Rafael Nadal in the legends club: Brady, Jordan, Phelps, Pelé, Russell, Ali, Merckx...
After winning at Roland Garros, the Spaniard, with 22, has the most tennis Grand Slams, lining him up alongside the greatest sport stars in history.
Sport has an innate facility for bringing us epic stories. It is part of its idiosyncrasy. It is usually made up of winners, losers and the thread that simultaneously unites and separates them: a ball that bounces in or out, a fraction of a second too much or too little, and so on. High doses of adrenaline that, beyond the emotion of the moment, write pages and pages of incredible tales. In those of recent decades, Rafa Nadal has been one of the most prominent names. Now, even more so. For what and for how.
in winning his 14th Roland Garros title, being the absolute dominator of the tournament, and opening a gap between himself and Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer (20 each) in the historic career of Grand Slams (22); but also for having done it dealing with his chronic injury, overcoming so many obstacles. Suffering, sacrifice and glory. The logical sequence of the aforementioned ‘epic’. The path of a sportsman who, along with other chosen ones, forms part of a select club of legends.
Joe Louis: king of the heavyweights
“The Detroit Bomber” is another typical example of the sporting epic. Along with six other siblings, he was born in a cottonwood cabin in Lexington, Alabama, and lost his father at an early age. He stepped into a ring almost by chance and, from there, went on to be ranked as the greatest heavyweight in history by the International Boxing Research Organization. He was heavyweight champion for 12 straight years (from June 1937 to March 1949), a feat no one has ever come close to, and he made 25 successful title defences.
Bill Russell: Lord of the Rings
No one has won as much in American sports as the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s. Nine rings in a row and eleven in thirteen years, a dynasty hard to repeat. John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, Red Auerbach? Many names have helped shaped the achievement. Among them, that of Bill Russell, present in all eleven championships and, with that, the player with the most rings in the history of the NBA.
Pelé: O Rei’
“Pelé is perfect, Edson is a person like any other,” Pelé, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, often says of himself. He went hungry as a child, selling peanuts and shining shoes on the street to help his family’s finances, and worked hard to change history, his own and that of football. His breakthrough in the 1958 World Cup, which he almost missed due to injury, was a before and after moment. At the age of 17, he won his first World Cup. The first of a record three World Cups he would win in twelve years.
Michael Jordan: the art of flying
From his unforgettable basket against Byron Russell, in the sixth game of the 1998 Finals, to the shot with his eyes closed challenging Mutombo. Michael Jordan was another fine stylist of what and how. His six rings with the Chicago Bulls, his 14 All Stars, his ten seasons leading the NBA in scoring and his five MVPs place him at the pinnacle of basketball. His charisma and storytelling, with his temporary retirement to play baseball, as an example, and his fashion range, make him a social icon.
Eddy Merckx: the great monument
Few dare to question Merckx’s position in cycling history. If you were to use a machine to create the perfect rider, you would come up with someone with his characteristics. He reigned supreme in all the grand tours, with five Tours de France, five Tours d’Italia and one Vuelta a España, but also in the classics and the monuments. In fact, along with Roger De Vlaeminck and Rick Van Looy, he is the only rider to win all five races in the latter category.
Michael Phelps: the medal shark
The bullet or the shark of Baltimore. Any nickname, however extravagant, is not enough to praise Michael Phelps. Beijing 2008 bears his name, it was his Olympic Games. There, he won eight gold medals, the record for a single Games. It proved a significant part of his medal haul, but not all of it: with 28, he is the Olympian with the most medals in history. He devoured them.
Usain Bolt: the man who broke science
Nobody thought a human could swim so fast until Phelps came along. And nobody thought a human could run that fast until Usain Bolt came along. His 9.58 seconds in the 100 metres at the Berlin World Championships (2009) are still being studied by science, which saw all its perceived norms broken. Before setting such a record, he had already broken the limit on two other occasions (9.72 and 9.69). The Jamaican athlete turned more than the extraordinary, the inconceivable, into routine. In total, he holds eight Olympic gold medals and records in the 100 and 200 metres, as well as the 4 x 100 relay.
