Thursday 8 December 2016

Tennis: Nadal content to stand with giants

Paul Newman

Published 07/06/2011 | 05:00

Rafael Nadal celebrates on Sunday after beating Roger Federer to win his sixth French Open title and 10th Grand Slam.
Rafael Nadal celebrates on Sunday after beating Roger Federer to win his sixth French Open title and 10th Grand Slam.

When Bjorn Borg left the 1981 US Open, having lost his second successive Grand Slam final to John McEnroe, few could have imagined what lay in store for the 25-year-old Swede.

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With 11 Grand Slam titles already under his belt and fitness not an issue, the master of Wimbledon and Roland Garros looked certain to overhaul Roy Emerson's record of 12 major victories.

It was not to be. Borg won on his next competitive appearance, a clay-court event in Geneva just a week later, but it was his last victory and he never played in a Grand Slam tournament again.

The fire within him had died, despite an extraordinary record at the highest level which was showing barely any sign of slackening off: in his 16 Grand Slam tournaments between Wimbledon in 1976 and that US Open in 1981 Borg had failed to reach the final only twice.

Although he never returned to the Grand Slam stage, it was not until 1983 that Borg formally announced his retirement, although he made some half-hearted comebacks over the next 10 years, recording 13 successive first-round defeats along the way.

Assume

Borg's case is a timely reminder to those who blithely assume that Rafael Nadal will go on to break the current record for Grand Slam titles, which now stands at 16. The mark was set by Nadal's great rival, Roger Federer, who failed to improve it when he lost in his 23rd Grand Slam final to the Spaniard at the French Open on Sunday. Six of Federer's seven defeats in finals -- Juan Martin del Potro's 2009 US Open victory over the Swiss is the exception -- have been at the hands of the current world No 1.

Nadal's 10th Grand Slam triumph, which saw him equal Borg's record of six wins at Roland Garros, leaves him in joint sixth place on the all-time list of champions alongside Bill Tilden and behind Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14), Emerson (12), Borg (11) and Rod Laver (11). Borg is the only player to have reached 10 Grand Slam titles in quicker time than Nadal, having done so when he was just one day younger at 25 years and one day.

Talk statistics to Nadal and he will push them back in your face, in the most polite fashion of course. Asked, in the wake of his latest triumph at Roland Garros, how he felt his record compared with Federer's, Nadal replied: "When you talk about these statistics, when you try and make these comparisons, really it's not very interesting to me.

"I'm very happy with what I have, with who I am. I'm not the best player in the history of tennis. I think I'm among the best. That's true. That's enough for me. I have a very high level of tennis. I am quite satisfied and very happy with what I managed to do."

Memories can be short and players' fortunes can rise as sharply as they can dip. When Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray reached the final of the Australian Open at the beginning of the year there was talk of a changing of the guard, of an end to the Roger and Rafa show.

That was reinforced by Djokovic's extraordinary 43-match unbeaten run dating back to the end of last year, but when the world's top four players came together in the semi-finals in Paris last week it was the ancien regime that triumphed.

"I told people that we should wait six months after the Australian Open when people thought Rafa and me were done," Federer said in the wake of Sunday's final. "It's unfortunate that it goes so quickly at times. Now we're back in the finals and now it's different talk again."

Nadal believes that the confidence he will derive from having retained his French Open title -- he may also be feeling a sense of relief -- will help him through the rest of the year, beginning with the grass-court season.

The world No 1, whose victory ensured Djokovic would not replace him at the top of the world rankings, said that winning in Paris had in the past helped him through the next phase of the season. On the last two occasions he has won the French Open, Nadal has gone on to lift the title at Wimbledon; on the two before that he finished as the runner-up.

"After winning a title like this, you go there with a different attitude, with very positive confidence," Nadal said on Sunday night. "Winning here makes me play Queen's and Wimbledon with less pressure."

The very nature of the Spaniard's game casts doubt on how long he can maintain his current standards of fitness. Federer, who has an extraordinarily good fitness record, is an all-out attacking player who glides across the court and wins or loses his points quickly.

Nadal, an aggressive counter-puncher who can turn breathtaking defence into stunning attack at the drop of a sombrero, plays a much more physical game and generally expends significantly more energy winning his points.

His knees have been suspect in the past and you wonder how soon they might prove to be a problem again. When he gets to Federer's age (29), it is hard to imagine Nadal avoiding injuries in the way that the Swiss has.

In the meantime, other challengers are likely to emerge. Nadal's main rivals, other than Federer, are younger than him. Djokovic and Murray are 24, while Del Potro, who joined the elite group at the top of the game with his New York victory two years ago, is only 22. Even younger players, like the 20-year-olds Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, are breaking through.

perfect

Nadal, meanwhile, insists that chasing a place in the history books does not interest him. "Beating records is fine -- it's perfect," the Spaniard said following his latest victory. "It's an honour to say that I have as many wins here as Borg. That's awesome. There was a lot of emotion.

"But the main satisfaction comes from all the work you did to get to this stage. You have difficult moments; you have wonderful moments."

Federer, similarly, said he had no interest in the fact that Nadal was closing in on his Grand Slam record. "Who cares where you stand?" Federer said. "It's when it's over that you can't do anything any longer. That's when you're proud of what you accomplished." (©Independent News Service)

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