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Making History in a Hurry

Finals 2008

Rafael NadalGetty ImagesRafael Nadal had legions of fans even before becoming No. 1.

It has been known for some time that Rafael Nadal will be regarded as one of the best clay court players the game has ever seen. But after one of the finest seasons of the Open Era, can there be any doubt that Rafa is destined to become an all-time great?

"Actually I walked up to Rafael Nadal. And he is probably my favorite tennis player to watch and I walked up to him and I was like, 'I just want to meet you and don't take a picture or anything, I just want to meet you.' And I told him, 'I watch you all the time when you play tennis and I love watching you play tennis.' I told him good luck."
— swimmer Michael Phelps, winner of eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing

Demonstrating the same tidal wave force with which he overwhelms his opponents, Rafael Nadal has sprinted his way into history. At 15, he won his first ATP match. At 17, he became the youngest man since Boris Becker to reach the third round of Wimbledon. At 19, he became the first man in more than 20 years to win the Roland Garros title on his main draw debut.

His pace accelerated in 2008. Amazingly, Nadal did not win his first tournament of the year until April 27. Capturing his fourth straight Masters Series Monte Carlo title that day with a win over Roger Federer, Nadal commenced a tri-continental performance that will leave tennis aficionados dazzled for years to come. In just under four months, he won eight tournaments, wracking up a 48-2 record and a 32-match winning streak highlighted by victories at the French Open and Wimbledon. Just prior to the US Open, Nadal took over the World No. 1 ranking from Federer.

It was a year that changed everything in shaping Nadal's mark on history, elevating him to pre-eminence as more than a clay-court specialist but perhaps placing him on a path towards becoming an all-time great.

What's interesting, though, is that once again 22-year-old Nadal has sprinted his way into the conversation. Over the last five years, talk of history, legacy and all-time greatness has been largely confined to Federer, all for good reason given the Swiss' massive achievements. Yet as much as Nadal continued to enhance his game, not until that final point at Wimbledon did it become clear that Nadal too could end up a tennis titan.

There were good reasons for this. A year ago, Nadal held three Grand Slam titles earned only at Roland Garros and a pair of runner-up efforts at Wimbledon. That's a superb, Hall of Fame-worthy resume, but as is the case with Gustavo Kuerten and Patrick Rafter, earning multiple Slams at one venue leaves a player perceived more as an occasional titlist than a champion for the ages.

By proving himself a man for all surfaces – besides Wimbledon, Nadal in 2008 reached the semis for the first time at the Australian and the US Open – Nadal has significantly upgraded his place in tennis history. In nearly doubling his Slam output to five, Nadal vaulted past the likes of Kuerten, Jim Courier, Guillermo Vilas and now stands but one Slam title away from such multi-venue champions Becker and Stefan Edberg.

While it's quite likely he'll earn his sixth Slam soon enough, as the 22-year-old Nadal nears his mid-20s, it's easy to imagine Nadal earning more Slams – figures that take him into the realm of such all-time top tenners as McEnroe (seven) and eight-Slammers Agassi, Connors, Ivan Lendl and Ken Rosewall. Start hitting doubles digits, and among Open era champions you enter the rarified air occupied only by Borg, Laver, Federer and Pete Sampras.

It's easy to forget this, but early in 2008 there were times when Nadal looked weary, most notably when he lost in the Indian Wells semifinals to Novak Djokovic and the final of the Sony Ericsson Open to Nikolay Davydenko. As recently as Masters Series Hamburg in May, he stood one set away from dropping to No. 3 in the world.

But in Paris, Nadal's tremendous sense of urgency and competitive fury was brilliant. His fourth straight French Open was his most dominant of all, the Spaniard failing to yield a set (a feat last attained at Roland Garros by Borg in 1980). At Wimbledon, he beat Federer in the greatest match in tennis history, 9-7 in the fifth. Again following in Borg's footsteps, Nadal that day became the first man since the Swede in 1980 to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year.

Nadal's other six 2008 titles included an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, as well as three ATP Masters Series events (Monte Carlo, Hamburg, Toronto). During this run, he'd snapped up multiple titles on clay, grass and hard courts.

"I know how tough it is to be No. 1," Nadal said during the US Open. "And I know for sure I can go back to No. 2 or No. 3 in next months, no? So you have to be ready for everything and try to enjoy this moment and accept everything."

