Where Rafael Nadal Fits in the Greatest of All Time Debate
Rafael Nadal’s 2013 French Open title win against David Ferrer was forged in the crucible of an epic semifinal victory against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Now, an eighth Musketeers' Cup has been added to the Spaniard’s treasury and continuing dynasty.
Tennis historians and fans debate the careers of legendary players through countless variables of court conditions, technologies and opponents. While there is no way to determine a greatest player of all time, there are only five legacies that are indisputably the best.
Tennis Club Elite
Nadal takes his usual seat at the head table as the waiter pours him another glass of victory champagne. The Nadal menu has expanded its world-renowned specialty. Two quadruplets of French Open titles are now mixed with two side dishes of Wimbledon grass-court championships. It is seasoned with one Australian Open slow hard-court title and garnished with one U.S. Open hard-court title. There’s a kind of Pythagorean symmetry to this recipe.
In comes Swiss Maestro Roger Federer wearing his 17-point crown and all varieties of jewels, adorned with sparkling highlights. He bought up all of the best stock shares labeled "greatness" and "longevity." He plans to sit in his throne forever.
Pistol Pete Sampras checks in his big serving hammer at the entranceway. The truly observant can still spot his athletic grace and finesse backcourt skills. He wrinkles his nose at being typecast as only the Wimbledon King. His toolbox also contains five U.S. Open and two Australian titles.
Next, the regal Viking Bjorn Borg shows his unique European palette of tennis’s most opposite surfaces: six French Open titles and five Wimbledon Championships. It's like being able to paint like Rembrandt and compose symphonies like Beethoven.
Finally, the Dean of Open era tennis: Rocket Rod Laver. His massive forearms protect two models of tennis' Holy Grail—the calendar Grand Slam. His fellow champions stare enviably. They wanted one of these for themselves, but it will have to remain a nostalgic wish.
Call to Arms
Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, most noted for covering the NBA’s Boston Celtics, once wrote about ranking the greatest basketball centers of all time, as outlined on Boston.com. His idea was to choose a team of players at their absolute peak years in order to defend Planet Earth against an alien invader, the loser to go into servitude for all eternity.
Suppose we apply this to tennis. With the slavery of Earth at stake, which champion would you choose to face the alien invader?
If the match were played on fast grass, the answer would be 1995 Pete Sampras. He used history's most dominating combination of power serving and efficient net play to produce seven Wimbledon titles in eight years.
Which Player and Surface Would You Choose to Defend Planet Earth?
Any indoor or hard-court match would probably rest on the shoulders of 2004-2007 Roger Federer. He had championship tennis reflexes and the most graceful and powerful shot selections seen under a roof. His all-court variety was nearly unbeatable.
If it were a random draw between clay and grass with old-school technology, Bjorn Borg is your defender. The legendary Swede had the patience and fitness to outlast anyone on clay, but also the versatility to play percentage tennis with a tiny wooden racket at Wimbledon's fast lawns.
But if Earth could defend the perfect home-court advantage, it would take Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
Which version of Rafael Nadal would Earth choose? Would it take 2008 Rafa with his perfect record, fresher knees and youthful retrieving ability? How about 2012 Nadal, who had come back from adversity to defeat otherworldly and uber-talented Novak Djokovic?
Whatever problems Nadal has continued to have with his aging knees and younger opponents, he has continued to evolve and grow with greater mental toughness. How else could he dig out of his fifth set semifinal deficit against Djokovic as the demons of the 2012 Australian Open final swirled in the air at Court Philippe Chatrier?
Nadal's career has been a war. For one style of dominance on one surface, he is the greatest chance to beat back the alien invaders. Failing that, we might as well get out shovels and picks.
Matter of Taste
Nadal has already proven his legacy to be second to nobody. Thousands of fans have already voiced millions of arguments to support his body of work through his specific era and conditions. We may never see another champion dominate any surface the way Nadal has with red clay. If they choose Nadal’s legacy as the best, it’s a popular choice.
Likewise, the other five-star champions at Tennis Club Elite have fans that can make the case for their kind of legacy. Maybe these fans prefer lobster and chips rather than spicy Spanish paella.
And for those of us who want to savor the legacies of all great tennis players, it’s a wonderful time to watch and appreciate what we are seeing now in Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. They link us to past champions and memories as one special fraternity where all legacies dine.
Click here for a look at Djokovic's tough climb towards the Federer and Nadal legacies.
Click here for a 2012 look at Nadal vs. Sampras.
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