Is Rafa Done?

“There ain’t no back in the day … Ain’t no nostalgia to this … There’s just the street and the game and what happens here today.”

-Melvin ‘Cheese’ Wagstaff

I couldn’t help getting a little sentimental while watching yesterday’s U.S. Open Final. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that Nadal was still playing under the shadow of Federer’s greatness. Everyone knew he was a great clay-court player, but was he a great player?  Then came the 2008 Wimbledon Final, the greatest tennis match I’ve ever watched. And maybe that isn’t saying a lot, but it’s something I’ll remember for a long time. I might forget the shots and the score, but I can’t forget the feeling that I was watching something significant. It was the first time I ever recognized that a changing of the guard was happening before my eyes. From Federer’s near comeback, to the tears he was trying to hold back after he lost, I was watching something important, and I knew it.

Yesterday’s match was a little a different. Nadal had already lost his no. 1 ranking when Djokovic beat him in Wimbledon earlier this year. Yet the Open Final still carried some of the same meaning, and there was still a sense that Nadal could come back and reestablish the perceived natural order. But that’s not what happened. Despite the few games in the 3rd set when the Nadal I remember finally showed up, Djokovic owned the match. Once Djokovic broke Nadal in the 1st set to go up 3-2, there was no point during the match that I thought Nadal could win. There are times when people will say that a player just can’t lose, but this was a time when a player just couldn’t win. Djokovic didn’t even play all that well (51 unforced errors to Nadal’s 37), but Nadal couldn’t take advantage (32 winners to Djokovic’s 55, and only 52% of first serve points won). Nadal couldn’t beat Djokovic, and it’s the same feeling I had for Federer in the 2009 Australian Final, the first major finals meeting between the two after Nadal’s victory at Wimbledon.

So now what? Pete Sampras was argued the greatest of all time with 14 majors, then Federer was the greatest with 16, and soon many were ready to anoint Nadal the greatest because it seemed almost certain that he would reach Federer. Now Djokovic is at the top, enjoying one of the greatest years any professional tennis player has ever had. If Nadal and Federer can no longer challenge him, and if no younger player can rise up, he is poised for a run of greatness that could very well put him in that same conversation for greatest of all time. He’s not there yet, but its not unreasonable to consider the possibility.

And if that is the case, in a world in which the greatest follows the greatest follows the greatest, where does that leave Nadal? Are we already saying goodbye to someone whose career, even if he never wins another major, still ranks among the all-time greats. I know that this is sports, and that players come and go, but Nadal should be different. It shouldn’t be his time to fade. His run at the top seems too short when compared to Sampras and Federer and now possibly Djokovic.

Of course, Federer has still won majors since losing his no. 1 ranking, and maybe Nadal finally finds a way to beat Djokovic and none of this pondering really matters. I hope this is true, not because I don’t like Djokovic, but because Nadal deserves to be more than just a memory, not yet at least.

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