It was known to the world that Rafael Nadal’s 2017 Roland Garros victory made him the only male player to ever win a Grand Slam singles title ten times.
Lesser-known was Nadal’s mastery of longevity. This victory makes him one of only three men to have won Grand Slam singles titles in his teens, 20s and 30s. The other two were Ken Rosewall and Pete Sampras.
Like Nadal, Rosewall was also a claycourt maestro. His first victory at Roland Garros came at the age of 18 in 1953. Fifteen years later, having spent more than a decade banned from the majors, Rosewall at 33 snapped up another French title, taking down his countryman, Rod Laver, in the finals.
Interestingly, while Nadal is a natural righty turned lefty, Rosewall took the opposite path. Also, while Nadal’s success has been predicated heavily on the use of topspin on his massive forehand, Rosewall’s trademark shot was his backhand, struck with a scintilla of underspin.
What Nadal and Rosewall share, though, is a relentless point-to-point focus and keen court management skills. Roy Emerson, an Aussie peer of Rosewall’s, has often compared playing him to World War III – in Rosewall’s case, an understated but cumulatively forceful range of precise service returns and passing shots, crisp volleys and, like Nadal, a fantastic overhead.
The Sampras comparison is more distant. Nadal at 19 won the French Open as a steady grinder, his speed helping him spit back one ball after another. Sampras at 19 won the US Open with brilliant shot-making, from lightning-bolt serves to sharp volleys. Like Nadal, though, the Sampras forehand was a closer of a shot, often struck boldly.
Each also added dimensions to his game over the years, Nadal incorporating more offensive skills such as better volleys and serves, Sampras slightly altering his approach to returning so that he could perform better at Wimbledon. Their biggest asset: excellence under pressure. Nadal and Sampras surely rank as two players in the history of tennis you’d want to play for your life.
Yet to discuss merely the racquet-wielding skills of these three tennis icons is of limited value. There was something else within each of them, those mysterious qualities that separate the great from the near-great. “I wanted it more,” is a phrase often heard by those who take the big titles. But how does that really work? Alas, even words can only carry so much meaning.