Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams didn’t need to win the U.S. Open, which concluded on Monday in New York, to join tennis’s pantheon; they have been a prominent part of it for some time now. Nadal had progressed from being a wrinkle in the argument that Roger Federer was the greatest male player of all time to being a contender for the honour himself. Serena, after her first-round defeat at Roland Garros last year, had dominated the women’s tour, winning three of five Grand Slam titles, an Olympic singles gold and causing former players of the stature of John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert to suggest that there hadn’t been a better female player. Neither Nadal’s 13th major nor Serena’s 17th were records. Federer (17) and Pete Sampras (14) lead the men’s list while Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Evert and Navratilova (18 each) top the women’s. But what Nadal’s second U.S. crown and Serena’s fifth did was advance their cases so strongly that they might not need to break the all-time record to be remembered as the best ever.
Nadal is now just one Australian Open short of becoming the first man since Rod Laver — and only the third ever, Roy Emerson being the other — to win each major at least twice. Consider that the Grand Slams are played on three different surfaces these days as compared to two in Laver and Emerson’s era, factor in Nadal’s winning head-to-head numbers against Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in a Golden Age of men’s tennis, and his claim to being the greatest ever is as complete as it gets. Serena in her 30s is making up for the time she lost in her 20s when she chose not to commit to a full schedule. Over the last 15 months, she has devoted herself to tennis and bullet-proofed her legacy. Her unbeaten run on clay, which led to her second Roland Garros crown earlier this year, banished doubts anyone might have had about her capability on the surface; her victory over Victoria Azarenka in a rematch from last year’s U.S. Open final showed again that Serena is peerless in big matches. The fact that both Nadal and Serena have returned to such success after career-threatening injuries — the Spaniard earlier this year, the American in 2011 — makes their accomplishments even more impressive. Another remarkable instance of mind over matter was to be found in the continuing success story of Leander Paes (40). Partnering Radek Stepanek, Paes won an eighth Grand Slam men’s doubles title to add to six mixed-doubles crowns. Doubles might not have the competitive depth singles has, but this doesn’t detract from Paes’s achievement. The oldest man to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era deserves his place among the finest doubles practitioners of all time.