Can Rafael Nadal hold on to No. 1?
Starting with the French Open in 1999, Andre Agassi went on one of the greatest Grand Slam runs in history, going 27-1 in those matches (the sole loss being in the Wimbledon final) and becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to own three majors at the same time.
He set out to defend his French title the following year, but went out in the second round courtesy of an injured big toe. He wasn't able to repeat his finals appearance at Wimbledon, lost his U.S. Open title and eventually lost the No. 1 ranking, as well. Agassi wasn't playing terribly -- he did defend his Australian Open title in 2001 -- but that level of greatness is hard to maintain.
As Rafael Nadal will soon find out.
Yes, losing in the Australian quarters to David Ferrer -- thus losing this chance at a Rafa Slam -- hurts. But the pain is just beginning. He now has to try to defend the 6,000 points attached to the three majors he won last year. And, like Ferrer, nobody will care whether he's at full strength, at half strength or shows up at all; the other players want his trophies, the rankings points and the check that goes with them. And a resurgent Roger Federer? He is only 3,000 points back and has made it clear he wants his spot atop the hill back.
Last season, we saw just how dominant Rafa could be as a predator.
This year, we get to see him as prey.
Success can be a mixed blessing. Because of 2010, Rafa reached a height in tennis that only foes Agassi and Federer, who twice owned three Slam titles at the same time, can fully understand. And because of 2010, he will now be hunted like them, as well. Despite all that the Spaniard has accomplished, this is something new for the soon-to-be 25-year-old. He has nine Slams, but so far has managed to defend only the French. Nadal made it to only the quarters in defense of his 2009 Aussie title, and he wasn't healthy enough to defend his 2008 Wimbledon win. To keep Federer -- and perhaps Novak Djokovic, Robin Soderling and Andy Murray -- at bay in the rankings, he's going to have to do better than that, especially if his most recent injury hampers his ability to play as many second-tier and third-tier tournaments as he would like.
After his amazing Slam run, Agassi, then 30, couldn't maintain his standing as age and injuries proved to be opponents as tough as the upstarts on the other side of the net. All of which makes Federer's years of dominance so much more impressive; he's been defeating top opponents, avoiding major injuries and beating the odds week after week after week.
Winning a major means that, for a short time, a player was the best among the best on a particular surface. Maintaining the No. 1 ranking, holding on to titles and holding on to majors for years mean that, in his prime, that player was among the all-time untouchables. As of now, Federer has been No. 1 for 200 more weeks than Rafa, and doesn't even hold the record. Pete Sampras owns that at 286. Do we see Rafa holding on to that top spot for four more years? Given the tally of points he has to defend and the history of injuries that continues to haunt him, will he even stay No. 1 for the rest of 2011?
Now Rafa lovers, don't get bent all out of shape. I'm not questioning Rafa's place in history. That's been secure for some time. I'm just wondering where he is right now. Last year, we saw a great player elevate his game. This year, we will see whether he peaked.
The cynic in me used to interpret Rafa's constant deference to Federer as the game's best as some sort of Phil Jackson mind game. After all, anyone who had watched their rivalry in the past five years could see Nadal owned the Swiss, especially in the Slams, where he hasn't lost to Federer head-to-head since 2007. But perhaps what I didn't see was the one question that remains in regards to Nadal now: Can he keep this up? Can he defend enough of his points to stay No. 1 for years to come?
The making of a king was a fantastic story in 2010. Watching him try to defend his kingdom in 2011 may prove to be even more so.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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