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Grandes Español: Rafael Nadal and the Top 10 Spanish Tennis Players in History

Gregory LanzenbergCorrespondent IJanuary 11, 2017

Grandes Español: Rafael Nadal and the Top 10 Spanish Tennis Players in History

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    The quarterfinals of the French Open were under way on June 3, 1986.

    The World No. 1 Ivan Lendl defeated Ecuador's Andres Gomez 6-7, 7-6, 6-0, 6-0.

    The Czech born would then beat South Africa's Johan Kriek in the semifinals and Sweden's Michaël Pernfors for his second Roland Garros title.

    On the same day, a few miles away in Manacor, Spain, a baby boy by the name of Rafael Nadal was born.

    Who knew in 1986 that Lendl, Borg and Wilander would be equaled, or topped, by one of the best clay court players ever?

    Who knows if on June 3, 2011 the next clay court giant won't be born and grab 10 French opens.
    As for now, there is no doubt that Spain has seen the rise of tennis at a level they never imagined possible.

    What is so stunning about Rafael Nadal, in my opinion, is not the fact that he has already five Roland Garros at the age of 24.

    It's definitely huge, but I will always remember one of his press conference in 2005 when he claimed, "The tournament I want to win the most is Wimbledon."

    Of course at the time everybody made fun of him and thought he was joking, especially because Spaniard has always been known for wanting to win Roland Garros.

    As soon as the grass-court season would start we knew that Costas, Corretjas and Moyas would either lose in the early rounds or not even play Wimbledon.

    Therefore, to witness the rise of Rafael Nadal has to be nothing but praised.

    We can have issues about his style of play, but to hate the Spaniard is not fair.

    It is so hard to even win a small future tournament run by the ITF.

    Consequently, to break tennis records has to be nothing but admirable.

    That includes Roger Federer, of course, but also Spain's Albert Costa, who won Roland Garros back in 2002.

    Before Rafael Nadal, Manolo Santana was the only player to have win the French, Wimbledon and the US Open. But remember that the US Open was played on grass in the 60s.

    Between Santana and Nadal, great players like Sergi Bruguera, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Carlos Moya or Juan-Carlos Ferrero emerged from Spain.

    Nevertheless, no one has come close to what Rafael Nadal has achieved at the age of 24.

    As the clay court season is in full swing, we thought it might be the moment to rank the top 10 best tennis players from Spain.

    

1. Rafael Nadal

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    The slide title above is not long enough to recap Rafael Nadal's Grand Slam wins.
    In case some have forgotten, the actual World No. 1 has already claimed nine Grand Slams, including five Roland Garros, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open and one US Open.

    The 24-year-old is one of the very few to have made the Grand Slam. It might not be in the same calendar year, but it is still a speechless record.

    It is the best record for any Spanish tennis champion that ever lived.

    Some experts are not shy to also claim it is the best competitor the world has ever seen in any sports.

    Maybe these experts could wait a little bit longer before witnessing if there's more to come.

    Nonetheless, the tennis world today is very fortunate to have such a champion on and off the court.

    When Agassi and Sampras retired, I thought nobody could top their rivalry.

    Then came Federer, who is maybe the most gifted player of all time, with 16 Grand Slam titles credited to the Swiss maestro's title account. Who knows how many more he could have won if one of the best clay court player of all time had never seen the day.

    But the history of tennis is marked by all these great rivalries: Connors had to deal with Lendl and McEnroe, while Lendl had to deal with Wilander and Becker. Then came Agassi, who had to deal with Sampras. Today Roger Federer admits having one main rival: Rafael Nadal.

    All greats need a main rival to push their own limits, to bring the best in them.

    At the top of his form, Nadal outplayed Federer on clay, but then came grass, where many thought the Mallorcan would never beat Roger at Wimbledon.

    In 2006, Nadal managed to take a set to Federer in the final, then in 2007 two sets and finally came one of the best match of all time in 2008.

    Nadal beat Federer in a five-set thriller to win his first Grand Slam tournament outside the French Open, becoming the second Spanish player, or the only one in the Open Era to win both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

    Then Nadal set his eyes on the Australian and the US Open and have worked day and night on his serve so it could become a big weapon.

    Once more, many tennis specialists had big doubts as to if he could win the US Open.
    Then he proved them wrong again.

    Yet, Nadal can still improve a lot, which is not good news for his opponents.

    The 24-year-old can improve on his serve, on his volley and on his backhand.
    By the way, all three shots are already at a very good level.

    Nadal's heart and will for improvement is so huge that after each year passing he had become a better player.

