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Rafa Nadal stakes all-court claim as the greatest

The Mallorcan tennis star’s brilliance threatens to overshadow even Roger Federer.


Nadal has established his superiority over Federer lately. Photo: aldinegirl87.

When Rafa Nadal dropped to the blue surface of Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows having defeated Novak Djokovic to win the US Open, the world number one’s third Grand Slam victory of the year, he laid to rest one of the debates surrounding his leviathan rivalry with Roger Federer. There is now little doubt that at present, the Spaniard is the best tennis player in the world, the year-end number one ranking already sown up with two months of the season to play. His ninth victory in the sport’s four showpiece tournaments elevated Nadal to a status occupied by few in history and only himself and Federer in actuality – that of a holder of the Career Grand Slam. That Nadal achieved tennis’ highest honour at just 24 years of age –Federer completed his set at last year’s French Open aged 27– has precipitated a wider search for consensus; is Nadal the greatest player ever to have wielded a racket?

To compare Nadal to Federer in aesthetic terms is a little like comparing Jake La Motta to his great contemporary nemesis, Sugar Ray Robinson. La Motta was never destined to receive the prefix “sugar”, being as far removed from Robinson’s style as his opponents’ teeth from their faces. Nadal’s playing style is more La Motta than Robinson, his powerful baseline strokes battering his rivals into submission. Federer, whatever his final place in the pantheon of the sport, will be remembered as much for the style in which he won his titles as the number of trophies he lifted.

There is something visceral about watching Nadal stalking the court between points, muttering to himself, then exploding with pent-up aggression after a winning pass. His pre-serve routine of rearranging his underwear and tucking an errant lock of hair either side of his headband is as constant as his court coverage – the weapon with which he delivers the psychological blows that end contest after contest, honed by years of careful tutelage under his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal. Federer, by contrast, exhibits an insouciance on court that suggests he was born with a racket in his hand. The Swiss’ backhand is a wonder of the modern game – the antithesis of the double-fisted bludgeon employed by many of his peers. A flick of his wrist can leave an opponent completely wrongfooted, whereas Nadal pounds the angles of the court, waiting for the moment to unleash a thunderbolt that Zeus himself would do well to get a racket on.

If, though, by his titles shall a player be judged, then Federer is still seated on Olympus. The Swiss has 16 Grand Slam triumphs to his name, two more than Pete Sampras. Federer, unlike Nadal, was not a precocious teenager when he won his first title, at Wimbledon in 2003. Nadal made his debut in London that same year and over the season achieved two challenger event titles. It was not until 2005 that the Mallorcan would win the first of his five French Opens, becoming in the process the first teenager to win a major tournament since Sampras lifted the US Open in 1990.

A different beast to Agassi

Unlike Sampras and Federer, however, Nadal has yet to dominate more than one Grand Slam. A change in service technique and a clean bill of health for the first time in a couple of years aided Nadal to the title in New York and it seems inevitable that next season promises further success on all surfaces. The last player before Federer and Nadal to clinch the Career Slam was Andre Agassi, one of the finest all-courters the game has seen. Similar to Nadal in his tics and quirks –a ballboy’s dream, Agassi would always retrieve a ball that a point had been won with– Agassi was yang to the Spaniard’s yin in mental fortitude, recently admitting that he positively loathed the sport he graced for so long. Unfortunately, Agassi was a like model in terms of injuries, suffering from multiple complications during his glittering career.

It is premature to write Federer off as a force at Grand Slams, and the past year of the Swiss’ trajectory has featured the assimilation of marriage and fatherhood of twins into the tumultuous whirl of the ATP Tour. Sampras drew a line under his career with a US Open victory at the age of 31; Agassi won his last Grand Slam in Australia aged 32.

Mats Wilander, a peer of Federer and Nadal in the hall of fame, won three Grand Slams in the same season, in 1988, and took the French Open at his first attempt in 1982. His opinion on the matter of who is the better player is concise: “We can say that Roger is, but there is no point in doing that until Nadal is done.”

As an amateur in 1962 and later as a professional in 1969, Rod Laver managed a feat no-one has managed since: the calendar-year Grand Slam of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open tournaments in the same year. If either Nadal or Federer achieved that in the contemporary game, they would surely settle the argument forever.

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Published: Sep 20 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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2 Comments for “Rafa Nadal stakes all-court claim as the greatest”

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    • Thanks for the comment. I’ve checked and the site is accessible without problem from all search engines, including Yahoo. I suspect that you may have “hijacking” malware in your browser that is redirecting you to different pages. Try an anti-virus and/or spyware removal tool to get rid of it.

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