Column: Banged-up Rafael Nadal does a bang-up job as he moves on to fourth round at U.S. Open
This much is inarguable: Rafael Nadal is the GOTT — greatest of this time.
Whether he’s also the GOAT — greatest of all time — remains an open question. But he’s building a strong case for GOAT status as he pushes toward his third Grand Slam title of 2022, having missed a chance to sweep the four majors when a torn abdominal muscle forced him to withdraw before his Wimbledon semifinal.
Nadal reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open, where he has won four of his 22 Grand Slam singles titles, with a 6-0, 6-1, 7-5 rout of Frenchman Richard Gasquet on Saturday. Gasquet, who is 0-18 against Nadal in tour-level matches and has lost 34 straight sets to him since a 2008 Masters Canada event, drew applause from sympathetic fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium when he took leads of 3-2, 4-3 and 5-4 in the third set. Finally, Nadal decided he’d had enough and closed things out, preserving energy for his fourth-round match on Monday against No. 22 seed Frances Tiafoe.
“My best match of the tournament. Easy to say that,” said the 36-year-old Spaniard, who lost the opening set in each of his first two matches. “It’s a good victory for me. Happy to be in the fourth round, without a doubt.”
Nadal, who’s ranked No. 3 in the world but can rise to No. 1 depending on his result at Flushing Meadows, praised Maryland native Tiafoe as charismatic, fast and aggressive. Nadal won their two previous meetings.
“He’s a player that I’m not going to win if I am not playing well,” Nadal said. “So, I need to play well. I hope to make that happen.”
At this stage Nadal is being held together by medical tape and tenacity while he manages a chronic foot injury and the abdominal tear. He added a cut on his nose to his medical chart when his racket hit the ground, bounced up and struck him in the face late in his second-round match against Fabio Fognini on Thursday. After receiving treatment and recovering from some wobbles he completed a four-set win. “I lost little bit the — I don’t know how to say in English — but a little bit the feeling of my head,” Nadal said that night, sporting a swollen nose that’s still noticeable. “It’s about being a little bit out of the world.”
In what likely was the final competitive match of her storied tennis career, Serena Williams lost to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open.
He is, indeed, out of this world. He’s fragile, yet indestructible. A medical marvel. A marvel, period.
With 41-year-old Roger Federer recovering from knee surgery and Novak Djokovic missing his second major this year because of immigration rules related to his not being vaccinated against COVID, Nadal passed Federer (20) and Djokovic (21) in Slam singles titles. Nadal might look like he’s falling apart, but he’s got his act together.
“When you watch Roger and Novak play, it looks like they can do it forever, just the way they move and their fluidity on the court, whereas Rafa is just throwing himself at every shot,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said. “That’s obviously been a huge part of his success, but it’s also been part of the reason he’s missed so many majors over the years. It’s all part of what makes him great. It’s also part of what’s made him vulnerable at times.”
According to statistics kept by the ATP men’s tour, Nadal has a career winning percentage of 83.3, to 83.2 for Djokovic and 82.0 for Federer. On grass Federer is tops at 86.9%, followed by Djokovic at 85.8% and Nadal at 79.2%. Nadal leads on clay, thanks to those 14 French Open titles, at 91.3%, to 80.3% for Djokovic and 76.1% for Federer. Djokovic leads on hard courts at 84.2%, to 83.5% for Federer and 78.3% for Nadal.
Nadal has a 24-16 head-to-head edge over Federer, Djokovic has a 30-29 edge over Nadal, and Djokovic is 27-23 against Federer. Of the three who have dominated Slams for so long, Federer is the most elegant, Nadal the grittiest, and Djokovic the youngest, giving him a chance to catch up or catch the other two. Nadal’s feats are sometimes downplayed for being weighted by his success on clay at the French Open. That should count for him, not against him.
“When you look at the fact that he’s won two Wimbledons now, he’s won two Australians and four U.S. Opens, I mean he’s certainly a great hard-court player as well,” McEnroe said. “It’s amazing, the fact that he’s been able to dominate on the surface that’s arguably the most physical of all four surfaces. It says something about his work ethic and his game and his game style and his fitness level, so I think you have to take that into account.”
Nadal has taken the No. 1 spot on McEnroe’s personal GOAT rankings. “I had Djokovic as my greatest until the pandemic hit. When they all got to 20, I still had Djokovic as the leader just because of the head-to-head. And his ability on all surfaces, I think, is the best of the three,” McEnroe said.
Jessica Pegula, daughter of Buffalo Bills owners, is into the Round of 16 at the U.S. Open, and her mother is proud of what her daughter has accomplished.
“At the end of the day, I think the number [of Slam titles] of course is going to be important. I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all as far as who has the most majors. When they’re that close I think you have to look at it tooth and nail. But right now, based on Rafa, what he’s done especially these last couple years, and this year in particular has been phenomenal. It’s hard to say legitimately one is the greatest of all time, but considering Rafa’s won every major now at least twice by winning in Australia, that certainly is a good argument to make.”
There’s no definitive answer. And GOAT is a mythical title anyway. But Nadal is ahead of the pack for the moment, if only by the length of that battle-scarred swollen nose.
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