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.

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    The Crowd Says (36)

    • September 12th 2013 @ 4:35am
      Bobby said | September 12th 2013 @ 4:35am | ! Report

      Good article. Nadal can break Federer`s record if he keeps up present level and more importantly ,if he remains healthy.Yes Nadal has many unique records which are attributed to him alone and these are great. But i would like him to get at least 17 slams and i hope that he can achieve that.

    • September 12th 2013 @ 6:06am
      Tim said | September 12th 2013 @ 6:06am | ! Report

      Hopefully Nadal’s consulting physician has an excellent grasp of sports science and has him on a supplement regime that will speed his recoveries and maintain or continue to build his strength and speed while keeping injury at bay. He may need some time out of competition sporadically to recuperate and rehab but this approach hopefully will greatly extend his career past what we would have expected of players from previous years.

      • Roar Guru

        September 12th 2013 @ 8:40am
        SportsFanGC said | September 12th 2013 @ 8:40am | ! Report

        Tim – I think a positive shown from the Nadal camp towards the end of the 2012/start of the 2013 where he took 7 months off to recover from a knee injury means that they know how to handle injury. He could have easily attempted to play on through the injury but took the sensible and measured approach which was firstly rest, then rehab. It didn’t bother them one bit that his ranking slipped during that time and he is also firmly in a position where money is not an issue either.

        I thoroughly enjoy watching him play, and am hoping that he stays healthy as long as possible.

    • Roar Guru

      September 12th 2013 @ 10:38am
      mastermind5991 said | September 12th 2013 @ 10:38am | ! Report

      To equal Roger Federer’s overall record, Nadal would have to do what no man has been able to do since Rod Laver in 1969 – complete the Calendar Slam.

      I believe Nadal can do it, and only Novak Djokovic and his invincibility at the Australian Open will be the only threat.

      • Roar Guru

        September 12th 2013 @ 11:25am
        SportsFanGC said | September 12th 2013 @ 11:25am | ! Report

        mastermind – he doesn’t need to win a calendar slam, that is only if you want him to match the record by the end of 2014.

        He is not retiring anytime soon, if he stays fit and healthy he has at least another 3-4 years at the top before the drop that most tennis players experience when they reach their 30’s. In that time if he can continue to pinch at least 1 slam a year then he can possibly equal Fed.

        Of course other factors come into play such improvement of opponents.

        • Roar Guru

          September 12th 2013 @ 11:32am
          mastermind5991 said | September 12th 2013 @ 11:32am | ! Report

          Nadal is now 27, and he has another four-to-five years of good tennis left in him. I believe that by the time he retires, he will become one of the greatest tennis players in our generation.

          He’s already done what so many others couldn’t:
          * Roger Federer fell short in his quest to complete a Super Slam by winning a Silver Medal at last year’s Olympics.
          * Pete Sampras never won the French Open, nor an Olympic Gold Medal in singles.
          * Andre Agassi won eight majors, whilst Nadal has 13.

          Nadal only needs to win the ATP World Tour Finals at the end of the season and then he will officially become the greatest of all time. But undoubtedly, this year has seen his best season since his breakthrough in 2005.

          • September 13th 2013 @ 11:52pm
            ohtani's jacket said | September 13th 2013 @ 11:52pm | ! Report

            Nadal winning one ATP World Tour finals won’t make him the greatest of all-time. Sure he would’ve won everything there is to win in tennis, but Federer has won the tour finals multiple times. Take away Nadal’s clay court record and he’s Djokovic basically. Nadal is a great player but he doesn’t compare to Federer’s overall dominance of the sport. People who talk about his head-to-head against Federer ignore the fact that Federer made all those clay court finals he lost to Nadal when he could have shied away from them to preserve that head-to-head, ignore the mismatch that Nadal has and don’t even watch half their matches. Federer has played some of his best tennis of the season in his past few losses to Nadal, but people just read the results. And Federer is held to ridiculous standards that neither Djokovic or Nadal face. Who did Nadal beat to reach the US Open final? The other side of the draw was much tougher. Double standards.

