Rafael Nadal just won his thirteenth Grand Slam. He’s 27 years old. If he wins four more, he’ll match Roger Federer. If he wins five more, he’ll set a new all-time record. (Assuming, of course, that Roger is done. No guarantees there.)
Can Rafa do it? I think he can, and while he is one of a kind, there are some historical precedents that suggest he will.
Before diving into the numbers, there’s the argument I’ve always used in favor of Nadal piling up plenty of Slams. They hold the French Open every year. Each clay season that Rafa is healthy and playing like Rafa, he’s probably going to add at least one title to the list.
He’ll be just shy of his 28th birthday at the 2014 French Open, meaning that if he keeps winning every match he plays at Roland Garros, he’ll have four more French Open titles right about the time he turns 31, at the 2017 French Open. With what seems like half the tour playing quality tennis at age 30, and with Rafa aggressively skipping events this year, it’s easy to imagine him winning four more Slams on clay.
Or seven more. As long as he can stay healthy enough to play on his favorite surface, one gets the sense it’s up to him.
Setting aside Rafa’s historic dominance in Paris, a look at other modern-era players who have piled up Grand Slam titles suggests that 27 or 28 is hardly the end of the road.
In the last 40 years, only 25 Slam titles have gone to players over the age of 27 and a half. But an awful lot of those 25 titles have been claimed by players who–like Nadal–had already put together quite the resume.
In search of precedents, I looked at the six other players who have won the most Grand Slams in the Open era. To make the list, you need at least eight. Of those, only Bjorn Borg failed to win at least one after his 27th birthday. (Borg, of course, was basically out of tennis at 26.) The other five each won at least three when they were older than Nadal is now.
Federer won four of his 17 from the age of 27 and 10 months. Pete Sampras won three from the age of 27 and 11 months. Ivan Lendl won three of his eight slams from the age of 27 and a half. Jimmy Connors had only won five of his eight slams by the age of 29 and 10 months. Andre Agassi won five of his eight slams after turning 29.
In other words, the players who came closest to matching Nadal’s level of achievement had plenty left in the tank for the last few years of their careers. And most of these players accomplished these feats in eras when 30 year olds weren’t nearly as successful as they are right now.
Average these six players, and we find that they won 23% of their slams after turning 27. (More, if Federer wins another.) If Nadal matches that number, he’ll have won four more, tying Roger’s all-time record.
It seems likely that Rafa will defy–and improve upon–history in at least one way: by showing that Roland Garros can be won by a “old” player. Since 1974, only four French Open titlists have won the tournament while older than Nadal is now. Lendl and Federer did it age 27, Agassi won at 29, and Andres Gomez won at 30. Every other Slam has had more winners in this age bracket.
But with Nadal’s performance this year, dominating on both clay and hard courts, it seems foolish to point to any precedent that suggests he might soon falter at the French.
While there’s no such thing as guaranteed Grand Slam titles–surely Novak Djokovic would have something to say about that, even in Paris–the evidence strongly points to at least a few more for the King of Clay. And as the newly-minted King of North American Hard, Nadal is well positioned to win five more and claim the all-time record.