Rafael Nadal is widely considered the best clay-court player tennis has ever seen. Nadal had an 81-match clay court winning streak, an Open-Era record, that ended in 2006, but most impressive was the dominance with which he won the biggest clay-court tournament of all, Roland Garros (the French Open), four years in a row, 2005-2008.
In 2006, Nadal proved that, unlike most clay-court players, he had become quite comfortable on other surfaces as well, making the final at Wimbledon, where even the slower grass is as opposite to clay as outdoor courts get. Rafa made the Wimbledon final again in 2007 and lost for the second time to Roger Federer, but in 2008 he defeated Federer for his first major title not on clay, and he started 2009 with an Australian Open title, confirming his comfort on hard courts as well. Knee trouble and a brilliant performance by Robin Soderling ended Nadal's Roland Garros streak in 2009, and Rafa skipped Wimbledon to rest his knees. Nadal made the semifinals of the 2009 US Open, as he had in 2008, but he needed another year to win it and complete his career Grand Slam in 2010.
Rafael began playing tennis at age three under the guidance of his uncle Toni. Nadal played two-handed on both sides as a small child and then with a one-handed forehand with his natural right arm until, at age 9 or 10, his uncle switched him to a left-handed forehand and serve. Rafa was also an avid and excellent soccer player until age 12, when his father made him choose between soccer and tennis. In junior tennis, Rafael regularly beat older opponents, and he won several tournaments in Spain and nearby parts of Europe, but he didn't play as globally as most rising stars do. The only major he played as a junior was the 2002 Wimbledon, where he reached the semifinal.
Nadal entered professional tennis early and strong, winning his first ATP match in 2001 while still 15. He won several Futures titles in 2001 and a couple of Challengers in 2003, when, at age 17, he also made decent showings at Wimbledon, where he reached the third round, and the US Open, where he reached the second round. In 2004, Rafa helped Spain win the Davis Cup by beating then #2 Andy Roddick, and he won his first ATP singles title in Sopot. 2005 was Nadal's breakthrough year, as he won 11 ATP titles, 8 of which were on clay, including Roland Garros.