Since I started to watch tennis in the late 1970s, there's never been anything like it. Never has a player, at least a male player, carved out an extended fortress for himself in the middle of the season and proceeded to defended it so thoroughly for so long. We've had Steffi Graf's Golden Slam; we've had Pete Sampras' six straight years at No. 1; we've had Roger Federer's five straight at Wimbledon won in near-simultaneity with his five straight U.S. Opens; we've had lots of other seemingly impossible achievements. But when it comes to sustained performances in the Open era, nothing tops Rafael Nadal's during the clay season since he began to dominate it in 2005.
This isn't a matter of winning one tournament over and over; it's a matter of winning a surface, winning a swing, winning not just a major but all of its tune-ups, three of which happen to be prestigious events themselves. Against the odds, since 2005, Nadal hasn't failed in this quest. He lost once at the ultimate event, Roland Garros, in 2009, but that year he also won in Monte Carlo and Rome and reached the final in Madrid, an arduous task in itself and a set of results any other player in history, except perhaps Bjorn Borg, would have been happy with. Yes, he has lost other matches along the way -- to Federer in Hamburg one year, to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome when he had blisters, another to … well, that's about it. Nadal is 178-6 on clay during that time, including an 81-match win streak that's the longest on any surface. He's 38-1 at the French Open.
Somehow, though, the extent of Nadal's dominance works against him. For most people, a guy doing his job, using his ridiculous excellence on this particular surface to his unfair advantage, is hardly newsworthy. No wonder Rafa looked a little sluggish at times last week in winning his seventh straight title in Monte Carlo -- how much motivation could he have left? (By the way, no player in the Open era has ever won a tournament seven straight times.)
But it doesn't stop there. Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, Hamburg, Valencia, Paris: Nadal has won them all, most of them more than once. His achievement, because of its breadth and thoroughness, is a testament not so much to his skill as it his desire. If he lost in the tune-ups and then waltzed in and cleaned up in Paris anyway, that would prove his superiority. But the fact that Nadal doesn't waltz anywhere, that he flies from the trophy ceremony in Monte Carlo to get back on the dirt and start it all over again in Barcelona a couple of days later, and that he does this year after year with seemingly no let-up or let-down, is what lifts this sustained performance above the others. What's best about it is this: Rafa doesn't even have to do it, but he does anyway.