Monday, February 2, 2009

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

There can no longer be any doubt - he is the best player in the world today, he has been for the last 12 months, and it's likely that he will remain the best player in the world for the remainder of 2009. With his maiden victory at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal has shown that he may very well be chasing history of his own this year, with a calendar year Grand Slam - and it is likely to overshadaow that which has now become something of a distraction to that, which is Federer's pursuit of Pete Sampras' record 14 grand slams. For my money, it's now time to put aside the scrutiny and speculation on that.

In winning the Australian Open for the first time in his career, Nadal has now won 3 out of 4 slams, with only the US Open lacking in his cabinet. He also happens to have won 3 out of the last 4 grand slams, and bettered his initial results from 2009 by one better than his likely closest competitor. In the past, this part of the season for Nadal has focused on preparation for the clay court season, and a defense of (seemingly eternal) French Open crown, with a brief interlude for the two events at Indian Wells and Miami, which make absolutely no sense at all, but to which all players are obliged to make an appearance. Recall that last year he nearly won Miami, losing a strangely lobsided final against Davydenko, while the week previous lost a semi-final to Djokovic, who curiously is the only man to have beaten Nadal twice in 2008 (he did it again in Cincinnati before losing the final the Andy Murray).

This year, he'll be the favorite in those tournaments because of his results in Melbourne, but frankly, Nadal seems to have built the right to be considered the favorite in every match he plays because there are no longer any weaknesses or any holes in his game that anyone can find. What strikes the most about his victory in Australia is the manner in which it was won. Initially, he appeared to be having his way with a sub-par level of opponents, right up until the quarterfinal with Gonzalez, but even when facing the best losing performance of the tournament - a 95-winner slamfest from compatriot Verdasco, Nadal showed that his indominatable spirit would not be denied, as he put in a superior performance and most importantly with fewer errors and fewer aces to pad his numbers.

The final appeared to only be as close as it was because of the fatigue he must have felt from the 5-hour epic in the previous round. Even as his legs became wobbly, Nadal simply dug deeper than anyone else in the world could have, and went for broke. The fact is that when he had the chance to mentally check out, with a ready made excuse for losing, he chose to pull his socks up and go for broke over and over again. Whereas Federer, with ample opportunities to close out the first set, and the third, wilted under the pressure in a way we're more accustomed to seeing his opponents do against him.

But this is no ordinary opponent.

In the end, it was the most correct result possible, for if Nadal had lost the final, there would be an asterisk next to the loss due to the incredibly disproportionate scheduling that saw him play 24 hours after a 5 hour match. Thankfully that didn't happen, and clearly the best man won.

Although he will evade the question until the US Open, as he has craftily avoided the question of favorites and scheduling and everything else that could have derailed him today, it is not too early to begin to ask ourselves if this is the year that Nadal wins the calendar year Grand Slam. Defending his title in France will not be easy, but the unusually long break between the Australian Open and the French gives him plenty of time to rest and prepare for that one month between June and July that will determine if he enters the US Open with the chance to become the first man in 40 years and only third man in history to win this coveted prize.

Based on his performance today, and indeed over the last 12 months, only a fool would bet against him. And if he wins the calendar year grand slam and adds 3 more slams to his career total of 6, he'd be at 9 - one shy of Bill Tilden, 2 shy of Laver and Borg, and 3 shy of Emerson, 4 of Federer and 5 short of the great Pete Sampras.

A year ago, a blogger on another site posed the question of whether in Nadal, in 2008, we were were witnessing the birth of the GOAT, and many, including this author, scoffed at the notion. But based on his technique, his physical power, his tactical acumen and his sheer dominance of will, I won't be making that mistake again. It is entirely possible, and at this point appears likely that Rafael Nadal will become the greatest player in the history of the game. He will win the US Open eventually, he will win more French Opens, and Wimbledons and since he's only 22, with absolutely no sign of satisfying his appetite, it appears is well on his way to eclipsing Sampras within the next 3-4 years.

I wonder if the bookies have odds on that?
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