New York :Rafael Nadal greets questions about tennis history, specifically his standing in it, as if someone spiked his Gatorade with sour milk. This is perhaps his least favorite topic. His eyes narrow. His face contorts. He often appears offended.
Many believe Nadal has already secured his place among the sport's greatest players. Competitors (like Andy Murray), coaches (like Paul Annacone) and commentators (like Brad Gilbert) labeled Nadal "one of the best ever" in recent interviews.
The disagreement comes from an unlikely source -- Nadal himself. Inside a small room with a handful of reporters hours after he won Wimbledon in July, he dismissed the long-range implications of his eighth Grand Slam title.
"The history is there, for sure, it's amazing," Nadal said. "Just an honor to be close to these players. But I am 24 years old, and it's very difficult to talk about the history now."
His place in the game has changed even in the past three months. Nadal's eighth major championship tied players like Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl.
Nadal reached No. 8 after 25 Grand Slam events, faster than all but Bjorn Borg (20) and well ahead of Roger Federer (29), the career leader in Grand Slam titles, with 16. For the second time in his career, Nadal also captured the French Open and Wimbledon in the same summer, something only Federer and Borg have done in the past 30 years.
Yet Nadal finds himself in a curious cycle. He disdains discussions about his place in the game, but the more he wins, the more he approaches history, the more he invites comparisons he does not want to make.
A title at the United States Open, the only Grand Slam tournament he has never won, where he has not even reached the final, would mark another big turn. Nadal would become the seventh man to record a career Grand Slam, and the first, since Rod Laver in 1969, to win the French, Wimbledon and the Open in a row.
"To do so at such a young age would be historical," Gilbert said. "That's special. That would take Nadal to a whole other stratosphere."
But the Open has become for Nadal what the French Open once was for Federer -- a hole in an otherwise glowing rsum, the last remaining shred of doubt. Nadal acts with deference to older players and seemingly has a singular focus. The glory, he said with a straight face, is in practice and improvement and hard work, clichs Nadal believes in.
He knows, too, how quickly perceptions change. In 2008, after capturing the French Open, Wimbledon and an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, Nadal reached his first career apex. But he lost in the semifinals of the United States Open, which Federer won. Then injuries reopened the door for Federer and sent Nadal tumbling from the top. Detractors said his physical style would inevitably shorten his career.
Yet here Nadal remains, two years later, his grip more firm than ever on the No. 1 ranking. At one point, he won 34 of 35 matches in 2010 until Murray bested him in the semifinals in Toronto earlier this month.
"Well, sure, is one of the best moments of my career," Nadal said of that run. "Four months ago, everybody says, Rafa, I don't know, never gonna be another time on top, and now I am the best. I'm back to playing my best tennis."
Annacone, who once worked with Pete Sampras and Tim Henman and recently joined Federer's training staff, described Nadal's discomfort at debates about his standing as emblematic of his approach. He also called Nadal "a humble, graceful guy with a zest for living in the moment."
Nadal's approach remains simplistic -- the next match, the next practice, the next point -- built on an intensity that seems not to change.
"It really is a focused way of every day trying to get better," said Justin Gimelstob, a retired pro and commentator for the Tennis Channel. "It's a linear drive to carve out a focus absent any peripheral distractions."
Where Nadal ends up among tennis greats depends largely on whether Federer or any younger players can push Nadal in majors; on Nadal's ability to win at least one United States Open; and most important, on his health.
Over the past year, Nadal made changes to his schedule and style of play to better guard against the injuries that plagued him in 2009. For starters, he played fewer tournaments, receiving treatment for tendinitis in both knees during breaks in his playing schedule. He appeared to chase fewer balls sailing out of reach, conserving energy.
That should help him at the Open, where he played through fatigue or injury -- sore knee in 2007, Olympic-related fatigue in 2008, abdominal strain in 2009 -- in each of his last three appearances in New York. Nadal said recently that he felt "perfect" physically this year.
Nadal also increased his aggressiveness this year to better control and shorten points. At Wimbledon, ESPN graphics showed that he played a full meter closer to the baseline than in Paris. Where once Nadal seemed content to grind opponents into submission, he moved forward and attacked.
Tomas Berdych, who was beaten by Nadal in the Wimbledon final, said Nadal's unmatched topspin made him a force on any surface, but the increase in aggression, the way he took the ball sooner, made him more dangerous on grass and hardcourts.