Written by: Michael Emmett
***Michael Emmett is the Director of Tennis Operations at all Mayfair clubs. He is a certified Tennis Canada Coach 3 with a Journalism degree from the University of Texas. Michael spent several years working in sports television at TSN and Sportsnet. Michael is a former National champion who finished his last year of junior tennis ranked #1 in Canada. Michael has coached several National champions when he worked for the All-Canadian Academy at the National Tennis Centre at York University in the early 90s. Michael spent 2 years traveling the world playing the ATP tour satellite circuit as a member of the Molson National Team in 1985 and ’86.***
Those of you that have read my columns know how I really feel about Rafael Nadal – that has not changed. However, I’m putting the gossip and allegations aside and just looking at the raw numbers and on-court evidence. And with that alone, one could very readily argue that he is the greatest tennis player of all time.
I have come up with several reasons why I believe Nadal is the greatest player the game has ever seen. When sporting pundits argue this point they often look at who has the most grand slams. And this could easily turn into a debate about who is better Roger Federer (17 Grand Slams) and Rafael Nadal – tied for third with Roy Emmerson for the most all-time Grand Slams with 12. Let’s assume the Grand Slams are about even. Fair to say, considering Nadal is four years younger than Federer, and it looks like Roger may not win another slam in his legendary career, as this year’s Wimbledon will likely be Fed’s best and last chance. If Rafa wins one more each of the four years (until he reaches Federer’s age) he will be at 16 majors just one shy of the all-time record.
I think most of you would agree that if Rafa stays healthy (and that’s a big if), he will be in the ball park of 16 or 17 in a few years. His play in the second week at Roland Garros was truly spectacular and it would be hard to imagine him not winning at least three more French Opens, and at least two more of the other three grand slams. Here are eight reasons, in no particular order, why Rafa is the greatest we’ve ever seen.
- He is the first player to win the same Grand Slam eight times. Federer and Sampras each won Wimbledon seven times. Anybody who can be that dominant in one Grand Slam needs to be considered as the greatest of all time. And the scary part is he’s not done – I wouldn’t bet against him reaching double digits on the red clay in Paris.
- Nadal is one of seven players to have won all four grand slams. In today’s era this means winning on four different surfaces. The US and Australian Opens are both labeled hard court events, but there is a difference in the bounce and there is a difference in the speed of the court. In my book, if you are going to be considered the best ever – winning all four Grand Slams is a prerequisite. Pete Sampras (who never won the French) would not make my top-five due to this fact, even though he has 14 Grand Slam victories.
- Nadal has been winning in an Era of dominant players – the best crop of players in the game’s rich history -competing each and every time in the major championships with some of the greatest players in the history of the game. For Rafa to win a Grand Slam he must lock horns against Federer (17 slams to his name), Novak Djokovic (six Slams) and hard charging Andy Murray (one Slam but more to come)! These guys know how to win. The same cannot be said for Federer when he was dominating – the best challenger in the early part of this century was Andy Roddick (only one major title). Federer didn’t have the same level of competition or the incredible depth to deal with, day-in-and-day-out. Even guys like David Ferrer, Jo Tsonga, Thomas Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro (one US Open Title) pose a massive challenge to the game’s superstars and illustrate just how demanding the game has become. No question to win a Slam in the era of the big four is much more formidable than when Fed was dominating. Federer has made the quarter-finals in 36 consecutive events and this is one of the best streaks in sport history. And after the 2013 Wimbledon championships, I believe that number will increase to 37. However, with the fields as deep as they are now, Fed would have been hard-pressed to reach the 17 Slams he currently has. And I believe, even with Roger in his prime playing brilliant tennis, his total would be closer to Nadal’s 12. Before 2006, when Nadal came on the scene, Federer was beating guys like Mark Phillippoussis, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis in Grand Slam finals. Before Nadal entered the picture, Federer was 7-0 in his first seven Grand Slam finals. Since losing to Nadal in the finals of the 2006 French Championships, he is 10-7 in Grand Slam finals. The level of play in the early 2000’s compared to the current play is like comparing the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Ontario.
- Nadal has a winning record against all his contemporaries – most notably Federer – Nadal leads the head-to-head category convincingly 20-10. But the most important statistic is Nadal is up 8-2 in Grand Slam events. This to me says a lot about the best of all time. Yes, majors are important, and Fed is currently the best. But if one player wins 80 percent of those matches in the most important tournaments, then it’s an open and shut case. Nadal has had Federer’s number during their entire career, and for this reason he must get a leg up when the best ever is being determined.
- Nadal won an Olympic Gold Medal to go along with his 12 Grand Slam victories. In the 2008 Beijing Games, Nadal beat Djokovic in the semi-final and Fernando Gonzalez in the final to win his first and only (to date) Olympic Gold.
- Nadal has been dominant in the bigger ATP events as well – he has a record 24 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events and a record14 ATP World Tour 500 tournaments. He was a major contributor in the Spanish Davis Cup team that won in 2004, 2008, 2009 & 2011.
- I believe the three greatest matches of all time have been, in no particular order, the 2008 Wimbledon final, the 2012 Australian Open final and the first semi-final at this year’s French Championships. Sorry, Borg and McEnroe – your 1980 Wimbledon Final was a classic and ranks fourth in my books. And coincidentally, Nadal was a participant in all three of my top three. In 2008, Nadal won his first of two Wimbledon Championships, in a lengthy five setter against Federer. In 2012 in Melbourne, Nadal lost a marathon, 7-5 in the fifth set, which lasted almost six hours against Djokovic. And then last week, Nadal gained some redemption when he beat Djokovic in the greatest clay court match ever contested. The match lasted 4 hours and 37 minutes and was won by Nadal 9-7 in the fifth set. The fact that he has been involved in all three of these matches says a lot to me about how dominant he is.
- Nadal has another superlative to consider: He has now won a Grand Slam in nine consecutive calendar years. Bjorn Borg (1974-81), Pete Sampras (1993-2000) and Roger Federer (2003-10) all managed to do it for eight straight seasons.
Nadal hits the heaviest forehand in tennis, which is even tougher to return because he is left-handed. That torque and raw power routinely sends the ball bounding up and out of an opponent’s comfort zone. And then there is his dazzling speed, an astonishing ability to retrieve and turn defense, on a dime, into offense. Time-after-time, we saw this when he looked so far out of the point, yet, somehow, he managed to uncork a buggy-whip forehand down-the-line for an outright winner. And more than any of these attributes, Nadal has impeccable and unmatched mental toughness. He truly is the KING of clay.
Nadal is a warrior and the toughest competitor in the world right now – in any sport. He has won a ridiculous 59 out of 60 matches at Roland Garros, with his only loss taking place in the fourth round in 2009 to Robin Soderling. Furthermore, no man, before this past Sunday, had ever missed two consecutive Grand Slams and come back to win the next one. No one until Rafael Nadal.