedule besides his own, this year he's wearing a $775,000 watch designed by Richard Mille.

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Attending a day's match on Philippe Chatrier Court is not like going to a soccer game at Camp Nou or a hockey game at Joe Louis Arena. Here, the attendees are aficionados, united in a peculiarly nonpartisan pleasure. In the first round, they politely lended support to Quentin Halys, their doomed 18-year-old countryman and world No. 296. But most attendees at Roland Garros offer a few claps after every point, regardless of who wins it. The court's perimeter is marked by flower beds and the names of high-end brands. The ushers welcome you into the stadium with "bon match." The event's signature cocktail, comprises sliced melon and citrus floating in Perrier and Moet champagne.

Nadal has had to earn respect in this setting, steeped as it is in history. The clay is from the Saint-Maximin quarries outside Paris. It's the same color that was used by Cro-Magnon man in some of the earliest known works of art, the horse drawings that cover the walls of Lascaux cave in the southwest of this country. Roland Garros, of course, is far more advanced.

"Right from the outset, Roland-Garros earned a reputation as a chic and refined Parisian garden that tennis lovers could stroll around while players dressed in pristine white outfits played rallies in the leafy green settings of the Bois de Boulogne," explains the writing on the wall of the Tenniseum, just outside center court.

Indeed, the reigning ethos of Roland Garros is encapsulated in the words of René Lacoste, whose crocodile-emblazoned white blazer hangs in the Tenniseum, borne across his brand's 2015 edition of shirts for the tournament: "Without style, playing and winning are not enough."

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Nadal has slowly gotten the message. He won the French Open four times in a sleeveless tank-top—as if to showcase the mechanics of his weapon set—and pirate pants, before finally capitulating to the normative outfit: shorts and a t-shirt, to win it another five times.

This year, Nike has Nadal in an all-aqua outfit accented with nine swooshes the color of the clay, which happens also to be the tone of his complexion. The effect is of contrast and camouflage. When he walks onto the court, his musculature is visible from the third-to-last row. His nascent bald spot is, too, though more faint.

Despite some uncharacteristically shanked groundstrokes in the early games, Nadal got out to a quick lead over young Halys, who was in his first appearance in a major tournament. Even in defeat, Halys nearly quadrupled his career prize earnings. He could not compete with the relentless pace and consistency of Nadal's forehand—as fast as any shot on the men's tour, averaging 77 miles per hour, with his racket speed clocking an unmatchable 4,900 revolutions per minute.

Rafa was raised on the clay and moved naturally about it, sliding to chase down balls that seemed far beyond his reach. The tournament's media guide referred to the courts' two-millimeter layer of dust as "a unique and noble surface." In the tennis world, however, clay is regarded as the most brutally demanding; it is slower than the slick lawns of Wimbeldon, the Plexicushion in Australia and the DecoTurf in Flushing Meadows, meaning it thwarts easy winners and renders infeasible the serve-and-volley relied on elsewhere to keep points short and resist fatigue. In preparation for a clay-court match, coaches will counsel players to "grind it out" and expect a marathon slog—to "pack a lunch," as the idiom goes. A Spaniard, Nadal is never more in his element than when enjoying an arduous lunch.

The knock against Rafa is that his strokes are less elegant than those of his rivals, especially Roger Federer, whom the French crowd adores. Jimmy Connors memorably described Rafa's game by saying, "He plays like he's broke." Coach and commentator Brad Gilbert labeled the affliction of facing Nadal "an education in pain." The most salient quality of his greatness is not its effortless or even graceful nature but the tremendous hustle he gives, his pugnacious refusal to grant opponents undeserved points. There is nonetheless a certain beauty in the herculean effort he invests in each match. After his knock-down, drag-out defeat of Novak Djokovic in the 2013 semifinals, one broadcaster called Nadal's victory over the world No. 1 a "master-class."

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So determined is Nadal to dictate points with his forehand, he will often occupy his right-hand alley in order to set up his southpaw cannon from an angle. He rips the shot with safe margin over the net cord and its topspin makes it plummet into his opponent's court rather than soar. The longer the point, the greater the likelihood of his opponent committing an error, or coughing up a short ball for Rafa to pounce on. At times against Halys, he elected to deceive with finesse rather than overwhelm with power. These moments elicited "oh là làs" in the row behind me.

Nadal put the match away without much resistance in sets two and three, and the crowd seemed content enough to witness him do it. He trotted to the net and shook his young opponent's hand, then treated the overmatched youngster graciously in his postgame interview. "You know, tennis is moving that way," he said of Halys's go-for-broke playing style. If so, Nadal is unmoved by the arc of that particular trend. He remains fiercely consistent through the hard times and good.

The French public might prefer a champion of their own, or, absent that, a French-speaking champion, which most other top men's players would represent. That the nine-time champion here insists on conducting his post-win interviews in English seems almost a political gambit, one that's unpopular with the host nation. Many French contend that his physique is supernaturally chiseled and allege that the Spanish government has administered illicit performance-enhancing drugs to their star. In a 2012 skit on French cable TV, an actor in a Rafa mask pulls into a gas station, buys a bottle of water, chugs it, unzips his pants, pees into the fuel tank of his Range Rover, and drives off as the slogan appears: "The Spanish don't win by chance." His supporters took offense to the cover illustration on Charlie Hebdo's current issue, a Popeyesque player in a bandana (meant to resemble Nadal, they suppose), stuck all over with syringes.

Though he's never tested positive, the merits of some of the physical feats he's managed on these courts might alone be cause to investigate, especially to the French fanbase eager to depose him and install one of their own in the winner's circle. On this point, a French fan offered me his take on what separates Rafa from the prevailing ethic of the host country. "It's my point of view that Nadal is a monster of training," he said. "I don't feel this in the French guys."