Rafael Nadal revives greatest-ever debate, without looking to the future "He's the greatest, I'm the best." That's how Sports Illustrated famously paraphrased Leon Spinks' attitude after the boxer defeated the aging Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown in 1978. For years now, Rafael Nadal has been saying variations of the same thing when asked how he stacks up against Roger Federer. The congenitally humble Spaniard was at it again Sunday after securing the French Open trophy for an eighth time. "Winning 17 Grand Slam titles, that's miles away," Nadal said of the current all-time record, held by Federer. "I'm not even thinking about it." Maybe he really isn't thinking about it, so someone should tell him it's not miles away. Nadal now has 12 major championships, moving him past Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. Considering that he's just 27, another half-dozen majors isn't an unrealistic goal. Just a few months ago, we all thought that Rafael Nadal would never be the same again. He had missed the last two majors of 2012 due to severe, chronic knee problems. Then, his rehab proving frustratingly slow, he bailed out of the season-opening Australian Open. Has there ever been a champion who's missed three major tournaments in a row -- for any reason, let alone because of a major injury -- and come back to reach his former level? After winning the Grand Slam in 1969, Laver missed the next two majors -- and never won another. John McEnroe skipped three straight majors in 1986 -- and then couldn't reach another Slam final. The only somewhat comparable comeback success story is Thomas Muster's. The Austrian missed three straight majors after being hit by a car in 1989. But it was six years after his accident when he won his one and only major title, at the 1995 French Open. And while Muster's comeback is indeed impressive -- he won 40 consecutive clay-court matches in that magical '95 season -- his career accomplishments are paltry compared to Nadal's. With his latest win on Roland Garros' clay courts, Nadal still might be a ways from Federer's all-time Grand Slam record, but he's already close to uncharted territory. Until now, no man had ever won the trophy eight times at one major. Martina Navratilova won nine Wimbledon titles, but Rafa's dominance on clay unarguably has been greater than Martina's on grass. Needless to say, there are asterisks to be applied, thanks to that troublesome amateur/professional divide that hobbled the sport before 1968. How many Wimbledons would Laver have won if he'd been allowed to play the tournament from 1963 to 1967, when he was in his prime? How many U.S. championships would Pancho Gonzales have won if he hadn't turned pro after winning his second title in 1949? (He was able to reach the quarterfinals at Forest Hills in 1968, when he was 41.) But even putting all of that aside, Nadal's career stands astride history. He isn't just a clay-court-grinding machine. He has won on every surface, beaten all comers. He bested Federer on Wimbledon's grass in 2008, when Roger was still at the height of his powers, and then beat him again six months later on the Australian Open's hard courts. Since returning from his long layoff in February, Nadal has won seven of nine tournaments, including Masters events in Indian Wells, Madrid and Rome. "For me, it's incredible," said Toni Nadal, Rafa's uncle and coach. "When I think of all that Rafael has done, I don't understand it." Even if you're not related to Rafa, those words are entirely appropriate coming out of your mouth. In fact, the best still might be to come this season. Nadal loves the clay; it suits his heavy-spin forehand and his desire to run around the world if necessary to track down a shot. But while the caressing give of European red clay cushions his joints, the style of play he must employ to win on the stuff is killing them. The point being, he could end up loving the equally joint-cushioning grass at Wimbledon even more. He can't roam five feet behind Centre Court's baseline and hope to stay in points. The ball stays too low. So when in England, he moves up in the court, sometimes all the way to the net. Points and matches go by faster, just what his tender knees need. Against all predictions, he's made this stylistic adjustment with aplomb. Even Federer, a seven-time champion at SW19 and the best mover on grass in the history of the game, would rather see Nadal in the other half of the Wimbledon draw. At this point, the only man who can stop Nadal from reaching Federer's major-championship record isn't Federer, who turns 32 in a couple of months, but the top-ranked Novak Djokovic. This was supposed to be Djokovic's time, remember? He had definitively passed Nadal in 2011, beating him in Madrid and Rome, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He recorded a mind-numbing seven straight wins over Rafa and took away his number-one ranking. But Nadal, as he did to conquer Federer at Wimbledon, has adjusted. He topped Djokovic in last year's Roland Garros final and, even after his seven-month layoff, he did it again last week in the Roland Garros semifinals. Nadal, keeping his ambitions under his hat, continues to offer up Leon Spinks-like deference to the greats of the game, past and present. That won't change. But don't be surprised if more and more people start labeling him the greatest. -- Douglas Perry Exclusive: Read the e-book "The Fall and Rise of Roger Federer: 9 Unexpected Turning Points in Tennis History."