Continuing with our series on the greatest tennis players of all time, here’s No. 9 on our list
No. 9 – Rafael Nadal
He is known as the bull – el torro – in Spanish, the name derived from the widely acclaimed sport of bull-fighting in his native country. In a conventional bull-fighting ring, it’s the bull that meets its end, speared by the matador’s sword. But Rafael Nadal, or ‘Rafa’, scripts an entirely different finish on the rectangular arena of a tennis court.
With an initiation to the sport that was completely out of the ordinary, Nadal is the perfect example of talent spotted early and nurtured specifically to exploit the deficiencies of potential rivals. Nadal was coached by his uncle in his hometown instead of any of the prestigious and well-known academies in his country. Which is why, in this context, the contribution of Rafa’s uncle Toni towards enriching his game and his performance is something that can never be ignored, and merits a special mention.
A converted and conditioned left-hander with a punishing top-spin forehand, Rafa’s game is predicated on engaging in an intense battle of rallies from the back of the baseline, drawing out his opponent and forcing him to commit an error. While some might call him a defensive counter-puncher, Rafa can very well convert his defensive play into an attacking move, if and when the need arises. In the eight years since he first made his successful foray into professional tennis, the Spaniard has emerged to become one of the toughest, fiercest and most formidable of competitors.
In terms of statistics, though he had a conventional introduction to championship success for a Spaniard – having won his first Slam on clay – Rafa has well and truly emerged out of his clay-court cocoon by modulating and variegating his game-plan. Minor though these variegations might be, they have nonetheless helped him win tournaments where he was wholly written off by the pundits.
While exactly not completely unique when it comes to winning Slams at the age of 18, it is Rafa’s consistency in the years subsequent to those first few prodigious years that has elevated him to heights that only few in history have been able to attain. Consistency, not just at the Slams, but also at other tournaments spread throughout the season. 11 Slam titles, 21 Masters’ titles (an all-time record), a few assortment of doubles titles at the Masters, a string of Davis Cup victories, an Olympic singles medal…the list of Rafa’s numerous triumphs is remarkably large, and astonishingly, still a work-in-progress. A work-in-progress, that recently saw him capture a record-breaking seventh title at Roland Garros and Barcelona, while notching an eight-love record at the Monte Carlo Masters. Of course, no account of Nadal’s career can be complete without a mention of his staggering dominance over one of the greatest players the world has ever seen – Roger Federer. Nadal holds an 18-10 career head-to-head record over Federer, an 8-2 advantage at the Slams, and his victory at the 2008 Wimbledon final is widely considered the greatest match of all time. So thorough has Rafa’s stranglehold been over Federer that it has prompted claims that he resides in Federer’s head.
No account of Nadal’s career can be complete without a mention of another thing: his unreal dominion of the claycourts. Rafa has lost just one match, ever, at Roland Garros – a statistic that is as belief-defying as it is mind-numbing. The tremendous topspin that he generates with his unorthodox forehand, his borderline supernatural foot speed and his relentless baseline consistency have created a combination so potent that it is hard to imagine how anyone can defeat him on clay. He has racked up claycourt titles at a pace that has never seen before in history, and will likely never be repeated again. He has given new meaning to the term ‘King of Clay’ – on this surface, almost every opponent he faces goes into the match resigned to defeat. Rafa on clay is perhaps the only truly reliable thing in the game of tennis; come hail, storm or apocalypse, you can be sure that he will somehow pull out the win on his beloved surface.
At first glance, these figures and achievements look impressive enough for a 26-year old. But what makes them even more appreciable is the way in which each of these victories has been attained. Almost all of Rafa’s triumphs so far have come under a constant cloud of injury (he has a chronic condition of knee tendinitis), which makes them even more poignant and worthy of being cherished. Where players battle opponents, the Spaniard has had to battle it out against himself more often than not.
After reaching the pinnacle of the sport in 2008 and with a convincing victory at the Australian Open in 2009, Rafa was literally at the top of the world, before it all came crashing down on him. Starting with his first loss at the French Open fourth round due to tendinitis, followed by his subsequent withdrawal from Wimbledon due to the inflammation, to his dispiriting losses in the hardcourt season – each day was a battle for Rafa, till he re-grouped himself, fueled and smoked by the speculation about his premature retirement from the sport. It is a stirring testimony to the man’s tenacity that he managed to put all those disappointments behind him and come back even stronger, putting together one of the finest seasons ever seen in 2010, (even winning the US Open in the process, thus completing his career Slam). Through sheer will power and determination, Rafa regained all that he had once coveted, achieved and lost unexpectedly. If we didn’t know it already, Rafa’s comeback proved to us once and for all that he was a champion for the ages.
A quintessential sportsman – professional to a fault, dogged in his aim to win every point he plays and superstitious in his on-court beliefs, Rafa underscores the core of sportsmanship. In a sporting world where many sport stars claim to be perfect, Rafa is one player who chooses to consciously refrain from making any claims about himself. With those incredibly unassuming mannerisms of his, he makes his way on the court, wins matches and entertains the crowds, leaving the commenting, critiquing and the presuming for the world to execute. A no-nonsense champion, if ever there was one.
And now for the customary video. While Nadal’s victory over Federer at the 2008 Wimbledon may have been the greatest match in history, his victory over Federer at the 2008 French Open may well have been the greatest display of dominance in history. A 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 victory is a crushing win by any standard, but when it comes in a Grand Slam final, you know you’re talking about something special. Check out the highlights of that stunning performance from Nadal:
Here are the other players who have made it so far:
No. 20 – Venus Williams; No. 19 – Justine Henin; No. 18 – Ken Rosewall; No. 17 – Andre Agassi; No. 16 – Pancho Gonzales; No. 15 – Monica Seles; No. 14 – John McEnroe; No. 13 – Ivan Lendl; No. 12 – Jimmy Connors; No. 11 – Margaret Court; No. 10 – Billie Jean King
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: