Nadal – tennis GOAT?

The guy makes a strong case for Nadal as tennis GOAT.


Rafael Nadal Might Just Be the Best Ever
Bryan Tarmen Graham

Monday’s [2013 US Open] final [where Nadal beat Djokovic] was the 37th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, surpassing John McEnroe-Ivan Lendl as the Open era’s most prolific—if not romantic—rivalry. Unlike McEnroe and Lendl, however, their familiarity has bred not disdain but a mutual respect. Both employ similar pugilistic, power-baseline styles, stripping their matches of the stylistic and poetic contrasts that made the Nadal’s meetings with Federer such attractive (and accessible) theater. Both have forced each other to improve and innovate, each one retooling his game in an effort to best the other. They have spent most of the past few years dragging each other into deep waters at the end of tennis’s biggest tournaments, Djokovic winning seven straight meetings in 2011 and 2012, Nadal taking six of the past seven. The struggle was no different Monday, even if this one didn’t extend five sets. “Between Novak and me, every point is fighting, every point is long rally, every point is more strategy,” Nadal said last night. “This is very tough.”

All the strongest arguments for Nadal as the best to ever do it were on full display throughout Monday’s final.

It started with 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, like the Euclid-defying overhead he struck from 10 feet behind the baseline in his first-round win over Ryan Harrison. He broke Djokovic twice in the opening set as the shadows grew long over Ashe, curling shots drizzled with topspin into the corners while making just four unforced errors.

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, 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.

And then, of course, there was ample evidence of Nadal’s legendary between-the-ears fortitude. Late in the third, Djokovic had triple-break point to serve for a two-sets-to-one lead. Nadal saved all three break points, held serve, and broke the Serb for the set. He never looked back.

Nadal was once a bit of a curiosity: a clay-court specialist known as much for his innumerable tics and quirky rituals as his terre battue mastery. Even Monday, he was a slave to his routines, touching his crotch and shirt then fingering his hair before every serve—while obsessively making sure everything remained feng shui around his chair during changeovers. (And then making sure again.)

There will always be a passionate argument for Roger Federer as tennis’s greatest ever. Yet many have wondered how a player can be regarded as the best of all time if he’s not conclusively the best of his time.

Yet these days he’s evolved into nothing less than an all-court phenomenon. This season, he’s 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, currently an absurd 83.7 percent, is better than anyone in the sport today. Incredibly, he entered the U.S. Open with a winning record against each of the other 127 players in the field.

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 Great Britain’s Andy Murray together account for 34 of the past 35 Grand Slam championships. Such hegemony is unprecedented. (Consider that, over the same span, 24 different golfers have won majors.) 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.

Could Nadal’s progression from raw athletic specimen to adaptable, intelligent all-around player be the finest product of his era? Barring injury, he should win at least a few more French Opens, where he’s lost exactly once in 60 career matches. (He’s already the odds-on favorite for next year’s tourney.) Five more majors overall is a tall order, but you’d be mad to bet against him.

“I’m gonna keep working hard, I’m gonna keep doing my things to have more chances in the future to be competitive and win tournaments,” he said, with a wry grin, after last night’s match. “But let me enjoy today.”

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  • Selwyn  On May 28, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    This analysis is interesting, but at this stage deficient and fatally flawed.

    1 Federer has won 17 majors, Nadal 13.

    2 Nadal’s achievements revolve heavily around his clay court supremacy – 8 French Championships, 5 on other surfaces. Federer has won 10 on surfaces other than grass, and Djokovic 6.

    3 No mention of the ATP World Tour Finals, only half a notch below the Majors, way ahead of Davis Cup and Olympics as a marker of greatness. Federer has won 6 times, Djokovic 3 and Nadal a Bagel.

    4 Nadal has a problem in the form of the match-up with Djokovic who has a total answer on all surfaces. I have great admiration for Nadal’s gutsy response in 2013, but grave doubts that he can continue to repeat this. In their last two finals against each other, Djokovic has been totally dominant.

    5 Weeks at No.1 – Federer 302, Nadal 115.


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