The Men’s Tennis GOAT Argument: Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal?
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
- With Wimbledon starting next week, we wanted to revisit the GOAT discussion between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
- Federer has the more impressive resume, but Nadal has the head-to-head advantage.
- A 2018 Wimbledon title could go a long way toward determining who ultimately goes down as the greatest ever.
I always seem to find myself in the minority when it comes to “GOAT debates.”
When asked about the greatest rock-and-roll band of all time, most will say the Beatles; I insist the Stones. Regarding the Jordan/LeBron discussion, “His Airness” (along with his six rings) presents the more obvious choice, but I personally give the edge to the King (due in large part to the 3-1 comeback in 2016).
And tennis’ version of the “GOAT debate” is no exception.
When trying to pinpoint the greatest male tennis player of all time, the short list consists of two names: Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Most people give the title to Roger without much hesitation mainly because of his trophy collection (20 Grand Slam titles), which is the most impressive the sport has ever seen.
But, for me, the answer is not so cut and dry. There’s nuance.
I think Rafa Nadal is the greatest tennis player ever — despite being less accomplished, trophy-wise, than Federer. Below, I will explore a few of the pieces of this argument — and then Stuckey will follow up with his defense of Roger.
Unparalleled Surface Domination
Of course, Nadal’s 11 Roland-Garros titles in 14 appearances speak for themselves.
Without any shadow of a doubt, Rafa is the greatest clay-court player of all time. Nobody would argue that. But beyond the surface itself, winning 11 times — at any one Grand Slam — is a mind-bending statistic.
Nadal also has a perfect 11-0 record in Roland-Garros finals. Meanwhile, in addition to winning eight Wimbledon titles (the second-most championships at any one Slam), Federer has also dropped three Wimbledon finals. You simply can’t discount Nadal’s perfect record in French Open finals. Additionally, Nadal has won the French three times (2008, 2010, 2017) without dropping a set. And in his career at Roland-Garros (14 years) — he’s dropped only 25 sets in total. Roger has done this (winning the tournament without dropping a set) only once at Wimbledon, against a pretty weak field (Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were battling injuries) last year. Fed has also lost 61 sets at Wimbledon over the years.
Despite Nadal’s near-perfect 97.7% winning percentage at the French, the one real blemish came in 2009 — in a somewhat-controversial match — which saw the Spaniard’s 31-match FO win streak snapped by No. 23 seed Robin Soderling. Federer would go on to beat Soderling in the final to secure his first and only Roland-Garros title. Had Nadal, who appeared hampered by injury, not lost to Soderling in the fourth round, Federer may have never won a French Open title.
And if Federer never achieved the elusive career Grand Slam, I think his status as the “greatest player of all time” would be a lot less certain in the eyes of tennis fans.
When Roger Dominated
From 2004 to 2007, Roger Federer was virtually invincible.
Over the course of those four years, Roger racked up 11 Grand Slam titles (four at Wimbledon), three year-end championships, 13 Masters titles and an overall 315-24 record. It was unequivocally the most dominant stretch of tennis in the history of the sport.
That said, I find it hard to overlook the caliber of competition Roger faced during that period of dominance. By the time 2004 rolled around, guys such as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras — perennial Grand Slam champions throughout the ’90s — were already in their mid-30s and had already won their last major title.
At the same time, the next generation of tennis superstars — namely Rafa Nadal, Djokovic and even Murray (to some extent) — were just teenagers. I’m not saying Roger didn’t face any stiff competition during those years, as I think guys such as Marat Safin, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt are all great players, but Federer still cleaned up in one of the weaker eras in men’s tennis.
Nadal’s Slams, on the other hand, came during a much tougher period. He went toe-to-toe against arguably three of the top five players of all time in Roger, Novak and Murray, all in their primes. And, outside of Djokovic’s wins against Nadal during Rafa’s period of poor play from 2015-2016, Nadal dominated all of them.
2008 Wimbledon Final
For me, aside from being one of the greatest matches of all time (and one I watch YouTube highlights of almost monthly), the 2008 Wimbledon final presents a defining moment in the tennis “GOAT debate.”
Heading into that match, Federer held the No. 1 world ranking and the clear title of “King of Grass.” He had won the last five Wimbledon Championships. World No. 2 Nadal, in contrast, was the newly rising King of Clay, winning the last four French Open titles. To add to the drama, Nadal had lost to Federer in each of the last two Wimbledon finals (2006, 2007).
Entering that final as a +100 underdog, Nadal finally dethroned Federer. And he did so in epically dramatic fashion, winning 9-7 in the fifth set — after Federer staved off match points in the fourth-set tiebreak to make it go the distance. That gives Rafa a unique edge in the rivalry and potentially the edge in the tennis history books. Rafa beat Roger at the Swiss’ favorite Slam, something Federer can’t say about Rafa at Roland-Garros.
In my mind, that’s a large distinction. Roger’s only championship at Roland-Garros, as discussed earlier, came against Soderling, not Rafa. In five head-to-head meetings at the French Open (2005-2008, 2011), Roger could never take down the Spaniard. Meanwhile, Rafa won at Wimbledon — toe-to-toe against peak Federer on grass — in the fifth set of the final. That presents a rare breed of accomplishment that one simply can’t overlook.
