Pages: Rafael Nadal’s birthday gift

TENNIS player or not, you’ve heard of this left-hander with 14 Grand Slam singles trophies and two Olympic gold medals and who’ll be aiming for a 10th Roland Garros (French Open) crown when the tournament begins today.

Rafa. Much like his fellow Spaniards named Xavi, Raul or Xabi, once you say the first name “Rafa,” you’d know who the athlete is. And if you ask any tennis expert who the greatest clay-court netter is, the answer is unamimous. Rafa. It’s his 31st birthday this Saturday and you and I are invited to witness the party in Paris. Will there be shouts of “Vamos!” as he celebrates another triumph on red clay?

The answer is Yes. Two years ago, I was in Roland Garros. For four days, I watched Maria, Novak, Serena and Roger. I also saw plenty of Rafa. I witnessed his two victories before he lost in the quarterfinals to Novak. That defeat was only the second time that he lost in the event.

When Rafa first joined the French Open as a 19-year-old, he won. That was in 2005. He went on to win 81 consecutive matches on clay (from 2005 to 2007). His career record on clay is 382-35 for a phenomenal 91.61 winning percentage. He has won 10 titles in Barcelona and Monte Carlo and, sporting a 72-2 win-loss record in Paris, he’ll be gunning for the same 10 trophies in Paris — an incredible 97 winning percentage at the French Open!

But, saddled by injuries, he lost in 2015 to Djokovic and exited last year due to a wrist problem. This year, he has returned to his almost-unbeatable ways.

“It’s hard to say if he’s all the way back, he looks tremendous,” said John McEnroe. “It’s pretty darn close to his best. If he’s healthy and it sounds like he is, it’s the toughest thing to do in tennis to beat him on clay.”

What’s the difference with Rafa this year? The resurgence of Roger has motivated him. The hiring of Carlos Moya as part of his coaching staff has helped. He serves stronger and with more variety. He’s healthy.

Adds the Frechman Henri Leconte: “He has worked on hitting the ball harder this year,” said Leconte. “He went back to the old racket and has more control, which is why maybe he can hit it harder. He’s maybe hitting less spin. He’s found some different angles. Even the backhand is back.”

My prediction? Bring out the birthday cake sprinkled with 10 French Open candles.
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