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Rafael Nadal: The king of clay

We speak exclusively to the 11-time French Open champion as Nike launch his new “What the Rafa” special edition shoe.

Rafael Nadal has been known as the “King of Clay” for so long now that it rolls off the tongue without a second thought. Fourteen years of near-complete dominance will do that – there are so many stats about his frankly stupendous level of success at Roland-Garros that it’s difficult to choose one to demonstrate just how total his mastery of the surface has been.

Instead of remarking on his 86-2 win ratio, then, or his 11 titles, consider this simple fact: Rafa’s made only a solitary appearance on Court 1 at Roland-Garros in his entire career. That, of course, was his French Open debut match in 2005. Three sets of Nadal’s furious intensity and gravity-defying forehand were enough to convince tournament organisers and TV schedulers alike that he wasn’t just a crowd-pleasing prodigy, he was the star attraction. Two weeks later he was the champion.

Since then, Nadal has been a permanent fixture on the two main show courts of Roland-Garros, ruling the clay with an iron fist to rack up those record-breaking 11 trophies. In fact, the only thing as regular as his success has been his footwear: he’s worn a new Nike trainer for each and every triumph.

Hence the release of the “What the Rafa” Nike Cage 3 Glove special edition, which chronicles Nadal’s French Open victories by combining all 11 shoes into a single, mashup-style design. It’s the most eye-catching tennis shoe ever made, so, naturally, we couldn’t resist the chance to catch up with the man himself at an exclusive launch event in Paris.

Rafael Nadal

Why I Play Interview

There are many qualities to admire about Rafael Nadal, but perhaps his most endearing is humility. In the past he’s described himself as “a normal person” and just “a guy who plays tennis well”. He puts all his achievements down to hard work and the help of others, having developed his unique set of skills through day after day of training under the mentorship of the most famous uncle in tennis, Toni.

Rackets, nets, and balls have been Nadal’s life since he was three years old. At 12, he dropped his other sporting love, football, in order to concentrate on his tennis. “I enjoy football, but that’s for fun,” he said in his autobiography.

Does he truly love tennis, then? And how does he cope with the inevitable ups and downs of a career at the pinnacle of the game? Those were the kinds of questions we put to Rafa for the latest instalment in our Why I Play video series, which explores the stories and motivations behind the top players in tennis.

"I'm just a guy who plays tennis"

Having re-established his dominance at Roland-Garros after the injuries of 2015 and 2016, a fit-and-firing Nadal will once again be the clear favourite heading into this year’s showpiece clay-court event. He’ll look the part as always in the latest Nike French Open collection, and will be intent on making sure his Nike “What the” celebratory shoe gets a fitting run out. If the glint in his eye is anything to go by, don’t bet against there being a sequel – he is the king, after all, and he’s not ready to abdicate the throne just yet.

shop the full nike rafa nadal collection


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