Winning the French Open a record seven times and achieving other remarkable feats on the slow dirt, he has succeeded by utilizing his defensive capabilities and unprecedented lefty spin.
Many critics claim the Spaniard has much more to do in his career to achieve the status of an all-around athlete.
This may not be the case.
He is one of only a handful of players to have won a career Grand Slam while also amassing over 10 Major titles. He has captured the Wimbledon trophy twice and the other two respective Slams once each.
He has won more ATP 1000 titles than athletes his age are supposed to have acquired (he and Roger Federer, who is 31 years old, share the record for most titles at 21), and four of these came on hard courts.
But are his six noteworthy hard court titles (the Majors and ATP 1000 wins) enough?
Surely, his accomplishments at the All-England Club have been superb, earning him two Majors and landing him in three other finals in his eight years of competition at Wimbledon. This is especially impressive since the grass season comes immediately after the clay stretch, and the adjustment can be excruciating.
Rafa even changes his game play and strategy for grass events, stepping closer inside the court and hitting change-up serves.
But his Australian Open and U.S. Open successes and failures are where his all-around game, or lack thereof, is exposed.
The Australian Open, surely the slower hard court Major, has seen Rafa play some of his most physically intense matches—the 2009 semifinal and subsequent final serving as prime examples. The 2012 semifinal and final matches were also brutal, though the latter is more memorable for the demonstration of incredible stamina and overall health needed.
Furthermore, he visibly showcased health problems with his knees in his matches against Andy Murray in 2010 (where he retired in the third set due to injury) and David Ferrer last year.
The time he won the event against Roger Federer, he was in sublime form, even after beating Fernando Verdasco in a 314-minute-long match. His win in the final was much more decisive than the 2008 Wimbledon showdown, though both lasted five sets and several hours.
The other time he was in the final, he narrowly lost to Novak Djokovic and the chance to have two titles in Melbourne.
But he has been extremely inconsistent at the U.S. Open. Unable to reach the final until 2010, he had constantly lost battles to players who had never been major performers at the time—Mikhail Youzhny, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro, for example.
Somehow steamrolling the competition and only dropping one set all tournament, he finally won his lone title in Flushing Meadows once he arrived at his first final.
Unfortunately, Nadal was crushed in the next year's final by the same man that he beat when he won his first U.S. Open: Novak Djokovic. So, besides his tournament in 2010, his potential success has been out of reach, and he has only been past the semifinals those two times.
The most important factor in determining whether Rafa will be labeled as an all-around player will be his ability to defend titles or duplicate past triumphs.
The Spaniard has never defended a hard court title of any caliber, and he has not won many non-clay events in decisive fashion.
If he can continue to win big on all surfaces while remaining somewhat consistent, he can be granted the title because he truly can change his style to suit the surface.
But only time will tell, and perhaps his legacy may be left where he has always enjoyed playing—in the dirt.
Follow B/R Tennis Featured Columnist and Community Leader, Jeff Cohn.
Follow @Jeff_Cohn on Twitter and @tennispro4793 on Instagram.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!