COMMENT: Why Rafael Nadal is most deserving of Laureus Award recognition

Rafael Nadal has been nominated for a prestigious honour in this year’s Laureus Awards, and it’s hard to imagine anyone more deserving. 

When it comes to global awards, tennis can often find itself taking a back seat to more glamourous sports such as Football (Soccer) and Formula One. It has largely always been this way.

Indeed, this year many American media decided Tom Brady was the greatest ever athlete for admittedly remarkable achievements in a sport that only really Americans play.

One welcome exception to that has generally been the Laureus Awards, mainly due to the fact they have always historically favoured individual achievement over those of players within team sports.

No one has won more Laureus awards than Roger Federer, and only Roger Federer has won more awards than Novak Djokovic in the Sportsman of the year category.

This year, tennis is represented again, with Rafael Nadal nominated for the sportsman of the year, Naomi Osaka up for the women’s award, and both Dominic Thiem and Iga Swiaktek put forward for breakthrough of the year nominations.

Naturally, within tennis’ passionate and partisan fanbase, Nadal’s nomination has caused divide. Then again, divide and dissention are now commonplace among the big three’s huge supporter bases.

To question it, though, does a genuine, and cruel, disservice to the Spaniard’s remarkable achievements.

On the face of it, it could be argued that Rafael Nadal did not have a vintage year in 2020. I mean, if we are being honest, he didn’t. That is to say he has had far more successful years during his incredible career.

Nadal lost in the quarterfinals of one Grand Slam, voluntarily skipped another, and won one. When you position that next to Novak Djokovic or Dominic Thiem, both of whom won one major and reached the final in another, on paper Nadal’s doesn’t look anything special.

Such arguments, though, at best only make a case that Djokovic and Thiem could have been nominated alongside Nadal, not ahead of him.

For starters, tennis can never, and should never, allow itself to fall into the trap of trivialising a Grand Slam success. When you trivialise the greatest tests in a sport, you trivialise the sport itself.

However, the crucial point to demonstrate why Nadal is worthy of this recognition above all others is that he did something in 2020 that nobody else in tennis, and few people in other sports, did: He made history.

The rivalries borne of the passions the big three inspire have been good for tennis. I remain convinced of that. Maybe it has cost the sport some unpredictability, but three all-time greats battling each other for history in the same era can never be anything but wonderful for a sport.

Rafael Nadal after winning Roland Garros

Somewhere along the line, though, have we allowed ourselves to become blasé about when, and how, that history is won?

After all, strip down the passions and loyalty of fans and assess what Nadal did in 2020 and it is nothing but absolutely remarkable.

When Rafael Nadal picked up a racquet for the first time as a professional, Pete Sampras held 13 career Grand Slam titles. Nadal has now equalled that from one event alone.

Not only that, but he finished the year able to say no man in the history of his sport has won more Grand Slam titles than he has, and he won the latest without dropping a single set. Only Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer have also achieved that in the last 40 years, and neither of them as many times as Nadal.

Additionally, if you are convinced that Novak Djokovic should have been nominated for sporting brilliance in 2020, and you would be very well supported by the facts if you did, then what value would you attach to the achievement of beating him in straight sets?

For context, it was only the third time that Djokovic has been beaten in straight sets in a best-of-five match since 2013, and the other two came when he was suffering with a serious elbow injury.

Factor in that Nadal also bageled him, and acknowledging the brilliance of Novak Djokovic only serves to highlight just how incredible Rafael Nadal was at Roland Garros in 2020.

Perhaps some people have become so used to Nadal achieving amazing things at the French Open now that there is almost a ‘so what?’ element to it when it happens again. That is understandable, because he has been so dominant for so long there it is now expected that he simply keeps doing it.

Rafael Nadal 1000 wins

It is also unfair, though. Deeply unfair. The longevity of the standard he is able to produce on clay only adds to the achievement, yet the perception can detract from it for many people. I suppose, in that sense, he has become something of a victim of the brilliance he has produced.

However, there absolutely should not be any doubt in anyone’s mind that Rafael Nadal is supremely worthy of the recognition afforded to him by the Laureus Award nomination.

Let’s also not forget that in 2020 Nadal registered his 1000th ATP Tour win, becoming only the fourth man in history to achieve it. He also surpassed Jimmy Connors to become the player to have spent most consecutive weeks in the world top ten – with him since going past the 800 weeks marker.

The fact is, Nadal’s nomination stands alone on nothing but merit.

Cementing sporting greatness should always be celebrated, and no matter who has done it before him, or who might do it afterwards, Rafael Nadal is worthy of all the recognition and fanfare that comes with it.

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