Fresh off a record shattering ninth win at Roland Garros,Rafael Nadal will look to make a serious mark at Wimbledon for the first time in a number of years, but can the Majorcan be considered the world’s greatest ever tennis player?
The only reasonable argument against Nadal being the finest tennis player ever to grace the court is that he has not yet caught Roger Federer’s astonishing haul of 17 victories at Grand Slams. However, it is the manner in which Nadal has won the 14 titles that he does have that is truly worthy of merit. Federer accumulated the majority of his titles between 2004 and 2007,in an era where, with all due respect to their achievements in the game, his greatest challengers were Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick.
Meanwhile, it is rare for Nadal to achieve victory in a tournament without having to beat at least two of the ‘big four’ that includes himself, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Federer. This, coupled with the fact that he has a winning record against all of his contemporaries and a winning record of 78% against them at Grand Slams, shows that Nadal is prepared to win at almost any cost. As well as being dominant against his rivals, he is also arguably the most improved among them.
After bursting onto the scene with his first French Open victory in 2005 he often faced the accusation of being one-dimensional; one of those clay court specialists that so often emerges from France and Spain. This may have had some resonance in his early years. However, injury and increased competition have forced him to adapt and develop.
He still has the same weapons as before; the inside-out forehand and immense speed that devastated early opponents, but he has also added a potent serve and increased his aggression to shorten points. This has essentially neutralised any players who had begun to ‘work out’ Nadal’s style of play, as it has been one that has evolved throughout his career since injury first struck him in 2009.
There is no better measure of this evolution than the fact that as recently as 2013 he managed to win his second US Open title. His game does not suit hard court play in the slightest, his serve is not big enough and the surface neutralises his extra bounce to a certain extent, and yet he still finds ways to win despite not being as natural on the surface as many other players on the tour. That he had already won all four Grand Slams in his career - only the seventh man to do so- before this evolution is a testament to his sheer determination and will to win.
He has already achieved what many refer to as the most difficult feat in tennis –winning Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year- twice, in 2008 and 2010. This year marks the first time in recent years he is going into SW19 at least approaching peak fitness, following shock early losses against rank outsiders Lukas Rosol and Steve Darcis in the last two years.
This year, however, he appears to be as fit as he has been for some time, and if he can repeat that herculean feat again this year, and achieve victory once more at Roland Garros and Wimbledon after so many years away, both his brilliance and his longevity will have proved to be undeniable. He will have seen off Federer and dealt with the Murray and Djokovic challenges to cement himself as the most gifted and determined player to ever patrol the base line. He is already by some distance the greatest clay court player of all time, win at Wimbledon and he becomes immortal.
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