For a decade and a half, the world has witnessed something special this time of year. It started in May of 2005, when an 18-year-old Rafael Nadal kicked off his first Roland Garros campaign, nine days before his birthday. He would go on to capture his first major trophy, and over time, he would establish himself as the King of Clay by racking up a record 12 titles on the terre battue.
Today, the Spaniard turns 34, and if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced the tours to grind to a screeching halt, Nadal would be celebrating it in Paris. At present, the French Open has been moved to late September in hopes of anchoring a potential clay-court swing.
In the meantime, here is a look back at the six times the Gemini has competed on his birthday—all at his favorite tournament, the French Open.
19TH BIRTHDAY: 2005 SEMIFINALS, D. ROGER FEDERER, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3
On the first day of his final year as a teen, Nadal came into this match against Federer gunning for revenge. He recently squandered a two-set and 4-1 lead against the Swiss in the Miami final, when ATP Masters events were decided over best-of-five sets. Following that loss, Nadal had caught fire, winning Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, foreshadowing a long-standing dominance on red clay to come. On this Friday, he made sure to hold onto his lead, denying Federer for the first of many times in Paris.
20TH BIRTHDAY: 2006 THIRD ROUND, D. PAUL-HENRI MATHIEU, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4
Nadal’s title defense was in question after dropping the first set against an inspired opponent on home soil. Buoyed by an stadium full of Parisian supporters, Mathieu fired 60 winners past the birthday boy. Still, the No. 2 seed was able to withstand the heat, coming through after four hours and 53 minutes. Nadal would once again deliver the goods against Federer, this time in the final, to retain the crown.
22ND BIRTHDAY: 2008 QUARTERFINALS, D. NICOLAS ALMAGRO, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1
By now, the Mallorca native had become the most feared player on clay. In his first four matches of the 2008 French Open, Nadal had dropped just 22 games. His quarterfinal encounter was no different, as he overwhelmed his countryman to provide himself the gift of a quick day at the office. Nadal would go on to lift his fourth consecutive Coupe des Mousquetaires without dropping a set, including his emphatic win over Federer in the final, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.
25TH BIRTHDAY: 2011 SEMIFINALS, D. ANDY MURRAY, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4
After enduring a five-set dogfight against John Isner in the first round, the Spaniard’s next four rounds went relatively drama-free. Standing between him and the final spot was Murray, whom he had just defeated in topsy-turvy fashion in the Monte Carlo semifinal. But on that Friday on Court Philippe Chatrier, there would be no trading of sets, as the top seed earned his third straight victory against the Brit. Four sets later, against Federer, a sixth French Open title was in the books.
27TH BIRTHDAY: 2013 FOURTH ROUND, D. KEI NISHIKORI, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3
Things weren’t going smoothly for the three-time defending champion, who had survived two four-setters against unseeded players. After ousting sometimes-tormentor Fabio Fognini, was Rafa’s next opponent going to present another test? Nishikori was a fine player, but Nadal had dropped just one set against him in their four meetings. A straight-set victory was exactly what Nadal needed on his special day. He would go on to win his eighth French Open title, toughing out an edge-of-your-seat, five-set thriller against Djokovic in the semifinals, before routing first-time major finalist David Ferrer.
29TH BIRTHDAY: 2015 QUARTERFINALS, L. TO NOVAK DJOKOVIC, 7-5, 6-3, 6-1
For the first time since his Roland Garros debut, the No. 6 seed was handed a loss on his birthday—just his second defeat in 72 French Open matches. Djokovic came into the match riding a 26-match winning streak. Playing one of the best matches of his life against the greatest clay-courter of all time, the Serb refused to let Nadal into the match, determined to suspend his reign in Paris. His mission was accomplished, but Djokovic’s goal to win his first French Open was dashed by Stan Wawrinka in the final.
“When you play against an opponent that is winning almost every match like Novak and you are not playing consistent during the whole match, then [losing] is an option,” Nadal said after the rare loss.
Nadal would retire with injury the following year, but reclaimed the French Open throne for the next three years.