Nadal's great year tip of big iceberg
Rafael Nadal has received his share of accolades for a historic 2008 campaign. But his performance pales in comparison to the raw dominance and brilliance displayed by others during the Open era.
1. Rod Laver, 1969
Still the platinum standard. This was the first year all four of the Grand Slams were open to all players. His left-handed game clicking with supreme efficiency, his capacity for the big shot at the right time off the charts, the 30-year-old Australian swept all four with consummate brilliance. Among his major conquests: In the finals of Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Laver took down Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Tony Roche, a trio of fellow Aussies who would all end up in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Said Laver this past summer, "To win like that it's important to get out of your own way."
2. Steffi Graf, 1988
In retrospect, raw dominance threatens to make success inevitable, as if the result were preordained. Such seems possible in the case of 19-year-old Steffi Graf's remarkable 1988 achievement. But make no mistake: The fast-moving, forceful-hitting German earned her way to all four majors, including wins over Chris Evert in the Australian Open and Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon. Graf topped it off with an Olympic gold medal. Four subsequent times, she would win three Slams in a calendar year.
3. Margaret Court, 1970
Dubbed "The Arm" for the way her lanky frame enabled her to cover the court and smother opponents, the regal Australian had actually quit the game in 1966 -- but came back better than ever in the late '60s. Often subject to nervous spells at Wimbledon, Court eked out an epic 14-12, 11-9 win over her great rival Billie Jean King in the Wimbledon final, and then capped her four-Slam run at the U.S. Open. She also earned three Slams in '62, '69 and '73.
4. Martina Navratilova, 1983-84
It's tough to imagine, but in large part Martina Navratilova was a late bloomer. But by the time she turned 26 in the fall of 1982, she was on her way to extraordinary levels of dominance. In '83, she won three Slams and 16 of 17 tournaments. Her 86-1 record was marred only by a defeat in the fourth round of the French Open. A year later she commenced a 74-match winning streak, her 78-2 record again featuring three Slam victories.
5. Roger Federer, 2006
Of his three three-Slam years ('04, '06 and '07), 2006 was the one the Swiss most conclusively dominated. His all-court acumen inspired awe not just from observers but also from opponents. There hardly seemed a shot Federer couldn't make. Besides being a wall-to-wall No. 1, Federer racked up a 92-5 match record and a tour-leading 12 titles.
6. Martina Hingis, 1997
While the original Martina blossomed in her late 20s, this Martina was exceptionally precocious. At 16, she took over women's tennis with tactical brilliance and the ease of a cat toying with a ball of string. In 1997, Hingis won 12 titles, including three Slams. Only a loss to Iva Majoli in the final of the French Open marred her year.
Though certainly one of the game's finest, it wasn't clear at first just how ambitious this likable Swede was. In 1988, though, Wilander showcased subtle but profound improvements, including an adroit one-handed slice backhand and an increased desire to attack. Wilander's glorious year commenced with an enchanting 8-6-in-the-fifth victory over native son Pat Cash in the final of the Australian Open, continued with a five-set win versus newcomer Andre Agassi in the semis at Roland Garros and concluded, most telling of all, with a rough-and-tumble 6-4-in-the-fifth triumph over three-time defending champion Ivan Lendl in the final of the U.S. Open. A quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon to "Swede Killer" Miloslav Mecir was the only blemish on Wilander's career year.
8. Jimmy Connors, 1974
At his fire-breathing best, Jimmy Connors grabbed the sport by its throat. His 99-4 match record kicked off with a win at the Australian Open (though, as was the case often during that time, over an acutely shallow field). But it was in the summer when Connors most strutted his stuff. For all the attention given to Connors' showmanship, good, bad and ugly, what's often overlooked was the sheer brilliance of his tennis. At Wimbledon and Forest Hills his forceful brand of counterpunching turned back net-rushers and baseliners alike. Exceptionally emphatic was the way he pummeled sentimental favorite Ken Rosewall in both finals, losing but eight games in six sets. Banned that year from the French Open due to his decision to play World Team Tennis, Connors also gained a measure of satisfaction that summer when he beat Roland Garros winner Bjorn Borg in the final of the US Clay Court Championships -- one of 15 titles he won that year.
9. John McEnroe, 1984
Though he'd always lament the passing of the wood racket era, it was his first full year with a graphite stick when Johnny Mac played the best tennis of his life. Lighting-quick, relentlessly opportunistic, McEnroe's hawk-like eyes bore down with beauty, power and effectiveness. Winning the first 42 matches of the year, he suffered his most regrettable loss in the final of the French Open, but rapidly proved himself a superb champion with a best-ever win over Connors in the final of Wimbledon (two unforced errors) and a companion straight-sets payback win over Lendl at the U.S. Open. The McEnroe tally for the year: 12 titles and an 82-3 match record, a 96 percent winning percentage that remains the all-time men's record.
10. Pete Sampras, 1994
One of the record six straight years Sampras finished at the top of the rankings, this was likely his most dominant: wall-to-wall No. 1 and 10 titles, including a pair of Slams at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, as well as such prestigious crowns as Indian Wells, Miami, the year-end championships and yes, a major clay-court victory at the Italian Open.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
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