Rafael Nadal’s eighth title at the 2013 Barcelona Open may have been the most predictable result in tennis history. Even during a week in which television commentators opined that Nadal is neither in top form nor playing consistently, he rolled through five matches without dropping a set.
There is no longer a debate about Nadal’s place as the greatest clay-court player of all time. His European clay-court accomplishments include eight titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, seven titles at the French Open and six titles at Rome. For good measure, he also added two Madrid titles and one at Hamburg.
That’s 32 clay-court titles, not including a handful of clay titles at other venues, and still more tennis years ahead.
The only question left is whether there will ever be another clay-court player who can surpass Nadal’s legacy.
The Top of Mt. Everest Can Go No Higher
We’ve already seen unique and unbreakable records with some athletes and sports. That’s not to say there will not be better athletes, but they will be facing new sets of circumstances and conditions that will make it impossible to chase an old record book.
Major League Baseball will never see a pitcher break Cy Young’s record of 511 wins. It will also never see another player like pitcher Babe Ruth, who won 23 and 24 games in 1916-1917 before going on to hit 714 career home runs as an outfielder. Baseball has changed too much for these things to be eclipsed.
We will never see another Bill Russell. The basketball legend for the Boston Celtics led his team to 11 NBA championships, including eight in a row. Even Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan was only about halfway to this benchmark.
It’s also possible we may never see a human being run faster than Usain Bolt, according to ESPN’s Grantland writer Chuck Klosterman. There are limits to being human.
Nadal’s clay-court feats in tennis have dwarfed all other players in the past century. This does not mean someone cannot come along and be a greater clay-court player, but there's an extraordinary, miniscule chance for this future star to pile up a legacy as dominant as Nadal’s.
The Impossible Standard for Clay King 2.0
Some day, some year or some decade, the next superstar clay-court player will come along and inspire comparisons to the great Nadal. He might have a skill set and ability that future generations will say is better than Nadal’s. He might be bigger, stronger, faster and more durable with greater strokes and mental toughness. We will refer to this person as Clay King 2.0 (CK2).
How hard would it be for CK2 to surpass the Nadal credentials in a span of (almost) nine years?
1. CK2 would need to dominate by the time he is 20 years old. If he were more of a late bloomer, like Ivan Lendl, it might be good enough for “only” three French Open titles and perhaps half of the other tournaments Nadal dominates. Today’s great champions Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have combined for one French Open title. Even had Nadal not arrived, Federer’s possible first (2005) French Open title would have come as he was turning 24 years old. Djokovic is approaching his late 20s and it’s still not a certainty he will win once at Roland Garros.
2. A great player like CK2 would likely have to contend against deeper and tougher ATP fields. Tennis continues to get more competitive as it penetrates more nations and gives more opportunities to a world of seven billion people and counting. We could possibly see fields in which any of the top 20 players are great enough to win Grand Slam titles.
3. All it takes is for one other great clay-court player to rival CK2. For all of Nadal’s greatness, he never had to contend with a Borg, Lendl, Wilander, Muster or Kuerten. Maybe if one of them peaked at the same time, he takes two or three clay-court titles away at each venue. If there were three great clay-court players at once, it could divide things further. Nadal has been able to lap the field for nearly a decade, and this is unlikely to happen again.
4. Playing on clay is such a mental grind that it takes a special personality to be able to keep coming back to defend his titles through the relentless pressures. Even the great Borg was allegedly burned out from defending his legacy against the players and pressures that come with this greatness. Just how hard is it to keep up this relentless will and winning for a decade? Without the iron-clad personality and resilience, even CK2 might rather prioritize his skills for other months and venues at the expense of clay. Nadal makes clay his first and last priority.
5. Conditions and technology may change too much to make Nadal’s accomplishments replicable. Suppose the clay courts become conditioned to be faster or slicker? We are already seeing more baseline players than ever before. Perhaps clay might have a lot more parity, such as hard courts, where it neutralizes comparative skills so that the term “clay-court specialist” no longer exists. It’s also possible that clay courts could all but disappear, as has happened to grass in the past few decades.
Enjoy the Ride
Our elders have regaled us with stories about athletes like Joe Dimaggio, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
They have passed us tidbits about what it was like to see Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus play in his prime.
There are tall tales about Wilt Chamberlain and John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins.
There will never be another Muhammad Ali or Pele.
One day we will say we saw Rafael Nadal’s prime years as he played on clay.
We may never see anybody approach this again.