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The greatest ever?

According to Mark Starr, Nadal will go down as the greatest tennis player in history.

Spain's Rafael Nadal (L) poses with his trophy next to Switzerland's Roger Federer after their match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne Feb. 1, 2009. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

Following the spectacular final to the Australian Open, sportswriters finished analyzing Roger Federer's crying and resumed debating: Who is the greatest tennis player ever?

Federer shed copious tears after losing the final in five sets to Rafael Nadal. And who could blame him? He had come to Melbourne hoping to capture his 14th career Grand Slam title, which would have tied Pete Sampras’ career record, and everything seemed to be pointing his way.

Sure he would have to beat his nemesis, the standout young Spaniard Nadal, who beat him in finals at both the French Open and Wimbledon last year and wrested away the number-one ranking that Federer had held for almost five years. But while Nadal has dominated Federer on clay and broke through on grass in their epic, five-set Wimbledon final, Federer had ruled the hardcourts.

Moreover, Federer, 27, had breezed through his semi-final against the always disappointing Yank, Andy Roddick, and had been gifted by the schedule with an extra day of rest; Nadal, though five years younger, had endured five sets and an Open record-setting long match to slip past his countryman, Fernando Verdasco, in the other semi. In the wee hours after midnight when Nadal lay prostrate on the court in victory, nobody would have been surprised if he had to be carried off.

So in the final, even with the stadium roof closed to protect the players from 100 degree-plus temperatures, the heat was definitely on. But if anyone felt it, if anyone’s legs wilted just a bit, it was Federer. His service was erratic throughout the match and, in the fifth set, he was simply swept away on a string of uncharacteristic, unforced errors.

When the match was over — 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 to Nadal — the usually stolid, Swiss superstar played against stereotype. At the trophy presentation, Federer couldn’t hold back his emotions amid a torrent of tears. With rare candor for any athlete in defeat, he admitted, “God, it’s killing me.”

The classy Nadal tried to soothe his rival with a gracious salute. But his choice of words — “remember you’re a great champion…one of the best in history” — may have only compounded the sting. Until recently, Federer was most often acclaimed as very likely the “best ever,” not just “one of the best.”

And while that distinction will always be subjective, fodder for barroom debate (especially Down Under where Rod Laver remains the king), Federer had the ultimate measure dead in his sights: He needed just one more Grand Slam title to join Pete Sampras on the game’s highest pedestal.

Passing Sampras certainly seemed his destiny after Federer took three out of four Grand Slam titles in both 2006 and 2007. And again after he won his 13th at the U.S. Open last September, escaping a match-up with Nadal when the Spaniard was upset in the semi-finals. But as Federer approaches tennis antiquity — he will turn 28 just before the U.S. Open this summer — the chase looms as a struggle.

Sampras won only two Grand Slams after turning 28, one that year and a last-gasp triumph at the U.S. Open when he was 31 and headed for retirement. And Sampras did not have a player of Nadal’s transcendent gifts standing in his way. Even if Federer does ultimately catch Sampras, he must already sense the possibility that his claim on “the greatest” in tennis history may be short-lived.

Nadal, of course, is not only standing in Federer’s way, but now clearly chasing him as well. Federer won his first Grand Slam title at age 21 and, by his 23rd birthday, had won two more. Sampras had won four by that age. Nadal is well ahead of that pace, having won his first Grand Slam at the precocious age of 18. The Australian was Nadal's sixth and he will be a prohibitive favorite to capture his fifth consecutive French Open just a few days after he turns 23 in June.

We sportswriters are a notoriously impatient lot. We always want to play well ahead of the day’s game. In a fashion we flatter ourselves by elevating those we are privileged to witness. It is hardly a phenomenon restricted to tennis. Is there a sportswriter alive who has resisted the temptation to pronounce Tiger Woods a mortal lock to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major golf titles?

Tiger, at 33 and with 14 majors already in his bag, may still be odds-on in that chase, especially after the 2008 U.S. Open where he demonstrated that he is capable of winning on one good leg. But with Woods having now undergone three knee surgeries in five years, we must wonder if his mortal body will hold up to his immortal talent.

Still, sober restraint has never been much fun or, frankly, all that rewarding for sportswriters. Nobody is likely to remember if I am wrong, especially about the distant future. But I will remember — and remind my readers relentlessly — if I happen to be right.

So let me now say it unequivocally: Rafael Nadal is certain to break Sampras’/Federer’s record for career Grand Slam titles. He will go down as the greatest tennis player in history. You heard it here first.

More GlobalPost dispatches by Mark Starr:

Hollywood ending for Beckham?

Can the new president bring home the Olympics?

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/sports/090206/the-greatest-ever