When Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic to win his first US Open title in 2010, the then 24-year-old became the youngest man to achieve a Career Grand Slam and only the second to have a Career Golden Grand Slam.
It was Nadal’s third straight Major, won on a third different surface, in his first final at Flushing Meadows. He had already won more than Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi or Ivan Lendl and he was only 24.
But even then, to a large section of perennially unsatisfied tennis watchers, there were judgements to be made and comparisons to be drawn. The reactions to the then remarkable feat among fans and even some writers were broadly divided into two sections:
- He has nine Grand Slams now, can be beat Roger Federer’s all-time record of 16 and become the GOAT? (Greatest Of All Time)
- Look how long it took him to breakthrough at US Open, despite having five French Open and two Wimbledon titles, he won’t enjoy hardcourt success.
In the decade of fan loyalties bitterly divided between Federer and Nadal, one can guess which reaction belonged to which faction. The battles, both online and in person, were fierce and personal. Nadal was always spoken of in extremes – either the ultimate or the aspirant, no middle ground.
By virtue of his age, he was always second in the records race for some. Because of his age, he was always rated higher by others. He is the ‘King of Clay’ but has only one Australian Open, said some. He beat Federer in five-setters in the finals of both Wimbledon and Australian Open, said others.
Nine years later, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the debate is almost pointless now. In a few months, the losing finalist of 2010 would start a season that would change men’s tennis. The “GOAT” debate would have another contender. The record of 16 Grand Slams – then thought to be almost insurmountable – would be the lowest in the list among active players.
Consequently, the reactions to Nadal’s stunning US Open 2019 win have now evolved to one central question: He has 19 Grand Slams now, when he beats Federer’s all-time record of 20, will that even be a record? Who will end up with the most Majors? No matter who does, can there even be one GOAT in this generation of men’s tennis?
Nadal has an answer to it, a different one from 2010 though.
2010: “Talk about if I am better or worse than Roger is stupid, because the titles say he’s much better than me… It’s too far; 16, for me, is too far to think about right now”
2019: “All the things that I achieved in my career are much more than what I ever thought and what I ever dream. I would love to be the one who has more, yes. But I really believe that I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or not happen. What gives you the happiness is the personal satisfaction that you gave your best.”
And therein lies the greatness of Rafael Nadal: Not just in being the best ever or the most successful but in the journey he has had to get here. From admitting he is far behind the best to almost being there.
The journey that eliminated all comparisons and instead, made it a celebration. The journey that saw him first chase Federer and then battle Djokovic to records in the toughest era of men’s tennis. The journey that raised the ‘King of Clay’ to an all-court great on the back of sheer effort.
Nobody, not even hardcore Federer or Djokovic fans, begrudge Nadal his titles or rejoice in his losses anymore. After his the epic five-set final against Daniil Medvedev, when the 33-year-old openly wept watching a video of his 19 Grand Slam titles, you cried with him because you knew how hard that journey was.
In the last decade, against all odds, Nadal is finally – for the first time – the closest he has ever been to Federer’s all-time tally. He had long held the record for most career Masters 1000, even though he is yet to win a couple of the year-end ones as well as the ATP Finals: a blemish that elevates his status because it tells you what his physical limitations are. He is even back in contention to being the world No 1, if Djokovic’s injury forces him to be out of action longer.
The tennis world’s myopic worldview – the record for most Majors makes you the best – can no longer dilute his claim, even when he is one short. As for the other narrow-minded depiction of ‘clay-court’ specialist, the numbers post this US Open speak for themselves.
- He is the fifth man in the Open Era to win four or more US Opens after Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras and Federer won five each, while John McEnroe won four.
- He is the first man in the Open Era to win five Grand Slam titles after turning 30, which includes two US Open titles.
- He is the oldest player since Rod Laver to reach all four Grand Slam semi-finals in a single season… reaching three finals and winning two. (At Wimbledon, he lost to Federer.)
- He has won two Masters to add to his two Majors defending a hard-court title for the first time at Rogers Cup.
And now the cherry on the cake: he achieved all of this in a year he started injured, was crushed in a Major final, suffered another mid-season layoff, lost motivation after losses even on clay. The year 2019 was not Nadal at his best and yet he leads the ATP Tour in terms of points.
The 33-year-old constant struggles with injury and numerous mid-match retirements have been recounted enough and more times. As has his resilience to overcome his brittle body with single-minded focus and the spirit of a warrior. The way he cracked and rebuilt and battled in the five hours of the US Open final is his career in a nutshell, after all.
But what needs to be spoken about more often is how Nadal is giving greatness a new meaning. His greatness is not a comparison to Federer, it’s not a competition with Djokovic, it’s not a call-back to any former legend. With dominance on clay and doggedness on other surfaces, with his continuous effort to fight harder and be better, with his willpower and evolution, Nadal has made his greatness about the journey as much as the destination.