World No. 1 Rafael Nadal made tennis history when he defeated Novak Djokovic in four sets, winning the US Open late Monday evening.
The feat makes Nadal the seventh player in the history of tennis to earn the career Grand Slam (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open). He also became the first player since Rod Laver (1969) to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in the same year.
Now all Nadal has to do is prove he can keep it up.
“From start to finish, it was Rafa Nadal,” CBS Sports analyst and tennis legend John McEnroe said. “He dominated this event for two weeks and finally won his first US Open title.”
Nadal simply outlasted the third-seeded Djokovic, gradually exhausting the Serbian both physically and mentally during nearly four hours of tennis.
“Right now, [Nadal] is the best player in the world,” Djokovic told CBS Sports’ Bill Macatee. “He absolutely deserved to win.”
With nine major titles at just 24 years old, the question at hand is this: where does Nadal rank among the game’s all-time greats?
Nadal’s attention to detail and seemingly never-ending determination have produced nine major titles and a career Grand Slam.
Without question, he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Laver, Federer, Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg.
While commentating for ESPN2 during Nadal’s quarterfinal match, McEnroe said he currently considers the Spaniard the No. 4 player of all-time behind Federer, Laver and Sampras, and that his current rankings, “could change if Nadal wins [the US Open].”
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Johnny Mac, you cannot be serious!
The question is where Nadal ranks right now, not where he ranks 10 years down the road.
He has accomplished feats unmatched by some of tennis’ greatest players by collecting all four majors, and by winning more majors than anyone but Federer, Sampras, Laver, Borg and Roy Emerson.
But there are other greats who Nadal has not surpassed because he has yet to attain their consistent, sustained excellence.
First, there’s American Jimmy Connors.
Renowned for his return of serve, Connors seized five US Open titles on three different surfaces (grass, clay, hard) between 1974 and 1983, and added two Wimbledon titles and an Australian Open to boot.
And I would be remiss to exclude 39-year-old Connors’ improbable, crowd-igniting run to the semifinals of the 1991 US Open.
Then, there’s Ivan Lendl, who captured eight major titles between 1984 and 1990 and reached 19 Grand Slam finals in his career, including a record eight consecutive at the U.S. Open from 1982 and 1989.
To this point, Nadal has only qualified for 11 finals.
Lendl was also ranked No. 1 for 270 weeks, while Connors held the world’s top spot for 268. Nadal, on the other hand, has only been World No. 1 for 62 weeks—though he shows no signs of relinquishing it anytime soon.
It’s equally difficult to argue Nadal has surpassed Agassi, who also holds all four Grand Slams.
Like Connors, Agassi’s impeccable returning prowess earned him eight majors.
His excellence also spanned nearly two decades, due to the considerable emphasis he placed on fitness and conditioning during the second half of his career.
But I’m not saying Nadal will not one day surpass these greats.
In fact, it may only be a matter of time before he does.
Nadal’s most impressive quality has been his work ethic.
He refuses to remain stagnant, constantly seeking to evolve and improve his game.
And he has done just that.
When Nadal burst onto the scene in 2005, winning his first major title at the French Open, he was known as a clay-court specialist.
Experts and fans alike knew that Nadal would continue to be a force to be reckoned with at Roland Garros, but many wondered if he would ever legitimately contend at the other three majors: the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Nadal, who hails from the small island of Mallorca just off the coast of Spain, silenced his critics the next year.
After defeating Federer in the French Open final, he reached the final on the faster grass courts of Wimbledon.
Although he was beaten by Federer, the reigning champion, Nadal was able to earn a set before losing the match 3-1.
Two years later, Nadal’s efforts came to fruition when he defeated Federer in the longest Wimbledon final in history, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 9-7.
The primary reason for the Spaniard’s victory: amplified serving velocity and improved volleying at the net.
Nadal, who dropped serve six times in four sets in the 2006 final, was broken only once en route to winning what many consider the greatest match in tennis history.
After winning the Australian Open in January 2009 in another five-setter over Federer, the only major title that yet eluded Nadal was the US Open.
With its fast, hard courts, the US Open proved to be the most difficult for Nadal to conquer.
But even with doubters asserting he would never win the Open, Nadal overcame tennis’ toughest test by adjusting to the faster court conditions with flatter forehands and more aggressive court positioning.
I have no doubt that if Nadal remains healthy and continues to work to improve what hardly requires enhancement, he will continue to accumulate majors—and perhaps even challenge Federer (16) and Sampras (14) for all-time supremacy.
But right now, it is still premature to assert he is the fourth-greatest player of all-time.