Even those who are not that passionate about tennis could have been sure that Rafael Nadal was something special when they saw him on the clay court for the first time in 2003 or 2004! A left-handed Spaniard had everything required to become a successful player on the slowest surface.
He was destined for outstanding results on clay ever since he reached the third round of Monte Carlo and Hamburg Masters 1000 events at 16 in 2003! Rafa was forced to miss almost the entire spring clay season in 2004 due to an injury, and he bounced back in July and August to win the first ATP crown in Sopot.
Armed with an unseen physical strength, lethal forehand, picture-perfect anticipation and an iron determination, Nadal conquered eight ATP titles on dirt in 2005, including his maiden Major crown at Roland Garros that shipped him towards tennis immortals.
The rest is history, and Nadal has been widely considered the greatest clay-courter ever, winning 13 Roland Garros titles and setting records that no one will ever catch. After losing the Valencia quarter-final to Igor Andreev in April 2005, no player had managed to beat Rafa on clay in the next 25 months!
Roger Federer finally ended the Spaniard's record-breaking streak of 81 victories (13 titles during that span) in the final of the Hamburg Masters in May 2007! With those 81 wins in a row, Rafa holds the record for most consecutive triumphs on a single surface in the Open era.
Guillermo Vilas had the previous record with 53 straight victories on clay in 1977, staying undefeated from Roland Garros until Aix en Provence when he retired against Ilie Nastase in the final. That record stood for almost 30 years, and Nadal passed it on May 29, 2006, after beating Robin Soderling 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 in the Roland Garros first round.
After the match, Rafa received a special prize on the court from Vilas himself, even though the Argentinian was not happy about it. The defending champion needed two hours and eight minutes to take down the Swede.
Rafael Nadal scored 81 consecutive wins on clay between 2005-2007.
He saved five out of seven break chances and grabbed over 50% of the return points to claim eight breaks from no less than 22 opportunities.
The first set was over in just 28 minutes after two breaks from Rafa, and Robin raised his level in set number two to create a 4-2 gap. He dropped the next three games, as Nadal restored the order and took the lead. Soderling kept fighting, but he got broken three times in a row, including a crucial one in game 11 that moved Nadal a set away from the triumph.
The Swede lost the ground in those moments, and the Spaniard grabbed a break at the beginning of the third set to control the scoreboard. Nadal advanced into the second round when Soderling netted a forehand in the seventh game and achieved one of his most significant records that no one will repeat in the future.
Following that 2005 Valencia loss, Nadal claimed Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Roland Garros, Bastad and Stuttgart on clay for the rest of the season. The Spaniard defended titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros in 2006 and 2007 to extend his winning streak and bring it to mighty impressive 81 triumphs.
Roger Federer halted Nadal's run in the 2007 Hamburg final, but the Spaniard continued his quest towards the greatest clay-courter at Roland Garros a few weeks later and again in 2008.