Rafael Nadal is the best second-best talent in tennis.
AP / Ian Walton
The greatest rivalry in modern tennis just got a new twist. No, not Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Rather, Nadal and Roger Federer. For years, Nadal and Federer have battled back and forth. Their styles have been contrasted, and their stories have been written. It was Federer on top, with his precision and beautiful game. Nadal was the brash young kid with the passion and the angst, especially at the fact that he could never get over the top against the king. He was ranked second to Federer's first for a record 160 consecutive weeks.
Then, all of a sudden, in 2008, Nadal went on a spree against Federer. Rafa beat Fed three times in a year and took the number one spot. It was as though his time had come. At only 27 years old, it's not like Federer was knocking on the door of retirement by any means. But those who followed the game got a sense that Nadal had paid his dues. He'd been rooted against long enough. He'd been the wild child. It was his time to ascend the throne.
To categorize the last three years as poor for Nadal would be a mistake of the grossest severity. After winning what some called the greatest tennis match ever, Rafa went on a rampage. He won his first Olympic gold medal in Beijing, ran through several of the majors (but never completing a true Grand Slam) and compiled a magnificent record. He was a monster by anyone's account.
As the U.S. Open progressed this year, however, Rafa and Fed were, once again, on opposite sides of the bracket. The match-up was there to be had. But Djokovic insisted upon playing spoiler as a set piece conclusion to his season for the ages. When historians look back to the 2011 tennis season, the big font at the top will be about Djokovic's season record: 64-2 at this point with not a sign in sight that his rate will decrease.
Djokovic has received plenty of press for his change in diet and the possibility of this being the move that puts him truly (and, seemingly at this point, inevitably) over the top. Members of the press have never been shy to describe Roger Federer as, perhaps, the greatest tennis player of all time. Lost in the fray between these two singular talents, somehow, is Rafael Nadal. If ever there has been an overlooked number two talent in the game, this is that moment. If all of these circumstances can somehow be believed, there is a distinct possibility that those same people who have dismissed Rafa as a boyish rager may now start to root for him. Ironically, they might be too late.