Sure, Nadal was No. 1 before, for almost a year in 2008. But he was laboring and battling, and Federer was in top form as well, so it didn't really feel permanent.
Now it does.
Nadal is No. 1 again, and this time it doesn't look like he will let go again. He's 24 years old, and in many ways better than he was in 2008. His main rival, Federer, at 29 years old, has stumbled to No. 3 in the world rankings, is taking more beatings than a low-hanging pinata, and looks to settle in somewhere between No. 3 and No. 5 for the year.
Before, in 2008, no one was saying Nadal was an undisputed No. 1. Everyone was watching Roger to see him take it back. To his credit, Federer upped his game, and made a historic rise back to No. 1. It made for thrilling tennis. Of course, Nadal was waylaid by injuries, but Federer took advantage and bagged a couple more Slams. It would have been nice for Federer to face Nadal in some of those matches, but you can only play the competition that's presented to you.
Now that Nadal has flexed his muscles again, improved his own game, and pushed everyone out of the way again to reach No. 1, it has the feeling of a coronation. More and more people are saying it this time. Andy Murray, who lost in the Wimbledon semis to Nadal, said that he played really well against Nadal, but then said matter-of-factly, "He's the best player in the world." He didn't reconsider his remarks later either, and said it again.
John McEnroe called Nadal "an animal," said he now belongs among the all-time legends of the sport, and called him the favorite for the U.S. Open. Yes, the nominations and proclamations of kingship are coming in from all over, and no one is hedging their comments with talk of Federer or other top players.
Nadal, it seems, is silencing more and more of the detractors, and is proving that he is becoming just as complete a player as Federer. When asked what it felt like to win his second Wimbledon and reach four straight finals there, he joked, "I guess that means now I'm a grass court specialist."
Since 2005, his record at Wimbledon is 28-2, the only losses coming to Federer. He won the 2008 French Open without dropping a set, becoming the first person in 25 years to do it. Federer did it at the Aussie after that in 2007. Then Nadal did it a second time at the 2010 French.
Notice a trend here? Nadal, Federer, Nadal, Federer. Such dominance has never before happened between two individuals on the tour. They've won 20 of the last 22 Slams. They are the two greatest players of this tennis generation. Now that Federer has dropped some, the rivalry is sadly starting to fall by the wayside. Nadal has won 14 of their 21 matches. Nadal was the master on clay, and they were pretty close to even everywhere else they met.
Now that Nadal is back at No. 1, that rivalry will start to get more lopsided. Nadal will be the favorite against Federer everywhere they play. Does anyone doubt that Nadal would have beaten Federer in the Wimbledon final, had they played, and probably in straight sets? That's no knock against Roger. Nadal is just younger, faster, and stronger, and the gap is widening all the time.
We will now be saying the things we used to say about Federer. Sure you have a chance against him, but only if you have a flawless day and Federer has a bad day. Now they are saying that about Nadal.
Tomas Berdych said that Nadal basically has no weaknesses. John McEnroe praised Nadal's excellent volleying skills. Commentators were falling all over themselves praising Rafa's serve and aggressive approach at Wimbledon. In fact, during the French Open, Nadal was the hardest player to break on tour, won the highest percentage of his service games, highest percentage of winning break points, tiebreakers, second serves, and on and on.
McEnroe even called Nadal's serve the best on tour. Not bad for shoring up your weaknesses.
Of course, every commentator prefaces their statements about Nadal's future with "what about his knees," and there is truth in that. I think when he went to five sets early in the tournament at Wimbledon and went to the trainer for injuries, everyone was saying "here we go again" and waiting for the other shoe to drop. That will always be a question. But who knows? With Rafa, it's clear that the French for him is like Wimbledon was for Sampras. He can win it whenever he is halfway decent.
Right now Rafa has eight Slams. Say he wins the French three more times, which he will probably be able to win even later in his career. That makes 11 Slams. Maybe he wins the U.S. Open once or twice. Maybe another Wimbledon or two and another Aussie Open. That would bring him about even with Federer—and if his knees hold up that should be well within his reach, if not more.
Expect the talk and the hype to become feverish once Nadal reaches 10 Slams, especially if Federer drops further. It will be fun to watch Nadal chase the greatest of all time. After all, Nadal is the new Federer, and to be compared to Roger Federer is a great compliment indeed.