Rafael Nadal became the first player ever to win five Grand Slams after turning 30 when he lifted his fourth US Open title. Nadal’s New York glory was his 19th Slam, putting him just one behind his long-time rival Roger Federer on the all-time list.
A place in the conversation as the best tennis player of all-time is certain, and many of his records – especially those on clay – will stand for generations to come.
The greatest of all-time debate seems to resurface after each Grand Slam. Novak Djokovic’s Wimbledon triumph raised questions of if, and perhaps when, he will pass Roger Federer’s Grand Slam tally.
Nadal, the 2019 US Open winner, is always a feature of those discussions. His clay court supremacy is the headline act, but he’s far from a one-trick pony, as Daniil Medvedev was reminded at Arthur Ashe Stadium earlier this month.
Nadal hasn’t been world number one in 2019 – he last held top spot in the rankings on 4th November 2018 – yet he’s added two more Grand Slams this season, along with a final defeat in Melbourne at the start of the year.
While there was fortune in his run to the 2019 US Open final, the Spaniard made light work of it, dropping a solitary set in the tournament before going to five sets with Medvedev.
The 12 French Open wins are what Nadal will be most well remembered for when his career is reflected on in 20 or 30 years. In his time as a professional, though, it’s perhaps the seven other Grand Slams that sum up his talent.
Tennis on a clay court is vastly different from the grass of Wimbledon or hard courts of Melbourne and New York.
Nadal has excelled on all surfaces, and not just at his turn-of-the-decade peak, his 2017 and 2019 US Open titles show how even after the troubles of 2014 and 2015, Nadal has returned to be an all-court monster, a genuine contender for each Grand Slam along with the overwhelming tennis betting favourite for the French Open.
In 2010, Nadal became just the fourth player in tennis history to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in a single calendar year.
That US Open success – including a four-set final win over Djokovic – completed a career Golden Slam for Nadal, making him only the second man ever to do so.
While that was perhaps the pinnacle of Nadal’s career to date, he already had five French Open crowns under his belt. Since then, he’s added a further seven Grand Slam trophies to his overflowing cabinet.
The 12 French Open triumphs are not just a record in Paris, or an overly-qualified place in the history books, it is simply the most dominant anyone has been at a Grand Slam.
No one else has ever won the same Grand Slam nine times, let alone in the Open Era. Federer, Nadal’s rival throughout his career, is in second place on the list with eight Wimbledon victories.
Nadal and Roland Garros’ partnership is a generational, once-in-a-lifetime thing. Djokovic has Melbourne, Federer has Wimbledon, but neither have been as unbeatable for such a long period as Nadal in Paris.
Into his thirties by the time he became a fixture at the top of the men’s game again, Nadal defied the odds. Suffering with injuries in his late-twenties and failing to become a real force in 2016, even a player of Nadal’s calibre wasn’t expected to be this good again.
His best days looked to have passed. A couple more successful fortnights in Paris were feasible, maybe, but becoming a top three player on all surfaces seemed a little far-fetched.
Federer has aged as gracefully as anyone could expect. Djokovic had his own injury issues in 2017. Nadal’s two years away from the very top of the game, however, was a higher mountain to climb.
He has exceeded all reasonable expectations since then, winning five Grand Slams and reaching two Australian Open finals. Nadal’s superhuman fitness has been his defining trait, he’s the Cristiano Ronaldo to Federer’s Lionel Messi.
His game isn’t one you would associate with adapting well into his thirties, yet the mere mortals away from the big three find him as unbeatable as they did during his supposed peak years.
There’s still plenty left in the tank yet, but how Nadal’s career is remembered will be fascinating. He’s far more than a clay-court specialist, despite being unquestionably the greatest ever on the surface.
There’s a good chance that Nadal will retire with more Grand Slams than Djokovic and Federer, yet as it stands, his standing in the GOAT discussion is often undermined by his Roland Garros supremacy.
This is a special era for men’s tennis. The predictability of Nadal winning the French Open sees his role in this generation occasionally overlooked.
Picking the big three apart is an unforgiving task right now, but Nadal continues to make his case as the greatest to play the game.
His 2019 US Open win was another reminder that while Nadal might not be the best in the world on the hard courts, he’s still a long way ahead of the chasing pack. Pair that with his King Of Clay status, and you have a compelling GOAT case.
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*Credit for the main photo belongs to Charles Krupa / AP Photo*