An 18-year old up-and-coming tennis star by the name of Rafael Nadal entered his first French Open in 2005. Mr. Nadal had participated in tennis’ other three majors on five occasions from 2003-2005, advancing at least one round in all five but never advancing past the fourth round. But clay would prove to be his home. Mr. Nadal eliminated the then-number-one ranked player in the world, Roger Federer, in the 2005 French semis en route to his first French Open win. Mr. Nadal repeated the feat in 2006-2008, defeating top-ranked Mr. Federer in the Finals in all three editions. After a shocking loss in 2009, Mr. Nadal rebounded to win five consecutive French Opens from 2010-2014 and then, after a two year break from dominating on clay, won four consecutive from 2017-20 and one more for good measure in 2022.

Taken together, Mr. Nadal has won the French Open 14 times. That is the tennis record for most wins at a single tournament, much less one of tennis’ four grand slams. Speaking of grand slams, prior to 2009, the record for most total grand slam wins was Pete Sampras’ 14. Mr. Nadal ran up 14 of his 22 total slams at one of the four tournaments.

(While there is still some debate as to whether the greatest tennis player of the open era is Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, or Roger Federer, there is no serious debate that Mr. Nadal is the greatest clay court player in tennis history.)

Mr. Nadal competed in 19 of the last 20 French Opens, losing only 5 times. When it is news that a tennis player does not win a grand slam tournament, you know he must be doing something right. I have not followed tennis too closely for about 10 years, but I thought of this when I saw that Mr. Nadal was bounced from the first round of the 2024 French Open by Alexander Zverev, who in turn made it all the way to the Finals, where he finished runner-up to Carlos Alcaraz. In all fairness, Mr. Nadal was not expected to win in 2024. He is now 38 years old (37 at the start of the 2024 French) and has not played much in the last couple of years due to a series of injuries. It may well have been Mr. Nadal’s final French Open, although he left the door open to returning in 2025. He reportedly acquitted himself well against Mr. Zverev, the current fourth-ranked player in the world (as of June 17, 2024), in a competitive straight set loss.

But what caught my attention more than Mr. Nadal’s loss was the fate of Mr. Zverev. I had in my mind the vague recollection that beating the near-invincible Rafael Nadal at the French does not guarantee final victory. My use of the word “final” victory was deliberate. Let us see how the only four players to have defeated Mr. Nadal at the French ended their tournaments. Wait. Did I not write that Nadal lost at five French Opens? Let us set that aside for the moment.

2009: Robin Söderling

  • Def Rafael Nadal in 4R (6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6)
  • Lost Finals vs Roger Federer (1-6, 6-7, 4-6)

2015: Novak Djokovic

  • Def Rafael Nadal in QF (7-5, 6-3, 6-1)
  • Lost to Stan Warinka in Finals (6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 4-6)

2021: Novak Djokovic

  • Def Rafael Nadal in SF (3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2)
  • Won Finals vs Stefanos Tsisipas (6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4)

2024: Alexander Zverev

  • Def Rafael Nadal in 1R (6-3, 7-6, 6-3)
  • Lost Finals vs Carlos Alcaraz (3-6, 6-2, 7-5, 1-6, 2-6)

Mr. Nadal entered and did not win the 2016 French Open. However, he was injured and withdrew in advance of his third round match against Marcel Granollers, who in turn lost in the fourth round. My interest was in the fate of players who won three sets out of five against Mr. Nadal on the French clay, so I decided to discount the 2016 French as being outside the scope of the instant survey.

All four players who beat Mr. Nadal at the French Open ultimately made the Finals. That was only inevitable in 2021 when Mr. Djokovic beat Mr. Nadal in the semifinals (inevitable in that case because the winning semi-finalists play in the Finals). Now one may naively think that if you beat the King of Clay, there is little left between you and the Coupe de Mousquetaires. But as we can see, those who beat Nadal at the French went on to go 1-3 in French Open Finals.

I remember 2009 well because I was a Roger Federer partisan. Mr. Federer had been the dominant tennis player from his Wimbledon win in 2003 through the 2007 U.S. Open, winning 12 of 18 major championships. However, none of Mr. Federer’s 12 wins were the French Open – and Mr. Nadal was the cause of Mr. Federer’s Paris demise in 2005 (semifinals) and 2006 and 2007 (Finals). Mr. Nadal finally ascended to number won in 2008 after defeating Mr. Federer for the fourth consecutive year at the French and then following that up by ending Mr. Federer’s streak of five consecutive Wimbledon championships in what may well be the greatest match ever played. But the path opened for Mr. Federer in 2009 when a slightly hobbled Mr. Nadal stunningly lost in the fourth round to Robin Söderling, who had never before made it to the fourth round of a major in 23 previous appearances, much less threaten to defeat the greatest clay court player of all time at Roland Garros. Mr. Söderling’s charmed run continued all the way to the French finals where he ran into Mr. Federer. Alas for Mr. Söderling, his magical run would end in straight sets as Mr. Federer completed the career grand slam and matched Pete Sampras for the then-major championship total of 14 majors, which has since been far surpassed by Messrs. Federer (20), Nadal (22), and Djokovic (24). (Note: Mr. Federer had won the 2008 U.S. Open after losing to Mr. Nadal in the French and Wimbledon Finals, which put him at 13 majors going into the 2009 French Open.)

