With the US Open trophy tucked under his arms and the world of tennis at his feet, Rafa Nadal answered the one question everybody was asking with a shy grin. "I think talking about if I am better or worse than Roger [Federer]is stupid," he said. "Because the titles say he's much better than me, so that's true at that moment. I think that will be true all my life."
Federer, 29, has a record 16 grand slam championships, but the 24-year-old Nadal made his ninth grand slam triumph something extra special. The 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 win over Novak Djokovic of Serbia for his first Flushing Meadows win made Nadal the seventh man to claim all four of the sport's grand slam titles. The question, however, still remained. But Djokovic has no doubts. "He has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever," said Djokovic, who lost the 2007 US Open final to Federer, but upset him in Saturday's semi-finals. "[Nadal is] playing the best tennis that I've ever seen him play on hard courts. He has improved his serve drastically - the speed, the accuracy. And, of course, his baseline [game] is as good as ever.
Almost from the moment he stepped onto the court as a teenager raised on dusty red Spanish clay courts, Nadal has been answering the same question: was he going to be the greatest player of all time? Nadal's New York performance made a huge statement. After piling up five French Opens, two Wimbledons and an Australian Open the hard-hitting left-hander had set his sights firmly on the final jewel in the grand slam crown.
He improved his serve, honed his volley and nurtured his fitness to triumph at a Federer stronghold where the Swiss had won five titles and reached six successive finals. "It was an amazing feeling," Nadal said. "I played my best match in the US Open at the most important moment, so I am very, very happy for that, for sure. "To win in here in the US Open I think is the more difficult tournament for me to play, more difficult conditions to adapt, to adjust my game on this court, for the balls, for the court, for everything."
"Nadal ... is just proving each day, each year, that he's getting better," Djokovic said. "That's what's so frustrating, a little bit. He's getting better each time you play him," "He's so mentally strong and dedicated to this sport. He has all the capabilities, everything he needs, in order to be the biggest ever." Nadal stretched his grand slam winning streak to 21 matches by adding the US Open to his titles at the French Open in June, then Wimbledon in July. No man had won those three tournaments in the same year since Rod Laver won a true Grand Slam in 1969. Now Nadal heads to the Australian Open in January with a chance to claim a Rafa Slam of four consecutive major championships - something that also has not been done since Laver. With Nadal sweeping through the slams, it is easy to forget the turnaround the Spaniard has made.
Last year his chronic knee problems were so bad they kept him from defending his Wimbledon title. An abdominal problem weakened him at the US Open, and his physical woes were so bad he quit his quarter-final at the Australian Open in January. "Life changes sometimes, no?" a philosophical Nadal said. "Ten months ago [it] seemed like I was never gonna be the same. Now, seems I gonna be one of the greatest....
"When you come back, you are ready to value how difficult it is win titles and how difficult is to be there all the time." Nadal understands how quickly things can change in tennis and in life, but he served his rivals a dire warning in addressing the state of his game. "For me the most important thing is try to keep serving like I did during this tournament," said Nadal, who lost only one set in the championship. "If I can do it, it is gonna be a big change for me and my tennis career, because if I have those free points that I had during all this tournament, [it is] gonna be different for me.
"I can play more aggressive. I can play with more calm when I am returning. After that, I can improve everything: volley, keep improving the volley, keep improving the position on court, being more inside the court. I improved a lot since last year, but never is enough. I am not a perfect player, so everybody can improve." Even with improvement, Nadal was loathe to speculate on catching Federer. "We will see what happens in the future. I am not a genius."