How does Nadal's 2008 rank among the greatest years in Open era history? The pinnacle is Rod Laver's unmatched 1969 calendar-year sweep of all four Slams. Five years later, Jimmy Connors won 99 out of 103 matches and every Slam he entered, the only gap resulting when Connors' participation in World Team Tennis led to his banishment from Roland Garros (another mitigating factor: the extreme shallowness in those years of the Australian Open field). In 1988, Mats Wilander also won three Slams, losing in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon.

In a three-decade span from 1969 to 1999, there were 20 different years when a man earned two Slams in a calendar year, led by Pete Sampras accomplishing this on four occasions between 1993 and '97.

Federer has topped everyone but Laver, notching a trio of three-Slam years in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

So while certainly Nadal's 2008 has been spectacular, it joins a long list of other notable tennis seasons. But perhaps the most engaging part of Nadal's success is his youth – and the way everything from his success to his demeanor gives evidence of even more great things to come.

If Nadal's sprint up the mountain hasn't been quite as fast as Borg's, it's pretty darn close. The Swede is the youngest man in tennis history to have earned a fifth Slam, reaching that figure the week he turned 22 at the 1978 French Open. Nadal's fifth Slam, at Wimbledon, came a month after his 22nd birthday.

The two also share a stylistic affinity. Like Nadal, Borg burst on the scene as a precocious, understated prodigy graced with an alluring mystique, the hair of a rock star and an iron will. Having built a cult as tennis' "Teen Angel," Borg earned his first of six French Open titles in 1974, 10 days after he turned 18. As is the case currently with Nadal, Borg on clay was a human backboard, able to cover the court for hours on end with scarcely an unforced error. But just like Nadal, early in his career, Borg's dominance on clay threatened to overshadow his overall excellence.

Like Nadal, Borg at first was considered too much of a defensive baseliner to make an impact on the grass of Wimbledon. Everything from his grips to his volley skills was considered unworkable at the All England Club.

Soon enough, though, the Swede and Spaniard proved the world wrong. In the quest to win Wimbledon, Borg and Nadal each dramatically improved his serve, slightly adjusted his court positioning closer to the baseline and, perhaps most telling of all, displayed a willingness to shed innate defense in favor of selective offense.

"What's so impressive about Nadal is his increased understanding of how to play on grass," nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova said on the lawns of the All England Club. "He's hitting his backhand earlier, he's slicing it intelligently and his movement is just incredible."

But in a less quantifiable, more emotional sense, Nadal and Borg part ways. Though Borg was unquestionably an all-time great by his early 20s, he'd also grown increasingly world-weary. The pressures of turning back such ravenous competitors as Connors, McEnroe and an ascending Ivan Lendl, the monk-like rituals he followed in practice, the demands of fame and, perhaps most painfully, the limitations of his attrition-based playing style – all of it made Borg more of a reluctant ruler than an ambitious, blood-thirsty warrior.

Nadal, of course, is just the opposite. There's nothing jaded or bored in Nadal's attitude, no sense as Borg displayed that the life of a tennis pro is a drain on one's soul. There came a point in Borg's career, for example, when the smaller events meant far less to him than the majors, a pragmatism that perhaps in some ways hindered his growth as a player – and certainly revealed his competitive fatigue.

"It's not a question of opting for quantity or quality," Nadal says about his active playing schedule. "You go for what there is, you play what you can play. There is no alternative but to play. Nothing more, nothing less."

In that sense, while Nadal's grinding game has its ancestral roots in Borg (and even more closely, another clay-court maestro, left-handed Argentine Vilas), his battle-hungry temperament is more like Connors. This is a man who loves to compete, day in and day out. Not content to merely peak for the majors, Nadal has already won 12 ATP Masters Series titles, third all-time behind Andre Agassi's 17 and Federer's 14.

How large a legacy Rafael Nadal will leave is one of the great questions of contemporary tennis. In large part it's a question that's been under a rock for many years but is now, much like Nadal, staring the entire sport – and Roger Federer most of all – right in the face. He faces many more battles. But while Borg waved his white flag and surrendered at the age 25, Nadal wouldn't have it any other way.

"I only want to progress," says Nadal. "That's what you have to do if you are No. 1 and want to stay there. I want to stay there and I will fight to do that."

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