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By Raymond Lee

© Michael O'Kane


(October 11, 2010) In April 2002 an incredibly gifted left hander made his debut at the ridiculously young age of 15 years, 10 months. This 15-year-old year old sporting the lion's mane of long hair kept in place by the ever-present Nike headband, won his first ATP match that day, defeating Ramon Delgado. Two years later in 2004 he met the No. 1  player in the world Roger Federer and defeated him on hard court in Miami in an amazing upset at the time. They would meet far more often in the future, during much more important occasions.

Of course this lefty was Rafael Nadal.

Last month, Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in four sets to win the US Open for the first time, completing the elusive career Grand Slam.

At the age of 24 years, 101 days, Nadal became just the seventh man in history to complete the career Grand Slam. Nadal is the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in succession. He is the third youngest man to complete the career Grand Slam after Don Budge (22 years, 357 days) and Laver (24 years, 32 days).

Nadal is clearly already an all-time great and seems on his way to setting new records every other week. So how does Nadal, who is at perhaps the middle or even the early part of his career compare to some of the greats in tennis history at this point?

The World No. 1 has already accumulated some astonishing records but we must remember that tennis has been around for a long time and there have been thousands of superb players over the years at the top level. How does Nadal compare to legends like Laver, Gonzalez, Rosewall, Tilden, Federer, Sampras, Borg, Connors, Lendl and Budge at this stage?

As of early October, 2010 Nadal has already collected43 tournaments in his career. The all-time leader is Rod Laver with an incredible 199 tournament victories in his career. Laver won these tournaments at ane eye-popping .385 percentage.

To put that number in perspective, Nadal has won his 43 tournaments in 138 tournaments entered, a winning rate of .312, which is superb. Arch rival Federer has claimed 63 championships. Federer has won .279 percent of the tournaments he's entered. Hall of Famer Pete Sampras is ever so slightly ahead of Federer with 64 tournament wins in his career, winning .228 percent of his tournaments. So Rafa, while behind both of these legends in total tournaments won, is ahead of them in percentage of tournaments won to tournaments entered.

Jimmy Connors is the Open Era leader in tournament triumphs at 149. Connors won tournaments at approximately a .312 percentage rate. Ivan Lendl is slightly behind Connors at 146, winning at about a .283 percentage rate. Bjorn Borg won 105 tournaments by age 25, winning at an astounding .418 rate, by far the best of the Open Era.

Other leaders in all-time tournament victories include the legendary Bill Tilden at 161 and Ken Rosewall at 136. Rosewall won his 136 tournaments at about a .265 rate. So right now Nadal is far behind the all-time leaders in tournaments won. Nadal has already won nine majors at the tender age of 24.

This is far behind Ken “The Doomsday Stroking Machine” Rosewall and Laver who, if you include the old pro majors (professional players were barred from playing Grand Slam tournaments before the Open Era, but they did have their own "pro majors") have 23 and 19 majors respectively and of course Roger Federer, the "official" record holder with 16 out of 46 attempts, a .348 percentage. Of course Federer can still add to that already outstanding total.

Sampras was the “official” leader until recently with 14 majors out of 52 attempts. Sampras won his majors at a .269 rate. Rosewall and Laver won majors at a rate of .333 and .345 respectively.

To compare, Nadal has won 9 out of 26 majors for a rate of .346. Of course Nadal has won his last three majors and it seems that like Federer and a number of other greats, he may be entering a phase in his career where he may win a good number of majors plus other tournaments in a very short period and raise his overall percentage numbers and total numbers.

Other champions with great numbers in the majors include Pancho Gonzalez at 14 titles, Tilden with 13, Emerson with 12 and Borg with 11. They won majors at respectively at a .318, .289, .207 and .417 rates. Borg’s rate of winning majors is the highest of the Open Era. However perhaps more importantly, if Nadal wins the Australian Open in January of 2011, he will be the first man since awesome Aussie Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors simultaneously.

