Might Just Be the Best Ever
When Roger Federer won his 17th grand slam title in 2012, it seemed his record haul would last forever as it took more than a century of trying for a super-human male athlete to come along and win that many major trophies. Yet only two years later, a younger, fitter, hungrier rival by the name of Rafa Nadal is now threatening to topple the Swiss from his perch after hoisting his 14th major silverware at the Roland Garros last Sunday.
As the Spaniard has now contested the last three slam finals, it is not inconceivable that by the time he returns to Paris next year to target a 10th Musketeers’ Cup, his name could be alongside Federer’s on the list of all-time leading title hoarders.
As the first man to win nine times at the same grand slam tournament and with time still on his side, Nadal has shown no signs of relinquishing his hold at the French Open, where he owns an eye-popping 66-1 win-loss record. The tennis world may be obsessed with finding out just how many more trophies Nadal is capable of winning but the 28-year-old did not seem to care a ho ot about where he ended up in the pecking order.
‘Federer, well, he’s had 17 and I have had 14 grand slams... but I’m not really worried. It’s not a source of motivation for me,’ said the French Open champion, who owns two Wimbledons, two US Open and one Australian Open trophy.
‘I don’t really care that much about the records. I’ll still play with a lot of intensity. I’ll still be motivated. I’ll follow my own path. Then when my career is over, we’ll count,’ he added.
That path will initially lead him to Wimbledon, where he desperately wants to make amends for his shock first-round defeat last year to 135th-ranked Belgian Steve Darcis. The switch from clay to grass in just two weeks proved to be a challenge too for Nadal and his overworked knees in 2013, especially as he was on the way back from a seven-month injury break. Twelve months on an he is more optimistic about his return to the home of lawn tennis.
‘Grass always was a little bit harder for me after the injury. Last year I tried, but I was not ready to compete at Wimbledon. Let’s see how my feelings are there this year, but it’s a very important tournament. It’s a tournament I want to win,’ Nadal remarked.
All the strongest arguments for Nadal as the best to ever do it were on full display throughout the French Open final against Djokovic last week. It highlights his superior physicality. One hundred eighty-eight pounds of fast-twitch muscles and bravado, Nadal generates enough spin on his groundstrokes to cheat space-time.
It continued with his mental and tactical agility, his refined gift for making adjustments on the fly, sometimes in the middle of a point. Consider the run of play near the end of the second set in the 2013 US Open final, when Djokovic had warmed to the moment and was striking his forehand with loose, fluid abandon. When he broke Nadal to take the set and broke at love to open the third, Djokovic began dictating the baseline points and pushing his opponent around. One hundred forty points had been played midway through the third set. Nadal had won 70. Djokovic had won 70. But just as the Serb had wrested the momentum, it was Nadal who began mixing in the slice brilliantly, changing pace and keeping Djokovic off balance. No small feat for a player once derided for smashing the ball pell-mell at every opportunity with little taste for variety.
These days Nadal has evolved into nothing less than an all-court phenomenon. Last season, he was 22-0 on hard courts, traditionally his weakest surface. He’s just the second man to win multiple titles on three different surfaces. His lifetime winning percentage is better than anyone in the sport.
There will always be a passionate argument for Roger Federer, a man whose game has been described as porn for aesthetes, as tennis’s greatest, certainly as long as the Swiss maestro remains atop the all-time Grand Slam leaderboard with 17 trophies. Yet consider that Nadal has beaten Federer in 21 of their 31 meetings, and eight of their 10 matches at Grand Slams. Or that Nadal has won Olympic gold in singles and Federer hasn’t. Or that Nadal has won four more Davis Cups than Federer’s zero. Many have wondered aloud how a player can be regarded as the best of all time if he’s not conclusively the best of his time.
Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Andy Murray together account for 35 of the past 37 Grand Slam championships. Such hegemony is unprecedented. The Big Four have turned the sport into their own crash test laboratory, challenging one another and raising the bar to heights previously thought impossible.