    Of course the Mallorcan's game is so brutal that his body has started to force him to take several breaks, which is another reason why he has to improve his game that much: to learn how to shorten the rallies and win easy points.

    Will Nadal top Federer with 16 Grand Slam titles?

    If his body was not such a dilemma, I would say without a doubt.

    However, we just don't know what is going to happen.
    .
    But I like his chances of topping Borg's record of six Roland Garros and win Wimbledon at least one more time, which would place him at equal distance to Pete Sampras.

    Not to bad for a player, who will never win Wimbledon and the US Open.


2. Manolo Santana: '61 and '64 Roland Garros, '65 US Open and '66 Wimbledon

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    Manolo Santana was not only a clay-court specialist, but he also was great on grass.
    The Madrid native was an unusual crafty player, who could hit the most incredible angles thanks to his topspin.

    Like Nadal today, Santana improved his game all around especially his service and volleying, so he could be good on grass. 

    The now 72-year-old was playing before the Open Era, which started in 1968.

    At this time only two surfaces were used; grass at the Australian, Wimbledon and the US Open and clay at the French.

    Still the performance at the time was quite impressive.

    The former World No. 1 claimed two Roland Garros in 1961 and 1964, the US Open in 1965.

    But foremost, the Marbella resident was the only Spaniard in the history of the country—before Nadal—to win Wimbledon in 1966.

3. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario: '89, '94, '98 Roland Garros and '94 US Open

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    It's not difficult to understand why Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario named her two dogs Roland and Garros.

    Indeed, the Barcelona resident claimed three French Opens during her amazing career.

    The now 39-year-old is the youngest of the Sanchez family,which also included Emilio and Javier, who also became very good players.

    However, the brothers never had the career their younger sister had. Emilio's best performance was a quarterfinal appearance at the 1988 French and US Opens, while Javier reached the quarterfinals of Flushing Meadows in 1991 and 1996 US Open.

    One of the best clay-court strategist in the women's side made a name for herself when at 17 years old she became—before Monica Seles and then Martina Hingis—the youngest winner of the women's singles title at the 1989 French Open.

    Of course then Sanchez managed to do what was thought mission impossible at the time: To beat the World No. 1 Steffi Graf.

    A wily and resourceful competitor, relentlessly determined and masterful in covering the court, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario captured 14 Grand Slam Championships, taking four in singles, six in women’s doubles and four more in mixed doubles.

    In perhaps her most gratifying victory, an ebullient Sanchez-Vicario won the 1994 US Open with a typically gritty triumph over Steffi Graf, becoming the first Spanish female ever to take that championship.

    Not to forget also that Arantxa is the only Spanish female to have reached the final of all four Grand Slams at least once.

4. Sergi Bruguera: '93 and '94 Roland Garros

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    We have to give Sergi Bruguera a decent ranking for having been able to defend his French Open crown successfully, which is one of the most difficult task to do for any champions.

    I will never forget these words from Jim Courier at the 1993 trophy ceremony of the French when the American claimed: "J'ai été battu par une vache Espagnol". It's impossible to translate it as well in English.

    The former World No. 1 has admitted having been beaten by a "Spanish bull".

    Courier was upset by Sergi Bruguera after playing the most amazing French Open final of the 90's.

    Following wins over Pete Sampras and Andrei Medvedev, Bruguera reached his first Grand Slam final in Paris, where he played Courier.


    Bruguera also managed to defend his title at the French Open the next year, defeating fellow Spaniard Alberto Berasategui in the final.

    However, the torch was passed in 1997 when the Barcelona native would also make his third Roland Garros championship match against Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten.

5. Carlos Moya: '98 Roland Garros

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    Carlos Moya was the first Spanish player in the Open Era to reach the World No. 1 spot.
    It happened after reaching the final of Indian Wells in 1999.

    It also was the benefits from his amazing 1998 season, where he won Roland Garros beating Alex Corretja, then was a semifinals at Flushing Meadows, losing to Australia's Mark Philippoussis.

    On the same year, the Barcelona resident took his revenge from his French Open loss, when the Majorcan reached the final of the Masters in Hannover. Corretja came back from two sets down to beat Moya 7-5 in the fifth set.

    As his Indian Wells runner-up run prove, the 34-year-old, who retired last year, was one of the first of the modern Spanish generation who could also play on the hard courts, and in his own way was the catalyst for a revolution on that side when he reached the Australian Open final in 1997 against Pete Sampras.

    At his prime, very few players could have beaten him, especially because he was as good on defense as he was on offense.

