Is Nadal on his way to being the greatest?

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Spain's Rafael Nadal receives a pat on the stomach from Switzerland's Roger Federer - AP Photo/Christophe Ena

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Rafael Nadal won his second US Open title on Monday 9 September in New York City, and in the process claimed his 13th career Grand Slam title.

The final was played against his new great rival, Novak Djokovic – a player who fears no one in world tennis, including Nadal.

Nadal now sits third behind Federer and Sampras on the all-time men’s Grand Slam singles titles honour roll.

To succinctly sum up the match between these two titans of men’s tennis, you would not go wrong with any of the following descriptions – brilliant, amazing, exceptional, brutal, furious.

The two players slugged their way through four sets of gruelling tennis, which included a simply outstanding 54-shot rally in the sixth game of the second set.

It’s long been said that Nadal is one of the fiercest competitors, if not the most fierce competitor, in men’s tennis. He has an amazing ability to lift himself, especially when the pressure is on.

And he rarely doubts that he’ll leave the court with anything other than a win, regardless of the opponent or the surface.

Nothing encapsulates his mindset better than the third game of the third set. Nadal was down 0-2 and fell behind 0-40 on his own serve, the momentum firmly with Djokovic who had just won the second set.

Nadal, through sheer grit and determination, fought back to win that game and keep the set alive. That game was the first blow to the psyche of Djokovic.

The finishing blow to Djokovic was the ninth game of the third set. They were tied up at 4-4 and winning that game was crucial to either player, with a chance to go ahead and claim set in the next game.

Nadal won and shortly thereafter finished off the third set. Djokovic was cooked – he knew it and Nadal sensed it.

Nadal quickly finished the fourth set and the title was his, his imposing Grand Slam record continuing to grow.

Nadal has shared one of the most intense rivalries ever seen in the sport against the great Roger Federer. They have a storied rivalry that will be spoken of for years to come.

Nadal leads the head-to-head record 21-10, and with Federer heading into the twilight of his career there is a possibility that gap could get considerably wider.

The two Grand Slam finals that possibly best encapsulate their rivalry would have to be the 2008 Wimbledon Final and the 2009 Australian Open Final, both won by Nadal. Both were finals over four hours in length and Nadal was able to capture his first grass court and hard court Grand Slams, previously the domain of Federer.

They also appeared to be finals that from which Federer never really recovered from a mental perspective, in the sense that Nadal had really only been considered a great clay court player to that stage of his career.

With those victories he was stepping into the pantheon of all-time great tennis players and the compliment was not confined to him being only the King of Clay.

Nadal’s current great rival is Novak Djokovic. The head-to-head stands at 22-15 to Nadal.

In the 2011 season, Djokovic was almost untouchable on court. He faced off against Nadal in six finals and won them all including Wimbledon and the US Open.

This was followed up by the 2012 Australian Open final, a 5 hour and 53 minute epic which Djokovic emerged from as victor.

Many involved in the game, including past greats Andre Agassi and John McEnroe, consider this the best ever match in men’s tennis.

That seven-game losing stretch in finals would have been enough for some players to be permanently scarred, but not Nadal. The 2013 US Open result will give him renewed confidence that he can beat Djokovic in the same way that he has managed to stay on top of Federer when no one else on tour could.

One of his great strengths is that he is a left-hander at a time when virtually all his main rivals play right-handed. Having to play many points from the backhand side against the power, spin and dip of the Nadal forehand would put anyone at a disadvantage – it’s even frustrated the usually calm and calculated Federer on a number of occasions.

Nadal’s uncle Toni should be credited with encouraging this early in his tennis development when Nadal was apparently playing a two-handed forehand!

The list of Nadal’s achievements are many, including:

  • 60 Career titles
  • 13 Grand Slam titles
  • 2008 Olympic gold medal – Men’s Singles
  • Member of the winning Spanish Davis Cup team in 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2011
  • Seventh player in the Open era to achieve the career Grand Slam
  • One of only two players (Mats Wilander is the other) to win at least two Grand Slams on three different surfaces
  • The only male player to win a single Grand Slam tournament eight times
  • The first male tennis player to win at least one Grand Slam title for nine consecutive years
  • The record for the most consecutive titles at a single tournament (eight, Monte Carlo Masters)
  • The record for the most consecutive wins on a single surface in the Open era (81, clay)

The tennis viewing public will be watching with interest to see whether Nadal can reach or better his long time rival Federer in the Grand Slam title race.

I don’t know whether he has another four Grand Slams in him, such is the power and athletic display that he puts in each time he steps on court.

In saying that, I do believe that he will overtake Sampras and sit behind Federer in outright second, with a slim possibility of matching the Swiss maestro on 17.

While he is still playing and drawing eyeballs to men’s tennis, I will certainly be watching the Raging Bull strut his stuff.