By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Since Marat Safin won the Australian Open at the start of the 2005 season only seven different men have claimed a Grand Slam title.
The first three are frequent winners. Roger Federer has won 16 of his record 20 majors since Safin’s ’05 victory. Rafael Nadal has won 17. Novak Djokovic has claimed 12.
Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have clawed out three majors apiece. Juan Martin del Potro upset Federer at the ’09 U.S. Open. Marin Cilic backed into winning at Flushing Meadows five years later.
Do the math and that means seven men have shared the last 53 majors over the last 13 years. A first-time Grand Slam champion is becoming more and more rare in today’s ATP Tour.
Rafael Nadal believes there’s someone ready to join tennis’ most coveted group.
Nadal won his record 11th French Open title over the weekend. One could spend all day diving into the jaw dropping numbers surrounding Nadal’s career statistics in Paris whether it be his 86-2 overall record, having dropped only one set over the past two years or the aforementioned 11 titles.
But it’s what Nadal said after Sunday’s final that could be a sign of things to come for a future star.
Following his straight sets victory over Dominic Thiem, Nadal was his usual gracious and encouraging self, telling his opponent “I am sure you will win here in the next couple of years.”
Thiem has won ten career titles, eight of which have come on clay. He has made the semifinals of the French Open in each of the last three years. Sunday’s encounter with Nadal was his maiden Grand Slam final. His career record on clay now sits at 109-36. The red dirt is clearly the Austrian’s best surface.
It might be easy to look at Nadal’s comments as cliche, but Thiem’s already impressive resume would suggest Nadal isn’t the only one who sees potential in the 24-year-old. It also wouldn’t be the first time Rafa has seen potential in a rising star.
Rewind to February 2009. Nadal is the number one player in the world having won three of the last four majors and is coming off his first Australian Open crown. In the second round of an ATP World Tour event in Rotterdam he faces a 17-year-old wildcard from Bulgaria by the name of Grigor Dimitrov.
Nadal prevailed in three sets, but said afterward that Dimitrov was definitely a future top-ten player, which proved to be true when Dimitrov slipped in at No. 9 in 2014. Since then he’s made two Grand Slam semifinals, won his first Masters 1000 title in 2017 and capped the year off by winning the year-end ATP Finals. He finished 2017 ranked No. 3 in the world.
In January of 2014 at the Australian Open Nadal beat Japan’s Kei Nishikori in a tight straight sets match. Nadal spoke highly of his opponent following the encounter, commenting that “Kei is going to have a great season.”
2014 wound up being Nishikori’s breakout year. He cracked the top ten for the first time later on in May. Then he slipped into the top five. He made his first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open, was a semifinalist at the World Tour Finals and finished the year with a 54-14 record and four tournament wins.
So if you’re keeping an eye out for who could upend the ATP’s elite in the coming years, consider listening to Rafa. After all, he’s been right before.