Projecting Rafael Nadal's Timeline to Catch Roger Federer's 17 Grand Slam Titles

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJune 9, 2014

Spain's Rafael Nadal, left, gets the cup from Swedish tennis legend Bjorn Borg after defeating Serbia's Novak Djokovic in their final match of  the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, in Paris, France, Sunday, June 8, 2014. Nadal won 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Michel Euler/Associated Press

Rafael Nadal’s 2014 French Open title is now etched in the record books. This 14th Grand Slam title ties him with Pete Sampras and closes the gap to the record 17 majors held by Roger Federer. What are the chances that Nadal does indeed catch Federer, and when could this realistically happen?

Typically, Nadal hardly had a chance to relish his latest triumph, let alone ice his knees and get a bite to eat, before he was asked about catching Federer’s 17 majors. The Spanish Warrior responded in ATP World Tour:

Federer has 17 and I have [won] 14 Grand Slams. [Breaking the record], it's not a source of motivation for me. I'll follow my own path. Then when my career is over, we'll count. I don't really care that much about the records. I'll still play with a lot of intensity. I'll still be motivated.

Stars are always aware of their numbers and legacies the way they track each point they play. Though Nadal has long shrugged off serious discussion about chasing Federer’s numbers, he clearly plays with the kind of concentration and appetite for winning that can indeed creep closer to Federer, one major at a time.

Here is what needs to happen for Nadal.


Realistic Timeline

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The diehard Nadal fan might be euphoric enough to point out that Nadal could mathematically reach 18 Grand Slam titles by winning French Open 2015. That’s an unprecedented order that means he would need to win all of the next three majors (Wimbledon; U.S. Open; Australian Open) during the next year. Since it’s Nadal, we won’t subscribe to this as wholly impossible, but it is highly improbable.

What are the chances that Nadal could take one of the next three “other majors” (which is what we must call them when discussing Nadal’s heroics at Roland Garros)?

Unlike the 90 percent success rate Nadal has piled up at Roland Garros, Nadal has won five of 28 chances at the other major venues. We should also count injury absences at the 2006 and 2013 Australian Open, 2009 Wimbledon and 2012 U.S. Open as opportunities, but we might dismiss his very early 2003-04 teenage appearances. Since 2005, he’s about 16 to 20 percent likely in winning each of these other three majors, depending on how you want to crunch his opportunities.

Right now, Nadal is still holding on to his prime years, so his odds would figure to be better than simply calculating the past decade of majors. Many tennis fans feel that he truly arrived in 2008 as a Grand Slam contender, so this increases the previous percentages, if we choose to adopt this outlook.

Despite his injury misfortunes at the Australian Open, this still seems like the most likely place to grab a Slam. It’s hot, the ball bounces higher and Nadal comes off November-December rest. Novak Djokovic is the current King of Australia, but a healthy and fit Nadal is still a great bet.

The U.S. Open comes off a long summer of pounding, which makes his 2013 North American sweep all the more remarkable. He has to fight through a deeper field of competitors and styles for a third trophy there.

Wimbledon has been more of a mystery lately. It’s where Nadal has paid the price for the past two gruelling clay-court seasons. Plus, current champions Andy Murray and Federer figure more prominently as title contestants. This would be his toughest major to recapture.

If Nadal can win one of these next three “other majors” to capture No. 15, he could be gunning for No. 16 at the 2015 French Open—which would probably list him as the favorite at this very moment. Then the chase would be on to get one in three majors again for No. 17 sometime by early 2016. The ideal scenario would see him win No. 18 at French Open 2016, though Djokovic could likely win one of the next two.

A slower timeline could still give Nadal another four opportunities as he goes for No. 18 at the 2017 French Open. And he would probably have to get it done by then because the degree of difficulty will increase.


Realistic Obstacles

Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

Nadal just celebrated his 28th birthday. This is historically a yellow light, when other greats such as Federer and Sampras have slowed down. These other two legends won one major after this age. Then they had gaps of two years before winning a final major at age 31.

Nadal’s injuries are well-chronicled, and his recovery powers will diminish as he walks with Father Time. It’s not enough to be able to be healthy enough to play in the next 12 Grand Slam opportunities, but to have a fresh body and the physical tools still needed to be the best.

Will he still scamper to cover his expanded court on defense? Can he still bludgeon massive topspin and have the strength to finish each and every match? Will his serve hold up at a championship level?

The interesting thing about Nadal’s injuries is that media and prognosticators have warned that they would derail his career for nearly his entire career. There’s a sense that he could suddenly break apart and never compete at his former level.

But what we do know is that Nadal and his team keep finding ways to heal, train and coexist with the injuries. Dealing with the injuries has made him more expert and tolerant than most other athletes. It may be an asset not a weakness for him to add more longevity to his greatness. Still, aging and injuries are real factors that will eventually be too formidable of a tag team to overcome.

There will also be other hungry contenders who we cannot account for at this minute. Will another veteran like Tomas Berdych or Ernests Gulbis win a surprise major like Stanislas Wawrinka’s 2014 Australian Open title?

Could a younger player become a dangerous contender or Grand Slam winner? There’s still only minimal confidence that Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic or Kei Nishikori can win a major, but a deeper field of these players makes it more difficult for Nadal to navigate his draw without dangerous or energy-depleting challenges.


Wimbledon Showdown

Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

Setting aside Nadal for a moment, Wimbledon 2014 just might be Federer’s very best chance to capture major No. 18. If he does win, the gap would widen to four again, and this would again decrease Nadal’s chances for catching his record. Could this be a symbolic or even psychological resistance as well, showing Nadal the futility of getting five more majors?

Then again, if Nadal wins No. 15 at Wimbledon 2014, he will have cut his deficit in half with one great month. His Swiss rival would be in sight, and the record would be close enough to reach out and touch.

This is a big deal, either way, because Nadal and Federer are inextricably linked for tennis fans. Although their records and accomplishments are quite different from each other, their total majors are still an attempt to (somewhat) objectively decide their mythological pecking order.

Of course, there are countless other numbers and records to sort through, and so it will continue for years to come as long as at least one of them is still showing up to play in another major draw. Nothing will ever be completely settled, but the quest for No. 17 and beyond does matter, even if it cannot determine the greater player.


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