The Complete Sneaker History of Rafael Nadal at the French Open

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Rafael Nadal has nothing left to prove at Roland Garros, but that isn’t going to stop the Spaniard from going for an unprecedented eighth career French Open title when the action kicks off today in Paris.

In an incredible run that started back in 2005, the then 19-year-old won his first major title at the French Open, and since, has won an additional six out of seven times at historic Court Philippe Chatrier—earning him the undisputed title of “King of the Clay” in the process.

Nadal’s 52-1 record at Roland Garros ranks amongst the best at any of the four major tournaments in the Open era. But while his winning percentage has been consistent, one facet of his game has naturally evolved over the years. We’re referring to his sneakers of course. Nadal’s relationship with Nike has resulted in some memorable shoe models over the last decade. To compliment his unmistakable natural abilities, Nike has continued to supply Nadal with high performance tennis sneakers designed to slay the clay.

As we gear up for the 2013 French Open, let’s take a moment to look back at the shoes worn by the former world No. 1 on the red stuff. Here’s The Complete Sneaker History of Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

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Nadal French - 2005

Year: 2005
Shoe: Nike Air Max Breathe Free II
Result: Champion

Had he stayed healthy, Nadal probably would have won his first French Open title a year earlier in ’04. Nonetheless, he returned to Roland Garros the following year and and picked up the first of many major titles of his career, becoming the first teenager to win a Grand Slam title since Pete Sampras did it back in 1990. For his first time around at the French Open, Nadal played in the Nike Air Max Breathe Free II featuring an high-grade XDR outsole for greater durability.


Nadal French - 2006

Year: 2006
Shoe: Nike Air Max Breathe III
Result: Champion

In 2006, Nike introduced the third installment of the Breathe series, the Air Max Breathe III, with instant success. Some of the best tennis player around the globe, including Nadal, wore the shoe with great results. That same year, Rafa went back to Roland Garros, this time in the Breathe III, and won the tournament yet again. He became the first player ever to defeat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam tournament title.


Nadal French - 2007

Year: 2007
Shoe: Nike Air Max Breathe Cage
Result: Champion

Following up the obvious success of the previous Air Max Breathe models, in 2007, Nike debuted a fresh look for the popular shoe. Featuring a Drag-On Inject upper, the shoe had a cage-like design (hence the name Cage). Nadal laced up the new-look shoe for his third trip to the French Open, picking up his third consecutive title in the process. Rafa relied heavily on the Breathe Cage's support and agility, as he downed Federer for the second straight year on the clay.


Nadal French - 2008

Year: 2008
Shoe: Nike Air Max Breathe Cage II
Result: Champion

By 2008, Rafa was pretty accustomed to wearing "cage" on his feet, so Nike kept it going with the release of the Air Max Breathe Cage II. After all, why mess with a good thing right? Nadal rocked the shoes all the way to yet another finals showdown against Federer. Yet again, the Spaniard came up big, as he handed R-Fed a third consecutive loss at the French Open.


Nadal French - 2009

Year: 2009
Shoe: Nike Air Max Courtballistec 1.3
Result: Loss, 4th Round

In 2009, Nike rolled out the all-new Air Max Courtballistec series for Rafa. While the shoe was an instant success in terms of style, it failed to earn Nadal a fifth straight French Open title. Wearing the Air Max Courtballistec 1.3, the heavy favorite suffered a fourth round loss to Robin Soderling. The loss was the first ever for Nadal at Roland Garros, though we're not quite convinced the shoes were to blame. For the time being, we'll chalk it up as a bad day.


Nadal French - 2010

Year: 2010
Shoe: Nike Air Max Courtballistec 2.3
Result: Champion

The second iteration of Rafa's NIke Air Max Courtballistec looked like something out of Andre Agassi's sneaker closet. But not even the great Agassi could give Nadal a run for his money on the clay. A year after losing for the first time in five tries at the French Open, Nadal returned to his winning ways, as he got his revenge on Soderling, who defeated him the previous year. The win helped Nadal return to No. 1 in the world. As for the Courtballistec 2.3, well, they became instant classics.


Nadal French - 2011

Year: 2011
Shoe: Nike Air Max Courtballistec 3.3
Result: Champion

By the time 2011 rolled around, two things in particular were apparent about Nadal: he was the best clay court player ever, and he liked to look good while doing it. In the 2011 French Open final against, who else, Roger Federer, Nadal wore the Air Max Courtballistec 3.3 in a Blue/White colorway to match his outfit. For the latest version of the Courtballistec, Nike went back to the cage design that Nadal had so much success with in earlier years.


Nadal French - 2012

Year: 2012
Shoe: Nike Air Max Courtballistec 4.3
Result: Champion

As if one 3-peat wasn't enough, after losing in '09, Nadal won his third consecutive French Open title for the second time in his career. After beating Novak Djokovic in the final, Rafa officially became the most successful player in French Open history, as he won his seventh Roland Garros title (a record previously held by the legendary Bjorn Borg).


Nadal French - 2013

Year: 2013
Shoe: Nike Air Max Courtballistec 4.3
Result: TBD

There are no guarantees in life. But still, the chances of Nadal winning his eight French Open title look pretty damn good right about now. If he does in fact pull it of, it certainly won't be his first victory parade. But it will be the first time Rafa's taken to the clay court at Roland Garros in the same shoe two different years. As the 2013 French Open gets set to tip off this weekend, Nike has rolled out a new colorway of the Air Max Courtballistec 4.3 he wore in 2012. Nadal will look for a repeat performance in his latest signature.

Gurvinder Singh Gandu is a New York City-based writer with west coast roots. A resident wear-tester for Sneaker Report, and contributor to Complex Media, follow him @GurvinderSG for the latest in performance footwear and gear.

RELATED: SPOTTED: Rafael Nadal Returns to Tennis in the Nike Air Max Courtballistec 4.3
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