October 8, 2008

The Guns of Mallorca

The closest I've ever been to Mallorca was a three-day visit to the nearby island of Ibiza, known best for its all-night clubbing, designer shopping and celebrity getaways.

But just to the north and west of Ibiza, floats the slightly larger island of Mallorca. It's about 1,400 square miles of beaches, mountains, Gothic architecture and quaint villages.

Mallorca, part of the Balearic archipelago, may be a little more quiet than its rowdy neighbor, but it still boasts as residents celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, Claudia Schiffer and Annie Lennox.

It also happens to be the birthplace and home of the best tennis player in the world -- Rafael Nadal.

No one can argue that 2008 hasn't been a great year for Rafa. He won his fourth straight French Open, his first Wimbledon title, Olympic Gold and unseeded Roger Federer as the #1 men's tennis player. But his sitting atop the rankings has been a long time coming.

When Nadal stepped on the court at the French Open for the first time in 2005, few people knew who he was. He started the year ranked #51 in the world and at the time he got to Roland Garros he had never made it past the fourth round of any Grand Slam event. I remember talking with my coworker the Monday after nineteen-year-old Rafa took the crown and saying, "Where the hell did that kid with the massive guns come from?"

Thus started Rafa's meteoric ascendancy to the top of the tennis world -- he finished the year ranked second, a position he held for three very long years.

Of course all that time Rafa was playing second fiddle to the great Roger Federer, a man he had actually beaten en route to his first major victory in Paris. It must be frustrating to be ranked behind someone against whom you have such a strong record. The two have met eighteen times in their careers, on grass, clay and hard courts, with Nadal holding an impressive 12-6 lead. I'd be hard pressed to find any other player that has been so dominant against Roger.

But regardless, for three years the best Rafa could do was #2.

It wasn't until this past August, nearly four and a half years after their first meeting -- which, incidentally, Rafa won -- that Nadal finally took his place in tennis history.

I've had friends who said Nadal was only a clay court player, that he would never be able to win on another surface. We now know how wrong that assertion is -- after 2008's Wimbledon final no one can say Rafa's only a one-surface player.

But he's had across-the-board success for years -- of his 31 career titles, seven are on hard courts and two on grass. Even when he hasn't won he's certainly made his presence known, playing in the finals twice at Wimbledon before winning this year and making it to the semis both in Australia and New York.

That's not exactly the sign of a fish out of water.

It's only a matter of time, I think, before Rafa claims his first (and second) major hard court victory. In fact I'm willing to make a fairly bold statement -- I wouldn't be surprised if Rafa completed a career Grand Slam before Roger wins the French!

Don't agree? Discuss.

In any case who knows how long Rafael Nadal will stay at the top before Roger Federer makes another play for the #1 ranking -- if last week's news holds up, it may not be until next year. But I do hope that this becomes the next chapter in a book that already includes epic rivalries between the likes of Evert and Navratilova, McEnroe and Connors, Graf and Seles. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course; great battles are the cornerstones of all sports -- who can say they're not excited for the next Rafa-Roger match-up?

And until then, serve well and play hard!

1 comment:

m said...

We love Rafa. Here's hoping the knees hold up, and he does brilliantly at the USO.