Ever since he first lifted the trophy at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal has dominated the clay courts of Paris like no one else in history has.
In the last 15 years Nadal has won the French Open a staggering 12 times, with his only two losses coming against Robin Soderling in 2009 and Novak Djokovic in 2015. (A wrist injury forced him to withdraw in 2016).
Such mastery on one surface is unprecedented, and it doesn't look likely that Nadal's astonishing run will be equaled any time soon.
It's no surprise that the King of Clay has been lauded by scores of people over the years, from both within the tennis community and without. And the latest to join Nadal's list of admirers is 1988 French Open runner-up Henri Leconte.
Speaking to Stats Perform, Leconte compared Nadal's Roland Garros performance to that of a Formula One racing team, and attributed the Spaniard's success to his never-diminishing willingness to improve.
"When you think about it, 12 Roland Garros in 15 years (whistles). You don't think it would be possible. If someone told you that, you'd say, 'You're crazy.' What's astonishing to me is how he evolved physically, how he changed his game, how he improved," Leconte said.
"I like to compare him to an F1 racing team which is producing a new car every year, he is coming every year with a new way of playing and adapting. He works on his serve, on his right hand, his left hand, and he's always changing some things."
Rafael Nadal is mentally out of this world: Leconte
Leconte also showered praise on the mindset of the former World No. 1 when he plays on the terre battue. Calling his mentality "out of the world", the 1984 French Open doubles champion admitted that he could never play a set like Nadal.
"He's been able to improve every year which allowed him to win Roland Garros, this is amazing. And mentally, he's out of this world. To play at his level at Roland Garros, under these circumstances, physically and mentally, I couldn't even play one set like that.
Leconte did acknowledge that the likes of Stan Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling are equipped with the tools to counter Nadal's strategy on occasion. But to do it consistently over the course of a best-of-five set match is easier said than done.
Leconte further added that while Nadal may be good on other surfaces too, what makes him especially deadly on clay is his indefatigable spirit combined with his unrivaled physical stamina. That's a combination Nadal's rivals can never hope to match consistently; once the Mallorcan decides to up the ante, the battle becomes totally one-sided.
Under relentless pressure from Rafael Nadal on the opposite side of the net, his opponents are bound to implode.
"On clay, and it's five sets - so three sets to win - you just started the match, it's 2-2. You visited Roland Garros, the Bois de Boulogne, you ran everywhere, and it's only 2-2 and you've been playing for 25 minutes. You are thinking, 'I have three more sets like that.'
"This is where he is really strong. He's like a cheetah, he's toying with you, and he decides to kill you, it's over. He's playing with you, 2-2, 3-3. We've seen many players going to 3-3, 4-4, they even get a set point, and suddenly, it's like a bottle of champagne exploding, and then they lose 6-1, 6-2. They implode, they can't take it physically.
'Sergi Bruguera was a bit like Nadal'
Spain has a history of producing a long line of claycourt champions. And one of them was Sergi Bruguera, who conquered Roland Garros in 1993 and 1994.
Bruguera reigned on clay in the early 1990s before Austria's Thomas Muster took over, and he is still remembered for his spectacular movement and tireless defense.
Leconte faced Bruguera four times in his career, and failed to win a single match. Bruguera made Leconte 'run everywhere', and the Frenchman just couldn't find a way to pierce through the Spaniard's defenses.
Leconte feels Nadal has now taken that watertight defensive style to another level, and is amazed at how much work the 12-time Slam champion has put into his game.
"During my time, [Sergi] Bruguera was a bit like him, and when I had to play him on clay, with my style, I knew it was over, I was about to run everywhere and get destroyed. Rafa is extraordinary. This is what's impressive and people don't realize how much he works."Published 15 May 2020, 16:31 IST