Can Rafa Nadal Be the Greatest of All Time? | Zagsblog
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Friday / July 19.
  • Can Rafa Nadal Be the Greatest of All Time?

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    NEW YORK — The way Mats Wilander figures it, trying to determine who owns the title “Greatest of All Time” in tennis is kind of like trying to determine who the greatest rock ‘n’ roll guitarist of all time is.

    Is it Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page? Keith Richards or The Edge?

    “I think that the only way you can compare is are the musicians better today than when the Beatles came up or Keith Richards’ guitar playing,” Wilander told at the Open.

    “There are obviously better guitar players than Keith Richards, they’re better technically, but they’re not playing with more feel.”

    Still, the debate about the GOAT in tennis is one that makes for lively debate and discussions in bars, locker rooms and around the Open grounds.

    Now, with No. 2 Nadal set to play No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the men’s final Monday afternoon, the questions becomes increasingly relevant. Is Nadal already the Greatest of All Time? If not, what does he need to do to get there?

    If Nadal wins the Open, it would give him 13 Grand Slam singles titles, still one behind Pete Sampras’ 14 and four behind Roger Federer’s all-time men’s record of 17.

    “I think [Nadal] has to definitely get to 15,” said Wilander, who himself won seven Majors, including the 1988 U.S. Open. “I do think that he has to win the U.S. Open twice, he needs to win the Australian Open twice.

    “Even though Roger only won the French once, he was up against the greatest claycourt player of all time. So I think if Rafa wins here, wins the Australian Open one more time, then he’s got 14. Then I think we can start talking about potentially who’s the greatest player.

    “Maybe not of all time because where’s Rod Laver in the whole thing?”

    Laver, of course, is one of only two men to win the calendar year Grand Slam — and he did it twice, in 1962 and ’69. He finished with 11 Grand Slam singles titles but won eight more professional majors — for a total of 19.

    “Rod Laver is in the picture,” Nadal said. “If I have to say something about Rod, if we can compare Roger with another one to be the best of the history, is with Rod Laver because he won two times, no, the Grand Slam, so then he didn’t play the Grand Slams for few years because he turn professional, so he was not able to play. So he won once, and then he played again another time and he was able to win.

    “In theory, during that years, that going to be the best years for him. So he would have the chance to win as much as Roger did. You never know.”

    Of Nadal’s 12 Majors, eight have come at the French Open, two at Wimbledon and one each at the U.S. and Australian Opens.

    Federer, considered by many to be the GOAT, has won seven Wimbledons, five U.S. Opens, four Australian Opens and one French.

    Speaking of Federer and Nadal, here are some other key stats to keep in mind:

    Total Major Finals: Federer 24 (17-7), Nadal 17 (12-5)

    Head-to-head: Nadal leads 21-10

    Totals weeks at No. 1: Federer 302, Nadal 102.

    Consecutive years winning a Major: Nadal 9, Federer 8 (tied with Sampras and Bjorn Borg)

    Nadal is 27 and people like to point out that his creaky knees won’t allow him to play well into his 30s.

    That may be, but he is playing this tournament with no tape on his left knee and is moving about as well as we’ve seen him in recent years.

    He is a perfect 21-0 on outdoor hardcourts this year and has won nine events.

    “I think if he’s smart with his schedule and the fact that he has so many at such a young age, I think he could very well do it [pass Federer],” Sampras said in 2010.

    “It’s a huge goal. It’s a lot of majors, it’s a lot of work. Quite honestly, I don’t think he really needs to. He’s won all the majors, he won the Olympics. He’s dominated his main rival in Roger. And I don’t think his goal is 16 or 17 or 18. I think he’s just going to try to improve as a tennis player, and if it happens, great.”

    Though Wilander and Sampras think Nadal is likely to challenge Federer’s record of 17, they also wonder whether it’s even possible to determine one GOAT.

    “Everyone wants to name the one guy,” Sampras said. “The way I look at all sports, and especially tennis, is each generation has their guy. In the ’60s, it was Laver. You had Ivan [Lendl] and John [McEnroe] during the ’80s. Myself and Andre [Agassi] for the ’90s.

    “Now we have Rafa who’s done everything in the game. He’s won all the majors. He’s won the Olympics. He’s got a winning record against Roger so you could very well put him on the top of the list. But it’s so argumentative. There’s no clear best player of all time. Each decade has their guy. You put [Bjorn] Borg in there, you put Don Budge up there.

    “Rafa’s definitely up there. You’ve got to put him in the top three or four just on what he’s been able to do. And it’s not over yet. He’s in the middle of his career, so he could do a lot more great things.”

    Wilander has similar thoughts on the subjective nature of the GOAT debate.

    “There’s not an answer to that question,” the Swede said. “It’s such an obvious question that we have to ask and it’s an answer that we would like to reach at some point but we will never get the answer because how do you compare anybody to anybody?

    “Roger is playing in a generation that’s not his. He’s in Lleyton [Hewitt]’s generation, Andy [Roddick]’s generation, David Nalbandian’s generation. He was the greatest in his generation. In Rafa’s generation, Rafa’s the greatest. And the two of them lapped over.

    “McEnroe beat Borg a couple of times and Borg quit. It doens’t mean that we think McEnroe is greater than Borg. Borg is greater than McEnroe in one way because he won more, but clearly McEnroe was a better player than Borg once they ended up playing against each other. It’s crazy.”

    Wilander also points out that Federer — who was bounced here in the fourth round by Tommy Robredo — may well go down as the popular player in tennis history.

    “Roger has an unbelievable record, touched more hearts in the world of tennis than any player in the history of the game and he most probably will go down as the most popular player of all time,” Wilander said.

    “Whether he’s the best driver in the fastest car or whether Rod Laver was the best driver in one of the Model T-Fords in the ’50s and ’60s, I don’t think it’s important.”

    If you ask a couple of current players, including newly-minted U.S. Open women’s champ Serena Williams, Federer remains the GOAT, at least until someone gets 17 or more Majors.

    “If you’re going by numbers, Roger still has more Grand Slams than Rafa, so you have to go with that,” Serena said.

    Hewitt, who won two Majors and lost in the fourth round here, agreed.

    “I think Rafa still has to win some more Grand Slams to catch Roger in terms of greatness,” Hewitt said. “Yeah, it’s hard. Roger’s been around for so many years and dominated for so long; whereas Rafa dominated on clay for so long now.”

    On the other hand, Jim Courier, a four-time Major winner, believes that because Nadal dominated Federer head-to-head, it’s impossible to call Federer the GOAT.

    So here we are on the brink of the U.S. Open final and the debate rages on.

    If Nadal wins, he will have 13 Majors, including multiple titles everywhere except the Australian Open. If he were to win the Australian Open in January after winning in New York, he would have 14, including multiples at all four Majors.

    Of course, Djokovic is standing in Nadal’s way and if he were to win on Monday afternoon, the Serb would have seven Majors. That’s not exactly 12 or 17, but he would be in a elite club that includes McEnroe and Wilander.

    As Harvey Araton of the New York Times has pointed out, nobody may be rooting harder for Djokovic today — and in the coming years — than Federer.

    Back in Switzerland, Federer, like the rest of the tennis world, will watch as the latest chapter in this fascinating story plays out.

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.

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