Even those who are not that enthusiastic about tennis were aware of Rafael Nadal's abilities on clay in 2003 and 2004. A left-handed Spaniard had everything required to become a successful player on the slowest surface, destined for outstanding results ever since he reached the third round in Monte Carlo and Hamburg at 16 in 2003!
Rafa had to miss almost the entire spring clay season in 2004 due to an injury, bouncing back in July and August and winning the first ATP crown in Sopot, setting eyes on clay glory in 2005. 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 propelled a teenager towards tennis immortals.
The rest is pretty much history, and Nadal has been widely considered as the greatest clay-courter who has ever lived, winning 13 Roland Garros titles and setting records that would stay out of reach for all the players in the years and decades to come.
Following a loss to Igor Andreev in Valencia 2005, no player had managed to beat Rafa on clay in the next 25 months before Roger Federer finally ended the Spaniard's record-breaking streak of 81 victories and 13 titles in the final of Hamburg Masters in May 2007!
It stands as the longest winning run on any surface in the Open era, and Rafa became the player with the most consecutive wins on clay after defeating Robin Soderling 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 in the opening round of Roland Garros on May 29, 2006, notching his 54th triumph and leaving great Guillermo Vilas on 53.
Rafael Nadal scored the 54th straight victory on clay at Roland Garros 2006.
The Argentine won 49 ATP titles on clay, and 14 of those came in 1977 alone, staying undefeated from Roland Garros until Aix en Provence when he retired against Ilie Nastase in the final.
That record had stood safe for almost 30 years before Nadal overpowered it in style, receiving a special award from Vilas himself, even though the Argentine wasn't happy about it at all. The defending champion Nadal needed two hours and eight minutes to take down the Swede, fending off five out of seven break chances and winning over half of the return points to grab eight breaks of serve from no less than 22 opportunities.
The first set was over in just 28 minutes after two breaks from Rafa, with Robin raising his level in set number two to open a 4-2 lead before losing the next three games, as Nadal restored the order and moved in front. Soderling kept fighting but got broken three times in a row, including a crucial one in game 11 that moved Rafa a set away from the victory with a hold at 6-5.
The Swede lost ground, and Nadal earned a break at the beginning of the third set, controlling the scoreboard in the rest of the clash and moving over the top when Robin netted a forehand in the seventh game to celebrate a massive record.