Rafael Nadal has been known as ‘The King of Clay’ for some time, hardly surprising when you consider he’s won eight French Open titles, losing only once there in his entire career. However, after Nadal’s stunning dismantling of world number one Novak Djokovic in Monday’s US Open Final, it’s only a matter of time before Nadal is crowned with a new title: ‘The King of Tennis’.
Now before I state my case, one thing you should know: he’s not even my favourite player. I don’t have a room full of Rafa fist-pumping posters or try and replicate his ‘badger caught in a trap’ grunt-squeal whenever I play tennis myself. Despite my favourite players of all time being Roger Federer and Marat Safin (a man who belonged in an insane asylum rather than a tennis court), after looking at statistics, Rafa’s achievements, and his ability to cast away several career-threatening injuries I have to admit: when he retires... This man will be THE man, superseding Roger, Bjorn, Rod Laver and co.
Now, onto the basics: statistics...
Rafael Nadal: 13 grand slams, 60 career titles, an overall match record of 643 wins, 125 losses.
Roger Federer: 17 grand slams, 77 career titles, 913 wins, 210 losses.
Pete Sampras: 14 grand slams, 64 career titles, 762 wins, 222 losses.
Bjorn Borg: 11 grand slams, 64 career titles, 609 wins, 127 losses.
Rod Laver: 11 grand slams, 52 career titles, 536 wins, 126 losses.
There is barely any room for manoeuvre between these tennis greats; Federer and Sampras have more grand slams than Rafa, but Roger is five years older and Pete retired. Rafa can, and will, overhaul both players before his 30th birthday (as long as he doesn’t face another nightmare encounter with tendinitis, that is). Even if Rafa does, his recurrent comebacks from what some assumed were career-ending knee injuries prove that he is able to return, time and again, stronger than ever.
Furthermore, Nadal’s overall career win percentage is 84%, compared to Sampras’ 77%, Federer’s 81%, Borg’s 83% and Laver’s 80%. His record in grand slams is superior to everyone asides from the brilliant Laver and Rafa’s record against top 10 players is outstripped only narrowly by Borg’s. Again, when it comes to winning the fifth set in matches that go to the wire, Nadal is superior to everyone but Borg. Nadal is without doubt the most successful performer across all criteria, illustrating his consistency and overwhelming winning mentality.
When it comes to a game like tennis, where some matches can be so emotional and tense that the greatest are gladiatorial contests, it’s important to judge players not only on the cold hard statistics that I cited above. Nadal was involved in what is considered by many professionals and observers as the best tennis match ever played: his 2008 five set triumph over the imperious Federer at Wimbledon. Which tennis fan could honestly forget Rafa falling flat on his back, spread-eagled after his gruelling near five hour triumph as the darkness began to engulf The All England Club?
Rafa, renowned for his topspin forehand, immense athleticism and court coverage, has consistently improved and tinkered with his game over the years. His first serve has drastically improved and, when it comes to playing on grass, he developed a more assertive style, realising that a defensive clay court approach would never win him the Wimbledon title.
Many thought that Rafa’s time was up after he had to pull out of both the London 2012 Olympics and last year’s US Open. The obituaries were written by some, rather prematurely, for a player who had, at 26, reached his peak. Now 27 and in the form of his life, peerless greatness awaits him. Borg and Sampras couldn’t complete the career grand slam, ruling them out of the greatest of all time debate. Laver, due to his stance of playing as a professional in the amateur era, missed several grand slams, which suggests that his career total would have been higher.
Nevertheless, within the next three or four years, I predict that Nadal will be out of sight of both Laver and the immense Roger Federer. Rafa, if he remains injury free and performs at his incredible level on a regular basis at the slams, could reach 20. A magical number that, in all honesty, would probably never be repeated again.