            • September 14th 2013 @ 10:26am
              matt said | September 14th 2013 @ 10:26am | ! Report

              Nadal has winning records against all his great rivals. Federer on the other hand has losing records. Federer had a mind blowing 4 years where he won everything in sight (and yet still managed a losing record against Nadal).
              Nadal won earlier than Federer, and now he is rejuvenated from injury, he is also set to win later.
              Whilst Federer has shown no ability to respond to his great rivals, Nadal has acknowledged his weaknesses and then made the changes to overcome them. Case in point: he once again owns the Joker.

              Mark my words, Nadal will win 20 Slams and a couple of year end masters before he is done. And he will go down in history as the undisputed greatest of all time.

              Sampras = Great. Federer = Greater. Nadal = Greatest.

              • September 14th 2013 @ 12:29pm
                ohtani's jacket said | September 14th 2013 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

                Federer still has a winning record against Djokovic, though that will likely change if Federer continues playing. His record against Murray is 9-11 with Federer having one plenty of the big ones and his record against Nadal is 8-8 off clay. To say Federer never adapted after 2008 is nonsense. Federer’s record from 2009-2012 would be exceptional for any player

                After Federer won the 2010 Australian Open, people predicted he would win more Slams than he has. Nadal will hit a wall at some point.

            • September 14th 2013 @ 2:41pm
              matt said | September 14th 2013 @ 2:41pm | ! Report

              I used to think Fed was the goat. But Nadal this year has been something to withhold. The age factor is a fair point. At 23 I thought Nadal had the body of a 30 year old. Now at 27 I think he has the body of, well, a 27 year old. If it wasn’t for injury he might already be at 16 slams and going forward, winning 7 out of the next 16 looks highly achievable to me…on the assumption he has mastered the art of managing his body.

              We can go back and forth all day arguing the toss – but ultimately time will tell. Vamos!

    • September 12th 2013 @ 11:34am
      Johnno said | September 12th 2013 @ 11:34am | ! Report

      Fed is 32. Since 2009 he has only won 2 slams. So 2 out of 16 since he was 28. Nadal is 27. Nadal’s game is more physically intense, and injuries may play a part I don’t think he will win 5 more slams, I predict 3 at the most. He will get I think 2 more French, and 1 US open. I don’t think he will win wimbledon again, and only 50/50 for OZ open.
      Sampras retired and his last slam was at aged 31. Nadal is 5 years younger than Fed but was beating Fed when Fed was in his prime. The 1st time they met, Nadal won and it was on hard court, Nadal has a better head to head on hard court vs Fed, Fed only kicks his ass on indoor carpet, which is not important as it’s not a grand slam surface.

      • September 12th 2013 @ 1:40pm
        mushi said | September 12th 2013 @ 1:40pm | ! Report

        Now you look at the distribution of ages of slam winners since the mid 80s and it is pretty clear that the prime of your career is the first half of your 20s.

        So realistically the vast majority of matches played between Nadal and Fed have been when Nadal was in his prime and fed was past his.

    • September 12th 2013 @ 1:43pm
      mushi said | September 12th 2013 @ 1:43pm | ! Report

      “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.”

      I think the “mental” thing is vastly over played, these guys aren’t really the same generation of player, their true primes never really overlapped. Father time was basically sitting on the sideline and nodding at Nadal saying eventually mate you’ll get him.

      • Roar Guru

        September 12th 2013 @ 1:55pm
        SportsFanGC said | September 12th 2013 @ 1:55pm | ! Report

        Mushi – Nadal’s head to head against Fed is impressive, what is sometimes left out is that Nadal is 8-2 in Grand Slam events against Fed. He was getting Fed when Fed was in his prime and Nadal was still in his ascendancy, now the difference is that Nadal is firmly in his prime and Fed is sliding into the twilight years meaning that the gap will probably grow and we are probably unlikely to see plenty more Fed v Nadal matches at Grand Slams which we were basically becoming accustomed to.

        After that Wimbledon and Aus Open final in quick succession I don’t believe that Fed thought he could beat Nadal again on any surface.

        Nevertheless the issue for Nadal and winning further Grand Slams is Djokovic and possibly Murray at a later stage,

        • September 12th 2013 @ 3:01pm
          mushi said | September 12th 2013 @ 3:01pm | ! Report

          Ye sit is impressive, not denying that. What I have a problem with is the representation that when Federer was still in his prime at 27 and Nadal at 22 was just emerging.

