Rafael Nadal easily navigated another pothole on his road to history Sunday, a history with which he has not quite come to grips.
Besides the best game in tennis at the moment, the Spanish star had everything going for him in his third-round U.S. Open match on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court. Skies were blue, the temperature was perfect, the puffs of wind were more comfort than pain.
Plus, his opponent, 42nd-ranked Gilles Simon of France, was present, but elsewhere. Two days ago, his girlfriend gave birth in France to their first child, four weeks early, and Simon acknowledged afterward that he was more interested in seeing new son Timothy than more of Nadal’s forehand. He lost the first two sets, 6-4, 6-4, and said, “In the third set, I was already on the plane.”
Simon’s understandable lack of resistance in a 6-2 third set probably mattered little, anyway. Nadal is the No. 1 player in the world with reason. To a game that has been overwhelming to opponents for years — heavy, spinning, high-bouncing ground strokes — he has added an increasingly effective serve. It used to top out around 120 mph. Sunday, he hit 130 twice.
He is so dominant this year that he has won two majors, the French Open and Wimbledon; and has a 55-7 record and $5,681,738 in winnings — and that’s before the U.S. Open check, likely to be a big one.
Simon represented another day at the office for Nadal, another opponent to pound and break down. We eat cereal for breakfast. Nadal eats guys across the net.
But there is more of a story line here for Nadal than just another victory, more than he cares to admit or ponder. He is four victories away from something very special — his chances of achieving that increasing later in the day when his projected semifinal opponent, fourth-seeded Andy Murray, was beaten.
First, the U.S. Open is the only major event Nadal has not won. Were he to do so, he would become the seventh man in history to win all four at least once, following Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer. Nine women have done it, including Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Serena Williams.
They call it the career Grand Slam.
Asked how much he thinks of history as he tries to win this event, Nadal responded quickly: “No, no. I think [only] about the practice tomorrow … it’s very far, the victory of this tournament … I am happy where I’m at, but it is only the fourth round.”
That is the tennis player’s doctrine. They should stamp it on their foreheads. Play them one at a time. Don’t even look at the draw sheet. The future is the next match only. There are no long-term expectations. Don’t even ask about it.
The second part of Nadal’s march to history is that, with a victory, he will become the third person to win all four majors plus an Olympic singles gold medal. The other two? Mr. and Mrs. Andre Agassi.
Mrs. Agassi, Steffi Graf, won her gold in 1988 in Seoul, the same year she won all four majors. Talk about history. Her Golden Slam may be an unbreakable record. Agassi won his gold in Atlanta in 1996.
This, of course, is a record with several asterisks.
Tennis disappeared from the Olympics after the 1924 Games in Paris, then was not brought back until 1988. That eliminated hundreds of great players. Also, the first of the four majors, the Australian Open, wasn’t contested as a major until 1922 and wasn’t an easy place to get to for decades.
Still, it has been 22 years since Seoul, and only the Agassis have conquered all.
Several others are very close. They are, in order:
— Serena Williams, who has two Olympic gold medals — but both in doubles.
— Federer, who has an Olympic gold, but also only in doubles.
— Justine Henin, who won gold in Athens but is lacking a Wimbledon title despite two trips to the final.
— Lindsay Davenport, who won her gold in Atlanta but never won the French.
— Venus Williams, who won gold in Sydney in 2000 and has Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles but has lost in the Australian and French finals.
Modern-day men’s gold medalists are Miloslav Mecir in ’88, Marc Rosset in ’92, Agassi in ’96, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 2000, Nicolas Massu in ’04 and Nadal in ’08. The women are Graf in ’88, Jennifer Capriati in ’92, Davenport in ’96, Venus Williams in 2000, Henin in ’04 and Elena Dementieva in ’08.
Four more victories and Nadal will crash the Agassi party. It will then be Andre, Steffi and Rafa.
Has kind of a nice ring.