Rafael Nadal: Champion
With 10 grand slam titles, a half-dozen significant final or semifinal battles, 19 Masters Series Shields, two Davis Cup singles victories worth mentioning and an Olympic Gold Medal, the top 25 moments in Rafa’s career would seem pretty interesting (how can you leave out his 2009 victory over Robin Soderling in the French Open?!).
So let me here, acknowledge some of Rafa’s important career victories that are significant wins, but not truly memorable from a fan's perspective:
- Nadal second French Open vs. Federer
- Nadal third French Open vs. Federer
- Nadal fifth French Open vs. Soderling
- Nadal sixth French Open vs. Federer
- Olympic Gold Medal performance vs Fernando Gonzalez 
- Nadal second Wimbledon victory vs Tomas Berdych 
- Nadal seventh Monte Carlo most all-time
Now, on to the fun stuff.
Not truly his debut as a world-class tennis player, and Roger Federer had a cold at the time, but Rafa took him on and defeated new world No. 1 Roger in this fourth-round match.
Two of the greatest returners of the game met only twice in competition against each other. At the same age as Rafa in this match (19), was Andre when he met veteran and legend Jimmy Conners. So Andre had one of those déjà vu’ moments, only he was now on the opposite side. He jokes on camera** about how much hair he had at age 19.
The match featured Andre controlling the ball from the center, making Rafa run all over the court, while saving his own knees and back. Andre attacked Rafa’s backhand, stretching Rafa wider and wider, but in those days, running around the court chasing balls didn’t bother him.
Rafa would win this match, and the following year, it would be Rafa who defeated Andre in his final Wimbledon appearance.
**Originally broadcast by ESPN with commentators Cliff Drysdale, Pat McEnroe, and Brad Gilbert, Andre's comments about meeting Jimmy Conners and how the game has changed appear during the warm-up, and immediately after the start of the first game is the comparison of Agassi/Nadal hair styles at age 19 (with visuals).
Another 2005 moment. This time blowing a two-set lead against Roger. Why talk about a loss in the greatest moments of Rafa's career? Not captured on the video is what Roger has to say in his post-match victory speech**.
Questioner: "Looking ahead .. do you now put Rafael Nadal into that category of player who can challenge you in the future?"
Roger turning away, laughing it off: "(Gulp) I don't want to talk about the future with this guy ...ha ha."
**Originally broadcast on Sky Sports with commentators including Jason Goodall. The questioner was Mary Joe Fernandez, who also questioned Rafael Nadal in Spanish. The post-match interview takes place on the broadcast just before Roger is handed the trophy.
An excellent match, Rafa's face spoke volumes about what the loss meant to him (see here after the 8:00 mark). Rafa, in 2011, would say words out loud** that might have been said here as well: "The goal is easy to see."
** Rafa's press conference remarks following loss to Djokovic in 2011 US Open final.
Another in the 2005 roll call, and another quintessential five-set match, demonstrating Rafa's bulldog tenacity.
Winning the French Open as a teenager. Technically, 19, but since his birthday falls a few days before, practically 18. In this charming video, he climbs into the stands covered with dust, and greets his family, and Spanish King Juan Carlos.
"Down goes Frazier!" exclaims commentator Ted Robinson (USA Network, and not captured in this video)**.
Rafa collapses on the court with visibly painful tendinitis, under his player's box, with his father yelling at him to quit. But he gets up and finishes out the match.
Rafa's Health, Strike one. His playing style catching up with him. He would play most of 2008 with his knees taped up. He came into this  USO with warnings through the summer of advanced tendinitis, and his unconventional methods of treatment.
**Originally broadcast by USA Network with commentators Ted Robinson and John McEnroe. The comment comes at the 3:21 mark on the match clock (1:42 am), with Ferrer about to go up 5-2 late in the 4th set. The commentators make a series of remarks through several replays of Rafa hunched into the corner of the court, visibly in pain.
The battle for No. 2 in 2008 commences with the Hamburg semifinal.
Battle for No. 2 of 2008 continues on grass.
In one of Rafa's best years, the battle for No. 2 middle leg at the semifinal of the French Open.
