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With US Open Win, Rafael Nadal Enters Greatest of All Time Debate

Sep 14, 2010 – 2:20 AM
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Greg Couch

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Rafael NadalNEW YORK -- This is a moment for Rafael Nadal, just for him and all to himself and about himself. It's about one man whose career was in doubt just a year ago, suffering in his personal life, then recovering, rebuilding and retooling.

Just one year ago, he wondered if he could ever get to this moment. Now, already, he has reached every mountaintop. The last one came Monday night, when he won the U.S. Open for the first time, beating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.

It's a personal moment, not about where he stands in history, though that's what tennis fans talk about. Honestly, I'm going to get to that, too, in a minute.

Just 24 years old, and Nadal has already won all four majors. He is the seventh man to do it.

Not only that, but also this might be the best year any men's player has ever had, as he has won majors on three different surfaces requiring three different styles. When Rod Laver won the Grand Slam, he won on just two surfaces. Not even Roger Federer, with his record 16 major titles, has ever won majors on three surfaces in the same year.

Well, there I go, already into history-talk.

But when Nadal dropped to the hard court on his knees, held his fists over his head and squeezed his eyes shut, it was not about history or Federer. It was about Nadal being all that Nadal can be.

So I asked him if he could believe how things have changed for him, and if he could believe how fast it all turned.

"(It) is true the second half of the year (in 2009) was very difficult for me,'' he said. "I have some personal problems, home, and I have a lot of injuries. ... It is not good to live these moments, but at the same time, after that, when you come back, you are ready to value how difficult it is to win titles, how difficult it is to be there.''

After going 11 months without winning a tournament, he said, it only felt better, and more rewarding, than ever to start winning again.

He also said that the perception was that he'd never be the same, and now it's that he's going to be one of the greatest ever, but "I don't think it's that bad in that moment, and not that good in this moment. Always (it) is in the middle, no?''

This time last year, Nadal was trying to recover from tendinitis in his knees, pain that kept him from attempting to defend his first Wimbledon title. He is a grown man, but still values family like a boy. And his parents were divorcing.

Talk was that his style, throwing all into every shot to whip up more topspin than anyone has ever imagined, was going to shorten his career.

So when he won the French Open on clay, his best surface, this spring, it all came rushing to him. He wept into a towel. He won Wimbledon on grass, too.

Still, he had to win at the place where people thought he never could. The U.S. Open, on hard courts, where wind swirls at Arthur Ashe Stadium and causes havoc for his strokes. It was the hole in his resume.

So with the help of his genius coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, he adjusted the grip on his serve the day before the tournament, allowing him to find huge new power. His old kick serve was a detriment on hard courts. He committed to crushing topspin backhands, rather than looping short ones the way he did when he was younger.

And he lightened his schedule to keep the beating off his knees, and to keep him fresh for the Open.

In the end, those were exactly the reasons he won.

Still, Nadal will always be measured against Federer, and starting Monday, Federer will be measured against Nadal, too.

For two weeks, Nadal was driven to Flushing Meadows nearly every day in a van with Federer's picture all over it. There was Nadal, inside, surrounded by Federer, needing to break out.

This tournament is going to bring out the favorite talk of tennis fans, which they call the GOAT argument, Greatest Of All Time.

The GOAT title has already been handed over to Federer. Does he still deserve it?

Or does Nadal?

These argument are always impossible, really. But I'll say this:

Nadal is playing better now than Federer ever played. In fact, he's playing the greatest tennis of all time.
I don't think you can say anymore that Federer is the greatest ever. Nadal is playing better now than Federer ever played. In fact, he's playing the greatest tennis of all time.

He has beaten Federer 14 of 21 times, including 6-2 in the finals of majors.

Federer, now 29, is still at the top of his game. Others are gaining on him, and Nadal has passed him, but he hasn't lost a thing. How can you be the best ever if you're not the best of your own era?

"This talk about if I am better or worse than Roger is stupid, because the titles say he is much better than me,'' Nadal said. "I think that will be true all my life.''

Don't be so sure. Federer said recently he hopes to reach 20 majors, but that seems highly unlikely now. Nadal has now won nine, including the past three. But his deficit to Federer has gone from 10 to seven in the past five months. And he's going to win a lot more.

But the question is how much longevity matters. Federer's greatness has lasted much longer than Nadal's has.

So there is the argument, framed neatly. In two or three years, everyone will consider Nadal the best ever. At this point, I think one more name should be brought back into the discussion:

Pete Sampras. He never won the French. But he dominated what might have been the best era in tennis history, and did it for a long time.

Well, Nadal will go for four majors in a row in January at the Australian Open, which won't count as a Grand Slam because it will not have happened in one calendar year.

It will be the Rafa Slam.

The man doesn't think like that, though. He thinks about being his best.

For him, that's what Monday was all about.

E-mail me at Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch

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