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Friday, June 3, 2011
Reflecting on Rafa's remarkable career

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

Rafael Nadal turned 25 at the French Open on Friday, and host broadcaster France Television appeared to give him a leather holder for CDs and DVDs as a gift. Nadal, a wealthy but simple man, was genuinely chuffed.

It was only fitting, since Nadal can replay all his great matches in his old age.

Birthdays are indeed a time for reflection, and for Nadal, he's done his reflecting deep into the second week at Roland Garros six of the past seven years. Thank Robin Soderling for allowing Nadal to spend an extra week at home in 2009 with the family in Spain.

Nadal moved into his sixth final at Roland Garros by beating dogged 4-seed Andy Murray in the semifinals, and if the No. 1 seed tops either Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic on Sunday, he'll have bagged a landmark 10th major. As it stands now, his nine majors are better than Federer's eight when the latter hit 25.

"Long time here flying around the world," Nadal said as he looked back on his time on the tour. "A lot of things changed. What never changed is the illusion to keep playing tennis, the illusion to keep doing well the things, and the illusion to be in a good position of the ranking and play these kind of matches like today, the kind of match I'm going to play Sunday. That's never [changed]."

Purists will argue that Federer has the smoother game and stepped on the gas from ages 25 to 28, which is on the money. Nadal, with his knees suspect and facing serious competition in the years ahead from the likes of Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, might not get to Federer's current haul of 16. But Nadal's achievements thus far shouldn't be diminished by even the staunchest of the Swiss star's supporters.

Nadal's play against Murray summed up his career in a nutshell. He never gave in, and on the big points, he upped his game. Far from content to sit back and hope his opponent missed, Nadal took it to Murray. On the majority of the 15 break points he saved, Nadal was clearly the aggressor.

Federer and Soderling have experienced Nadal's never-say-die attitude firsthand in Grand Slam finals.

Not long after Nadal won his first French Open (and first Grand Slam title) in 2005, he said he wanted to win Wimbledon. People laughed. We all know what happened in 2008 and 2010, slow grass or not. He had the last laugh.

Every part of his game has gotten better: The serve won him last year's U.S. Open, the backhand slice helped there and at Wimbledon, too, and his doubles play has made him one of the best volleyers on tour. He's more aggressive than the clay-courter who showed up at the French six years ago. The movement remains stellar.

Manolo Santana, Nadal's countryman and a four-time Grand Slam champion, suspects more is to come.

"I say that Rafa is probably going to be the best player in the history of tennis," Santana said, obviously not too worried about the knees. "Now Federer is there. He's a great champion, like Rod Laver a long time ago, but Rafa is only 25."

Murray celebrated his 24th birthday only a month ago, and in his case, it's a tale of underachieving. Although his forehand can't match Nadal's, Djokovic's or Federer's, and the serve remains unsteady, Murray has beaten the trio regularly. The problem is that he doesn't do it regularly at majors.

Two or three years ago, the tennis cognoscenti, and perhaps Murray himself, would have expected the Scot to open his Grand Slam account. Since Nadal, Djokovic, a less-than-finished Federer and del Potro are around, odds are the Brit won't snap his drought by the time he gets to 25.

Like he did after losing to Djokovic in this year's Australian Open final and Federer in the 2008 U.S. Open final, Murray could only hope for better.

"I have to treat myself like I am going to win Wimbledon," Murray said. "I've definitely got a chance of winning if I play my best."

Although questions remain surrounding Murray, Nadal has answered most in his career.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.