Commentary

Six titles not enough for Rafael Nadal

Updated: May 29, 2012, 4:42 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are pursuing spectacular separate histories here in the City of Light.

Going back to 1925, when the dashing Rene "Le Crocodile" Lacoste won the inaugural French Open, no man has collected seven titles at Roland Garros. Nadal is poised to reach that staggering number, which would break the record he shares with Bjorn Borg. A victory here for Djokovic would give him simultaneous possession of all four Grand Slam championships, something that hasn't happened in 43 years.

[+] EnlargeNadal
Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal says he's playing more relaxed than ever. That could be bad news for everyone else.

If they meet in the final, as their 1-2 seeds suggest, one of them will attain immortality -- at the expense of the other.

When these milestones invariably come up in news conferences, Nadal dismisses them as a source of motivation.

"This tournament is enough important for himself, not because now I have six," he said before the tournament. "I have much more than I ever dreamed. I am coming here with the motivation of every year with the [goal] to play well and then we will see, no?

"But I don't going to be more motivated because I have six and I can win seven. No. The motivation is always the same."

Although the baying hounds of the media always enjoy the thrill of history's hunt, the great players -- while they are in the moment of pursuit -- manage to remain oblivious. Keeping their eye on the ball, as it were, one point, one game, one match at a time, is the secret of their success. No one does this better than Nadal.

He took the first of seven necessary steps Tuesday, dispatching stylish Italian Simone Bolelli 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in less than two hours. Afterward, he said it was the least stress he has felt in a first-round match here, and that should unnerve his future opponents.

Nadal was content to keep the ball in play and watch Bolelli live -- and mostly die -- with his heavy, flashing forehand. The Spaniard was efficient and, in the few points that mattered, utterly forceful.

When he won his first title here in 2005, less than a week after his 19th birthday, there was a lot of loose talk about how many Nadal would amass during his career. Now, you probably can put the over/under at eight; only his escalating knee issues and the ruthless physicality of his game prevent that number from reaching double digits.

Rafa's record at Roland Garros is unprecedented by any measure, yet it may be seriously undervalued. Let's do the math: Nadal has won 46 of 47 matches on the crushed brick. That works out to a winning percentage of .979. And consider that this is the surface on which more of the world's players feel most comfortable. And, undeniably, this is the deepest, most talented group of players the game has seen.

At Roland Garros, Nadal is more successful than any other player of the Open era in any other major. It doesn't get any better than that.

Borg has the second-best mark; he was 49-2 (.961) in French Open matches. He's in third-place, too, with a 51-4 standard (.927) at Wimbledon. Andre Agassi is next with a 48-5 (.906) record at the Australian Open, followed by Pete Sampras' Wimbledon résumé of 63-7 (.900) and Roger Federer 61-7 (.897) at the U.S. Open.

Nadal said Tuesday that he met Borg eight years ago in Sweden. They have crossed paths and chatted several times at Wimbledon and Monte Carlo.

"This year in Monte Carlo he wished me all the best for the season," Nadal happily volunteered.

One more piece of relevant data: Five men have won seven titles at a Slam event, but only one -- Pete Sampras at Wimbledon (from 1993 to 2000) -- did it after 1929.

As with all records, a degree of luck is involved. If Nadal hadn't suffered a stress fracture in his left ankle in April 2004 -- he lost to Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals at Estoril -- would he have been ready to run the table in the 2004 French Open? Probably not.

If Rafa feels most comfortable here, maybe it's because his journeys to Paris are symbolically a return to the womb. He'll celebrate his 26th birthday here on Sunday, an occasion upon which the French Tennis Federation usually presents him with a cake.

Borg was only 25 when he retired; the 1981 U.S. Open was his last major. Borg was that rare athlete -- like running back Barry Sanders, golfer Bobby Jones and chess wizard Bobby Fischer -- who left his sport at the top of his game. The Swede reached the finals of the last six majors he played, winning three of them. Rafa is in the midst of a startlingly similar run with seven major finals among the past eight, having won four. But, it's hard to imagine him walking away any time soon, so -- with the recent track record of Federer to ponder -- Borg's 49-2 record at Roland Garros may someday reign supreme.

Three years ago, Sampras graciously attended the final at Wimbledon when Federer earned his 15th major title and broke the Californian's record. Will Borg do the same if Rafa advances to the ultimate match?

Nadal laughed, and his left eyebrow arched dramatically.

"We are in the second round -- that's the thing," he said. "I have enough work to do thinking about the next round and not think about if Borg will be here or if I'm going to play the final. That's day by day."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.