MELBOURNE, Australia — One more major title, just one, and Rafael Nadal will share the most prestigious record in modern men’s tennis with Roger Federer.
But Nadal is panther-quick to assure you that he is not ripping forehands in practice or drifting off to sleep with “No. 20, No. 20” ringing in his head.
The chase obsesses tennis fans — this three-way tussle to finish with the most Grand Slam singles titles in the history of the men’s game.
With the Australian Open well underway, Federer has 20, Nadal has 19 and Novak Djokovic has 16.
All are comfortably into the third round, but when Nadal sat down for an interview at his Melbourne hotel this week, he insisted that he had never viewed it as a chase.
For him, the number by his name is simply a byproduct of his relentless pursuit of the best effort within himself.
“I am happy with who I am,” he said, tapping his barrel chest with an index finger. “I was very happy with 16, very happy with 17, very happy with 18, very happy with 19, and if one day I get to 20, I will be very happy, too. But my level of happiness is not going to change because of this. Do I make myself clear?”
It is as if Nadal is trying to build fences around the achievement before anyone else has a chance to start putting up anything resembling barbed wire.
“Getting to 20 does not make me incredible,” he said. “And if I get to 22, I am not more incredible. I see my life as something more normal.”
Would it be different if Nadal were chasing a record from another era instead of his own? When Federer equaled Pete Sampras’s record of 14 in 2009, Sampras was retired. When Sampras equaled Roy Emerson’s record of 12 in 1999, Emerson was long retired.
Nadal is on the verge of equaling Federer, his longtime tennis yang who has become a very friendly rival. They are headed for Cape Town, South Africa, to play a charity exhibition together the week after the Australian Open.
“I think the good thing is to appreciate being part of a story that has never happened before,” he said. “You never had so many matches between three players like this: Novak against me, me against Federer, Novak against Federer. So many finals and semifinals and important matches between all of us, and that is a story that will remain in the history of our sport.”
Federer is 38; Nadal, 33; Djokovic, 32. All would once have been considered past their tennis primes at those ages. “I wouldn’t have thought I’d still be here,” Nadal said.
But they have inspired one another, and as the 2020s begin, Nadal is ranked No. 1, Djokovic, No. 2; and Federer, No. 3.
Their collective staying power explains why no active player in his 20s has won a major singles title, which is unprecedented in the Open era or any era.
“I don’t hear much talk about the Grand Slam record in the locker room,” said the American veteran Sam Querrey. “At least the guys I talk with a lot, the Americans, we never talk about it, probably because none of us have even one. It’s not relatable. Actually it’s not relatable to someone who has three, like Stan Wawrinka. He’s a star. They are superstars.”
Djokovic and Federer are in the bottom half of the draw in Melbourne, but danger still lurks in the top half for Nadal.
If he beats his Spanish compatriot Pablo Carreño Busta in the third round, he will face either Karen Khachanov or Nick Kyrgios.
Kyrgios, who relishes getting under Nadal’s skin and once upset him at Wimbledon, actually mimicked Nadal’s service motion during his second-round victory over Gilles Simon on Thursday.
“Honestly I don’t care at all,” Nadal said of Kyrgios’s stunt after defeating Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday night. “If it was funny, good.”
But Kyrgios, for a change, has looked more inspired than conflicted in his home nation.
Inspired is, of course, Nadal’s default mode. He practices like he plays: at full in-the-moment throttle, even if he practices and plays less often now to preserve his energy and fragile knees. Last April, he experienced a rare motivational crisis, brought on by his latest round of injuries, that had him muttering “I want to get out of here” in the midst of a victory over Leonardo Mayer in Barcelona.
But he has rebounded convincingly and said he still plays for the same reasons — love of the game and the fight, and the desire to achieve personal goals for himself and those close to him. He is newly married to longtime girlfriend Maria Francisca Perello and, despite his fiercely protective attitude toward his private life, is speaking openly about their desire to start a family.
The Australian Open remains the major tournament he has won the least. His only title came in 2009, when he reduced Federer to tears after a five-set victory in the final.
He has won 12 French Opens on the red clay in Paris, two Wimbledons on grass and four United States Opens on an acrylic hardcourt surface quite similar to the one at Melbourne Park. But he has often stumbled at the final hurdle here, losing four finals, the most recent one to Djokovic last year in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 rout.
Djokovic, who has beaten Nadal nine straight times on hardcourts and won the Australian Open a record seven times, remains the rightful favorite again. If Nadal cannot get to 20 in Melbourne, he will, if he remains healthy, have a fine shot of getting there in Paris in June.
Federer, five years older, has had ample time to see this coming, but it is also worth remembering that the Grand Slam career record is a relatively contemporary obsession. Until Open tennis began in 1968, many of the greatest players, including Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez, quickly turned professional, which made them ineligible for Grand Slam events. Rod Laver, who twice won all four Grand Slam events in a single year, has said he paid scant attention to his total. In the 1970s and 1980s, the game’s greats regularly skipped the long trip to Australia.
Even a more recent player, Andre Agassi, skipped the tournament for eight straight years at the beginning of his career. But by the mid-1990s, with prize money and crowds increasing at the Australian Open’s new venue at Melbourne Park, the stars had begun making the trek as a rule.
So it has remained, and the Grand Slam events and the Grand Slam record have become an increasing focus.
Nadal understands the trend but resists it.
“I cannot evaluate my whole career on four tournaments a year,” he said. “Tennis is much more than that. I try to value everything. If I go to Acapulco, I’m happy playing Acapulco, and if I win there, I’m incredibly happy. Same in Barcelona.”
For those who keep track, and not many do, Federer has won 103 tour titles, Nadal has won 84 and Djokovic has won 77.
Still, the numbers that resonate are 20, 19 and 16.
“I am happy to be part of this from the inside, but if I end up finishing third, I don’t think I’m going to be less happy in the future,” Nadal said. “And if I end up finishing first, I don’t think I’m going to be any more happy in the future, either.”