by Ed Shanaphy
Age is but a number. That’s the saying. And Rafael Nadal is proving that yet again. Although there may always be a discussion about who is the better player – Roger or Rafa – both gentlemen are proving the old adage. And perhaps, when we all look back when they have both long retired, and we have another 20 years of tennis history under our belts, the fact that they are playing so long and so hard will raise them both up to a level that no other player may ever reach ever again.
With his win yesterday at Roland Garros, Nadal reached the current zenith – 20 Grand Slam titles matching Roger Federer. 13 of those Grand Slams have come on the red clay in Paris. People will say that he is the “King of Clay” and Novak Djokovic called him that just yesterday saying that Rafa played a perfect match as he dismissed the highest ranked player in the world in straight sets. But let’s look deeper.
13 in Paris, 4 in New York at the US Open, 2 on the grass at Wimbledon and 1 Australian Open. But here’s the kicker: He’s won a Grand Slam in 10 consecutive years. No one else has done that. Given his type of athletic play, the fact that he has been playing at the professional level since 2001 is never heralded, but it’s a true feat and, I believe, under valued by the commentators and fans alike.
I am not sure there will ever be another rivalry such as we have seen between Rafa and Roger, both of whom hold the game in high regard and are gentlemen on the court. It will be sad to see the day when it ends… and it is coming in the not too-distant future. Even when asked how it felt to reach 20 Grand Slam titles, Nadal was cordial in his response to the French crowd mentioning what was really special to him was to be playing at Roland Garros and how truly lucky he was to be playing amid a Pandemic.
The King Of Clay
In looking back at both their careers, it is interesting to note the same statistic. Federer and Nadal have won just 1 Grand Slam at one of the four. Nadal just 1 at the Australian and Federer just 1 at the French. But this again, points to the game that Nadal plays. A brutally physical game which dominates on clay. 13 titles at Roland Garros. A record that might hold forever. Nadal’s game gives us call to reflect upon the previous “King of Clay” – Thomas Muster.
Muster, who turned pro in 1985, and won the French in 1995, retired in 1999. A 14-year career. Nadal turned pro in 2001, 19 years ago, and he is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, just yesterday, John McEnroe said: ” I don’t think I’ve ever seen Rafa move better.” Incredible stuff given that the 34-year old has been grinding out most of his career Grand Slams and ATP titles for the past 19 years on the surface that requires the most endurance.
Yes, there’s been chatter about a year off the tour for possible reasons not so gentlemanly. However, those reasons and that kind of pause usually are a cause or catalyst for more injury and less confidence in coming back. In this case, we are left with a player moving better than ever with a renewed sense of confidence on and off the court all happening under heavier scrutiny.
As the careers of both Roger and Rafa head toward the epilogue, we are left worried that tennis, or any sport for that matter, may not see a rivalry again between two athletes not only at the top of their own games, but also at the top of their sport, both on and off the court. We worry that our children might never experience a rivalry with so much to give and from which we have taken so much enjoyment and memories. We all remember where we watched that Wimbledon final in the dark like a shot heard around the world.
Whoever is the greatest player of all time is another discussion. Whoever is the greatest grinder of our sport across the ages – well, I don’t think there will be ever another. Well done, Rafa.
Ed Shanaphy, a graduate of Duke University and The London School of Economics, is Director of Tennis at Sippican Tennis Club in Marion, MA and is President of BeyondTheBaselines.com, a leading management consultancy for tennis and country clubs.