Commentary

Rafael Nadal converts another doubter

Even the biggest Federer fans can't ignore Spaniard's tennis greatness

Updated: July 7, 2010, 2:04 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

I should have seen Rafael Nadal's true brilliance a long time ago. But I tried to ignore it. Ig'nant me.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Nicolas Luttiau/US PresswireRafael Nadal has been far from invisible in recent years, but even doubters reach a tipping point and have to acknowledge what they see on the court.

Loyalty, especially in the omphalos of an epic rivalry, can do that to a person. It can block one from seeing true greatness even when it is omnipresent. Denial is for addicts, and I've been in denial too long.

For years, I have been so deeply engrossed in Roger Federer's reign that I pretended to ignore the emerging greatness of Nadal. Because Rafa became Fed's nemesis, his roadblock, the Droid to his iPhone, I never acknowledged him. Not like that. I knew he existed, but I never put him on Roger's level. I always felt that he just had Roger's number on clay. If Roger was Ali, then Nadal was Frazier to me: a great fighter, but not close to the greatest ever, just the one who gave the greatest ever problems.

But now, after watching him go through Wimbledon (and the French Open) like Larry King goes through wives, I've finally come to the place I should have been a long time ago.

Recognizing Nadal as one of the best tennis players ever was difficult. Even after he won Wimbledon in 2008 in the "greatest tennis match ever" versus Federer, I didn't allow myself to bow down.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer, Rafael Nadal
Paul Crock/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer has a big shadow, but Rafael Nadal is getting plenty of sun these days.

His game wasn't a thing of beauty. In a sport in which the art often is in the eye of the beholder, Rafa's style -- regardless of the success rate -- blocked me from coming over to "the dark side" of tennis. His strength overpowered his finesse. Before my conversion, I would always say that he was not better than the players he was demoralizing, just more physically gifted.

He relied on his strength the same way Andy Roddick relied on his serve. Nadal had one thing no one else had, and he used it to his advantage. To me, it made him one-dimensional. And one dimension doesn't equate to greatness. Not when one believes that Roger Federer is greater in his sport than Tiger Woods is in his.

Despite the genius of Nadal's footwork, John McEnroe's saying he "never gives an opponent anything," the spin on his shots that science still can't figure out, despite his passion, his "you have to kill me out here because I will never die" attitude and approach on the court, despite his inside-out forehand, his grinding baseline style, his speed and quickness, his ability to "outthink" the best players in the world on a regular basis, I would keep asking myself: "If you took that physical advantage away from Nadal, what would he be?"

Which was a stupid (reference "ig'nant" above) question to ask when evaluating someone's overall greatness. It's like questioning the greatness of Shaquille O'Neal without size or Floyd Mayweather without speed. But I was under a spell. Federer had me hooked.

[+] EnlargeRod Laver
Manny Rubio/US PresswireAt his current pace, Rafael Nadal could pass not only Rod Laver's Grand Slam total but also Roger Federer's.

But with Federer getting taken out (not losing, there's a difference) before the finals of the past two Grand Slams and me having to face the unacceptable realism that he has begun to slide, I forced myself to look at Nadal in a way I had refused to in the past. I had to finally appreciate.

I should know better than to underestimate challengers to the throne. I had faced a similar situation when Prince began invading territory Stevie Wonder had staked out with musical virtuosity. Need I write any more?

I ended up being wrong about that one too.

So here I am: a Nadal non-appreciator-turned-acknowledger, a Nadal adversary-turned-advocate. I never thought I'd succumb to Federer's Darth Vader. Never thought I'd be forced to give credit where credit is long overdue. But I have. He gave me no choice.

So my apologies, Rafa. Sorry it took me so long to become your witness. Now I see you for who you truly are and have been for the past three years, sans injuries and your parent's divorce. I can finally see past Roger's 16 Slam titles and fully appreciate the eight (and counting) you've claimed. And although Bjorn Borg, McEnroe and Rod Laver are the best I've ever seen, I (finally) realize that you are one of them.

One of the best I'll/we'll ever see.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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