September 9, 2019

The Lasting Legacy of Rafael Nadal

When Rafael Nadal lost in the quarterfinals of the French Open back in 2015, it seemed like it might have been the end of an era.

The hard-hitting clay-courter was closing in on 30 years old, and it seemed like his years of battering strength were weighing on his body. He lost in the first week of his next three majors, withdrew before the third round of the following year's Roland Garros, and ended up skipping Wimbledon in 2016 altogether. His struggles threatened to push him out of the top ten for the first time in over a decade.

Things seem much different today.

Nadal wakes up this morning a four-time U.S. Open champion -- that's as many titles as John McEnroe claimed in New York during his illustrious career and just one behind Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

Speaking of "just one behind", it also puts the Spaniard one short of Federer's record total of twenty Grand Slam trophies.

But here's something you might not have expected to see from Nadal all those years ago -- yesterday's championship was his fifth Major since turning 30. That's one more than Fed earned in the eight years since reaching that age -- Rafa needed just three himself. It's also one more than Novak Djokovic, whose fourth-round retirement at the Open raises questions about his own longevity.

(Worth noting that, while she's certainly had some difficulty tying the women's record for titles, Serena Williams has brought in ten Major trophies since she hit the Big 3-0.)

But Nadal's feat is all-the-more impressive given his competition. The lithe and graceful Federer has been around longer, of course, debuting in a Slam main draw more than four years before Rafa did. He played 65 straight Majors since 2000 and ended a four-year drought of championships in 2017 when he won the title Down Under at 35. He's added two more trophies to his mantle since. And Djokovic, who once lamented his fate of having been born in an era so dominated by Rafa and Roger -- remember that together they won all but two Majors between 2006 and 2010 -- has been nearly unbeatable since that standout 2011 season, winning 15 Majors in the last eight years.

When up against these two, it seemed, Rafa's playing style seemed destined to eventually fizzle out, at least when not on clay.

But here he is, 14 years after lifting that maiden French Open trophy, not only powering through, but also changing things up. Against Russia's Daniil Medvedev in Sunday's final, I have to say he surprised me. He served-and-volleyed more than I remember seeing from him in the past, got to the net nearly 70 times (and won almost 80% of those points), and showed more grace and touch from lob shots to drop shots. He ran down balls and forced his opponent to do the same. And, I have to admit, I worried when he seemed to squander a two-set-and-a-break lead and was forced to a decider by a player firing on all cylinders.

But perhaps I shouldn't be so shocked. After all, Rafa is no stranger to long matches -- and at nearly five hours, this one ranks high up there -- so why shouldn't we expect his career to be just as long? At 33 now, he's got a couple years left before plays as deep as Federer (38) or Serena (37) -- not to mention McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, who played into their 40s.

Will he be as effective in the next couple years as he has been in the last three? Of course, it's too soon to say. He's obviously the clear favorite at one particular event, but by racking up a handful of titles in Flushing Meadows, he's certainly no one-trick pony. And of course Nole, about a year younger than Rafa, could certainly far surpass him when all is said and done.

Still, Nadal's accomplishment cannot be overlooked for what it says about his long-term potential. Medvedev's fight may prove there's a whole new crop of young talent ready to set and break their own records. But given what Rafa has done -- and continues to do -- you can bet it'll be a long time before they can fully take over the reins.

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