Michael Burgess: Nadal will be the greatest

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His obituary was being written at January's Australian Open. The power was gone, it said. The intimidation and belief would be next.

After the shattering quarter-final loss to Andy Murray - his knees had given way again - Rafael Nadal was asked if it was time to change his game or training routine.

"Please," he said, "don't ask about this." Having gone nine months without a tournament victory - beating a top 10 player just once in that time - the man was at his lowest ebb. How things have changed.

His obituary will eventually read - Rafael Nadal Parera, el mas grande (the greatest).

With his 25th birthday more than eight months away, he already has nine majors - at the same stage, Pete Sampras had six, Roger Federer four.

Three more triumphs at Roland Garros and a quartet elsewhere will see him overtake Pistol Pete and draw level with the Fed Express.

There will be more injuries but a more sensible schedule should mean these are hiccups rather than heartbreakers.

The next three slams are crucial. If Federer can bounce back in 2011 at Melbourne and Wimbledon, his tally, at 18, would be unreachable.

If he doesn't, his Spanish nemesis will haul him in.

Against a resurgent Novak Djokovic, who showed guts many doubted he possessed, Nadal touched the heights of perfection in the US Open final on Tuesday.

At one stage, he played 40 points in a row without an unforced error and was a whisker away from being the first man in almost 50 years to take the title without dropping a set the entire tournament.

"This final wasn't won with the racquet," said Spanish daily El Pais. "It was a battle of wills, of hearts - a fight with oneself as much as the rival."

If Federer made an art out of hitting a ball, Nadal has made an art of winning. The Spaniard has competed in 11 grand slam finals, losing just two.

He was the first man who stood toe-to-toe with Federer, and stared him down. The Swiss was virtually unbeatable during 2005-08 but Nadal gradually found chinks in the armour.

The pair have won 21 of the last 23 major titles between them and it's likely Federer would already have his targeted 20 grand slam titles if the man from Mallorca had not appeared on the scene.

Nadal pushed the Swiss to new heights of brilliance. We knew Federer was an artist, a magician, but his fascinating duels with Nadal revealed a passion, a soul we had not seen before.

Now the Spaniard has a career grand slam; the youngest in the Open era to claim all four majors. He is also the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the French and US Opens, as well as Wimbledon, in a calendar year. Spanish newspapers have anointed him as their greatest sportsman, ahead of legends such as golfer Seve Ballesteros and cyclist Miguel Indurain.

Through good times and bad, he has always been driven to improve. A slight change in service grip and approach in New York reaped immediate benefits. Nadal was broken just five times, equalling the all-time tournament record.

His comment after his semifinal win - "I don't go to the practice court to practise. I go to the practice court to learn" - was illuminating.

Brought up on the red dusty clay, over the years he has flattened out his forehand; learned to play closer to the baseline; strengthened his backhand; gained confidence with his volley and now added real zip to a reliable but functional serve. All done by someone at the top of his game, sitting at No 1 or No 2 in the world, not the work of an athlete on the way up.

Nadal doesn't discuss targets, and won't countenance talk that he will one day sit above Federer. In the afterglow of victory in New York, uncle Toni maintained that Federer, Bjorn Borg and Laver were the best.

"I don't know if [Rafa] is part of that group," Nadal's coach and uncle said.

"Ask me in five or six years, and maybe I can say."

- Herald on Sunday

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