Last night, I watched into the wee hours of the morning as Rafael Nadal made history. Rafa became only the third number one seed in a major to drop a bagel (0-6) in the first set and come back to win the match. He overcame the best young tennis player in the world, who many view as Rafa's replacement on clay, Dominic Thiem.
Nadal did not play well in the first set. His serve was off. His groundstrokes kept soaring wide and his returns went into the net. Thiem took advantage, ripping winners down the line and notching several aces. In the second set, Nadal was able to break Thiem, but Thiem broke right back, so of course Rafa broke him again. The third set was even closer with just a single break.
Side note, if this were Wimbledon, this match would have been postponed until the morning after the second set. The match finally concluded a little after 2 a.m. Wimbledon shuts down play after 11 p.m. This is what makes the U.S. Open so much more fun than the uptight British counterpart. Well, that, and the fact that players get to choose their own uniforms. Let's not forget that the U.S. Open has a tiebreaker in the fifth set. But that's off topic.
Thiem never looked out of the match. He never looked like the inferior player. He just made a few more mistakes than Rafa. It's true that tennis is a game of inches. To Thiem's credit, he did an excellent job in the fourth set of holding his serve and seizing the tiebreaker. Unfortunately for Thiem, Rafa proved to be just a little better in the fifth set tiebreaker. Rafa took the match 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5).
It was phenomenal tennis. Each ball that Thiem hit seemed like a rocket as it carved through the air at Arthur Ashe and fell inside the baselines. Rafa took advantage of how far back Thiem was playing by charging the net and swatting overheads. Both players looked like they would have five or six winners in a single point, but each time they were able to return these and somehow put some more pace on the balls. Thiem played the match of his life. Rafa was just a bit better.
It doesn't matter that Thiem lost. It doesn't matter that Rafa won. There is still a lot of tennis to be played, and I don't think Rafa will emerge as the champion at Flushing Meadows this year. However, I do think this match solidified Rafa's claim for being the greatest male tennis player of all time.
After the match, Rafa crossed over the net and embraced Thiem for several seconds. Although the camera didn't pick it up, it looked like the elder Spaniard exchanged some words of encouragement for the young Austrian. I can only guess as to what they were, but I would suspect Rafa told him that he was the future of tennis.
Nadal is 32, and with his aggressive style of play, he probably only has three or so years left in the tank. Thiem just turned 25, literally just (his birthday was two days ago). Thiem has pushed Rafa on clay. Nobody pushes Rafa on clay. Thiem bageled Rafa. Nobody bagels Rafa. Thiem has at least a decade of tennis left before him, the best is yet to come. Rafa is not done by any means, but he is certainly on the downside of his career.
What makes Rafa the greatest tennis player of all time?
The first thing is, of course, the 17 grand slams he has. This is the second most of all time, behind only Roger Federer, with 20. This will always be a debate, as long as Federer has more, people will say he's the GOAT. Only time will tell if Rafa will rack up more majors than his rival. I personally think he will, but even if he doesn't, I think Rafa's still better. Why?
Rafa has missed, by my count, at least 11 majors over his career because of injuries. Some he missed entirely, like the French Open in 2003 and 2004. Some he had to withdraw from during the competition because of injuries. Some injuries he played through and lost because of. Rafa has dealt with far more injuries over his career than Federer. For a full account, look here.
I'm not saying that Rafa would have won all of the 11 majors that he missed if he wasn't injured. However, I think he definitely would have won a few more, especially the three times he was forced to miss Roland Garros. Rafa owns Roland Garros.
Aside from majors though, Rafa is still a greater player than Federer. Just look at their head-to-head record. Rafa leads the rivalry 23-15. In majors, on the biggest stage, Rafa leads Federer 9-3. He doesn't own Federer, but he is clearly the better player when they meet. If he wasn't injured, that record might be even better.
If you look at their overall career, Federer has a 1165-255 record, which equates to an 82.0% winning record. Nadal is slightly better with a 913-188 record, or an 82.9% winning record. In grand slams, Feder is 336-53 (86.4%) while Nadal is 242-35 (87.4%). In ATP World Tour 1000 events, the top tennis events outside of grand slams, Feder is 359-102 (77.9%), with 27 titles. Rafa is 362-77 (82.5%) with 33 titles.
Rafa is the king of clay, that is undisputable. Federer is the king of grass, that is also indelible. But if you look at their winning percentages on their respective surfaces, Rafa's are clearly much better. Federer is 176-26 on grass (87.1%). Rafa is 415-36 on clay (92.0%). Federer has 18 titles on grass to Rafa's 4. Rafa has 57 titles on clay, to Federer's 11.
Feder is certainly one of the greatest tennis players of all time. However, there is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that when it is all said and done, Rafa will be the greatest. Will he have more majors under his belt? Maybe. However, it is certain that he was the better player head to head and the better player on bigger stages. Despite his extensive injury history, Rafa is the GOAT.