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September 15, 2019

Nadal edges closer to history with 19th Grand Slam title


September 15, 2019

Rafael Nadal’s pulsating five-set win over Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final would rank in the upper echelons of his astounding Grand Slam triumphs.

While it was a truly memorable match to witness and live even in the current settings, it is likely that a few years from now – with the benefit of hindsight –the US Open final 2019, arguably the greatest men’s final at Flushing Meadows this century, would have elevated its status as an all-time epic.

This is because while Nadal is edging closer to history with this 19th major and fourth US Open, Medvedev himself appears to be all set for a career with multiple major wins.

After a North American hard court summer that featured four successive finals, including a first ATP Masters 1000 win in Cincinnati, Medvedev has truly arrived at the big stage – as underlined by his rebound from two sets to love down against Nadal – and is arguably leading the Next Gen now.

Even so, for all the triumphs that might lie in the wait for Medvedev and indeed the younger brigade that he is leading, it is the Big Three that are in fact the most dominant they have ever been.

After Nadal’s US Open win he, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have won all of the previous 12 majors, and currently occupy the top three in world rankings as well.

Following his triumph in New York, Nadal now sits just one major behind Federer (20) in the all-time list, with Djokovic chasing Fedal with 16 Grand Slam titles of his own. And even though the Serb has declared that winning the most majors is what he’s aiming for, the Spaniard doesn’t appear to voice similar ambitions.

And yet, given Nadal’s hegemony over Roland Garros, it is not just predicted, but expected, that he will at least match the Swiss’ tally in 2020. What’s made the three-way tussle for the summit of the Grand Slam count all the more intriguing is the fact that Federer, now 38, still sees himself winning more majors as well.

Last year, Federer became the oldest ATP No 1 in the history of the sport. Nadal’s US Open win has meant that he’s now the only player to have won five Grand Slam titles after turning thirty. Djokovic, who too has won four on the other side of 30 years of age, would in all likelihood have to win as many majors in his 30s as he did in his 20s to claim the number one spot.

But while this race for the all-time highest Grand Slam tally keeps us all excited and gives us debating points to ponder and reflect, Rafa does not want his career to be perceived in that particular lens. And perhaps it’s the Spaniard’s career, more so than those of his two greatest rivals, which can be viewed in isolation from the trophy count, statistics and the GOAT race.

Ignoring the chronological dimensions, of all the tennis greats to have graced the sport, Nadal would’ve been the last picked to win the most majors after turning 30. Few would’ve expected him to even be holding the racquet at this age, including of course himself.

Nadal’s battle with injuries has arguably been as daunting a batting as the ones he’s had with Federer or Djokovic. In the decade and half that he’s been a major winner, there hasn’t been a single season where he hasn’t been marred by injury at one point or the other.

Despite winning three of the past seven majors, finishing runners-up in another and semifinal places in the remaining three, Nadal has had injury enforced absences in this 16-month period as well. Nadal withdrew or retired in 11 of the 12 hard court tournaments he played in 2018 – including the Australian Open and the US Open.

After this year’s final in Melbourne, where he was pulverised by Djokovic, Nadal had an injury layoff during the North American hard court spring, which spilled over to the clay court swing resulting in the Spaniard being title-less till the Rome Masters this year.

Since then, Nadal has only lost one match – the Wimbledon semifinal to Federer – and has won Rome, Roland Garros, Montreal and now the US Open.

After ruling over Roland Garros since 2005, with an unprecedented 12 titles, Nadal now has four at Flushing Meadows – the major he cracked last in 2010, to become the youngest man to complete a career Grand Slam.

Over the past couple of seasons, Nadal has retraced his grass court game as well, which had seen him make five consecutive finals from 2006 to 2011 at SW19, including two titles in 2008 and 2010. His back to back semis at Wimbledon, where he was only edged out by Djokovic and Federer, means that Nadal is now once again a factor in all four majors.

A predominant factor behind Nadal’s resurgence since 2017 – which has seen him win five of the 12 majors contested, and another two runners-up finishes – is how he has scheduled his season.

The Asia swing and the European indoor season at the end of the year is the period where he customarily enjoys the least success. And now with his wedding scheduled in October, Nadal might still limit his playing time in the fall, even though he is now the front-runner to bag the year-end number one ranking.

This not only leaves us with an intriguing finish to the ongoing season, it’s the start of 2020 that might be even more fascinating to look at.

That’s the year when the Big Three are likely to finally begin making way to the Next Gen. For us observers, the most stimulating talking point would be just how many majors can each of those three all-time greats capture, before that particular transition is completed.

As things stand, it’s Nadal who stands on the brink of history, after winning a US Open final that was truly one for the ages.