He is playing against history now, against the men who preceded him, against Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, against Pete Sampras and certainly Roger Federer. And Rafael Nadal, French Open champion once more, also is playing against himself.
Each match and each tournament, especially any of the four Grand Slams, is a measuring stick, an evaluation of where he ranks among the great ones, and there have been many in the decades stretching back more than a century.
He is beyond compare in the French Open, on the clay at Stade Roland Garros, where his 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Novak Djokovic on Sunday was his ninth there overall and fifth in a row.
Imagine, 66 wins in 67 matches for his French Open career. Wow is used too often in sports. Yet, what other word does justice to the record. Wow!
Perhaps Nadal is beyond compare anywhere at any time, although that judgment, as so many in sports, is subjective. Could Muhammad Ali defeat Rocky Marciano? Could Michael Jordan score against Bill Russell? Could Rafael Nadal beat Bill Tilden? Or Don Budge? Or Rod Laver?
Andre Agassi, as Nadal, Federer and four others, a winner of each of the Slams, said recently Nadal is the best ever. It's only an opinion, but it's a very legitimate one from a very legitimate source.
Eras are different. Equipment is different. Court conditions are different, Wimbledon having slowed the grass so a clay-court specialist as Nadal—the King of Clay—could adapt and triumph on the lawns of the All England Club.
Brilliance, however, is forever.
Nadal now has 14 Slams, the same as Sampras, who never won the French. The leader is Federer with 17. Nadal just turned 28 years old. If he doesn’t have another serious injury, Rafa presumably will win two or three more Slams.
But even if he doesn’t, the case can me made Nadal, arguably, is the best ever. That punishing forehand. That quickness. That defense, flagging down balls seemingly beyond his reach and his racquet.
So Djokovic was not feeling his best Sunday, growing ill from the heat, and, as an exclamation point, he lost the final four points of the match on his serve, the last one, championship point, on a dreaded double fault.
Still the man is No. 2 in the rankings (you know who’s No. 1) and has won the other three Slams, Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. Once Nadal found his rhythm in the second set, Djokovic was doomed.
Either out of respect or out of sympathy, the sellout crowd, the majority chanting for Nadal at each break in the match, gave Djokovic a long ovation during the award ceremonies, Djokovic wiping away tears.
“Sorry for him,” were Nadal’s words captured by the NBC microphone. “I think he deserved to win. I think he will in the future.”
Not if he has to face Nadal, who, over a period of eight years at the French Open, has whipped Djokovic six times in six matches, including this final and the final in 2012.
“It’s incredible to win this tournament for the ninth time,” Djokovic said in his post-match remarks in French, carried on NBC and then translated “It’s a very emotional day for me, for my team. I gave my maximum. I played with all my strength and force and capabilities but Rafa was the better player on the court. Congratulations to him.
“The momentum went to his side. I started playing quite bad and didn’t move as well. This trophy is not for us this year, but we will try again and again and again. And I hope to win Roland Garros one day.”
What he has to hope is Nadal is not there. Or as it was in the final of the Australian Open in January, when Stan Wawrinka surprised himself as much as he did the tennis nation and defeated a battered Nadal in the final, Nadal has back problems.
“It was a very hard moment,” Nadal said in post-match remarks, “so today the tennis give me back what happened in Australia.”
The tennis gave him nothing except the opportunity. Nadal, as he has done in every French Open since he first entered in 2005 except 2009, when he was upset by Robin Soderling in the fourth round, figuratively reached out and took it.
In two weeks, it will be Wimbledon, which Nadal has won twice and Djokovic once. Novak probably would have a better chance there against Nadal than on the French Open clay. But if Nadal properly prepares—he didn’t play any grass warmup tournaments a year ago—and retain his focus, he will remain a force and a factor—quite likely the factor.
“For me,” Nadal said in a postscript to his accomplishment, “playing here in Roland Garros is just unforgettable, forever.”
So is the way Rafael Nadal, maybe the best ever, plays tennis.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.