On Monday evening, No. 2 Rafael Nadal took out No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 to win the 2013 U.S. Open.
It was his second U.S. Open—his 13th Grand Slam overall—and the win put him in great position to overtake Djokovic at the top of the ATP rankings before the year is up.
The win also moved Nadal to within one major of tying Sampras for the No. 2 spot on the all time Grand Slam singles list with 14. Federer is still the outright leader with 17.
Since Nadal is 27 years old and finishing up one of the best years of his already illustrious career, it seems like it's time to start talking about him in the all-time greats category of this sport.
Nadal has always been a part of the conversation, since his head-to-head over Federer is so lopsided (21-10) in his favor, but Federer's 17 trophies and Nadal's hard-to-overcome reputation as a clay-court specialist have always muted the discussion.
But now, with his phenomenal 2013, he has a legitimate case for consideration. In tennis, major championships have always seemed to weigh heaviest in the best-ever debate. And, if recent history is any indication, Nadal has a chance to pass Federer.
Nadal captured No. 13 just a few months after turning 27. Federer, coincidentally, captured his 13th major at the 2008 U.S. Open—one month after his 27th birthday. Sampras, similarly, won his 11th major just before turning 27.
Therefore, Federer won five majors after his 27th birthday and Sampras won three. Neither Federer or Sampras looked anywhere near as dominant as Nadal has in their 27th year, however.
This year, Nadal has looked nearly unstoppable, amassing a 60-3 record, 10 titles and 17 wins over Top 10 players, all while missing the Australian Open and having his season come on the back of a seven-month injury layoff.
Nadal seems poised to contend for 17—especially since he has a positive head-to-head record over all of his main rivals, and there seem to be no young players on the horizon who can really threaten him.
There is one important category, however, where Nadal lags significantly behind Sampras and Federer: weeks at No. 1. The Spaniard has only spent 102 weeks at No. 1, which is a long way behind Sampras, who spent 286 weeks at the top spot, and Federer, who just last year passed Sampras and set a benchmark of 302 weeks on top.
Additionally, Sampras ended the year ranked No. 1 for six years in a row, and Federer held the same distinction for five out of six years. Nadal has only ended the year ranked No. 1 in 2008 and 2010, so he's going to need a lot of late-career dominance in order to catch up.
However, with Nadal it's not all about the numbers—it's about the fight and emotion he shows on court, which puts him a league of his own. Said former great Mats Wilander after Nadal's most recent victory, per S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated:
I don't think anybody's played the game with the same kind of positive energy and emotion. No one. Not even Lleyton Hewitt and not Jimmy Connors. Even though they are the great fighters, apart from Nadal, they're not as positive as Nadal. He is always positive. He's just a new breed. We've never seen anything like him.
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It's true that what really sets Nadal apart, even from greats like Sampras and Federer who had (and still has, in Federer's case) undeniable and enviable talent, is his ability to adjust to different surfaces and fight his way through problems on and off the court.
His knees have been a problem throughout his career, but as long as he manages his schedule, there's no reason why he can't play on to at least through the Rio Olympics in 2016. Even if he's only able to dominate on clay during that time period—something that seems doubtful considering the fact that he's still undefeated on hard courts in 2013—that should give him enough titles and wins to further chase Sampras and Federer on the all-time list.
When asked about chasing history in his post-match press conference, Nadal seemed wary to look forward. Via USOpen.org:
Let me enjoy today (smiling). For me, is much more than what I ever thought, what I ever dreamed... Only thing I can say is the same like I do every time. I gonna keep working hard. I gonna keep doing my things to have more chances in the future to be competitive and to give me produce more chances to win the tournaments like this one. So that's what I gonna try. Then you never know when that start, when that finish, but 13 is an amazing number.
Thirteen is indeed an amazing number. But it's hard to see Nadal stopping there.
Sure, he still trails Sampras and Federer now, and there's no way to predict the future. Tennis is a fickle sport, and anything can happen. But another year or two like the one he's having now, and it's possible that the greatest-ever conversation might start and stop with Nadal.