Rafael Nadal didn't just win his first Australian Open on Sunday night. He didn't just win his sixth Grand Slam title. He didn't just defeat Roger Federer for the 13th time in 19 tries.
No, with his 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2 victory over Federer in Sunday's final, Rafael Nadal started to rewrite the tennis history books.
History was, in fact, supposed to happen on Sunday night in Melbourne Park's Rod Laver Arena. But it was supposed to be Federer's moment; his moment to tie Pete Sampras for the all-time record of 14 Grand Slam titles. It was supposed to be Federer's moment to confirm-in number-what common sense already told us: that he is one of the-if not THE-greatest of all time (GOAT).
After all, Federer had rolled through his quarterfinal and semifinal matches in convincing fashion, dominating both Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Roddick in straight sets. Any concerns about his form, stemming from a five-set comeback win over Tomas Berdych in the fourth round , were quickly brushed aside, especially with Federer's 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 humiliation of Del Potro. Conversely, Nadal-who had stormed through his first four matches-struggled with Gilles Simon in the quarterfinals before all hell broke loose against fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in the semis. Nadal outlasted his on-fire opponent in five sets, but it took five hours and 14 minutes (the longest match in Australian Open history) to book his place in the final alongside Federer.
In one match against Verdasco, Nadal had spent over an hour more on the court than Federer had spent in his matches against Del Potro and Roddick combined. And oh yeah, one more minor detail: Federer had two days in between his semifinal and the final, whereas Nadal had just one.
Needless to say, Sunday was supposed to Federer's time. Sunday was supposed to be time for Sampras to slide over and make room for two.
Instead, another man bullied his way into the GOAT discussion, and his name is Rafael Nadal.
First thing's first: let's not get ahead of ourselves. Nadal "only" has six Grand Slams. He is NOT the GOAT. He is not even close to the GOAT. Yes, he is better than Federer (and everyone else) right now on every surface. He is NOT better than Federer in the eyes of history (only time will tell how that ends up). The point is simply that with his improbable victory on Sunday, Nadal put himself in shockingly good position to end up being the GOAT whenever he decides to hang up his "Vamos Rafa" shoes.
Nadal is now the proud owner of six Grand Slam titles: four French Opens, one Wimbledon, and one Australian Open. Perhaps even more importantly, he has completed three of the four legs of the career Grand Slam. Only the U.S. Open still eludes him, but even in New York he has enjoyed one quarterfinal appearance and one semifinal appearance. At 22 years old and rapidly improving his hard-court game, Nadal has to like his chances of eventually winning at least one U.S. Open, and thus completing the prestigious career slam.
How prestigious? Only five men have ever done it - Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and Andre Agassi. Only Agassi completed the career Grand Slam by winning majors on three different surfaces. Nadal-since he has already accomplished the three-surface feat-would give Agassi company in that club if he does, in fact, win a U.S. Open.
Similarly, only Agassi has won a career Golden Slam (the four slams plus an Olympic gold medal in singles). Nadal chalked up gold in Beijing last summer, so he is also just one U.S. Open title away from a career Golden Slam, as well.
As if all of that isn't enough to convince someone of Nadal's potential GOAT status, there's plenty of room for some speculation. Yes, speculation is overrated, but since Nadal is just 22 and presumably has plenty of years left, speculation has to be done.
He has won four French Opens and each one has been more convincing than the one before. What's to say Nadal's reign in Paris is going to end anytime soon? Federer has been digressing on the red clay of Roland Garros; nobody can dispute that after the three-set drubbing he received in the 2008 final. The rest of the clay-court competition looks less than formidable; former dominant clay-courters like Carlos Moya, Gustavo Kuerten, and Juan Carlos Ferrero are either retired or at least beginning to contemplate the "R" word. Heck, even someone with the clay-court game of Gaston Gaudio or Guillermo Coria would be giving Nadal more of a run for his money on the dirt than anyone really is right now.
Novak Djokovic won a Masters Series title on the slow stuff last year, but that's because Nadal tumbled out of the tournament early due to foot blisters. Andy Murray is rising fast, but he has never won a Grand Slam title and he has certainly never done anything of note on clay.
As a result, would it not be too surprising to see Nadal-barring serious injury-win, say, the next four French Opens? No, I don't think it would.
That gives him 10 slams right there, without even taking the other three majors into consideration. Given his Wimbledon title on grass and Australian Open and Olympic titles on hard courts, one has to think Nadal will win at least a few of the upcoming Wimbledons, U.S.'s, and Australians. In my estimation, we're looking at no less than 12 or 13 slams…and that's playing it safe. Even if Nadal does stall at-say-13, he will finish behind Sampras and presumably Federer, assuming Federer wins at least one more slam. But when you take the Olympics and the career Grand Slam-IF Nadal wins the U.S.-into account, that more than makes up lacking one or two total slams.
All of this is not to write off Federer. To do so would be stupid. After all, he's reached the final of the last four Grand Slams, won one of them, and lost in five sets in two of them.
The point is simply that with Nadal winning this year's Australian Open, we have to considering the possibility of him going down in history as a better player than Federer, and everyone else.
Now consider, briefly, the GOAT situation if Federer had won Sunday's final. He would have tied Pete Sampras at 14 and undoubtedly would have broken the record at some point in the near future. He would also be nine slams ahead of Nadal, who would still be two legs shy of the career Grand Slam. While a career slam for Nadal now-in my estimation-seems likely, I would rate his chances at less than 50-50 if he still had two to go.
Yes it's just one tournament, and who knows what the future holds, but there's no question that Nadal began rewriting the GOAT chapter of tennis history books on Sunday night in Melbourne.
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