Rafael Nadal: A Man In A Hurry

ATPWorldTour.com pays tribute to Rafael Nadal, who has become the seventh player in tennis history to complete a career Grand Slam.

Rafael Nadal has always been a man in a hurry, so it’s little surprise that he is now the youngest player in the Open Era, at just 24, to complete a career Grand Slam following his four-set victory over Novak Djokovic in the US Open final.

Nadal is redefining the way the game is being played and has earned the right to be included in the debate about who is the greatest player of all-time. Yes, he’s still seven Grand Slam titles shy of Roger Federer’s record haul of 16 – not that Grand Slam titles should be the only consideration – but it would be a brave observer to suggest the Spaniard won’t eventually approach or break Federer’s record, which may itself continue to grow in coming years. Nadal has won his nine Grand Slam titles in his first 26 appearances at the majors. By comparison, Bjorn Borg won nine in his first 22; Federer won nine in his first 30 and Sampras nine in his first 31.

Could it be just five months ago that Nadal was enduring an 11-month title drought before he began his clay-court campaign at Monte-Carlo? How things have changed! Between mid April and mid September Nadal won three consecutive Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open and became the first man ever to make a sweep of the three clay court ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles in the one season when he won Monte-Carlo (for the loss of just 14 games!), Rome and Madrid. His Madrid triumph, at age 23, earned him a record 18th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title, beating the 17th title that Andre Agassi won at 34 years of age.

At 18, Nadal was already giving every indication that he would one day be regarded as one of the greatest clay courters of all time, winning Monte-Carlo, Rome and (days after turning 19) Roland Garros. In all, in 2005 he won eight clay court tournaments among 11 titles – the most ever won in one season by a teenager.

But there we also signs in 2005 that Nadal was not a Spanish clay court stereotype. He won ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles indoors in Madrid and on a fast hard court in Montreal, where in the final he took out no less than Agassi, one of the greatest hard court players in history. When Nadal made a stunning run to the Wimbledon final in 2006 to prove his versatility on grass, the tennis world had all the proof it needed that Federer was not the only player capable of completing a career Slam.

That Nadal has won all four majors is not really a surprise, but the speed of his achievement perhaps is. Let’s not forget that Federer was 28 when he completed his career Slam at Roland Garros. And what a golden era for tennis to have these two all-time greats playing at the same time. There was a 30-year gap between Rod Laver winning his Open Era calendar-year Grand Slam in 1969 and when Andre Agassi completed a career Grand Slam in 1999. Tennis fans had to wait little more than one year for Nadal to clinch his career Slam after Federer did it in 2009 at Roland Garros.

What is the secret of his success? Many things, of course, but above all a unrivaled mental toughness and unrelenting determination to keep getting better. Once regarded as having little more than a handy serve, Nadal is now firing 135 mph cannons and proved during the US Open that he is one of the toughest players to break, dropping serve just twice en route to the final. Raised as a baseliner with extreme grips, Nadal has worked tirelessly to become one of the most reliable volleyers in the game. And let’s not forget the resilience he’s shown to recover from long-standing knee tendinitis, which kept him from defending his Wimbledon title in 2009.

Nadal's next missions are likely to be more like a marathon than a sprint: trying to top Federer's haul of 16 majors and perhaps Sampras' all-time mark of 286 weeks spent as World No. 1. But, at 24, time is on his side.