It’s a tired argument. It’s cumbersome, counterproductive, divisive and by all accounts, pointless. Heck, I’d even say that it is the one tennis discussion that is guaranteed to leave a bad taste in the mouth of every single person involved. But with every victory that Rafael Nadal notches up in his already glittering career, every obstacle that he demolishes with a purposefulness never seen before on a tennis court, every step that he takes towards immortality, you can’t help but get drawn to the biggest debate of them all. Is Nadal the greatest tennis player of all time?
The very fact that we are now asking ourselves whether he is the greatest ‘player’ rather than the greatest ‘claycourter’ indicates the huge additions that the man has made to his legacy in the last couple of years. That he is the greatest claycourter in history is, today, an unquestionable fact. He has left everyone else, including the great Bjorn Borg, trailing in his wake; with nine French Open titles, a preposterous 66-1 record in Paris and a staggering 92.86% win record on the surface, there is no one – and I mean no one – who even comes close. And with his 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 win over his arch-rival Novak Djokovic in the French Open final today, Nadal has raised his claycourt credentials to even more mythical proportions – if that was even possible.
Every year, the tennis world starts the season collectively wondering whether anybody will have the backbone to challenge Nadal at Roland Garros. Over a whole decade dating back to 2005, the suspects have varied, but in recent years they have narrowed down to just one man – a certain serendipitous Serb. The worries of Nadal’s fans and the hopes of Nadal’s haters hinge wholly around Djokovic, the man who is out to claim his rightful reign over the one land left unconquered by the blows of his battering ram racquet. Every year, we exchange solemn comments among ourselves pondering Djokovic’s fate in Paris, frequently posing the rhetorical question, “Surely Djokovic is going to win the French Open some day?” Every year, we think, or worry, that ‘some day’ is going to arrive this very spring.
But if 10 years of Nadal holding the fort with a kind of spectacular stubbornness is anything to go by, that ‘some day’ may actually never come to pass. Maybe we could all save ourselves a lot of stress by just turning this into a universal truth? To put it in four words – it cannot be done. There is no chance of Nadal losing at the French Open. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Of course, there is the small matter of Nadal having actually lost a match at Roland Garros, to the legendary Robin Soderling back in 2009. But that can easily be explained away by the fact that his knees had been troubling him all through that loss, and he actually pulled out of the next Slam – Wimbledon – despite being the defending champion there. So with a little tweak, the universal truth would still hold good – defeating a fully fit Nadal at the French Open is just not possible.
In the early part of his career – and that 2009 loss played a big part in this – there was plenty of speculation about Nadal’s injury-prone body shortening his career. But all of that sounds like hogwash now. He’s 28 today, and still playing as well as he ever did. His forehand still has the same wondrous sting, his defence is still astonishingly impregnable, and his movement on the dirt still regularly elicits gasps of disbelief from the crowd. And then there is his mind.
Yesterday I had talked about Maria Sharapova’s refusal to yield, and how it makes her such a great champion. But with Sharapova, you get the sense that when she is pushed into a corner, she throws it all out on the court, rolling the dice and hoping for fortune to favour the brave. Nadal, on the other hand, takes it several steps further; when cornered, Nadal not only throws it all out on the court, he also ensures that he does that with a healthy dose of practicality. The Spaniard often comes across as a pessimist when he talks, but really, he is the consummate realist. Even when he’s down and out, even when he’s desperately flailing about in the face of certain disaster, he ensures that he alone is in control of his destiny. He will not give up, no, but he will also make damned sure that the opponent is given every opportunity to throw in the towel. He will make you play the proverbial extra ball, and he will usually force you to do that from an uncomfortable position on the court.
And that, ultimately, has led to the downfall of of all those innumerable pretenders who dared to challenge Rafa’s reign on clay, and in particular, to the collapse of Djokovic today. Djokovic would take control of countless rallies with his bold strikes, but Nadal would somehow get the ball back in play, eliciting an error from the Serb’s racquet. Djokovic would smack returns right at Nadal’s feet, but the Spaniard would somehow redirect the ball to a neutral spot on the court. Djokovic would take the first set with a brilliant mix of attack and dogged defence, but Nadal would merely push that out of his mind, tighten up his game and get back to work. Djokovic would keep belting big second serves down the T and out wide to handcuff Nadal all through the match, but the Spaniard would calmly put the ball back in the court almost every single time, finally coaxing a double fault out of the Serb on match point.
I’ve probably said this a lot of times in the past, but there’s just no place to hide against Nadal on clay. He may lose the occasional best-of-three sets match on the surface, as he did twice this year. But over five sets, on the biggest claycourt in the world, you can’t hurt him long enough to actually win the match. You can run as quick as him and hit harder than him, but you simply cannot outlast him; sooner or later, he will wear you down. Defeating Rafael Nadal at the French Open may well be the toughest task in modern sport. No wait, scratch that; defeating Rafael Nadal at the French Open is the only impossible task in modern sport.
So yes, as I said at the start of this column, there is no argument that Nadal is the greatest claycourter of all time. But with 14 Slams to his name now, a 23-10 head-to-head record against the next strongest GOAT candidate, and a remarkable turnaround in his rivalry with his supposed nemesis (Nadal has now won the last four Grand Slam matches against Djokovic), does he really need to reach that magical figure of 17 to be called the greatest player of all time?
That’s a tired argument, and also perhaps a never-ending one (or at least, until Nadal actually gets to No. 17). I’m sure Nadal isn’t thinking about that right now, so maybe we shouldn’t either, as tempting as it may seem. Instead, maybe we should scratch our heads trying to come up with an answer to this: is a Rafael Nadal victory at the French Open more certain than death and taxes?Published 09 Jun 2014, 02:04 IST