It may not be quite a Grand Slam but it would be an amazing achievement nevertheless. Very few in tennis history have ever held all four majors at the same time. It would be another great achievement in a career that often seems to have nothing but great achievements. Currently Nadal is 14 majors behind Rosewall.

Can Nadal possibly win enough to catch Rosewall?

It seems tough but not inconceivable considering his recent success in majors. The French Open in recent years (the exception, or of course was Federer's French Open win in '09) has been private property of Nadal and right now he looks to be able to keep that control for a number of years. It seems as of now that Nadal should easily get into the low double digits in majors fairly quickly just on his mastery of the French Open alone. And judging by the last few years Nadal looks to be the favorite or one of the co-favorites in all the other majors.

How does Rafael Nadal compare with his top rival, Roger Federer, overall?

Obviously Federer is ahead by a clear margin in total tournaments won by 63 to 43 and in majors by 16 to 9. This is offset by the fact Nadal is five years younger than Federer and potentially he can make up the difference in those five years. However I have a hunch Federer doesn’t want to do Nadal a favor by not winning anymore and wait for Nadal to catch him if he can.

For Nadal to win 20  tournaments in five years seems at this point to be fairly easy for a player of his superb level. The difference in majors of seven between Federer and Nadal seems more difficult considering many all time greats never won a total of seven majors in their career.

John McEnroe won his seventh and last major at age 25 and never won a major again so you never can tell what will happen. At that point in John McEnroe’s career it wouldn’t have been a big surprise to people if he came close to twenty majors in his career. Nadal has an advantage over Federer in lifetime winning percentage and percentage of tournaments won. He wins 82.5 percent of his matches compared to Federer at 80.8 percent and Nadal wins 31.2 percent of his tournaments entered compared to Federer at 27.9 percent. At this rate it seems fairly easy for Nadal to equal or surpass Federer’s current amount of tournament wins by age 29, the age Federer is currently.

Nadal stands 14 majors behind Rosewall, 10 behind Laver and 7 behind Federer. Can he reach Federer’s “official total” of 16? 

It’s entirely possible for Nadal to match Federer’s 16-major record, but I’m sure Federer wants to put that majors record out of reach of Nadal by winning more majors himself.

Incidentally, I am of the opinion that the all time majors records in recent years that many have called incredible, like Sampras’s former record of 14 and Federer’s current mark of 16 is really not that astonishing and very vulnerable to being broken. The reason why? Because the top players who turned pro in the pre Open Era were for years banned from playing the majors.

Other factors in the past as lack of airplane transportation and more recently many top players skipping the  Australian Open for a good part of mid 1970's to mid 1980’s. It is very hard to win a large amount of majors if you can’t enter them.

Presently, top pros are expected to enter every major and this was not always the case.

Sampras entered 52 majors, Federer has played 46 majors and Nadal so far has entered 26 majors. Tilden only was able to enter 23 majors, winning 10. I believe if there was Open Tennis from the beginning with the current conditions we have now that the majors record in the classic majors would be around what Rosewall has now, 23 majors if you include the Pro Majors.

Consider that the top players among the women, who have always been able to play all the majors easily in the last sixty plus years hold the record with 24 and 22 by Margaret Court and Steffi Graf. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova both have 18 majors despite the fact they both denied each other more majors. All obviously have more majors than Roger Federer. Tilden perhaps would have been the first to 20 majors if he had the advantages we had today of Open Tennis, top transportation among other things.

The French Open was exclusively played by French players for a period during Tilden’s time. Despite all of this Tilden won eight majors out of eight entered from 1920 to 1925. Under today’s playing conditions he would have missed 16 majors during that period in which he was virtually invincible. How many majors would he have won if he were able to play those 16 majors during that time?

