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Zach Thompson breaks down Rafael Nadal’s amazing career as one of the greatest tennis players ever, culminating in his 22nd major championship.
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In some sports, there are multiple ways to measure greatness, resulting in debates over who the greatest player ever in the history of the sport is. Like golf, tennis makes it very clear which tournaments are most important by categorizing four events each year as “majors” that collectively make up the Grand Slam. Earlier this year, Rafael Nadal redefined greatness and wrote his name atop the record books with his record 22nd major championship. To celebrate that accomplishment and give you a unique chance to own a collectible commemorating his accomplishment, there’s an exciting new NFT offering from Autograph and DraftKings.
There will be two types of NFTs as part of the El Rey: The Rafael Nadal Collection. There will be 22 of the “22” collectibles followed by 2,800 Rafael Nadal: El Rey Mystery Container collectibles. Those containers will contain one of six trading cards, three embossed and three in color. The cards are called “The Prodigy,” “The Master” and “The King.” There are also two challenges associated with the trading cards that can earn you an “El Monumento” Collectible if completed. Make sure to check them out in the DraftKings Marketplace and find more information on the Autograph blog.
Nadal’s quest to reach 22 major championships began when his uncle introduced him to the game when he was only three years old. By age 8, he won an under-12 regional tennis championship, and at age 12, he won both the Spanish and European tennis titles in his age group. At that point, his parents made him choose between soccer and tennis, and the 12-year-old rightly chose tennis, turning pro at age 15.
He didn’t immediately set the ITF junior circuit on fire, going 7-5 in singles play and 1-2 in doubles in his first year. He quickly improved, though, helping Spain knock off the US in the Junior Davis Cup the following year while going 40-9 in singles play. He claimed six tournament victories that year including five on clay, which started to set the tone for his dominance on that specific surface.
In 2002, he won his first ATP match at only 15 years old, and in 2003, he earned the ATP Newcomer of the Year Award. His first career tournament victory came that year in a doubles tournament at the Croatia Open alongside fellow Spaniard Álex López Morón. He won his first Singles title in 2004 despite missing much of the clay-court season with a stress fracture in his left ankle. He defeated José Acasuso at the Prokom Open to win the first of his 92 career singles titles.
While 92 career wins is an astounding quantity of titles (fourth in the Open Era), Nadal’s greatness will always be tied to his incredible success on tennis’ biggest stage–the four Grand Slam events. He notched his first Grand Slam victory in 2005 at the French Open in his first career appearance at that event. He was just the second man ever to win the French Open in his debut, and he was also the first male teenager to win a Grand Slam event since Pete Sampras in 1990. The win increased his streak of consecutive wins to 24 matches, the longest winning streak by a male teen in the Open era. The following year, Nadal won 24 consecutive matches once again and repeated as French Open Champion with a win over fellow-great Roger Federer. Nadal’s win marked the first time Federer had ever been defeated in a Grand Slam Final, and was a start of a back-and-forth rivalry between tennis’ two historic titans. Later that year, Federer avenged that defeat by beating Nadal at Wimbledon.
The following year in 2007, the two giants each won again on their preferred surface with Nadal claiming his third straight French Open. He won at Roland Garros again in 2008, taking his dominance to a new level by never losing a set and only losing four games in his final win over Federer. Also in 2008, Nadal won his first Wimbledon, rolling all the way to the final without losing a set. In the final, he again faced off against Federer in a marathon final that is widely considered one of the best Wimbledon finals ever and by some the greatest tennis match ever played. In addition to his first non-clay Grand Slam title, Nadal added his first gold medal that year in Beijing, taking over the No. 1 spot in the world rankings.
As the top-ranked player in the world, Nadal entered 2009 on a roll and became the first Spaniard ever to win the Australian Open. However, he lost at the French Open that year partially due to battling tendonitis in both knees.
He rebounded in 2010 with what he has called the best season of his career. He reclaimed his French Open title without losing a set and also added another Wimbledon. Later that year, he won his first US Open championship, completing his career Golden Slam (all four Grand Slams and a gold medal) at the age of just 24.
At that point of his career, there were still some experts who questioned his longevity due to his all-out style and recurring injuries that had already limited him at times. Rafa has proven concerns to be unfounded, though, by continuing his run of excellence for another amazing decade. From 2011-2021, he claimed eight more French Opens and three more US Opens while adding a gold medal in 2016 at the Rio Olympics in the Doubles Competition.
Following the COVID-19 layoff, Nadal won his 13th French Open title in 2020, which moved him into a tie with his rival Federer for the most Grand Slam titles ever. He took over the top spot on that prestigious list with a win at the Australian Open in January of 2022, while also completing the double Career Grand Slam.
In 2022, Nadal improved to an amazing 112-3 at the French Open and won his 22nd Grand Slam title by defeating Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinal, Alexander Zverev in the semifinal and Casper Ruud in straight sets in the final. With the win, he became the oldest champion in French Open history.
Nadal’s career resume is unmatched, especially on clay. In addition to his 22 major titles, he has the most clay-court titles in the Open Era with 63 and also holds the record for the longest single-surface win streak in matches with 81 and in sets with 50. He has definitely earned his nickname as the “King of Clay,” but his game has also evolved on other surfaces. He and Andre Agassi are the only players to complete the Career Golden Slam, and he is the only player who has added a Doubles gold to his haul. He holds the record for the youngest player to complete the Career Grand Slam and is the only player to win multiple Grand Slam titles in three separate decades. He also holds the records for most years winning at least one major with 15 and most consecutive years with at least one major with 10.
Due to his success and recognition, Nadal has been an attractive target for endorsement deals as well. He has been outfitted by Nike throughout his career and was known for his sleeveless shirts and Capri-style pants early in his career. His look has matured and changed throughout his career and has resulted in several signature releases by Nike and his own Air CourtBallistec 2.3 tennis shoes, which have been customized in different ways to match different outfits throughout his career. He also is a major spokesman for Kia Motors, Armani and Swiss watchmaker Richard Mille.
Nadal owns and trains at the Rafa Nadal Sports Centre in Mallorca, which also houses the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy. Similar facilities and academies are also operated in Mexico, Greece and Kuwait. He also runs the Fundación Rafa Nadal with his parents and other family members heavily involved in giving back to the community in multiple ways, including providing flood relief, tennis lessons for underprivileged youth and benefit matches to raise money for worthy causes, including malaria awareness and the One Million Trees For The King project.
Nadal has reached the point where the only remaining question is how high he can set the bar for the next player who rises up to challenge him as the greatest of all time. The only records left to break are his own, and he has returned to No. 4 in the world rankings, showing he could still find more success going forward for as long as he continues to play. You can find all the details on Nadal’s unique NFTs in the DraftKings Marketplace, and take advantage of this great chance to grab a piece of history as Nadal continues his unprecedented success.