November 5, 2020

What's Your Number? Take Two

A couple weeks ago we were all excited about the number 20...or 13...or 100, depending on your preference. And as striking as those accomplishments were for Rafael Nadal, since then he's laid claim to a couple more milestones that might be even more impressive.

Just yesterday, the long-time king of Roland Garros made history on a different Paris court, scoring his thousandth career singles win with a three set victory over fellow Spaniard Feliciano Lopez -- he picked up #1,001 earlier today, by the way. That puts him in rarified air occupied by just three other men: Roger Federer, of course, as well as Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors. And it further distances him from Novak Djokovic, nearly seventy wins behind him, and Pete Sampras, who retired with a relatively middling 762.

It's especially notable given how long we worried Rafa's aggressive style of play would wear him out early in his career and limit his time at the top. And sure, not every stretch of a hundred wins was as as easy to come by as the rest -- he went from 200 to 300 in fifteen months, but in part thanks to the lockdown, it's taken more than two years to get the last hundred. 800-900 took a while too. But Nadal's lost remarkably few matches to get those thousand wins -- his 83.2% overall win percentage bests all others in the four-digit club -- and, lest you think his results were skewed by his dominance on clay, he actually has more wins on hardcourts than on any other surface.

He's got a ways to go before he overtakes Lendl in total wins -- the Czech has a lead of a little over a season's worth of wins on Rafa -- and he's faaaar behind Fed and Connors, with numbers in the 1,200s. But Nadal also quietly set a record last week that he holds all to himself and which, like his 13 French Open titles, will likely stand for a very long time. As of October 26th he had spent 788 weeks ranked in the top ten, passing Jimmy Connors who'd held the record since 1988.

Rafa first hit single digits in May 2005 after winning his first title in Barcelona and, astoundingly, he's never again let his ranking dip out of the ultra elite since. There were a few weeks back in 2015 when he flirted with the next tier, dropping to #10 in the world after that devastating loss in the French quarters, but he's never let go.

Federer, number three on this leaderboard, broke a 734-week streak in 2016 after an injury-addled season cut his year short. Djokovic's reign lasted just 555 weeks and ended with elbow surgery in 2017. The player with the second-longest active run? Dominic Thiem, with just 209 weeks in the top ten. He's got some ten years to go if he wants to make a play for the top spot, and considering Nadal's tenure is only getting longer, it may be even longer than that.

Who knows how Rafa will fare the rest of this week -- he's actually only reached the final of the Paris Masters one time before, way back in 2007 -- but the results at this one tournament hardly even matter. In the horse race between the Big Three, in the grand debate over who ultimately deserves the title of GOAT 🐐, different people will pull ahead at different times and in different metrics. But there are a couple places in which Rafael Nadal has proven he can't be beat -- at least not for some time -- and whatever number you choose to define his legacy, he's clearly going to strive to keep raising the bar even higher.

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