(For his part, Mr. Söderling returned to the French Open Final in 2010, after defeating Mr. Federer in the quarterfinals and ending Mr. Federer’s still-record streak of 23-consecutive grand slam semifinal appearances. Alas for Mr. Söderling, he was dropped in straight sets in the Final by a much healthier Mr. Nadal than the one he had encountered in 2009.)

Novak Djokovic, who now stands as the most decorated men’s tennis player of all time with a record 24 major championships, decisively bounced Mr. Nadal in the French Open quarterfinals in 2015. Mr. Djokovic was widely viewed as the best player in the world at the time and Mr. Nadal was injured and not on his best form, so all things considered it was as expected as someone who had won 9 of the 10 previous French Opens not winning could be. Mr. Djokovic was expected to win his next two matches and, like Mr. Federer in 2009 and Mr. Nadal in 2011, complete his career grand slam. Mr. Djokovic took care of business in a tough five-set battle against the third ranked Andy Murray in the semifinals, but in what was a major (pun intended) upset, he lost in the Finals against Stan Wawrinka, who had never previously been present in a major Final. What made it more shocking was the way Mr. Djokovic, then already an eight time major champion, was defeated. After Mr. Djokovic won the first set, Mr. Wawrinka generally overpowered Mr. Djokovic and hit him off the court in the next three, not only toppling the number one player and delaying by one year his French Open triumph, but doing so with surprising ease.

(Mr. Wawrinka returned to the French Open Final in 2017. However, standing between him and a second trophy at Roland Garros was Mr. Nadal. You can guess the result.)

Mr. Djokovic toppled Mr. Nadal for the second time at the French Open in 2021 (note Mr. Djokovic’s overall record against Mr. Nadal at the French Open is 2-8, so this survey is necessarily cherry-picking his successes at Roland Garros) and, on that occasion, was able to convert his win into what was his second of three French Open triumphs in the next round. However, Mr. Djokovic came perilously close to extending the streak of converting beating Mr. Nadal into runner-up finishes, having to come from two sets down to defeat Stefanos Tsisipas in the five-set final.

Finally, we have Alexander Zverev in 2024. He defeated Mr. Nadal in the first round, meaning he had a long path post-Nadal to the Finals. But Mr. Zverev would make it to the Finals and there, he took a two-sets-to-one lead over Carlos Alcaraz. He was close to evening the Finals record for those who beat Mr. Nadal at 2-2. However, he would win only 3 of the final 15 games of the match en route to a five-set loss, leaving the record for those who beat Mr. Nadal at the French at 1-3 in Finals.

There is no great significance to this survey. If anything, the notable take-away is that Mr. Nadal lost so rarely in his 19 French Open starts that we can take the time to carefully study the fates of those who beat him. But for fun, we can try to take something scientific from the survey:

  • Mr. Nadal was not on his best form in any of his four French Open losses. Noting that Mr. Nadal won eight non-French Open majors (for perspective, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors ended their great careers with 8, 7, and 7 major championships respectively), only in 2009 did Mr. Nadal make the semifinals in another major in a year where he did not win the French Open (he won the Australian Open a few months before the French and made the U.S. Open semis in the summer). Mr. Nadal, again injured, ended up not contesting the latter two majors in 2021 after losing to Mr. Djokovic in the French semis.
  • While the evidence suggests that one could benefit from Mr. Nadal not being at his best at the French, the fact that all four players who beat Mr. Nadal at Roland Garos ended up in the Finals suggest that one had to be in strong form to beat even a diminished version of Mr. Nadal on clay. Even in the case of 2024 – where Mr. Nadal was not the favorite against Mr. Zverev in their first round match – Mr. Zverev ended up making his first French Open finals after three consecutive losses in the Semifinals (one of which was against Mr. Nadal in 2022).
  • But as we see, while beating Mr. Nadal suggested French Open-winning form, it did not guarantee winning the French Open. Mr. Söderling converted his stunning upset of Mr. Nadal in 2009 into a Finals appearance, but there he returned to Earth against the runner-up in the three previous editions, Roger Federer. Mr. Djokovic was the heavy favorite in the 2015 Final, but he did not have enough left in the tank after tough wins against Messrs. Nadal and Murray in the quarters and semis to hold up against the big hitting Mr. Wawrinka. Mr. Djokovic had to make a historic comeback to win the French final in 2021, and Mr. Zverev was the victim of a slightly less dramatic comeback in the 2024 French final.

It seems to be more likely than not that 2024 was Mr. Nadal’s final French Open. But he left the door open, so if his body allows him to continue at a high level – perhaps someone will have the opportunity to add his name to the very select list of players who managed to defeat Mr. Nadal at the major he has more-or-less owned for two decades.

Or, perhaps even more improbably at this stage, Mr. Nadal will show that he has one final winning run in Paris left in him.