Rafa's Reign


With a fifth French Open and second Wimbledon in his pocket, Rafael Nadal is the presently the world’s best tennis player. The question is can be become the best ever?

A year ago at this time, Rafa was upset by Robin Soderling at Roland Garros and missed The Championships with bad knees and a wounded psyche stemming from his parents’ divorce.

In his absence, Roger Federer completed his career Grand Slam in Paris against Soderling and then pushed Pistol Pete Sampras off the Grand Slam pedestal with his 15th major, a stirring 16-14 fifth-set win over Andy Roddick at The Big W.

Then, Nadal hurt his abdominal muscle and was blasted out of the U.S. Open by Juan Martin del Potro, who also took the measure of Fed in the final, pulverizing him with a sledgehammer forehand.

Rafa was equally ineffective on the indoor circuit and had to retire against Andy Murray at the Australian, where Fed added his Sweet 16 Slam, giving him a 10-majors edge over his rival.

But things turned brighter for Rafa on his beloved clay. Eleven months removed from a title, he swept the European season, culminating his sterling clay play by avenging his loss to Soderling — who stopped Fed’s unprecedented streak of 23 straight Slam semifinals — in straights in Paris.

At Wimbledon, Tomas Berdych also overpowered Federer — who barely escaped a first round flame-out against journeyman Alejandro Fallah — in the quarters. The four-set upset left the usually classy Maestro, ungraciously complaining about being done in by a bad back and knees and denying the Czech the respect he was due. For the first time since 2003, there was no reservation for NBC’s Breakfast at Wimbledon for the Swiss.

Following three tight sets against the U.K.’s latest top hope and world No. 4 Andy Murray in the semis, Rafa found the 6-foot, 5-inch Berdych, now No. 8 in the world, no biggie. Nadal broke his opponent four times, including the final games of the second and third sets. As was the case against Murray, Nadal’s sliced his serve away from the big man. His speed, ground strokes and occasional volleys weren’t too shabby either.

At 24, Nadal is now halfway to Federer’s total of 16 Grand Slams, but has three more than his foe did at the same age. Moreover, Federer turns 29 in August. Whether due to injuries or merely tennis mortality, Federer has been slower around the court this year. Moreover, his ground strokes, especially the big forehand, are more apt to go off the boil. He has not been able to close the deal on the big points like in the past and he doesn’t capitalize on the break points like he once did.

As a family man, Fed’s schedule figures to be intermittent and therefore it becomes harder to keep sharp, when most of the top players will be out there more frequently. Will Roger be on the scene throughout the U.S. Open Series this summer?

For that matter, will Rafa? Nadal complained about his right knee (his better one) during a testy third-round, five-set match against No. 33-seeded Philipp Petzschner of Germany (6-4, 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-3). He has to be prudent with his schedule or the body could break down again.

But Nadal’s goal is to complete his own career Grand Slam before the fans at Flushing Meadow and on ESPN2, Tennis Channel and ultimately on CBS.

And who’s going to stop his reign– except for his own physical ailments.

Del Potro, who dismantled Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in the 2009 Open semis, probably will be unable to defend his crown, owing to a wrist injury.

Along with the 6-foot, 6-inch Argentine and now-retired Marin Safin, Novak Djokovic — who was dispatched with relative ease by Berdych in the semis at Wimbledon — is the only other player not named Rafa or Roger to win a major since 2005. Now ranked second in the world, Djokovic has been beset by respiratory and fatigue issues during hot conditions, not to mention nerves in big spots.

Murray has yet to break through. Nor have top 10ers Nikolay Davydenko, Fernando Verdasco and Jo-Wilifred Tsonga. Who else is there? The American trio of Roddick, Sam Querry and the sport’s marathon man, John Isner? Spaniard David Ferrer can prove nettlesome on the right days, and Marin Clijic has a big game. Berdych, also a semifinalist at Roland Garros, may be ready to become a factor more consistently. And Bjorn Borg thinks fellow countryman Soldering has the goods to reach No. 1.

For those looking for other reasons to rain on Rafa’s parade, I’ll point to the hard courts in Queens, the most democratic of the Slam surfaces. Late-summer heat and humidity and the New York night crows also could prove distracting to Rafa.

So, too, could a more focused Federer, who likely will need to serve monstrously to win any more majors and lend renewed currency to the NetJets’ commercial in which he’s dragging his Slam hardware on a cart (Rolex also had a Federer TV schedule that sailed wide during the latter days of Wimbledon sans the former king).

Should Nadal — who continues to improve his serve and has modified his game by playing shorter points to save wear-and-tear on his body — triumph at the Open, he’d tally three of the four majors in 2010.

What/who can stop him from going on a Fed-like blitz, when he claimed 11 of the 20 majors between 2004-07? During that stretch Federer won three apiece in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

Only time and Rafa’s knees will tell.

And oh, by the way, that Miss S. Williams, she’s pretty good too.