My favorite tennis pro, a scholarly historian of the game, has now deemed Rafael Nadal “the greatest tennis player of all time.”
Other historians once tendered this accolade unto Pete Sampras, the last lord of serve-and-volley, for dominating tennis in the last decade of the 20th Century.
Still other historians then took the mantle off Pete’s shoulders and gave it to Roger Federer, the Swiss master who dominated tennis in the first decade of the new century.
But the present decade belongs to Nadal, who won his ninth French Open championship in ten years the other day. No player in history has ever so completely dominated a single Grand Slam tournament. Appropriately, the former King of Clay, Bjorn Borg, handed the trophy to Nadal, who has succeeded Borg as the best player ever to get his shoes stained pink on Court Philippe Chatrier.
The Spaniard is but 28 years of age. Assuming he plays only four more years, he would probably retire with at least 18 Grand Slam championships, and likely more. He has won at least one in each of the last ten years, a feat no other player in history has achieved.
Nadal is no one-trick pony. He has won two Wimbledon championships, two U.S. Opens and one Australian Open. His 14 Grand Slam championships tie Sampras for second place all time. Federer, with 17, is best, a record that anchors his claim to being “best tennis player of all time.” What primarily diminishes his status is that Nadal has dominated their head-to-head meetings.
Federer owns only one French Open championship, for which he can thank Robin Soderling, who knocked Nadal out of the 2009 tournament in the fourth round. That is the only match Nadal ever lost in his lifetime of playing on the red clay of Roland Garros. Sampras, despite his dominant form in the ‘90s, never won the French.
All of the “greatest ever" talk is, of course, nothing but talk. It’s one of those just-for-fun debates that sports fans love and sports talk shows endlessly fuel. I love it. Think of all the bar fights over the years!
In tennis, Wimbledon rightfully calls itself “The Championships.” It is the crown jewel of tennis. It’s the only Grand Slam event still played on grass (in a sport whose official name, after all, is “lawn tennis.”) At Wimbledon, Federer and Sampras are the kings — each with seven championships. Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands was Sampras’s Robin Soderling at Wimbledon. In 1996 the Dutchman beat Pete in the quarterfinals and went on to win the title. It was the only loss for Sampras on the grass of Wimbledon between his first championship, in 1993, and his last, in 2000. Federer won five consecutive Wimbledons before losing the 2008 final in five epic sets to Nadal, who has won 23 of their 33 meetings.
Each of these three brought a distinctly different style to the game -- styles molded to fit their eras. Sampras's serve was the nonpareil of its time, his second serve, the best ever to this day. Federer began his career as a serve-and-volley guy but tempered his style to deal with the baseline bangers who were coming to the fore. Nadal has developed a decent serve by world-class standards, but where Federer was elegant, Rafa is earthy. He sweats a lot. He has no peer at banging enormous topspin bombs to the far corners of the court.
It’s clear to me that Nadal is the best ever on clay. His record on other surfaces, so far, is not quite the equal of Sampras’s or Federer’s.
Did I mention that he’s only 28? He has plenty of time to equal and surpass them. Besides, he has a pretty good challenger named Novak Djokovic to push him.
Decade by decade, a king dies. Long live the king.