As I write this, I'm 40,000 miles above ground hitching a ride on a private plane with tennis legend Pete Sampras. We're headed to Boston, where he'll be competing in the Outback Champions Series, and I'll be covering the tournament for television.
During the flight we discussed a variety of topics: politics, the NBA playoffs, life after tennis and family -- but what really got my attention was when the subject turned to Rafael Nadal's clay-court prowess and the upcoming French Open. Even though the Spaniard's dominance on clay is universally acclaimed by the tennis world, it's still remarkably underappreciated.
"What Nadal has done on clay over the past three years is nothing short of remarkable," Sampras said. "To be as dominant as he has been, winning 100 out of 101 matches! That's one of the greatest achievements in the history of tennis, and I don't feel like it is recognized to the extent it deserves.
"The physical challenge is obvious, but the mental and emotional duress of preparing match in and match out is possibly greater. You can really tell how much he enjoys playing, and I think that's a huge part in his success. I have a lot of respect for the effort he puts into not only every match, but also every point."
That's strong praise from someone who knows all too well the duress associated with such lofty expectations. The argument can be made that Nadal's dominance on dirt is helped by the fact that clay-court tennis offers a significantly larger margin of error because it's based more on physical prowess than technical efficiency.
Still, I agree with Pete: Nadal's dominance is one of the most remarkable accomplishments in modern tennis. The only match Nadal has lost on clay over the past three years was in the final of Hamburg, Germany, last year against Roger Federer -- and that was when Nadal was so fatigued that he considered withdrawing prior to the event.
Nadal presents so many challenges to his opponents on all surfaces, but it's his movement on clay that sets him apart. His balance, tenacity and sheer physical strength put pressure on his opponents to hit to precise spots to win points. This inevitably leads to his opponents committing errors.
Those defensive skills, combined with an ability to dominate the middle of the court with his forehand and to set up points with his swinging lefty serve, add up to this: I believe Nadal will be the most dominant clay-court player of all-time. Bjorn Börg set the bar incredibly high, winning five straight French Opens, but Nadal is closing in. He has already won three and is a heavy favorite again this year. In fact, Nadal has never been defeated at Roland Garros.
Federer is Nadal's biggest challenger on clay, but the matchup and pattern of points are not favorable for the world No. 1. The accessibility and ease with which Nadal can get the ball to Federer's weaker backhand side, thanks to his southpaw swing, have proved to be an almost insurmountable challenge for Federer. Roger's best chance of winning the French lies with someone else upsetting Nadal.
Federer deserves tremendous credit for his clay-court skills, and it's a true testament to his greatness that he is the second-best player in the world on his weakest surface. But the incredible hurdle of capturing the career Grand Slam still looms large. Federer has even recently enlisted the services of notable coach José Higueras.
The Spaniard was a top-five player in his day and, as a coach, helped guide the careers of Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Todd Martin. Federer's hiring of Higueras points to not only his desire to win the French Open, but his dedication to improving his game and tapping his full potential.
All of these variables lend themselves to tremendous drama unfolding at the French Open. Nadal, on track to becoming the greatest clay-court player of all-time, pitted against Federer, on pace to rewriting the record books. This is exactly what tennis needs: a rivalry between two iconic champions on one of its grandest stages. All eyes will be on Roland Garros.
Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob writes on alternate Fridays for SI.com.