          Below are the break downs of grand slam winners by rough age from the mid 80s to now, what stands out is the 21 to 25 bracket. Tennis is just too reliant at the grand slam winning level on having a young body for you to get the late 20s peaks you see in other sports.

          This doesn’t mean a player is done at 26 but they aren’t at their peak.

          So it stands to reason if you have two players 5 years apart the younger one, provided they are in the same “tier” of player, will have the better head to head record because the vast majority of their overlap will be spent with him being closer to his peak than the older player.

          If players have a 5 year prime and your two champions are born 5 years apart then you just can’t compare their head to head in a meaningful way.

          17 – 1
          18 – 1
          19 – 2
          20 – 7
          21 – 11
          22 – 15
          23 – 10
          24 – 18
          25 – 13
          26 – 9
          27 – 9
          28 – 4
          29 – 5
          30 – 4 (one by a drug cheat)
          31 – 1
          32 – 1

        • September 12th 2013 @ 3:15pm
          mushi said | September 12th 2013 @ 3:15pm | ! Report

          A big reason why we probably think 23-27 is the prime is that is that we are doing the eye test. We only think a players is a champion once we’ve gotten used to them winning, so we think of that as the start of their prime when in reality it’s probably smack bang in the middle. Likewise with Fed, we didn’t think he was past his peak until we had several seasons of anecdotal evidence. so we form our views 2+ seasons too late.

          • September 12th 2013 @ 8:01pm
            Johnno said | September 12th 2013 @ 8:01pm | ! Report

            mushi that’s a ver good analysis. The 26-27 is a suttle drop. Age 28-30 is a big drop.
            But with modern technology, and modern sport science strength and conditioning, the question is has this closed the gap. I can’t be bothered checking out the age group of grand slam winners in the 200’s right now, but that may make for interesting reading. There had been a decline in the women’s game of 18-21 yr old grand slam winners though.
            But Fed at wimbledon if he was past his prim as he was 26 yr 10 months, one wonders with racquet technology, more modern technical coaching, strength and conditioning modern methods, has this help the less talented, or older player more than the younger talented player in his prime. That answer may lie somewhere with regard to winners of grand slam tournaments in the 2000’s. Certainly younger women though interestingly 18-21 aren’t dominating anymore.

            • September 13th 2013 @ 8:45am
              mushi said | September 13th 2013 @ 8:45am | ! Report

              It is actually the opposite, the reason I picked mid 80s was to use the “modern” equipment era. You could play longer with wooden racquets because the game was slower. The slower the game the more it becomes a battle of technique and tactics which gives experience an edge.

              Faster racquets and balls mean a greater reliance on your first step, your flexibility and your reaction time. The faster we make the game the harder it becomes for older players to use experience to offset a slight degradation of their athleticism.

              Yes 26/27 is only a moderate drop, but that does still indicate you are past your peak your prime is over, you don’t need to be in at your perfect prime to have success but you are unlikely, everything else talent wise being relatively equal, to consistently out play those that are.

              As for post 2000, data didn’t move that much except to give a tighter frame to say 24/25 were the golden years – but the huge massive caveat is that is only 50 odd data points so personally I don’t find it that interesting or reliable.

              • September 13th 2013 @ 3:58pm
                Johnno said | September 13th 2013 @ 3:58pm | ! Report

                Ken Roswell played on forever, he was one month shy of 46th Birthday when he retired in 1980.
                And was in the top ten 1977 was his last year in it, an astonishing 43 years of age.

              • September 13th 2013 @ 4:49pm
                Peter said | September 13th 2013 @ 4:49pm | ! Report

                athleticism is the key – that is correct. but you wrongly assumed young players are more ‘athletic’ than 25+ players in this era.

                the game has changed. players are going to the gym day in day out. great examples of hitting prime at an old age is ferrer, fish and wawrinka. all of these guys have improved by getting fitter than ever. These older guys are easily fitter than young talents like baby federer.

                tennis relies so much on power now. without all the hard work, discipline, diet, a player cannot compete at the highest level. young players simply have a massive learning curve to go through to win a slam or perform consistently at the highest level. They might have speed, but certainly not the muscles that match those of nadals, or murrays. Simply put, players can no longer rely on talent alone to win slams, unlike the 80s or 90s.

