This "greatest player of all time" talk may not be foremost in Rafael Nadal's mind, as he continues to insist, but it certainly is getting traction now that he has ascended to his first U.S. Open final Sunday.
The top-ranked Nadal cruised to a 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 semifinal victory Saturday over No. 12 seed Mikhail Youzhny of Russia, a man who often appears to be playing on roller skates with his scrambling court coverage. If Nadal can dispose of No. 3 Novak Djokovic, who gave a few pounds of flesh in upsetting Roger Federer during a five-set heavyweight bout, he will become:
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The seventh man in history to win each of the four Grand Slam tournaments during his career and the second youngest, at 24, to do so. (Federer didn't win the fourth of the majors, in his case the French Open, until he was 27.)
Winner of nine major tournaments, stirring conversation regarding his chances of catching Federer's record of 16 before Nadal retires. The fact that Nadal has beaten Federer in 14 of their 21 career meetings, and that Federer has assumed the "greatest of all time" mantle after passing Pete Sampras' Grand Slam record, only intensifies the argument for Nadal.
"No, no, [today's] is another match," Nadal said of possibly being on the path to greatest ever. "Suppose I win that final, I'm going to say the same. I am not on the way to be the best of the history, because that's very far. I really don't believe I can rise to Roger's level, no?
"So I think what Roger did is something almost impossible to repeat. I go day by day, and just like this, I'm going to have a chance to keep having chances to win important tournaments."
Having rolled out an impressive new serving power - Nadal said he simply changed his grip "a little" so that he hits the serve flatter and faster - he has marched through the Open without losing a set, having lost his serve only twice in six matches. In the last two rounds, in fact, Nadal has allowed his opponents all of three break-point opportunities.
During this year's Open, for the first time, he has been the same bull in the china shop as he has showed in winning five French Opens - a physical presence who charges constantly. But more than in the past, Nadal's athletic grace and versatility have begun to show through.
"It's because I always thought I can keep improving," he said. "That's why I am playing, to keep improving and to feel myself a better player than before. I go to practice every day not to practice. I go to practice every day to try to learn something and to keep improving my level."
A victory Sunday will make the "greatest" talk deafening.