Without all of these advantages Tilden won 13 majors, if you include the Pro Majors. That is still a pretty impressive achievement. Another factor we have to consider is how good the player was during their peak. Federer for example has been superhuman during his peak years winning over 90% of his matches and 12 out of 20 majors entered, winning 60% of his majors entered. By comparison Nadal has never won 90% of his matches in any single year although he has a decent chance to do that this year. So far Federer has that period of utter dominance that Nadal hasn’t quite had yet although you may argue 2008 and 2010 for Nadal. The problem is that 2009 wasn’t a particularly good year for Nadal. I know this was largely due to injury but injuries are a part of life on the pro tour.

Federer, perhaps partly due to his smooth style of play has had very few injuries in his career. During this peak period Federer and a number of other greats have performed better than Nadal has done so far. The key words are “so far” because it’s very possible Nadal may be entering his peak period now and we don’t know how good his peak period may be. It’s not just the percentage numbers but also the amount of tournaments won plus top tournaments won (by top tournaments I don’t just mean majors but strong tournaments like the Masters at the end of the year) during his peak period.

Laver won 83 tournaments in five years during his peak period. Borg won 76 and Tilden won 69 tournaments during their best five year periods. Federer also has done extremely well, winning 49 tournaments in 88 tournaments entered from 2003 to 2007. Nadal hasn’t come close yet to this, winning for example only 30 tournaments out of 86 tournaments entered in the last five years. And you do wonder if his extremely physical style of play can stand up to the pounding of a demanding schedule.

It is in the majors where Nadal may make his mark and frankly already has to a degree. Nadal is clearly one of the greatest clay court players in history, winning five French Open titles and he is one of the few players in history to be able to make the statement that he has won all the major titles at least once in their career. This is an impressive claim which shows a player’s ability to adapt to all surfaces although I don’t believe it is the end all. For example if Roger Federer never won the French Open I don’t think people would remark that Federer couldn’t play well on red clay. So where does Nadal stand so far among the all time greats? Nadal has already won 43 tournaments, great for his age but some have surpassed that, even at the same age.

Nadal is already won about the same amount of tournaments as Don Budge is estimated to have won. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect Nadal to win 30 or more tournaments in the next five years which would put him in the 70 to 80 plus range on his way past 100 tournament victories. As far as Grand Slam titles are concerned, who knows how far he can go?

The French Open seems to always be in his hip pocket if he plays it and is healthy. Of course that can change as he ages or has a new unforeseen great foe. Can Nadal win more majors than any other player in history? It would be foolish to write that he cannot but as with any player that ever played the odds would be against him. Can Nadal win more tournaments than any player in tennis history? That would seem almost impossible. Even if Nadal won 10 tournaments a year for the next 15 years he would be still fall short of Laver’s superhuman mark. Nadal has more than 10 tournaments in a year only once, in 2005, when he won 11 tournaments.

The most remarkable feature of Rafael Nadal to me is not necessarily his astounding error free powerful topspin baseline game but his relentless work ethic and his ability to improve. From a subjective point of view he has improved his serve (which used to be timed in the low 100 mile per hour range) where it is now a major weapon, often being timed in the 130 plus mile per hour range. He has made his backhand so strong that it is considered by many about as strong as his great forehand. Nadal’s volley is now very strong and is considered one of the best in the game. His stamina, speed and will to win have rarely been surpassed in tennis history. Rafa seems to be a player without weakness. There seems to be no obvious areas to attack unlike many other all time greats. And of course he is a left hander, always an advantage.

Who knows what Rafael Nadal can do in the future?

Of course it has to be tough to accomplish things in tennis that only the greats have done and try to surpass them. The odds are always stacked against a player who wants to be considered among the immortals of tennis. You cannot tell what will happen. Injuries are always a danger and there are other factors that may get in Nadal's way of course.

I for one would not be surprised if years from now when we discuss the Greatest Ever in tennis, that Rafael Nadal is one of the names that quickly come to mind.


Tennis Now contributing writer Raymond Lee is a tennis historian from New York. His previous articles include: The Natural: Remembering Pancho Gonzalez and Magnificent Seven: Matches That Changed The Course Of Tennis History.

 

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