              • September 13th 2013 @ 5:31pm
                mushi said | September 13th 2013 @ 5:31pm | ! Report

                Peter so tell me then why do the numbers say they win more. If it isn’t athleticism, they have no discipline and a huge learning curve then is pixie dust?

    • September 12th 2013 @ 1:52pm
      Johnno said | September 12th 2013 @ 1:52pm | ! Report

      Federer had a distrupted 2008 season he was quite sick. How much it impacted him at the 2008 wimbledon I don’t know but he wasn’t that fit at OZ open in 2008. Fed was about 26 years and 10 months at 2008 wimbledon, hardly on the decline or past your prime. A 26 year old can easily run around with a 21 yr old, and the best player will win, so age was no excuse for Fed’s loss in 2008 wimbeldon. The final did go to a marathon 5 sets, so there is nothing in it between the 2. It would be wrong to say Fed has been dominated by Nadal on hardcourt as all there big matches most have been very close. Who is better I don’t know. People say Fed had it easy 2003-7, that’s not completely true at all. He had Safin, who beat him 1 year at OZ open, he had Hewitt, and Roddick, and Davedenko, all good players.

      • September 12th 2013 @ 3:12pm
        mushi said | September 12th 2013 @ 3:12pm | ! Report

        26 and 10 months I’d put past your prime. I wouldn’t say you’re done but you aren’t in your prime as a tennis player as your fast twitch muscles have started to lose the battle to age.

        In a lot of team sports this is offset by being developing unconscious reactions to range of complexity interactions on the field etc (ie experience) and balancing how you play. Probably, and I’m just theorising here, the reason it doesn’t happen in tennis is because it is more defined skill set, with fewer variables, that reaction time and athleticism are just so critical to success.

        • September 13th 2013 @ 3:15pm
          Peter said | September 13th 2013 @ 3:15pm | ! Report

          i totally disagree with you using statistics of the past against modern players. these days there are no teenage champions – tennis has gotten so physical players peak at after 25. simply look at the top 10 now – average age is like 28 with multiple players achieving their highest ever ranking (hitting their prime) eg. wawrinka, murray, ferrer…

          nadal at 27 (past prime according to you) is playing his best tennis ever on hard courts…

          you can generalise based on 80s stats but that is useless as there are always exceptions. if everythin is based on old stats federer will never get more than 11 slams according to 80s stats.

          • September 13th 2013 @ 3:31pm
            Johnno said | September 13th 2013 @ 3:31pm | ! Report

            Agreed Peter, and when you look at a guy like Janko Tipsarević, who beat Hewitt in the 1st round playing brilliant tennis, he was seeded 18th but is a much better player than that. He has had injuries alot, But he was 28 at this year’s OZ open. And is now 29. Still good. And Tommy Haas, he is 35 and still going strong, and is currently ranked 13 in the World. Tsonga and Gasquet the 2 Frenchman in the top 10. Both 28 and 27 now.

          • September 13th 2013 @ 5:52pm
            mushi said | September 13th 2013 @ 5:52pm | ! Report

            I’m glad you totally disagree, if someone using anecdotal data and one other real data point agreed with me I’d probably have to go back and check things.

            If you think that this is heavily affected by the “80s” stats then you have some problems with simple arithmetic my friend.

            But hey I’ll take the 80s out oh and look you know what that does to the % of slams won by players aged 21-25 it increases it from 60% to 61%. But your right I’m using the 80s data to pull some grand hoodwink on people

          • September 13th 2013 @ 5:56pm
            mushi said | September 13th 2013 @ 5:56pm | ! Report

            Aside from the innumeracy, as you say earlier power is becoming more and more vital (which was why I sued the post wooden racquet era), but I’m not seeing a single shred of evidence proffered for how the power generated by a 27 year old is reliably more than that of a 21 to 25 year old due to professional training regimes.

            There is also the chestnut that power is used to shorten the time your opponent has to make an effective reaction to a shot, wouldn’t the completely rational next step be to think that you therefore have an advantage if you have faster reaction times and leg speed?

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