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Monday, August 18, 2008
Nadal's epic achievement

What once seemed impossible, but then slowly morphed into the tenable and then became the inevitable has finally become official: Rafael Nadal has become the No. 1-ranked tennis player in the universe.

In order to get there, he had to scale Mt. Federer. The route he took on his ascent was through the clay fields, then the paved pitches and finally, the upper grass meadows. Hey Rafa, how's the view up there?

Federer held the top-ranking for a record 237 consecutive weeks, an accomplishment that puts the Mighty Fed in the same league as, oh, Cal Ripken Jr. or Joe DiMaggio. It also helps explain how Nadal not only shattered the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 2 (160), but he often had more rankings points than some players held when they were No. 1. Nadal won five Grand Slams before he earned the top-ranking. Has anyone ever had a tougher, lengthier fight to earn the No. 1 ranking?

Actually, yes: Mats Wilander.

While trying to figure out if anyone had ever struggled more mightily to earn the No. 1 ranking, I figured out that Bjorn Borg had four major singles titles and Boris Becker had five before either took the top spot. But Wilander had to complete his Grand Slam haul of seven titles before he earned the final approval of the computer.

Wilander's problem, if that's the right word for it, was three-fold: He was never obsessed with the No. 1 ranking and wanted to live on his own terms, taking as much pleasure as he could from the game. Also, he was markedly more comfortable and confident at two of the four majors: the Australian Open and the French Open. Wilander never quite solved the Wimbledon dilemma and won just one U.S. Open title.

The third component in his extraordinarily slow rise to the top ranking was the competition: He was at tail end of the Borg-Connors-McEnroe-Lendl era. Ivan Lendl was an especially tough opponent for him and the one whose best game held up longest (Lendl was 15-7 during his career against Wilander). In fact, it was Wilander's upset of Lendl in the 1988 U.S. Open final (one of the most compelling Open era matches and still in my personal top three) that finally earned Mats the coveted top spot.

Most of you know that Wilander only owned the No. 1 ranking for 20 weeks before he spiraled off into disinterest; he was never again a factor at the top of the game.

For some players -- and Federer is one of them -- the No. 1 ranking is a challenge and a gift that comes with a note: Now, what are you going to do with it? By contrast, the top-ranking Wilander got, was like the gold watch given to a retiring shop foreman. For others -- count among them Borg and Becker -- earning the No. 1 ranking was a pro forma validation that they had to work surprisingly hard to nail down.

Put Nadal in this final group. He doesn't have to prove anything to anyone; his achievement is already epic. But I'm not expecting him to do a slow fade, either.