By Richard Pagliaro
© Melchior A. DiGiacomo © Natasha Peterson/Corleve
(September 23, 2010) There's a reason Rafael Nadal sports biceps pumped up to the point you might think there's a pineapple protruding beneath his skin. Since snapping his 11-month title drought in Monte Carlo in April, Nadal has been doing some heavy lifting in raising title trophies in six of his last nine tournaments.
Pete Sampras has watched Nadal's resurgence, which recently spiked again as the World No. 1 captured his first career US Open crown to complete the career Grand Slam.
Sampras says the nine-time Grand Slam champion is on pace to pick up the greatest Grand Slam record of them all. Sampras said today Nadal "could very well" break rival Roger Federer's all-time mark of 16 major titles and become the Grand Slam king before he calls it quits.
"I think if he's smart with his schedule and the fact he has so many at such a young age, I think he could very well do it," Sampras said in a conference call to promote his February 28th BNP Paribas showdown vs. arch rival Andre Agassi at Madison Square Garden. John McEnroe will face Ivan Lendl in the under card with tickets on sale September 27th at 10 a.m. "He's obviously got a lot more work ahead of him. The only question with Rafa is physically how much can his body handle the pounding of how hard he works for every point. The kid is relentless. It's a huge goal. It's a lot of majors. It's a lot of work."
The 14-time Grand Slam champion suggests if Nadal, who has add more variety to his game and is working to shorten points on faster surfaces, can withstand the physical pounding the record is within his reach.
Interestingly, Sampras, who admits he was driven to break Roy Emeron's Grand Slam record, suggests Nadal does not need to surpass Federer to go down as one of the top three all-time greats.
Given the fact the 24-year-old Spaniard is five years Federer's junior, owns a 14-7 career edge over the Swiss stylist in their head-to-head series, and in addition to the career Grand Slam has won the Olympic gold medal in singles and the Davis Cup championship, two feats Federer cannot match, Sampras suggests Nadal has already achieved tennis immortality regardless of the Grand Slam record.
"Quite honestly I don't think he really needs to (break the Grand Slam record)," Sampras said. "He's won all the majors, he's won the Olympics and he's dominated his main rival in Roger, and I don't think his goal (is to win) 16, 17 or 18. I think his goal is to improve as a tennis player and if it happens great. He could do it. You look at what's ahead — it's a lot of work. He's got to work so hard for every match that he plays. But he's a beast."
Federer is well aware Nadal, who is 6-0 in his last six Grand Slam finals, can lay claim to the mythical Greatest Of All Time crown if he continues to collect majors.
"Clearly has a chance because he's young enough. He has already so many, let's say, French Open titles to his name just alone at his age is an amazing accomplishment," Federer said. "Plus he's had some incredible clay court records that are going to be very hard to beat."
Factor in Nadal's 6-2 advantage over Federer in their major meetings and should Nadal reach double digits in Grand Slam titles at the very least you have to put him alongside Federer in the Great Debate, right?
Wrong, says Nadal, a World No. 1 who has the humility of a World No. 2 and says he dismisses head-to-head record as a criteria in determining the mythical GOAT.
"Head-to-head is not an element for me," Nadal said after his semifinal sweep of Mikhail Youzhny at the Open. "Even a Grand Slam is important element, but not all on tennis because for me some things, more important things and more difficult things to do than win a Grand Slam."
Nadal asserts that Federer's record of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, a mark some view as the gold standard of tennis milestones, should carry weight as well as Masters Series titles.
"In my opinion, Roger won 16 Grand Slams already," Nadal said. "But what he did 23 or 24 semifinals in a row, that's something amazing. It is impossible to repeat, in my opinion. For me, what I did on clay the last six years in the previous tournaments, winning Monte-Carlo six, Barcelona five, Rome five and Hamburg one and Madrid another one. These previous places before Roland Garros much more difficult to win than Roland Garros because it's three sets, it's tournaments back-to-back and you play against the best players since the first round."
In the past, Sampras has supported Federer as the GOAT, but said today he believes it's impossible to accurately assess a single GOAT and prefers if each generation has its premier player rather than engaging in the Great Debate.
"Everyone wants to name the one guy each generation has their guy," Sampras said. "In the '60s it was Laver. You had Borg (in the 1970s), Ivan (Lendl) and John (McEnroe) during the '80s and myself and Andre in the '90s. It's hard to answer because each decade has their guy and I think now we have Rafa who has done everything in the game, won all the majors, won the Olympics and has a winning record against Roger. There's no clear best plaer of all time. Each decade has their guy. Put Borg and Don Budge up there too."
Regardless of Nadal's final Grand Slam total, Sampras says the muscular Mallorcan has already earned his place as one of the top three greatest players of all time.
"Rafa's definitely up there," Sampras said. "You gotta put him in the top three or four and it's not over yet. He's in the middle of his career."
Is Federer at the end? When Sampras himself was Federer's age he endured a two-year title drought before beating arch rival Agassi to win the 2002 US Open title in a fairy-tale farewell to tennis. Sampras, who recently had dinner with his good friend and former coach Paul Annacone, who now coaches Federer, said he believes Federer will win a few more majors if he stays motivated.
"He's done everything in the game," Sampras said of Federer. "You get to a point in your life and things slow down quite a bit. You're not quite as fresh as you were at 22. He had two match points against Djokovic and he could have been in the final. I think Roger is up for the task.
"I think he he can add little bit here and there. Having dinner with Paul a few nights ago he talked about Roger trying to implement coming in and being more unpredictable. At the same time, he's one of the top two or three players in the world playing from the back court. I am always a believer in coming in, but you do it out of strength, not weakness. It's a fine line with Roger because he does everything so well so does he really need to chip and charge?"