Can Rafael Nadal Complete the Grand Slam?

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Can Rafael Nadal Complete the Grand Slam?
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

No male tennis player has won the calendar-year Grand Slam in 41 years. No singles player of either gender has done so in 21 years.

We’ve been close: In 2006-2007, Roger Federer twice came within one match of doing so, but was denied. We may be close again: Almost four months into 2009, Rafael Nadal, the man who stood in Federer’s way, may have a chance to do what the great Swiss could not.

Two years ago, it seem fantastical that he’d even be in this position: He was tops on clay, but Nadal’s hard court record was skimpy by comparison, and Federer appeared just as dominant on grass. Until last year, it seemed that Nadal’s role was to be Federer’s riddle; the one thing that kept the Roland Garros crown out of Swiss hands.

Now, as Federer has gone months without a tour title and Nadal has captured the two biggest (hard court) events of 2009, such ideas are much more than fantasy.

Though he has unique challenges of his own (more on that later), Nadal has one advantage over Federer in his pursuit of the complete Grand Slam: No one has Rafa’s number the way Rafa had Roger’s.

Let’s take a look at his odds in the majors that lie ahead.

Roland Garros Odds: 1-2

If Nadal lost here, it would be even more shocking than him winning all four majors this year. Nothing is certain, but Nadal has never lost on Paris clay, and the results of the past few years have only trended toward him, and away from the rest of the field.

Nadal lost all of three sets in his first Roland Garros run in 2005. In 2006, with Federer at his peak and the weight of defending squarely on Nadal’s shoulders, he lost… three sets total.

In 2007, he lost one, and in 2008 none. In fact, the total number of games he lost at last year’s RG was the lowest of any major champion in 30 years.

The clay court season is not yet underway, so it’s thus far unclear who his main obstacles will be. The results of the remaining top 5, however, do not look promising.

Federer is skipping the Master’s Series events in Monte Carlo and Hamburg, playing only two clay events before the RG. If this is not ceding Roland Garros to Nadal, it’s at least an acknowledgment that Federer’s priorities come later in the year.

Meanwhile, world No. 3 Novak Djokovic is floundering. No. 4, Andy Murray, while putting up a good series of results over the past six months, is no one’s clay court specialist (the same goes for No. 6 Andy Roddick, whose had a solid spring). No. 5, Nikolay Davydenko, has seen little playing time so far this year due to injury.

If anyone other than Nadal lifts the Coupe des Mousquetaires this June, it may be the biggest tennis story of the year.

Wimbledon Odds: 2-1 

Here Nadal’s odds are even with, or maybe only slightly better than Federer’s. If Federer wins a tournament between now and the end of Roland Garros, I give him 2-1 odds; if not, 2.5-1.

Why? Because, though his clay court seasons have ended in disappointment the past several years, Federer is always invigorated by the start of the grass season.

Last year, despite the throttling he endured at the hands of Nadal in Paris, he won the grass court tune-up in Halle without losing a set or dropping serve. He then advanced to the Wimbledon final without losing a set before his titanic battle with the Spaniard.

Though the Wimbledon final was the Swiss’ toughest loss in a year that was, by his standards, a disappointment, it was by a razor-thin margin that could have easily gone the other way.

Nadal’s success at Wimbledon will have as much to do with Federer as with himself. If there is indeed a fourth-straight meeting between them in the finals, it won’t be a question of who is better, but who wants their slice of glory more.

U.S. Open Odds: 4-1 

This is the one Grand Slam event where Nadal can realistically be called an underdog. Since the courts of Wimbledon were slowed down in recent years, the Open is now the fastest major, thus doing the most to deny Nadal of the timing he needs to set up those massive forehands.

But the most unique challenge to Nadal is that this is typically where his body begins to break down from the grind of the tennis season.

Surface speed or no, Nadal might well have won the event had it taken place a month earlier in 2008. As it happened, Nadal later stated that he had nothing left for his semifinal loss to Murray.

Even so, at last year’s event Nadal was, at worst, the fourth-best player in New York. His semi result showed vast improvement over the prior year; then, a heavily bandaged Nadal fell to David Ferrer in the fourth round in a match that was painful for him to play and for fans to watch.

Will having no Olympics prior to the Open in 2009 improve his chances? If so, will Nadal need to make further cuts to his schedule to save himself? If he does, what events will he have to give up?

In Summary 

Nadal will probably add his seventh major title this year. His chances of an eighth are also strong. Perhaps he will also win one without having to face Federer along the way; then the Swiss’ fans won’t have to speculate about what the result might have been had Nadal not been there.

As for the complete Grand Slam, I give him 8-1 odds. Not the most favorable chances, but better than most elite pros will ever have.

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