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Nadal a timeless champion

September 10, 2017 - 2017 US Open Men's Singles Champion Rafael Nadal.

When Pete Sampras reluctantly (and tearfully) announced his retirement in 2003, his final match having come 12 months earlier in the form of a storybook 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 triumph over career-long nemesis Andre Agassi in the title tilt at the US Open, the smart money was on his industry-best 14 Grand Slams standing as a record for decades to come, if not forever. Untouchable, we thought. Beyond reach.

The Californian had leapfrogged Aussie Roy Emerson and his 12 majors two years earlier at Wimbledon, a record he once said was as important to him as any. He was three ahead of his boyhood idol, Rod Laver, and Bjorn Borg, too. His closest active pursuer was none other than the Las Vegan Agassi, who had half as many.

In 2003, a 22-year-old Roger Federer had just one major to his credit. Rafael Nadal, then 17, had none. Novak Djokovic, 16, was a promising but unproven newbie ranked No. 670 in the world. Sampras’ mark, it seemed, wouldn’t be equaled anytime soon.

Little did he know, little did any of us know, that a new generation, a golden one, would soon set out in hot pursuit of his numbers. Sampras knew Federer had the makings of a star. He’d famously lost to the Swiss in their one and only encounter, in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2001. But he sure didn’t count on a lefty, purportedly just a clay-court specialist, from an island in the Mediterranean chasing him down. Federer would both catch and surpass Sampras in 2009. And the Mallorcan Nadal would match Pistol Pete in 2014, and eclipse him at Roland Garros earlier this year. And on Sunday evening at the US Open, the bullish Spaniard — now 31 and showing scant signs of a slow-down — upped his major title total to 16 with a never-in-doubt 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 dismissal of South African Kevin Anderson.

This was Nadal’s 23rd trip to a major final. That’s five more than Sampras ever reached, and second overall only to Federer’s 29.

Nadal, under the guidance of uncle Toni Nadal for the final time at the US Open, hadn’t won a hard-court title in three years. But appearing in his fourth Flushing final, he captured his second Slam in a season for the fourth time in his career. One of only three men (along with Sampras and Ken Rosewall) to win a major title in their teens, 20s and 30s, he further cemented his spot atop the ATP rankings.

Sampras never could have imagined that three players would come along so soon and charge their way into doubles digits in the same generation — Federer with 19, Nadal with 16, and Djokovic at 12. But Nadal may just be the biggest surprise of them all. When his first three Slams all came on the terre battue of Roland Garros, there were many who believed he was, at best, the second coming of Guga Kuerten, the graceful Brazilian who thrice won in Paris, too, but never broke through on the grass or hard courts. They didn’t bank on Rafa developing into a multi-surface wonder, clinching a career Grand Slam on this very same court in 2010. Few even thought that his body would hold up, given the kind of punishing physical game he plays. Sure, Nadal’s had his injury layoffs, his most recent setback the wrist woes that sidelined him at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2016. But he keeps battling his way back, keeps fighting like few in this sport ever have. It’s that intangible, that unwillingness to bend, that saw him return to No. 1 last month for the first time since July 2014, his fourth stint as the tour’s top man. And it’s one that ensures the three-time US Open champion will be back for more.