Nineteen grand slam titles. Two Olympic gold medals. A record 35 wins in ATP Tour Masters 1000 finals. Rafael Nadal, now 33, has amassed a staggering 84 titles in his professional career to date; a figure bettered only by great rival Roger Federer.
Often labelled ‘The King of Clay’, the Spaniard has been a formidable force in men’s tennis ever since making his senior debut at a major in the 2003 Wimbledon Championships. Despite playing at the tender age of 17, Nadal immediately showcased his quality with an impressive run to the third round.
Unfortunately for the home crowd at SW19, Nadal’s second-round triumph came at the expense of British wildcard Lee Childs with the Somerset-born player losing in straight sets 6-2 6-4 6-3.
It was a first glimpse of the exuberant Mallorcan for many of the British public, and despite defeat, Childs was left impressed by his young adversary.
Speaking in a recent interview with the Sports Gazette, Childs explained his first impressions during the second-round contest. “When we were playing the thing I felt immediately was that you just couldn’t really stretch the guy. I felt that you couldn’t really put him under a lot of pressure to slice the ball; he sliced the ball because he wanted to, rather than you forcing him into that situation. It was also difficult because he moved well and he was very, very strong at hitting out of each corner.”
Childs had set up the clash with Nadal following a shock five-set win over the seeded Nikolay Davydenko in the opening round. However, it was soon evident that despite the Spaniard being four years Childs’ junior, he would prove too stern a test for the Briton.
When asked to describe the hardest challenge of playing against Nadal, Childs stated: “From the back of the court there really wasn’t any weakness. Playing against Nadal is like playing against someone with two forehands. He hits from both sides, it’s quite incredible. The way it helps him is that he’s actually right-handed, so he plays his backhand like a forehand.”
Nadal has intrigued fans and spectators over the course of his career with his habitual on-court idiosyncrasies and rituals. As Childs explains, these behaviours have been a part of Nadal’s on-court game since the very beginning of his career.
“He was the same back then. I remember him taking forever between points. Even then he had all those traits, although over the years he’s developed more I’m sure. Definitely when we played he had that tendency to have rituals before doing things.”
Despite witnessing the authoritative presence and stroke-play of a player aged just 17 first-hand, Childs expressed his shock when discussing the extent of Nadal’s success over the past 16 years.
“Obviously at 17 he was nearly top 50 in the world; you know the guy is very good. But you didn’t realise that he was going to end up currently winning 19 grand slams. To the level that he’s got to now, I don’t think anyone could predict that.”
Childs, who retired from playing in 2007, now holds the position as head of tennis at The Queen’s Club. Despite the commitments involved in the role, he still finds time to watch tennis in his free time, and spoke of Nadal’s recent success over Daniil Medvedev in the 2019 US Open final.
“The shot making that was in the final against Medvedev was phenomenal. This is again where Nadal, in my mind is the best really; he absolutely loves getting into a dogfight. He plays his best tennis when it’s deep in the fifth set, whereas other players don’t like being in that situation. Nadal always pulls shots out the bag.”
From promise as a young teenager, to greatness as an elite athlete. Nadal’s achievements are made all the more impressive considering he’s played his entire career in what’s been a golden era of men’s tennis.
As Lee Childs, and I’m sure many others discovered, Rafael Nadal was always destined for something special.