King of New York: Rafa Completes Career Slam

King of New York: Rafa Completes Career Slam

Nadal had little trouble on his way to his first U.S. Open (Getty Images)

After Novak Djokovic's shot sailed wide of the boundaries, top-seeded Rafael Nadal fell to the blue hard-court in jubilation. At 24, he's had a tennis career that would make most players 10 years his senior green with envy. Now, he's in "all-time greats" territory after his first U.S. Open championship and even more importantly inducted into the career Grand Slam club with seemingly many years ahead of him. Fred Parry, Don Budge, Laver, Emerson, Agassi, Federer: That's the company that Rafa is in now.

There were few moments in Nadal's 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory of the third-seeded Djokovic that provided any drama or doubt, save for the lightning and weather delay that pushed it Monday. The loss of the 2nd set was Nadal's first of the tournament, an accomplishment after two straight semifinal appearances with no title. When he won his first French Open in 2005 at the tender age of 19, Nadal was thought to be merely a clay-court specialist who might win a few titles a Roland Garros. Very few thought he would ascend to the prominence of Grand Slam leader Roger Federer. As the years have passed, Nadal not only asserted his dominance on clay but also elevated his game to be a champion on grass and the hard court as well.
The turning point for Rafa may have come not after the epic '08 Wimbledon men's final against Federer, where he broke Roger's streak of five straight titles and is considered to be the greatest tennis match of all-time, but in '07 where he pushed Federer to 5 sets before dropping the championship to his rival. It may have very well given him the confidence he needed to take his game to the next level. A month after his historic win at the All-England club, Nadal won gold at the Olympics in Beijing and while he was ousted in the U.S. Open, he started the next year by defeating Federer in the '09 Australian Open in another five-set classic. The rest of 2009 was an injury-plagued year for Rafa as he dropped his first and only match at the French Open to Robin Soderling. He watched Federer break his trophy drought at the French Open that year to complete his Career Slam and win his sixth Wimbledon a month later to pass Pete Sampras on the all-time list for Grand Slam victories. Since then, Rafa has been on a tear and back into form, regaining the French and recapturing magic at Wimbledon. His win here at the Open was such a landmark that has already cemented his place in history: He became the first man to win the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same year since Rod Laver accomplished the feat in 1969 his Grand Slam sweep. In even rarer air, Rafa is only the third member of the Career Golden Slam club, with wins in all four Slams and an Olympic gold medal in his possession: Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf are the other two. With the stigma of "clay-court specialist" off his back and the Career Slam in his pocket, where does Rafa go from here?
For some time, the talk of "greatest" has surrounded Nadal from his success and his record against who many in the sport consider the best of all-time in Federer. From 2003-2007, Federer held the sport of tennis hostage, steamrolling over opponents compiling Slam after Slam. Even then, he was considered to be in the discussion of the greatest in the sport. But as Rafa has emerged and risen victorious over Roger in a 14-7 career edge since 2005, the shift is slowly moving to Nadal as Federer moves up in age and Nadal asserts his dominance over the ATP. The talk has grown even louder with Rafa's wins on grass in Wimbledon and on hard courts in Australia and New York. At 28, Federer is starting the decline that most dominant male players have gone through in the sport: Connors, McEnroe, Borg and Sampras all declined in the late 20s and Sampras was the only one in that group to win a Slam after the age of 30. It may simply be a case of aging. Federer isn't expected to get better as inches closer to 30 and Nadal seems to be back in peak condition and form. Or it could be that the tennis world is working out as it always has. No great player has ever existed without a nemesis: Laver had Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson; Borg, McEnroe and Connors all had each other; Pete had Andre. Federer seemed to be cruising to stand alone in history and along came Rafa.
The only deterrent for Nadal at this point is the X factor in every athlete's career: injuries. He's suffered more than few in his career and it is the only thing at this point that can seemingly derail him on the path of all-time greatness. He's ahead of Federer's pace of Slams at age 24 by three and should things play out to form, it could be Rafa passing Roger within the next three to four years. Of course, competition plays a huge part in the equation as well. Djokovic will prove to be a formidable opponent on hard courts and an occasional challenge at Wimbledon and should Andy Murray ever break out of his Slam funk, he would be young enough to provide a rival to Nadal's reign in the future. Of course, Federer is around for at least a few more years to challenge Rafa's ascent to his Grand Slam record. However, if recent history is any indication, the tennis world will serve as a backdrop of the crowning of a new king.

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