Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
3. Rafael Nadal
Years played: 2001—
Major titles: 16
What did Rafael Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni, tell him before the start of the fifth set of his legendary 2008 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer? Exactly what he had been telling his nephew since he was four years old.
“I told him to battle to the end and endure,” Toni said.
That word, “endure,” was a mantra for the Spartan, stoical Toni. In his eyes, every tennis player faces one simple decision: “The choice is between enduring and giving up,” he says.
Toni never made that choice an easy one for his nephew. He demanded more from him than his other students, made him pick up the balls and stay late to sweep the courts, and never allowed him to savor any triumph for long. Young Rafa chose to endure Toni’s teaching sessions, and it would be his choice to do the same as a pro that would define his career. Nadal even came up with his own, more extreme word for what tennis required: to play the sport was, in his eyes, to “suffer.” He could take the punishment; more importantly, he would learn to dish it out, too.
When Nadal began playing pro events in his mid-teens, he had what he would cheerfully remember as the worst serve on tour. His backhand wasn’t a thing of beauty, either. But he had a powerful left-handed forehand, and, more important, a powerfully intense will to win—Nadal played as if he were in a competitive trance. When, as an amped-up 18-year-old, he beat recent No. 1 Andy Roddick in the 2004 Davis Cup final, in front of 27,000 of his countrymen, Nadal showed that he was ready for any stage and any opponent.
That included the dominant player of his day, Roger Federer. The following spring, Nadal announced his presence to the world when he jumped out to a two-set lead over Federer in the Miami final, before losing in five. Who was this jumping, fist-pumping, bicep-bearing kid in the pirate pants and the sleeveless shirt to challenge seemingly unchallengeable Federer? Nadal, it turned out, wasn’t just going to challenge Federer; he was going to beat him—23 times, to be exact.
Nadal beat Federer in the semifinals at Roland Garros that year, and two days later, on his 19th birthday, won his first French Open. It was the beginning of the longest and most productive relationship between a tournament and a player in Grand Slam history. Nadal would win 10 titles at Roland Garros in 13 years; his 97.5 winning percentage (79-2) in Paris is the highest of any player at any major in the Open era.
Nadal was dubbed The King of Clay virtually from the start of his career, and he has done more than just win on it. He has brought out the artistic, as well as the physical, qualities of dirt-ball. Pounding his forehand into the corners, using his underrated touch and net skills, improving his serve with each passing season, and, most important, contesting every ball with the same fierce optimism, Nadal has amassed a 389-35 record on his favorite surface. He has matched his 10 French Open titles with 10 in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. His 52 titles on the surface, and 81 straight match wins from 2005 to 2007, are records.
But clay wasn’t the be-all and end-all for Nadal. He used his dominance on it to build his confidence for other surfaces. Unlike Spanish dirt-ballers of the past, his ultimate goal had always been to win Wimbledon. With clay as his base, he would slowly but surely venture out and conquer the sport’s other major events. He would win two Wimbledons, three US Opens and an Australian Open. He would become, along with Federer, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi and Novak Djokovic, one of five men to complete a career Grand Slam, and one of two, along with Agassi, to add an Olympic singles gold medal to that haul. Nadal would win a record 30 Masters 1000s, and in 2008, after a record 160 straight weeks at No. 2—talk about stamina—he would surpass Federer for the No. 1 ranking. Since then, he has held that ranking for 158 weeks, and become the only man to claim it three separate times.
That last statistic tells the tale of Rafa’s career well. Despite being hobbled by half a dozen serious injuries, and wracked by semi-regular bouts of self-doubt, Nadal has always bounced back—he has endured. But he has done much more than that, too. Fifteen years and 16 major titles into his career, Nadal’s passion for the sport and for the fight at age 31 remains undiminished.
The leaping fist-pumps and scissor kicks, the raspy cries of “Vamos!”, the joy and relief etched on his face at the end of each victory: Nadal hasn’t just brought a new level of physicality to tennis, he has brought a new, more exuberant emotional language to it as well. How does a player win a major 10 times, and retake the No. 1 ranking nine years after he first claimed it? By doing what Rafa does: Playing every match as if it’s his first, and celebrating every win as if it’s his last.
Defining Moment: Twelve months earlier, Nadal had broken down in tears after losing to Roger Federer in five sets in the 2007 Wimbledon final. Now, as the fifth set of the 2008 final began, it looked like those tears might flow again. Rafa had squandered a two-set lead, and two match points, to Federer. Even his uncle Toni was skeptical that he could survive all of that and win a fifth set. But win it Nadal did, 8-6, in the dying London light, as flashbulbs popped around Centre Court, as tennis’ greatest day turned to night.
Watch: Rafael Nadal beats Roger Federer to win 2008 Wimbledon title
Follow the men's and women's countdowns of The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era throughout the month of February right here.
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