Nadal travels long road to reach 23rd Grand Slam final

New York (AFP) –


Rafael Nadal, once a mere childhood prodigy from the island of Mallorca, is on the brink of his 16th Grand Slam title entering Sunday's US Open final.

The 31-year-old Spaniard will face South Africa's Kevin Anderson in his 23rd career Slam final.

Nadal is a heavy favorite over the Slam finalist debutant even though he has not won a hardcourt event since 2014 at Doha, a run of 34 such events that includes eight finals appearances.

When Nadal reclaimed the world number one ranking last month, it was the first since in more than three years he had topped the list.

And when Federer lost in the US Open quarter-finals to Juan Martin del Potro, Nadal was ensured of keeping the top spot, although he was also denied a first-ever US Open meeting with the greatest rival of his time in the process.

"Is good to be number one of the world again," Nadal said when the Flushing Meadows fortnight began.

"It's a good achievement after three years having some troubles. So just happy for that.

"Doesn't matter if you are seeded one or seeded 20, for me always is special to play here in a tournament that I had success, a tournament where I enjoyed a lot of good matches and I have a great connection with the crowd."

It has been a long journey from his youthful days under his uncle Toni's tutoring.

Nadal won an under-12 regional crown at age eight and by 12 had captured Spanish and European age-group junior titles.

By 15, he had turned professional and was facing such foes on the global circuit as South African Kevin Anderson, his opponent in Sunday's final.

At 17, Nadal won his first match against Roger Federer. At 19, he won the 2005 French Open in his debut, the first of nine Grand Slam titles in 10 years he would claim on the red clay of Roland Garros, cementing a legacy as the greatest player ever seen on the surface.

It was early in his career when Nadal began his habit of biting the championship trophies he wins.

Nadal added Wimbledon crowns in 2008 and 2010, an Australian Open title in 2009 and completed the career Grand Slam in 2010 by defeating Novak Djokovic in the US Open final, becoming the youngest in the Open era (since 1967) to complete the four-event career sweep.

And only Nadal and Andre Agassi can say they have a career Grand Slam and an Olympic men's singles gold medal, Nadal having claimed his in 2008 at Beijing.

Nadal, the sixth and most recent left-hander to win a US Open title, added another crown at Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2013, again downing the Serbian star in the final.

Knee injuries took a toll throughout his career, costing him nine Slam appearances, and after he failed to even reach a Slam semi-final in 2015 and 2016 some figured his greatest moments were behind him.

Nadal roared into the Australian Open final, losing to Federer, then captured his record 10th French Open crown and has now put himself on the brink of a 16th Slam title, three shy of Roger Federer's record.

Only Nadal, Pete Sampras and Ken Rosewall have managed the feat of winning Grand Slam titles in their teens, 20s and 30s.