The 2014 Australian Open might best represent the ambiguities in pronouncing Rafael Nadal as the greatest player of all time. His career has been filled with periods of invincible play and breathtaking triumph. It has also been significantly interrupted with untimely injuries. All of which is part of the enigma in wondering how Nadal will complete his career legacy.
After another conquest of super rival Roger Federer, tennis fans and writers were mesmerized by Nadal’s defensive shotmaking and his impregnable will. Greg Couch of Fox Sports spoke for many when he declared, “Nadal, not Federer, is the greatest player of all time. And Nadal is in his prime.”
Two days later, invincibility morphed into vulnerability and Nadal hobbled off the court with a bad back and big runner-up silver platter. Instead of discussing his legacy, observers will recycle discussions of his injuries.
How Much Prime Time Left for Nadal?
Couch and other members of the media can certainly make a case for Nadal being in his prime. He has continued to evolve with impressive titles on hard courts in the past year, including the U.S. Open title. His game has never looked more dominant with all the weaponry and intelligence he has added. At his best, he is the best player in tennis, and an evolved version of his younger self.
But is this still Nadal’s prime, and how much is left? He will be 28 years old this spring but has competed in 19 Grand Slam finals, 37 Masters 1000 finals and many mid-level tournaments. His next match will be his 800th career contest. That’s a five-year-old Ferrari with 300,000 miles. How long will it run?
If Nadal’s skills are better than ever, he must also have the health needed to win. If not, then he is no longer in his prime. It’s a different standard than judging 28-year-old Stanislas Wawrinka who is clearly in his prime years with greater success than before.
Sunday may have seen the last of Nadal’s prime years. Will he be in position again to hold three of the four majors at once? It’s possible but unlikely.
Nadal will likely keep winning majors, but intermittently. As other tennis legends found in their late 20s, even rudely and quite suddenly, they will need the perfect alignment of their best tennis, health, recovery and savvy victories over younger, hungry opponents.
Perhaps it was fitting that Pete Sampras was at Melbourne to watch Nadal play his semifinal and final match. While the talk was about Nadal tying Sampras’ mark of 14 majors, Sampras is a reminder of what happened in the late prime years. From age 27, he won four majors in five years, and he battled back problems and shin tendonitis.
There were unbeatable times for Sampras, like the 1999 Wimbledon massacre to win the title against Andre Agassi. There were other times he was worn down and looked slow, like the 2000 U.S. Open when he was drubbed by Marat Safin.
Four years ago, 28-year-old Roger Federer crushed Andy Murray to win the Australian Open. It seemed he would win several more majors, but Federer has also battled Father Time. Since that Murray match, he has won one Grand Slam title.
We don’t know if Nadal’s warning light has already turned red.
How to Judge the Greatest Players
The GOAT (Greatest of all Time) is a sexy discussion amongst tennis fans, but it contains a mythical criterion that shifts depending upon the player in question. All ranges of fans and critics frame radically opposing views.
If it were a matter of calculation, there would be no discussion. Federer has 17 Grand Slam titles and a balanced blend of dominating three Grand Slam venues. Tennis observers value his consistent longevity. His career looks more like a traditional bell curve with a fat hump in the middle.
Nadal’s career has more pronounced peaks and drops. His multiple majors seasons are 2008, 2010 and 2013. There are more crests and troughs in his narrative.
Sports judgments value greatness, but they demand consistency and longevity. Many observers value Nadal’s head-to-head success versus Federer, and they believe that Nadal has had to fight through tougher competition to win his majors. But as always, can Nadal stay healthy enough to have a few more special years?
There are already more “what ifs” in Nadal’s career than with Sampras or Federer. Nadal’s injuries are always part of the package, whether this is used to further justify his greatness or to exonerate his lows. But it’s also the reality of Nadal’s achievements and legacy.
To assume a healthy Nadal is to change reality, and this cannot be done outside the flat screens powered from an X-Box console. But Nadal has been such a special legend, the “what ifs” are part of the dialogue.
Will Nadal become the undisputed greatest player of all time? Can he be healthy and dominant? Fans and media want clear-cut judgments and answers, but such longitudinal measurements cannot be created before their time. We need more patience before we see the finishing strokes to Nadal’s career canvas. Nadal fans hope this will be in the distant future.
Given Nadal’s history there will be unpredictable winning twists and injury turns. All of which complicate the question about Nadal being the greatest player in tennis.
Now is not the time to know all of the answers.