Rafael Nadal tucked phantom strands of hair behind both his ears and then proceeded to cannon down the final serve of the final Grand Slam of this decade — a span of 10 years from 2010 to 2019 in which he may well have swayed the GOAT debate in his direction.
Moments later, Nadal lay spread-eagled at the Arthur Ashe stadium with the knowledge that he’d just won his fourth US Open title in a decade in which his oldest and greatest rival, fast-court specialist Roger Federer, had won none.
His second Grand Slam of 2019 has allowed Nadal to reel the Swiss in on the overall Slam count — 19 now to Federer’s 20. The celebrations were reminiscent of tennis kings, too: the usually bashful Nadal shed Federer-like tears when the presentation ceremony in New York included a highlight reel of his major wins. When he was asked about it later, Nadal grinned and said: “Well, we’re getting old, no?”
Not that old.
At 33, Nadal has two Grand Slam titles more than Federer had at the same age, and three more than the other Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) contender, Novak Djokovic, has at 32.
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This year, 2019, was the sixth of Federer’s Slam-less years this decade. Nadal too went two years (2015 and 2016) without winning at the majors in this decade; yet he finished with 13 Slams in that span, just two short of the period’s Slam leader, Djokovic, with 15. Over the last three years, however, Nadal has five Slams to his name as against Djokovic’s four and Federer’s three.
Almost on every count that concludes GOAT debates, Nadal now dominates Federer — head-to-head (24-16), percentage of Slam finals won (74-64.5) and Masters-1000s titles (35-28).
Yet, all arguments in favour of Nadal’s singular greatness tend to be shot down with two easy riders: Nadal being an aesthetically “uglier” player than Federer; and Nadal’s proclivity to dominate on one particular surface.
Sure, Nadal’s power-baseline technique cannot hold a candle to Federer’s angelic, old-school grace. But isn’t there a sporting beauty to that charioteer’s whip of a forehand raining pain on the Swiss’s ballerina-backhand? Sure, like the origins story of the bad guy, the Spaniard’s game was designed from ground-up to be an antithesis to the resident superhero’s. To cut to the chase, it worked.
Next, the surface. Twelve of Nadal’s 19 Slams have come at the French Open, where the Spaniard boasts of a 93-2 win-loss record — a single-Slam mastery the like of which has never been witnessed before — while Federer’s distribution (eight Wimbledons, six Australian Opens, five US Opens, and one French Open) has been more even.
But tilt that prism and the same numbers align to support Nadal’s case. The Spaniard and the Swiss are the only two players in the history of professional tennis to have reached the final of each Grand Slam on at least five occasions — which goes to show that Nadal’s love for clay has not come at the neglect of other surfaces.
It is no secret that Nadal was once in awe of his great rival, even muting his own celebrations out of respect after he defeated Federer over five sets in the final of the 2009 Australian Open. “You are the greatest in the history,” Nadal reminded Federer while they stood on the dais then, even charmingly nuzzling up against the Swiss’s shoulder.
Ten years is a long time and that wasn’t the Nadal of Sunday night. When he was asked about the Big Three and the “healthy rivalry” between them, Nadal frowned and replied: “I would love to be the one who have more,” he said. “Yes, I would love to be. But I really believe that I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or not happen.”
Sep 10, 2019 08:53 IST