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September 29, 2010

All Eyes On Australia: Rafael Nadal Closes in On History | Bleacher Report

Filed under: Uncategorized — julypena @ 11:02 am
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 13:  Rafael Nadal of Spain falls to his knees in celebration of his win over Novak Djokovic of Serbia during their men's singles final on day fifteen of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 13, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) Al Bello/Getty Images

What a difference a year makes.

Exactly one year ago, Rafael Nadal had lost his figurative mojo. A painful, chronic knee injury had sidelined the Spaniard for weeks earlier in the summer, robbing him of his opportunity to defend his maiden Wimbledon title. Nadal watched from home as his rival cleaned up during the summer months, taking Nadal’s French Open title, Wimbledon title, and even his No. 1 ranking.

New injuries, including an abdominal strain sustained during the North American summer hard court swing, robbed him of pace on his serve and the ability to consistently hit his favorite inside-out forehand. Low in confidence, and heavy in heart (as Nadal’s parents had divorced around the same time), Nadal made noble run to the U.S. Open Semifinals, but was completely out gunned by Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro.

The fall season following the U.S. Open saw Nadal play a packed schedule as he struggled to find his confidence and the form he exhibited from January until May, form which saw him become an utterly dominant world No. 1. Nadal’s fall season was a smattering of quarterfinal, semifinal, and runner-up appearances.

He was too defensive, moved tentatively, and ultimately offered himself up as a target for players he usually owned head to head. The tennis world was a buzz. Many predicted that Nadal had seen his best tennis already, and even at age 23 (at the time) was in decline.

Will Nadal have to be considered the G.O.A.T. if he wins his fourth consecutive Grand Slam Singles title?

The critics couldn’t have been more wrong.

Fast forward to the present. Things have taken a complete U-turn. Once again healthy, Nadal is the undisputed world No. 1. Having won three of the four majors this year, Nadal wrapped up the year-end world No. 1 ranking for the second time in three years. Perhaps most importantly Nadal has already completed the career Grand Slam.

He is only 24 years old.

Certainly, Nadal has inscribed his name amongst the very greatest players who have ever played the sport. Nadal’s aptitude has allowed him to retrofit his game more than any other player in recent memory to fit the specific surface on which he is playing.

His newly introduced 135 mph-plus first serve is especially disconcerting to the rest of the field. If one can’t get ahead on Nadal’s serve, then just what are the options for beating him?

Rod Laver is a hallowed name in the sport of tennis. No one can argue against that. The man known affectionately as the “Rocket” pocketed two calendar slams, one in 1962 as an amateur, and another in 1969 as a professional. As amazing an achievement as this is, the truth of the matter is that three of the four Grand Slams were played on grass and the French Open was still contested on red clay.

104069922_crop_358x243 Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

While Laver still had to play at an amazing level to pull off the feat, let’s be clear: Laver was an excellent grass court player. The fact that three of the majors were being contested on grass greatly helped his cause.

Rafael Nadal will go into the 2011 Australian Open as the clear favorite to win it. Nadal has won this tournament before, in 2009, defeating Roger Federer for the third time in four Major Finals, in a classic five-set Final. Should Nadal come through as expected, he will accomplish a one-of-a-kind feat: four consecutive Majors on four different surfaces.

The Australian Open is contested on a slow, high-bouncing hard court, while the harder, faster court at the U.S. Open plays completely differently. Winning four majors in a row is something once though unrealistic for a male tennis player—and rightfully so. The only men in the modern era to win three titles in four straight finals are Andre Agassi from 1999-2000 and Roger Federer in both 2006 and 2007. Prior to that it’s only been done when three of the four surfaces were grass.

Whether he wants to admit it or not, Nadal stands on the cusp of something extraordinary. I’ll even go as far as to say that it would be the most remarkable achievement in the history of men’s tennis. To win four straight, whether in a calendar year or not, is something that most would have though impossible just a few years ago.

Then Federer stepped on the scene and showed us that maybe it could happen. The Swiss got within two sets of a calendar Slam twice in his storied career. Close, but no cigar. Ironically enough, the man who has denied Federer an additional five Grand Slam titles, Rafael Nadal, now stands on the bring of accomplishing this feat himself.

I have often said that the “G.O.A.T.” debate is pretty moronic in nature. Too many eras, to many styles, too many factors to consider. I have held, and still do believe as of this moment that there is no G.O.A.T. player. Only a select group of 5-7 players who have accomplished something so unique, that they set themselves apart from their colleagues.

Both Nadal and Federer are already a part of this group. But one has to wonder, if indeed there is a player who is able to win four consecutive Majors, considering the playing conditions and surfaces differences, do these circumstances beg me to rethink my original stance?

Perhaps so.

Any player who can win four straight Majors on four different surfaces, especially in this modern day and age where hard courts take so great a toll on a tennis player’s body, could perhaps have a legit claim to being called the greatest tennis player who ever lived.

Believe what you will, but I am just not willing to adjust this stance only because Nadal is the man who stands in prime position. If Federer had won four in a row, or if he does win four in a row, I’d have to perhaps reconsider in his case as well.

But the fact is that such a feat has never been accomplished in the men’s game. We’ve seen Steffi Graf win a calendar Slam in the women’s game, seen Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams win their own versions.

But in men’s tennis, playing best of five sets, I think that such an accomplishment would demonstrate a level of utter domination the likes of which have never been seen before.

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