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Nadal and the power of 10

By Ian Chadband   on   Wednesday 24 May 2017
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If Rafael Nadal can make it 10 Roland-Garros titles, it would be one of the most monumental feats not just in tennis, but in all of sport.

In sport, there has always been a magic to the number. Pele and Maradona wore it, Nadia Comaneci earned it perfectly and every 100 metre sprinter dreams of smashing it. Now, though, it feels like Rafael Nadal’s time to own the number 10.

The almost preposterous notion that one individual could win the same annual international sports event 10 times, as Nadal has done this spring at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, already speaks of the man’s extraordinary longevity and durability of excellence, despite the toll those exertions have taken on him.

Yet to take his tally of titles in a single Grand Slam tournament, with all the physical and mental pressures and fevered competitiveness associated with this most elevated level of tennis, into double figures would put a 10th singles title at Roland-Garros among the most outlandish feats not just in tennis but in the entire annals of sport.

First and foremost, if Nadal could make it 10, it would tell of a complete mastery on the clay over a decade or more that no tennis player has ever before enjoyed on any surface. Well, not in the Open era, at least.

Martina Navratilova's nine Wimbledon wins would be eclipsed and the tally of seven there, achieved by both Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, left in the rear view mirror. Even Federer’s eight triumphs in Halle and Guillermo Vilas’s eight wins in Buenos Aires, the record in tour events that Nadal hasn’t dominated, would be distanced.

The only single tournament landmark then left to chase would be the 11 Australian Open singles titles of Margaret Court. To some eyes, including those of her compatriot Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, Court has never received the credit she deserves for that run which stretched across the amateur and Open eras between 1960 and 1973.

Rafael Nadal takes out Novak Djokovic in the 2014 French Open men's final, winning the match 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4.

Beyond tennis, though, it’s hard to find such sustained dominance in a single event for so long in any individual sport as Nadal’s reign on the Paris clay.

In golf, there was a time in his pomp when it seemed unimaginable that Tiger Woods wouldn’t go on to win at least 10 titles in a couple of his favourite tournaments, yet after he had won both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational for an eighth time in 2013, his subsequent dramatic fall from grace has meant the double-figure mark has remained beyond him.

Sam Snead also won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times over a remarkable 27-year span between 1938 and 1965.

In these less physically demanding sports, you can find more examples of an event being monopolised over a generation by one individual, like 16-time world darts champion Phil Taylor or his fellow English snooker great, Joe Davis, who won the first 15 World Championships between 1927 and 1946.

A fairer comparison with what Nadal is attempting, though, is to recall how Jahangir Khan, the Pakistani squash great, won the British Open championship, then considered effectively a world title, 10 times between 1982 to 1991. Even he, though, could not hold a candle to Australian Heather McKay, who between 1962 and 1977 won the equivalent women’s title 16 times.

She was the nearest thing to an unbeatable colossus that sport had seen until Esther Vergeer, the matchless Dutch wheelchair tennis star, went an entire decade and 470 singles matches unbeaten until she retired in 2013. As well as winning the Australian Open title nine times, Vergeer took the end-of-season Masters title for a remarkable 14 straight years between 1998 and 2011.

In boxing, the fighter who succeeded most effectively in returning to the same city year in, year out - actually, sometimes, month in, month out - at the top of his game was the great US heavyweight Joe Louis, who successfully defended his heavyweight crown on 25 occasions, most often in the New York venues of Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden.

Horse racing has embraced some enduring lightweight champions too, with none perhaps as miraculous as Tony McCoy, known universally by his initials AP, the iron man from Northern Ireland who was Britain's champion jump jockey for 20 straight years until his retirement in 2015.

Yet it's the rarity value of these seemingly everlasting champions in the mainstream of individual sports that best gives an idea of just what makes Nadal's achievement so special.

He's put his body under enormous stresses over the years, with serious knee problems and more lately wrist trouble as a result, but the kid who first made Roland-Garros swoon in his green sleeveless top and bandana is still astonishing us all a dozen years down the line as a no less ferocious elder statesman of the sport.

Maybe this year, his birthday cake, delivered to him by tradition during the championships, will be festooned with 10 candles.

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