6. Juan-Carlos Ferrero: '03 Roland Garros

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    Along with Rafael Nadal, Juan-Carlos Ferrero is one of the rare Spanish males on our list not to have retired. Although his chances of reaching another Grand Slam final seem rather slim.

    "Mosquito's" career milestone will always be 2003 where he beat someone very few people remember, Martin Verkerk of the Netherlands in the French Open final.

    We also have to give credit to the 31-year-old for following his Roland Garros triumph by reaching the US Open final against Andy Roddick, where he also defeated Andre Agassi in the semifinals.
    Ferrero's amazing season boost him to the top of the rankings.

    Ferrero managed to obtain his results with a blistering forehand and great defense. But then he began to be riddled with injuries, and his confidence dropped.

    The truth is Ferrero's level has not dropped since his 2003 triumph, but today's game is much more powerful than even eight years ago, which means he is now outplayed by most of the top 10 players.

7. Conchita Martinez: '94 Wimbledon

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    Despite numerous clay court skills, Conchita Martinez has managed to do what is one of the most remarkable achievement in Spanish history: to win the women's singles Wimbledon championship.
    No other Spanish female have been able to do that.

    Not only has the 39-year-old claimed the grass court Grand Slam, but she also found ways to beat the queen of Centre Court, Martina Navratilova.

    In addition to her Wimbledon crown, Martinez was also a runner-up at the 1998 Australian Open, where he was crushed by Martina Hingis and the 2000 French Open.

    On that occasion, to the delight of the French crowd, Mary Pierce would became the next French player since Yannick Noah in 1983 to win at Roland Garros.

    During her 1994 Wimbledon run, Martinez also beat Lindsay Davenport in a classic three-set marathon to make the semifinals and then knocked out another American, Lori McNeil, to make her first-ever Grand Slam final.

    Like most tennis champions, Martinez then started to struggle at times with the ravenous media but her attitude on the court is what allowed her to have such an important victory.

    Martinez would rarely play great tennis, but good enough to bring her opponents to nightmare top lift rallies. They would be the first to give up after moving back and forth for hours and hours.

    She also had an open mind while accepting the challenge of moving from clay to grass.

8. Albert Costa: '02 Roland Garros

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    Known for his grinding baseline skills and his gorgeous one-handed backhand, Albert Costa won Roland Garros in 2002.

    The Barcelona resident had victories over French Open champions like Gustavo Kuerten and Juan-Carlos Ferrero on route to his only career Grand Slam.

    Costa also captured a bronze medal in the men's doubles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

    Last, but not least, the 35-year-old also helped his team beat Australia in Barcelona to grab Spain's first Davis Cup in 2000.




9. Manuel Orantes: '75 US Open

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    Manuel Orantes was a clay court specialist who was a master of spin and placement.

    The Granada native was well known for winning the 1975 US Open, which was being played on clay for the first time.

    Orantes had an impressive run for his only career slam title as he defeated Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas and the defending champion Jimmy Connors in straight sets.

10. Alex Corretja: '98 Masters

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    Alex Corretja’s biggest achievement as a player was winning the Masters indoors in 1998, when, having already saved match points to get past Pete Sampras in the semis, he came from two sets down in the final to beat compatriot Carlos Moya in five sets.

    Corretja won a further 16 titles on the ATP tour, was twice runner-up at Roland Garros (in 1998 and 2001) and reached a career high of No. 2 in the ATP rankings. 

    Like Moya, or Nadal, Corretja won't be only remember for his French Open runs.

    The 1998 Roland Garros runner-up's greatest achievement in Davis Cup came in 2000,
    when he helped his team defeat Australia in Barcelona to win the competition for the first time in history, but a special place will always remain in Corretja’s heart for the day, in April 2002, when he came from two sets down to beat Sampras on grass at the Westside Tennis Club in Houston during a World Group quarterfinal.

    Corretja and Sampras have had great battles in their career. But perhaps the one the Americans will remember more is the 1996 US Open last 16 match when, playing four hours and reaching a tie-breaker in the fifth set, Sampras was sick to his stomach. At 1-1 in the fifth set tie-break, Pete walked to the back of the court and threw up. But despite his fitness issues, Sampras went on.

    The tie-break went to 7-7, and Sampras hit a poor first serve that missed. Barely able to stand to deliver his second serve, Pete found enough energy to hit an ace on his second serve.

    Sampras was up 8-7 and obtained a match point. Corretja, still trying to fathom the incomprehensibility of Sampras's second serve ace, double-faulted, giving the victory to the former World No. 1.

    Fortunately enough, Corretja used all the positives of this defeat to work harder and reach the world No. 2 spot.

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