Sweet 16

I set the alarm at 4:30 a.m. yesterday but only got up an hour later. When I switched on to Fox Sports (channel 758 in SkyCable), Rafael Nadal was leading 6-3, 4-2. An hour later, dressed in black with pink Nike trimmings, the Spaniard had defeated Kevin Anderson.

Prior to the 2017 start, did you ever think that Rafa and Roger Federer would win all four Grand Slam singles titles? Before January, Roger was ranked No. 17 and Rafa was barely inside the Top 10. Both were over 30 years old and had not won a major in years. That was then. Now, they’ve alternated victories: Roger in Melbourne, Rafa in Paris, Roger in London, and Rafa in New York.

R & R own 35 majors. Comparing tennis with the same individual sport that also has four majors per year, golf has Jack Nicklaus with 18 majors and Tiger Woods at 14. That’s 32 for golf vs. 35 for tennis. But the big difference: Nicklaus is 77 years old while Tiger, who sat in Rafa’s box over the weekend to watch his fellow Nike endorser, is no longer going to win the big ones. Roger and Rafa, while aged 36 and 31, are getting better and will add to their harvest.

Speaking of harvest, Rafa pocketed $3.7 million for winning seven matches at the U.S. Open, the largest purse in tennis. Overall, including endorsements from Kia Motors, Richard Mille and Tommy Hilfiger, Rafa is estimated to have earned over $90 million.

With his New York victory, you can say that Rafa is also lucky. Juan Martin del Potro dispatched of his biggest threat, Federer, and he never had to face an opponent who was ranked No. 24 or higher. Since the seedings were increased from 16 to 32 in 2002, this is the first time that a major winner did not face a top-20 seeded player. Also the first time for Rafa to win a Grand Slam trophy without facing Roger, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Stanislas Wawrinka.

The main cause for this less-difficult-to-win Slam for Rafa? One word: injuries. None of the Big 3 (Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka), winners of the four majors in 2016, joined the U.S. Open. Added to the list of non-participants were Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic.

Nadal took advantage of this lack of competition and, excluding two four-setters in the earlier rounds and his first set loss to Del Potro, he played near-flawless tennis.

Anderson, who himself came back from injury, praised the 16-major champion, saying, “I know we’re the same age but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life… You’re one of the toughest competitors in the game and one of the greatest ambassadors of our sport.”

I agree. I’ve been following tennis for over three decades now and there is no one with more fire and competitive spirit than Rafa. In my assessment, his 10 French Open crowns (the Paris major is the calendar’s toughest event) is one of the sporting world’s most incredible achievements.

Rafa and Roger, No. 1 and No. 2, will continue to battle for that year-end top spot until the season ends. As for 2018, how exciting can it get? Novak, Andy and the others are returning, well-rested. Plus, there’s Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev. And, having just given birth, Serena Williams will win the Australian Open in January.

  

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