Rafael Nadal Grinds Out 13 Grand Slams the Hard Way, and Quickly, Too

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COMMENTARY | In case you hadn't heard, a certain Spaniard by the name of Rafael Nadal recently capped an impressive run on the American hard courts by winning the 2013 US Open in New York.

The title made the Spaniard only the third male player in the history of the sport to win 13 or more Grand Slam singles tournaments. Nadal, having played in a total of 36 Slams to date, is now officially collecting Slam trophies at a faster clip than the two players still standing ahead of him on the all-time list.

Pete Sampras, with 14 total Grand Slam titles in his career, completed 43 majors by the time he took home No. 13. Roger Federer, still the king of the mountain with 17 (and counting), required 38 Slams before adding the 13th to his trophy case.

What's most interesting about Nadal's heady pace is that he's arguably been forced to work harder than either Federer or Sampras in achieving comparable results.

Superlatives in sports are common, but it can't be a coincidence that so many in the tennis community perceive Nadal as a player with extraordinary willpower and mental strength. An athlete that brings his "lunch pail" to every match and comes prepared to leave absolutely everything on court in order to get a victory.

The number of colorful adjectives and metaphors used to describe Nadal's fighting spirit and never-die attitude could fill volumes, but there is also evidence that supports the mostly qualitatively based assertions that surround him. Facts and statistics that suggest Nadal very well could be the greatest fighter in the Open Era -- and possibly in the history of the game.

Certainly, the road that Nadal traveled to win his 13 Grand Slams could easily be viewed as more of an uphill climb than the paths of either Federer or Sampras. Simply put, Rafael Nadal doesn't have a blistering serve -- his motion is nowhere near the weapon that both Federer and Sampras featured in their respective primes.

As evidenced by the mere five breaks of serve Nadal suffered during the entire 2013 US Open, it is also clear that Nadal can at times be ruthlessly efficient in his service games. However, there's a difference between utilitarian efficiency and offensive potency.

In 2013, Rafael Nadal hit a total of 18 aces during the entire US Open tournament. It probably won't come as much of a surprise to be reminded that "Pistol" Pete Sampras hit an eye-popping 83 aces during his second title run at the US Open in 1993.

During the championship match of the 2006 US Open, Roger Federer hit 18 aces while laying claim to his second title in New York. That's one more ace than Nadal hit in his entire 2013 US Open campaign.

Although the serve is only one stroke within the arsenal of shots available to any player, the ability to regularly produce aces and service winners unquestionably increases the number of "easy points" for the player producing them.

The extra 65 aces that Sampras hit in '93 as compared to Nadal in '13 translates to approximately 16 games worth of points. That's 65 less points spent chasing down and hitting balls from the other side of the net -- points that could have included a great number of groundstrokes, volleys, and overheads.

The fact that Federer and Sampras consistently hit so many more aces than Nadal directly translates into reduced exertion on their parts. From this perspective, there's just no doubt that Nadal has worked harder per service point than these two legends.

This aspect of the Spaniard's game has to be one reason that so many observers perceive Nadal as a symbol of pure willpower -- so little comes easy to his game. Nadal's obvious defensive and retrieval capabilities no doubt contribute to this perception as well.

Beyond the lack of a top-caliber serve and the consequent extra effort he must exert on court, Nadal is also frequently described as a player with superior "mental toughness." Fighting to a career 21-10 head-to-head rivalry against Roger Federer no doubt helps reinforce the idea that Nadal is fairly solid under pressure.

But one can bypass this overall record and other qualitative superlatives and still arrive at the same conclusion.

Craig O'Shannessy at Tennis.com reports that Roger Federer's lifetime break-point conversion success rate hovers just above 41%. Meaning that when presented with an opportunity to break his opponent's serve, Federer will do so on average 41% of the time.

However, when looking at only Grand Slam matches in which Roger Federer faced Rafael Nadal this success rate plunges dramatically.

In their 10 previous Grand Slam matches, Federer was successful on 35 out of 118 break points against Nadal. Translating to approximately 30%, that's a full 11 percentage points below Federer's estimated career average.

The more shocking aspect of these statistics is revealed when one considers a broader base of Nadal's opponents. Looking at all Grand Slam finals in which Nadal has appeared, Rafa's opponents have a 32% break-point conversion success rate.

Meaning that when Nadal faces Federer, a player many consider one of the greatest in the history of the game, he is actually stingier with break points than his average against all players.

Contrasting this information against Nadal's break-point conversion rate is where things really get interesting. When given the opportunity to break Federer's serve in Grand Slam competition, Nadal has done so at a rate of roughly 44%. A full 14 percentage points higher than Federer's success rate against Nadal.

If all that information doesn't satisfy any lingering questions about Nadal's legendary mental toughness, than you might consider this supplementary information.

In their historic 2008 Wimbledon final, Roger Federer converted only one single break point against Nadal in 13 chances. That's on a surface and court in which Federer should certainly be considered the more comfortable of the two players.

Amazingly, during their 2007 French Open final on clay, Federer actually had more break chances than Nadal -- 17 to 10. However, on that day Federer again only converted a single break point.

That's two break points in 30 chances -- almost as improbable as it is impressive.

The above may help one better understand why Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, said, according to Douglas Robson at USA TODAY Sports, "For me it's unbelievable that people talk about his body because he is so much better in his mind."

The scary thing is that barring future injuries, it's reasonable to think that Rafael Nadal may only now be entering his prime years on the professional tour.

Despite Nadal's lack of a powerful serve, he's been able to leverage willpower and mental strength to carve out a place in history next to the other legends of this era.

The only question that remains is whether or not he'll be able to surpass them.

Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. He is a regular contributor at Yahoo Sports and The Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewProchnow.

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