published Monday, June 10th, 2013

Wiedmer: Nadal may now argue for best ever

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates winning against compatriot David Ferrer in three sets 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, in the final of the French Open tennis tournament, at Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Sunday June 9, 2013.
Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates winning against compatriot David Ferrer in three sets 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, in the final of the French Open tennis tournament, at Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Sunday June 9, 2013.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

His biggest fans have argued for years that Rafael Nadal will eventually become the greatest tennis player ever.

Given his 20-10 career mark against Roger Federer -- the player most of the rest of the world considers the GOAT (greatest of all time) -- such a statement is not without merit.

Especially after this past weekend in Paris, where Nadal became the first player in history to win the same Grand Slam tournament eight times when he again captured the French Open on his beloved red clay.

In case you missed it, that's eight French crowns in nine years, which also just happens to be a 59-1 overall record at the event.

Another perspective: By straight-setting the scrappy munchkin David Ferrer on Sunday, Nadal has now lost a total of 18 sets in nine French tourneys.

As his fellow Spaniard noted after the loss, "Rafael, in important moments, he's the best."

Throw in Nadal's two Wimbledon crowns to date, his one Aussie Open title and lone U.S. Open championship -- as well as the fact that he just turned 27 -- and it's easy for even the most intense Federer defenders to worry that the GOAT's record 17 Grand Slam tourney titles could be in jeopardy, which would end any argument about which player is the best ever.

Yet to watch Nadal through this past fortnight in France is to wonder if he might not already be that, or at least be but one or two non-French Grand Slam titles away from casting great doubt concerning Fed's stranglehold on the GOAT label.

We'll begin with Nadal's record in Grand Slam finals against Federer, which is 6-2. In all other Slam finals, Fed stands 15-1.

Beyond that, Nadal is undefeated against Federer (6-0) aside from Wimbledon, where Fed leads 2-1. The two have never met at the U.S. Open, but Nadal is 5-0 against him at the French and 2-0 at the Aussie Open.

Overall, he's 14-6 in all tournament finals against the GOAT.

It's not just Federer, however, that Nadal personally owns. Following last Friday's epic five-set victory over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the Spaniard has a 20-15 lead in that pairing, though most of that has come on the King of Clay's favorite surface, where Nadal leads 13-3.

Yet Nadal also has won 21 of his last 22 matches against the Top 10 on all surfaces. He's played in nine tournaments this year, reached the final in every one and won seven of them.

And he's doing all of this in 2013 after missing seven months between August of 2012 and February of this year with knee issues, which have plagued him for most of his career.

If Nadal's finally 100 percent, or close to it, it's harder to imagine him not passing Federer's 17 Slams than it is to see him on top.

This isn't to say Federer supporters are without argument for his permanent role as GOAT if Nadal falls short of 17, especially if he never passes 14 or 15. The human Swiss Army Knife will almost certainly be remembered as the most graceful, creative, elegant champion in history, tennis's Ali to Nadal's Joe Frazier.

And in some respects, Federer's unrelenting excellence -- 36 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals -- has now begun to work against him. Just as Pete Sampras wore down before Andre Agassi, Federer may be hitting the wall at 31, all those extra miles on his slender frame no longer able to consistently hang with the biggest hitters over the seven straight matches required to claim a major.

To revisit tennis analyst Mary Carillo's astute observation: "There are times when Federer almost looks frail out there."

His supporters will say he won Wimbledon for a seventh time a year ago, and a fully healthy Federer might gut out a similar victory this summer, though he seems to be suffering from a sore back these days, even if he swears otherwise.

Either way, he's reached but one major final (Wimbledon) since the 2011 French Open and has failed to advance to the final in 11 of his last 13 majors. Five times during that span he's failed to escape the quarterfinals.

In fact, Nadal's chief rival is no longer Federer, but Djokovic, who has reached 12 straight Grand Slam semis, winning five of eight finals over that span. He has six total Slam crowns, trailing only Federer and Nadal among active players.

So now it's on to Wimbledon, where 2012 U.S. Open winner and Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray hopes to rejoin the rest of the Big Four of Nadal, Djokovic and Fed.

But something Nadal mentioned Sunday may already hint at the eventual result in jolly ol' England.

Said the King of Clay, "The things are going more than perfect."

Which could lead to perfectly awful results for everyone in his way in the months, if not years, to come.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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