Am I crazy, or do I really believe that 18 has become a magic number in tennis? It’s not just because that’s the age at which a player must play exclusively on the main tour but also because of what it represents in the great Grand Slam title quest.
Roger Federer turned tennis on its ear when he won his 17th major at Wimbledon in 2012, even though he’d already shattered Pete Sampras’ record of 14 majors way back in 2009.
Seventeen. It was an amazing number. It was almost too much. Sixteen was a nice even number, and with it Federer surpassed Sampras by exactly the same number of titles (two) by which his good pal Pistol Pete had eclipsed the previous titleholder, Roy Emerson. But 17? It was preposterous, if not shut-down-the-competition ridiculous. But now it almost appears to be lacking a little something.
One reason for that is the way Rafael Nadal has closed the gap on Federer. Nadal has 13 majors at age 27, which has put him within striking distance of No. 17 -- especially when you consider his prowess as the widely acknowledge "King of Clay." Cheesy as the encomium sounds, it's dead-solid accurate.
Another reason 17 isn’t such an intimidating number is because Serena Williams has won that many majors, as well. One of the more interesting storylines in tennis this year will be the race between Federer and Williams to bag No. 18.
If Williams gets No. 18, she will join Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the honor roll of prolific Grand Slam champions. Give that two of the top three women on that list (the leader, Margaret Court and No. 3 Helen Wills Moody) played little or not at all on the pro tour, the reality is that the 18-time champs -- a trio of Americans -- will be in a three-way tie in the record books behind Steffi Graf.
Graf, the No. 2 career leader, has 22 majors. Williams might even catch her, but, at the moment, 18 is a bigger, juicer target.
Number 18 might be a much more abstract proposition for Nadal, although his command of the clay game suggests that he might have at least two, and perhaps as many as four, more Roland Garros titles in his future. Sure, Novak Djokovic might have something to say about that, especially when you think of how close the ATP No. 2 came to beating Nadal in the semis in Paris this year.
But the bottom line is that Djokovic didn’t get it done, and neither he nor anyone else seems as sure a bet to make it at least as far as the semis in Paris as Nadal.
For Federer, whose best chance to win another major will be at Wimbledon, that No. 18 title would represent an excellent insurance policy against Nadal, and I don’t for a moment doubt that Federer has thought about this.
This might be disturbing to Federer fanatics, but think of it this way: Is there a better source of motivation now for the 32-year-old Swiss than to keep Nadal in his place? Somehow, it’s hard to imagine him hoping to capture his 18th major simply because he likes even numbers better than odd ones or because, like Sampras, he feels a need to prove a growing chorus of naysayers wrong. The threat of Nadal might be exactly what the inspiration doctor ordered.
If you have trouble swallowing that, think of it this way: The production of great players usually falls off at about that time. Federer and Sampras each won Wimbledon shortly before they turned 28 (both men have August birthdays), but each of them managed to win just two majors after that age.
Even if Nadal wins the upcoming Australian Open, he’ll still trail Federer by three majors. Yet Nadal’s mastery of the French Open is an 800-pound gorilla in that conversation -- and a very good reason for Federer to want to put a little more distance between himself and his main rival in tennis history.
Suddenly, 18 looks like more than just another number.