Monica Seles and Rafael Nadal have similarities not only in the way both players have risen up the rankings so dramatically in their respective generations, but also how they both approach the game of tennis and their attitude toward the sport.
To recap, let’s take a look at Seles first.
It’s actually been 20 years since she won her first Grand Slam Title at the French Open at the age of 16. Seles turned pro in early 1989 and bagged her first title within months. In a small tournament in the United States, Seles defeated Chris Evert in the final and then went deep in the French Open later that year losing, to Steffi Graf.
In 1990, Seles defeated Graf in the final of the German Open and then went on to defeat her in the French Open final to become the youngest ever winner of the tournament.
What Seles was able to do so quickly and dramatically was break Steffi Graf’s stranglehold on the world No. 1 position and establish a rivalry at the Grand Slam level for three years, claiming the No. 1 position for two years until the stabbing incident in 1993.
Nadal had a similarly dramatic rise up the rankings as a teenager. Nadal first got people talking when he defeated Roger Federer in Miami in 2004 as a 17 year old.
A year later, in 2005, Nadal took the first two sets of the final in Miami before Federer went on to win the thriller in five sets.
That served notice to Federer because two months later, Nadal went on to beat Federer as an 18 year old in the semi final of the French Open, winning the tournament two days later on his birthday against Mariano Puerta.
Like Seles, Nadal went on to dominate Roland Garros for the next few years until his shocking loss to Soderling in 2009.
Like Seles, Nadal rose dramatically as a teenager to challenge Federer at the top of the world rankings and create a rivalry when Federer was threatening to dominate the tour by himself for years to come. Nadal eventually usurped Federer’s spot as the decisive world No. 1 in 2008 before injury interrupted his progress.
The similarities don’t end there however.
Both Seles and Nadal are left handers who were a few years younger than the player they challenged. I would also add that both Graf and Federer have similar game styles based on their forehand, serve, and single handed backhand, and are seen by the tennis community as natural talents who are smoothly athletic in movement.
In contrast, Nadal and Seles were the foil, the players who were totally dedicated to improving and trained for hours on end, whilst deriving real pleasure in just going out there to play day after day.
Nadal and Seles added a different dimension to the classic style of Graf and Federer, often prompting the rather conservative media and tennis community to almost brand them as somehow anti-tennis due to their approach to the game—in terms of their never say die attitude and willingness to take on the best player in the world and overcome their rivals.
The attitudes displayed by Seles and Nadal in their respective generations has ensured that the tennis world was given a great rivalry in 1990 and 2005, just when it seemed that one player would dominate the sport unchallenged for five to ten years.
In both cases Seles and Nadal were great not just for their time, but also for the subsequent history of the game.