MELBOURNE: Statistically, Rafael Nadal is not yet the greatest player of all time but the Spaniard is edging his way towards that honor with each Grand Slam title.
The wonder left-hander with his extraordinary levels of energy and brute strength is poised for his 14th Grand Slam trophy in Sunday’s Australian Open finals against Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka.
Should he win Nadal, at age 27 and seemingly with years on his side, would be just three major titles behind Roger Federer’s record of 17, and closing in fast.
Nadal’s majestic career has featured many highs, among them eight French Open crowns and two Wimbledon titles, along with last year’s return to world number one despite missing seven months with a knee injury.
Tennis legend Rod Laver believes Federer is the greatest player of all time, despite his slide down the rankings—but he admits Nadal is making a strong case for himself.
And Pete Sampras, who could be joined by Nadal on 14 Grand Slam titles this weekend, says the Spaniard could reach 17 or 18 majors if he plays for the next four or five years.
Even Federer, who has now not won in six Slam matches since his last major win over Nadal at Wimbledon in 2007, says it is a different challenge playing the relentless Majorcan.
“It’s totally different playing Rafa over anybody else. Playing [Andy] Murray or Rafa is day and night,” he said, after his straight sets semifinals defeat on Friday.
“It’s not because of the level necessarily, but it’s just every point is played in a completely different fashion and I have to totally change my game.”
Nadal’s intestinal fortitude has been tested at this Australian Open as he battled an awkward blister on his serving hand.
He battled past Japan’s Kei Nishikori in three tough sets, and had a four-setter with rising Bulgarian star Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals before tossing aside Federer in the semifinals.
But Nadal is in the final and ready for the rewards of his dogged determination, and a win that would again trigger debate over who is the best of all time.
Just as two-time champion Sampras said the Australian Slam was a tough major for him to win, so too has Nadal struggled to replicate his success at the other Slams in Melbourne.
He missed the 2006 and 2013 editions through injury, had to retire injured against Murray in 2010, and in 2011 he was hit by a muscle strain during his defeat to David Ferrer.
“It’s been very emotional moments this year especially because this is the Grand Slam that I really have had the most problems with in my career,” Nadal said.
“A lot of years I didn’t have a chance to play in this tournament that I really love so much with the perfect conditions. So it’s very special to have the chance to be in the final here again.”
Nadal has won only once in Melbourne, in 2009, after losing to Novak Djokovic in the 2012’s record, six-hour finals, 7-5 in the fifth set.
Should he defeat Wawrinka for his second Australian Open title, he will become only the third man along with Australians Roy Emerson and Rod Laver to win each of the four Grand Slam titles twice.