Margaret Court: the greatest Grand Slam
Rafa Nadal, with his 22nd major, has achieved what has never been seen before... in the men’s category. Before that, the world had already seen Margaret Court achieve it. The Australian tennis player lifted the Roland Garros, Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open trophies 24 times, also winning them all in the same season. She is not the only one. Serena Williams, the unrivalled image of contemporary women’s tennis, has won 23 Grand Slams.
Indurain: an eternal spin
The hard part is not getting to the top. The difficult thing, as the popular saying goes, is staying there. Miguel Indurain did it like nobody else. The Spanish cyclist, in a golden period that is hard to match, won five consecutive Tours de France. An ode to consistency. In addition to his triumphant entries on the Champs Elysées, Induráin also won two Tours and a World Championship against the clock. Paradoxically, the Vuelta a España eluded him.
Larisa Latynina: where art and medals combine
The most decorated gymnast in history and the woman with the most medals at the Olympic Games, 18 in total. Until London 2012, when she was overtaken by Phelps, she was the most decorated athlete in the competition. It is difficult to comprehend artistic gymnastics without her legacy, one that began early. At 11, after suffering the death of her father in the battle of Stalingrad, she found refuge in ballet. At 21, she arrived in Melbourne to change history.
Lionel Messi: the golden footballer
The king of The Beautiful Game. At least he is in contemporary times and supported, some would say, by the number of individual awards he has won. Earlier this year, Leo Messi received his seventh Ballon d’Or, making him stand out above any peers on this measure, and is the highest goalscorer in the Spanish league, in a calendar year. A joy to watch in recent decades, a legend in the history of the game.
Jack Nicklaus: the Golden Bear
No golfer has as many Grand Slams as he does. And yet Jack Nicklaus goes far beyond numbers. The Golden Bear, as he was nicknamed, could hit as hard as anyone and, at the same time, stroke the ball onto the green with the silkiest of touches. He won his first US Open title in 1962 and never stopped. After that came 18 majors and more than 105 tournament wins.
Giacomo Agostini: putting your foot down
“It’s very hard when you give up what you’ve been doing all your life,” Giacomo Agostini said recently. It’s even harder when what you’ve been doing all your life is winning. The former Italian rider won 15 titles and 122 victories in the World Motorcycle Championship. And he did it the only way he knew how, by accelerating faster than anyone else: it only took him ten years to achieve his goals.
Schumacher and Hamilton: seven World Championships apiece
On two wheels, nobody raced like Agostini; on four, the honour is shared. When Michael Schumacher won his seventh World Championship in 2004, it was hardly conceivable that anyone could match him in such a short period of time. Hamilton, in 2020, made it possible. The character and ambition of the Kaiser or the insatiable hunger of Lewis. Both, like most legends, have surpassed the limits of any circuit.
Tom Brady: the American dream
He was selected with the 199th pick in the sixth round of the 2000 draft and, at 44, with retirement and a comeback, time is looming to crown him the greatest of all time in the NFL. Tom Brady, with seven, has more Super Bowls than any franchise and has won more than any other player has played in. His numbers, with countless records, are from another planet; his qualities, from another galaxy. Without having the most powerful physique, the prototypical for his sport, no one has won like him: neither in quantity nor in quality.
Gary Kasparov: the immovable one
The master of masters. From 1984 until his retirement in 2005, Gary Kasparov was the world’s number one chess player. In total, a record 255 months of unchallenged leadership in the sport. His rivalry with Anatoly Karpov, which went far beyond sport, has seen pages and pages of history written. History itself, in fact, can be understood through that rivalry.
Muhammad Ali: a transcending hero
One of the most recognisable figures in the history of sport, both by those close to him and those far removed. Even as Cassius Clay, he won gold at the Rome Olympics of 1960. The first blow of an unstoppable flurry, a term not chosen at random. Even prison did not keep the boxing legend from the top. In 1967, Ali refused to go to Vietnam with the United States Armed Forces. After three years and five months in prison and 43 months without a fight due to the sentence, he came back the champion he always was: the champion, with the victory over Oscar ‘Ringo’ Bonavena in 1970 or against George Foreman, in 1974, to regain the WBA and WBC world title.