Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. In the last ten years, these two giants of the game have become synonymous with greatness. Their rivalry unmatched in both brilliance of play and their stranglehold at the top of men's tennis.
For the longest time it was Federer who stood atop of the rankings. Week after week, year after year, Federer kept his hold firm. He collected trophies at an unreal pace and defeated nearly everyone he faced, except Rafael Nadal.
While Federer had certainly defeated Nadal during the first several years of their rivalry, it was Nadal who often stood in the middle of the court with arms raised in celebration as Federer gathered his bags after a great match.
Despite those great victories, it was Nadal who continued to chase Federer for the number one ranking, grand slams, and most of all true legitimacy as an equal. It took time to do two of those career markers and the third is still a chase in progress.
To forever be linked, remembered, and associated with Federer is fine, but to be defined as a tough but overall bit player in Federer's legacy; that was the longest and hardest path to navigate. It took work, and tested both Nadal's resolve, and his overall desire to reach the level he is currently at and beyond. He fought through injury, and family problems and a clearly evolving game to get where his is now. Through it all, he has reached the level equal with Federer.
But is that all he has achieved?
Certainly Nadal will always use Federer as a measuring stick until the day, if ever, he surpasses him, but after claiming the final piece to his career grand slam by winning the U.S. Open, what is there left to do beyond endlessly chasing Federer's current mark of 16 grand slams?
It may be a surprising answer to some, but could the answer possibly be that the best thing Nadal could ever do is to simply continue carving out his own unique legacy within the game rather than chasing one number? While the grand slam record certainly is the biggest and brightest achievement within the game(like the MLB home run record) it is certainly not the only measure of an amazing career.
Like in most sports, there are times when I think we place so much importance on a single achievement, that the other things we have worked so hard to accomplish are a pale shade next to that awesome behemoth that is that major record beloved to the sport.
There are achievements like records on a particular surface. For Nadal that is clay. His records on that surface are amazing. For his career he is 203-16(92.7%) and even better is his record since 2005 with a mark of 175-6(96.7%). Those are the kind of marks that stand the test of time, and the tender age of just 24, we might see these numbers nearly doubled before Nadal's career is done.
Then there is the career slam and the career golden slam. In the history of tennis, only 7 players have accomplished this amazing feat with only Andre Agassi, Federer, and Nadal having done so since the start of the open era. To have a game complete enough to win on all surfaces is something that many of the greatest players(Sampras, Bjorg, Lendl, etc.) were never able to do.
The golden slam is quite simply the addition of a gold medal at the Olympics. Since the Olympics did not make tennis a sport to be competed in for many many years until 1988, this achievement though grand is not quite as hallowed as others but is something many players including Federer are keen to achieve.
Then there are the Master's 1,000 series titles. They have gone by many different names over the years, but winning them is no small feat. For many years the title holder was Agassi. By the end of his career he had won 17. An amazing number, but at just 24 Nadal surpassed this past year by winning his 18 title. It's safe to say that Nadal will most likely add to this number over the next few years, to probably put it in a number possibly beyond reach.
There are many other achievements, some small and some bigger but they all add up to an illustrious career that has little to do with the career grand slam record.
Some will still insist that the career slam record is the only thing that matters, but those people like so many others simply fail to understand that what makes a great career is the product of so many small moments, so many momentous achievements, and so much hard work beyond grand slams.
Nadal may one day pass Roger Federer, or he may not, but in so many ways Nadal has done the impossible. He was once thought of as a kid who would steal the show on clay but little else. Nary a single soul thought he could win Wimbledon but he did, and even fewer thought he could do so as well on hard courts and he proved them wrong.
Such is the story of Nadal's career; proving people wrong, and sprinting by low expectations placed on his by people who decide on his abilities and future without seeing his heart, his determination, and desire to do so much and create for himself an enduring legacy.
People continue to doubt Nadal and that is fine. Nadal will continue to meet these doubts with the same determination that has been the hallmark of a fine career indeed.
May Rafa's 2011 season bear the same fruit(or better) that 2010 did. Long live the king.