ANALYSIS: Why the Rafael Nadal record no one is talking about may just be the greatest of them all

Rafael Nadal very quietly broke a long-standing ATP record this week, but the quiet does a serious disservice to the magnitude of the achievement.

Fans of men’s tennis rarely agree these days. The three greatest players in history competing against each other brings with it a partisan element to following tennis like never before.

Perhaps, though, what we can all agree upon, whether you are Team Federer, Team Nadal, Team Djokovic, or Team anyone else, is that we tennis fans have been spoiled rotten over the last decade and a half.

We have watched genuine greats battle it out year on year and build rivalries that will be legend long after they cease to be played out on a tennis court.

With it, though, it has brought something a little less palatable: an acclimatisation to records being broken.

Rafael Nadal forehand

That is perfectly understandable, of course. Watching tennis records tumble is remarkably commonplace in this era.

Just earlier this month we all watched Rafael Nadal equal one that we all watched Roger Federer set less than three years ago. We are about to watch Novak Djokovic equal another in the next couple of weeks, and then break a different one in a matter of months.

Is it any wonder that we have all become somewhat blasé about it?

However, it still surprised that a new record for Rafael Nadal managed to slip by the tennis news almost unnoticed this week. Not by TennisBuzz, of course. We were one of the few to actually cover it.

If you did miss it, though, Nadal broke Jimmy Connors record for the most weeks spent consecutively in the ATP top ten. That’s huge. That’s, like, REALLY huge. It is 788 weeks of huge.

In fact, it’s SO huge that we feel the need to break it down into smaller bite-sized chunks of huge because, frankly, it’s just too huge for anyone to digest in one go.

Nadal entered the top ten aged 18

Okay, let’s just start with trying to get our head around this one. On April 25 2005, Nadal broke into the top ten for the first time after he won the Torneo Godo – an ATP500 event – in Barcelona.  It was around about two months before his first French Open title.

If you’re thinking that’s not all that unusual, think again. Just one glance at the ATP rankings today shows the highest-ranked teenager is Jannik Sinner, who is 19 and at number 43.

Rafael Nadal 18 year old

We then have to go all the way down to 124 to find the next, Lorenzo Musetti (18), and then 138 for another, Carlos Alcaraz (17). So far as the top 200 players in the world are concerned, that is it. Three teenagers, none anywhere near the top ten.

It’s not just a weak year either. In fact, Sinner, Musetti, and Alcaraz are arguably three of the most talented players the ATP has seen emerge at once for a decade or more – probably since Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray, actually.

Indeed, for context, Murray and Djokovic are the ONLY players to break into the top ten whilst teenagers since Nadal did it, and that the was 13 years ago.

788 weeks is over 15 years

Fifteen years. Fifteen years. Rafael Nadal has been in the top ten players in the world for longer than the iPhone has existed. There are children in America learning to drive right now who have never lived in a world in which Rafael Nadal is not one of the top ten tennis players on the planet.

Rafael Nadal in practice

There hadn’t been a single movie released featuring Marvel Avengers, collectively or individually, the last time Rafael Nadal wasn’t in the ATP top ten.

Twitter didn’t exist! We have literally never been able to tweet about Nadal not being in the top ten.

We could go on and on, but you get the idea. 15 years is just an obscene amount of time to be doing anything, never mind competing – and winning – at an elite level of an infamously physically demanding sport.

Perhaps most impressive is that Nadal is not someone who has been fortunate with injuries either. He has had his fair share of bad fortune there, and yet this record is testament to just how intense a competitor he is because he evidently always found a way to keep himself in the fight.

The previous record stood for 30 YEARS

It was 1988 when Jimmy Connors finally dropped out of the top ten and set what seemed like an insurmountable record. Until this week, the record had stood for longer than modern unified Germany has.

Rafael Nadal record consecutive weeks

Those 32 years have not been a desolate wasteland for men’s tennis either. The talent has been supreme. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Andy Murray, Andre Agassi… the list of legends in extensive.

And yet all of them, for one reason or another, were unable to achieve what Rafael Nadal could. Most of them never even got remotely close.

It may be another 30 years before it’s broken again

For once, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are not in a position to challenge Nadal for this record. Federer came close to the record himself but an injury in 2016 put paid to that. Similarly, Djokovic could have achieved it if not for injury in 2017. That stopped their streaks and they don’t have enough time left to build another.

Dominic Thiem is closest as he is currently on 208-week run inside the top ten, though that means that even if Nadal retired today the Austrian would have to remain there until he was nearly 39 to be able to challenge.

Djokovic, meanwhile, is on a 98-week streak and Federer 174, there’s not a thing they can do about it either.

Alexander Zverev may have an outside chance, but he’d need to do another 12 years after Nadal drops out. Stefanos Tsitsipas will need to remain at the top for 14 years after Nadal’s streak comes to an end.

Rafael Nadal after winning Roland Garros

So, basically, we are at least 11 years away from the record being touched, but it’s much more likely it’ll be A LOT longer.

Nadal isn’t even done yet

Did anyone see anything in Nadal’s recent French Open performances that suggested he was a fading force? We certainly didn’t.

The reality is that Nadal is going to be around for a good while yet, probably at least a couple more years, and it’s likely they’ll be spent in the top ten.

Should that happen, it means someone is going to have to be a top ten player for over 17 years without fail to even hope to be able to take Nadal’s record.

Records in tennis get broken, and never more so in this most golden of modern eras. However, when you really sit down to examine it, it’s clear that Nadal may have set an unbreakable benchmark.

Jimmy Connors probably thought he had too, in fairness, and no one ever expects a Rafael Nadal to come along. How slim, then, are the chances of two of them?

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