Now Rafa's clothes have sleeves! The longest men's Master's Series finals at four hours (an almost 90-minute first set). This dogfight leaves Novak Djokavic spent for the rest of the year, and takes its toll on Rafa as well. Neither player quite recovers from this epic battle.
"Well, that's the end of the road, and I have to accept it. I need to face the fact I didn't play well this week. I have to accept my defeat as I accepted my victories: with calm." -- Rafael Nadal
"One thing about me you gotta understand, it is hard for me to congratulate somebody after just losing to him. I'm a winner; that's not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you are not going to congratulate them beating you up. That doesn't make sense to me; I'm a competitor and that is what I do. It doesn't make sense to me to go over and shake somebody's hand." -- LeBron James
Why talk about a loss in a list of the best moments of a man's career? Some losses tell you more about the character of the loser than that of the winner.
Compare these two characters in this spoof conversation between Rafa and LeBron written up at ESPN here. (Man how can you shake that guy's hand when he mocked you!) LeBron James walked out of his press conference after his Cleveland Cavaliers lost their attempt to enter the NBA championship series
Rafa's Health Strike Two. The knees require six weeks off, a withdrawal from Wimbledon, and a revamping of his game to enhance his longevity. Rafa will lose weight (and power), and retool his forehand.
Another in Rafa's series of tenacious dogfights.
On July 5, 2011, Nadal said:
When one player is better than you, at this moment, the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions and try to wait a little bit for your time. I’m going to wait and I’m going to try a sixth time. And if the sixth doesn’t happen, a seventh. It’s going to be like this. That’s the spirit of sport.
Sept 13, 2011, Nadal stated:
But you know what? I go back home knowing that I am on the way. You know, I like to fight, I want to enjoy about this battle against him. Six straight loses, for sure that’s painful. But I’m going to work every day until that changes. So I have a goal, easy goal for me now. It’s going to be tough to change the situation, but the goal is easy to see. Accept the challenge and work.
Part of the lexicon of classic matches in the Federer rivalry.
Another installment in the Rafa-Roger rivalry.
Nadal was totally in the zone against Roger. Roger would only win four games. The most lopsided of their major finals. Rafa was in peak form (of his career??).
Part of the 2005 roll call. One of Rafa's most brilliant matches. Guilliermo Coria was (is) a true clay court maestro, and very much missed.
Rafa clinches the Davis Cup for Spain with this win against 2009 U.S. Open winner Juan Martin Del Potro. An experience that very few players an ever experience. Rafa plays the winning tie on Sunday morning to win it all for Spain!
Rafa became No. 1 in the world the day after he won the Olympic Gold Medal. In the weeks leading up to taking over as world No. 1, Rafa exhibited occasional bursts of energy and nerves, such as this extraordinary moment against Andy Murray in Toronto in 2008.
Once again, as it had throughout the spring and summer of , Rafa's road to victory went through Novak Djokovic. The most memorable of the Olympic matches, is their forehand-liscious semifinal struggle.
Completing a career grand slam. One of only seven men in the history of the sport have accomplished this.
The surprise win that launched Rafa's career! At just 18, Rafa wins the second tie of the Davis Cup final for Spain. He was a late substitution for Juan Carlos Ferrero. Andy Roddick spoke on camera before the match** about how difficult it was going to be to be the man who "killed Bambi" in front of all the Spanish fans -- at approximately 20,000 people, the largest crowd ever recorded to witness an official tennis match.
**Originally broadcast by ESPN2 with commentators Mal Washington and Cliff Drysdale, the off-camera comment appears between the first and second game after commentators remark on the relative youth and journeyman status of surprise starter Rafael Nadal.
Perhaps one of the greatest matches of all time. Spectacular shot-making. Roger's tears when it was over.
Rafa always wanted to be a Wimbledon champion. This particular match is special. Nothing can compare to the flashing lightbulbs in the fading light and the screams of the crowd when it was over.
One of the greatest sporting moments in the history of the game for its length, conducted with three rain delays. A classic installment between legendary rivals. Moments like this create a passion for the game of tennis for an audience around the world.
Rafa and Fael Monfils have conducted some spectacular matches. In some respects, both are great illustrations of what this athletic style of play is all about.
Rafa is a good sport and allows Novak to publicly mock him on the victory stand.
Mutual respect and good sportsmanship are a hallmark with these two champions.