CNN  — 

No sooner had Rafael Nadal wiped away the red dust from his eyes and taken his hands off the resplendent trophy, the inevitable question raced towards him.

Can he catch Roger Federer? Can he usurp his great rival at the very top of men’s tennis and become the most successful male tennis player of all time?

Nadal’s victory over Dominic Thiem in the final of Sunday’s French Open moved the Spaniard to 18 grand slam titles – just two behind the Swiss great.

It added another twist to their enduring narrative and sparked fresh impetus for the latter stages of their remarkable careers.

Rafael Nadal (right) and Roger Federer meet at the net after their French Open semi-final.

Despite extending his record to an astonishing 12 French Open titles, Nadal is used to his achievements being inextricably linked with those of Federer and he had his answer ready.

“Being honest, I am not very worried about this stuff, no?” Nadal told reporters at Roland Garros.

“You can’t be frustrated all the time because the neighbor has a bigger house than you, or a bigger TV or better garden. That’s not the way that I see the life, you know.”

Quite who has the biggest garden will remain one of tennis’ great mysteries, but Nadal is likely to need his stock of domestic analogies for some time yet.

It’s hardly surprising given the extraordinary exploits of the two men. Between them they have produced one of tennis’ most enthralling rivalries, winning 38 grand slams between them.

Captivating rivalry

Nadal’s first grand slam title came in Paris in 2005, beating the then four-time major champion Federer along the way. Since then the pair has dueled across the world and has taken men’s tennis to new heights with a rivalry that has captivated millions.

In pure numbers, Federer has won 101 tournaments during his career, picking up just over $124 million in prize money alone. Nadal has won 82 tournaments, collecting close to $110m in prize money.

But just the phrase “Federer-Nadal” evokes an era of unprecedented duopoly, the seemingly effortless style of the Swiss in stark contrast with the muscular, brooding intensity of the Spaniard.

When Nadal arrives to play at Wimbledon later this month he will no doubt be constantly reminded that he can move to within one grand slam of Federer.

Time is on his side, of course. At 33 he is four years Federer’s junior, with the Swiss admitting retirement is around the corner. And few would doubt Nadal’s ability to win another two or three French Open titles should his body remain strong.

Federer reigns supreme at Wimbledon, however, his record eight titles the perfect reposte to those who might seek to diminish Nadal’s legacy because of his domination of the French Open.

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Roger Federer muses on retirement planning
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Injury concerns

But Nadal’s biggest battle may be with himself. The Spaniard estimates that he has been forced to miss around 15 grand slam tournaments through injury.

His battle to overcome the chronic knee problems that have plagued his career has been well documented, but the rest of his body has suffered too.

Last year, Nadal’s uncle Toni, his long-time coach, told reporters his nephew had been “living with pain and painkillers since 2005.”

The past year has been particularly difficult for Nadal. He was forced to retire from his US Open semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro last September with a knee injury and did not play again for the rest of the year.

He underwent ankle surgery in November but returned to make the final of the Australian Open where he lost to Novak Djokovic in straight sets.

There was further anguish at Indian Wells in March where a knee problem forced to him to pull out of his semifinal clash with Federer.

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Nadal then took a five-week break before playing three clay-court tournaments in preparation for the French Open.

His demolition of Federer in the semifinal suggested he was firing on all cylinders again.

“He makes you feel uncomfortable the way he defends the court and plays on clay,” Federer told reporters afterward. “There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him.

“I don’t even know who I need to go search for to go practice with somebody who plays like him. I was thinking that during the match. It’s just amazing how he plays from deep and then is able to bounce back and forth from the baseline. It’s just quite interesting.”

Soul searching

Nadal’s Paris success appears even more remarkable given Nadal’s omission that he was forced to “drastically change” his attitude after losing to Dominic Thiem in the semifinal of the Barcelona Open in April.

“Mentally, I lost a little bit of energy, because I had too many issues in a row,” he told reporters in Paris.

“Mentally I was not enjoying. Too much worried about the health and, being honest, too negative.

“After the first round in Barcelona, I was able to stay alone for a couple of hours in the room and think about it and think about what’s going on, what I need to do.

“One possibility would have been stop for a while and recover my body. And the other was change drastically my attitude and my mentality to play the next couple of weeks.”

That change proved to be the correct call for Nadal, who appears to have taken a leaf out of Federer’s book in managing his workload. The Swiss opted to miss the French Open from 2016 to 2018 to prepare his mind and body for Wimbledon, which he last won in 2017.

Three’s a crowd

Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon last year after overcoming Rafael Nadal at the semifinal stage.

But both players are acutely aware there is another threat breathing down their necks.

Serbia’s Djokovic has become a constant nuisance to both men’s chances of further glory and has amassed 15 grand slam titles of his own.

At the age of 32, Djokovic could yet leapfrog both.

Between them, the trio have won 53 of the last 64 men’s grand slam singles titles and all of the last 10.

For now, though, all eyes will move to Wimbledon where Djokovic is the defending champion.

Nadal has not won at Wimbledon since 2010, and he has since only won three grand slam titles outside of Paris, with victories at the US Open in 2010, 2013 and 2017.

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The Spaniard lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinal last year and says he has been “very close” to winning another title on the lawns of southwest London.

“As everybody knows, I love to play on grass,” he added in Paris. “And as everybody knows, I am not able to play so many weeks in a row like I did 10 years ago, eight years ago.

“So I will not play before Wimbledon. The experience says that having the right preparation then, practicing well, and maybe a couple of matches, I don’t know, before there.”

The history book beckons, but which of the big two – make that three – finishes on top at the end of their careers is yet to be decided.

The “Federer-Nadal” era is not over yet.