Wimbledon 2018: Rafael Nadal faces stiff challenge, but title win at All England Club would add fuel to 'greatest ever' debate

Once again, for an astounding 11th time, a beaming Rafael Nadal goes into Wimbledon as the reigning Grand Slam champion. Of course, the King of Clay claimed another title at Roland Garros as expected and now the pressure has somewhat been alleviated.

The French Open title was basically a formality for Nadal, as it has been for over a decade, but his ability to triumph so easily amid high expectations should be nonetheless admired. Everyone expected Nadal to romp through and he didn’t disappoint with a flawless performance.

With another title in the bag, Nadal is in the envious position of heading into Wimbledon with less hubbub even though the World No 1 is still seeded a lofty two behind reigning champion Roger Federer.

 Wimbledon 2018: Rafael Nadal faces stiff challenge, but title win at All England Club would add fuel to greatest ever debate

Rafael Nadal. Art by Rajan Gaikwad.

While Nadal had to deal with pressure in Paris, his great rival Federer now has all the burden of expectation at a tournament he has long dominated. Even though the pressure might be somewhat off, Nadal undoubtedly will be steeling himself for an assault on Wimbledon in a bid to continue his stunning renaissance and ignite the debate over the GOAT (greatest of all time).

With 20 majors, three ahead of Nadal, Federer is now widely perceived as the best ever with many of his supporters citing his longevity – he first won Wimbledon in 2003 – and a more balanced Grand Slam tally. Wimbledon has been Federer’s favourite major but he has won just 40 percent of his slams there and has dominant records at the Australian Open (6 titles) and US Open (5).

Critics for Nadal point at his skewed tally with the French Open accounting for 11 of his 17 majors. However, crucially for those in the Nadal GOAT camp, the Spaniard has beaten Federer at Wimbledon – in that epic 2008 final – while expectedly dominating his Swiss rival on clay.

A third Wimbledon triumph would nudge Nadal closer to Federer’s record tally but, equally crucial in terms of legacy, will legitimately fuel the greatest ever debate – especially if he managed to beat Federer in the final.

However, right now, holding aloft the Wimbledon trophy still feels a long way away for Nadal, who has struggled mightily at the All England Club since his last triumph in 2010. Since those heady days, the 32-year-old has suffered some of his most humiliating defeats there.

After losing to Novak Djokovic in the 2011 decider, which capped off a run of five consecutive finals appearances barring missing 2009 due to injury, Nadal has astoundingly not made it past the Round of 16 ever since. He stunningly lost to World No 100 Lukas Rosol in 2012 followed by an embarrassing defeat to unheralded Belgian Steve Darcis a year later.

More humiliation was to follow with early exits in 2014 to then World No 144 Nick Kyrgios, who was just 19 at the time, journeyman Dustin Brown in 2015 and last year’s disaster against Gilles Muller in a five-set marathon.

After his gruelling claycourt season, Nadal wisely decided to have a breather and skipped Queens. He hasn’t played a competitive match since the French Open final three weeks ago but competed in exhibition matches in Hurlingham on Wimbledon eve and beat Australian Matthew Ebden followed by a straight sets setback to Frenchman Lucas Pouille.

It’s not an ideal preparation but Nadal – much like Federer – has had to carefully manage his body during these advancing years in an effort to continue his astounding post-prime resurgence. However, it is on the grasscourt where you notice Nadal’s battered body betraying him. Even in his younger years, during those herculean days of his peak in the late 2000s, Nadal looked slightly a fish out of water playing on the quicker grasscourts but his unwavering resolve willed him to remarkable success on his least favoured surface.

These days, after putting his body through the ringer for so long, the low bounce on grass threatens to aggravate Nadal’s bothersome knees and it’s been tougher for him to make the transition from clay to lawn as he’s gotten older.

With all those obstacles, Nadal is not favoured but the field is open bar Federer. Former champions Djokovic and Andy Murray have major question marks after long injury struggles and no one else has tasted the ultimate success at Wimbledon. Quite clearly, it would be folly to write off the 17-time Majors champion. If Nadal manages to pull it off, he will equal Bjorn Borg’s men's record of achieving the arduous French Open-Wimbledon double three times – an amazing feat that will aid his GOAT argument.

There might not be a swirl of anticipation around him heading into Wimbledon, but Rafael Nadal will be well aware that the stakes are high at Wimbledon.

Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 22:06:54 IST