2017 Australian Open
Although the 2017 Aussie Open final didn’t quite showcase the same level of tennis we saw during the 2008 Wimbledon Final, it certainly had its fair share of drama.
I think this final will go down as another defining moment in the GOAT debate. After Djokovic dominated the ATP Tour for a couple years, Rafa (-136) and Roger (+110) met once again in a Grand Slam final. And, at that stage, both men were in the midst of their own individual career revivals.
After losing to Milos Raonic in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals, Roger took the rest of the season off to rehab his injured knee. There were many question marks surrounding the Maestro’s return to Tour in early 2017, which Roger answered emphatically en route to the Aussie Open final. Rafa was also working on a comeback after sporadic injuries and a lack of confidence in 2015 and 2016. But like Fed, he regained his form in Melbourne and found himself with another opportunity to add to his major trophy case.
Nadal wound up losing the 2017 AO final despite leading by a break at 3-1 in the fifth set. Since Federer fought back to win his record 18th major title, it solidified Roger as the “GOAT” in the minds of many tennis fans.
However, had Nadal clung to his late lead and won that match, Nadal would now have 18 Grand Slam titles — one fewer than Federer’s 19 at the time. In like manner, the entire complexion of the “GOAT debate” would look different. In fact, I’d argue that most tennis people would, in fact, consider Nadal the greatest ever.
And, while I agree with that sentiment (at least to an extent), I don’t think we should penalize Nadal for that 2017 AO final loss in the “greatest ever” discussion.
If Roger is, indeed, the greatest ever — well, then, Rafa apparently owns the GOAT. In his career, Nadal boasts a 23-15 record against his archrival. That doesn’t quite seem, well, Kosher to me.
But more importantly, it’s his performance against Roger in the big moments that stands out in my mind. Nadal boasts a 6-3 record against Federer in Grand Slam finals. And in all Grand Slam matches, Nadal extends that dominance to 9-3. You simply can’t ignore those splits.
If our objective is to decide the greatest player ever between Federer and Nadal, doesn’t their head-to-head record count for something? If Nadal is the “second-best player of all time” — who just so happens to be the greatest ever — shouldn’t that make him the greatest?
In my mind, yes. Sure, Roger has more career achievements, with more Slams and weeks spent at No. 1, but I don’t think the GOAT discussion is that cut and dry. For me, it’s nuanced, and you can certainly make a case for Rafa.
With Rafa some five years younger than Roger, he’s got plenty of time to catch him in Grand Slam titles. Of course, if Rafa can bridge the gap in that department, I think he’ll (unanimously) go down as the greatest ever. But even if he doesn’t, I can still make the case based on his unparalleled surface domination and head-to-head domination over Fed.
From the old “eye-test,” I’ve never seen a player more dominant than peak Nadal. Achievements aside, I think Nadal has the greatest level we’ve ever seen on a tennis court. For the majority of observers, it may come down how many Slams either can tack on in the years to come.
If you want to account for circumstances at the time, look at their head-to-head betting results. If you bet Rafa in all 38 of his matches against Federer, you would’ve profited 9.34 units. Nadal also has more wins as an underdog, with eight compared to Roger’s six.
With the Spaniard just adding his 11th French Open title to his mantel and showing no signs of slowing down, I think Rafa has a better shot of winning a few more Slams. Don’t forget that he is nearly five years younger than Fed. If, when all is said and done, Rafa is even within one Grand Slam of Federer, I think more people in tennis circles will make the case for Rafa as the GOAT.
The Federer Case
I’ll make the case for Roger without even mentioning his record number of Slams and more weeks spent at No. 1. Well, I guess I just mentioned them. Oops. At the end of the day, the “rings” do the talking — especially in an individual sport.
Look, I clearly agree that peak Nadal on clay outclasses any player on any surface in the history of tennis. The true King of Clay. Similarly, nobody touches peak Roger on grass. Therefore, when deciding which player (as of right now) deserves the GOAT title, we should look at the hard courts. And bottom line: Federer has 11 hard-court majors to Nadal’s four. That’s an enormous disparity on the one “neutral” surface — and the primary surface of modern men’s tennis. Nearly 70% of the season and two majors are played on hard courts. And did I mention that Federer has the most hard-court Slams of all time? Well, he does.
Also, how many year-end World Tour Finals does Nadal have? Oh, that’s right, zero. We shouldn’t ignore the lack of a “fifth slam” on his resume for the same reasons Sampras can’t join this discussion without a French Open title. Roger has SIX year-end championships. Even Grigor Dimitrov has one to Nadal’s nil.
What about the head-to-head domination by Nadal? It’s simply a bad matchup for Federer, whose weapons all play right into Rafa’s strengths. The topspin on his forehand takes away the potency of the Maestro’s backhand.
And let’s just say Scotti is right and Nadal edges Federer because of their head-to-head history. Does that mean Nikolay Davydenko, who has a 6-5 record against Nadal (including 3-0 in finals) is the greatest ever? Exactly.
Since we can’t decide, help us break the tie with this poll below.
Regardless of which player you think deserves the GOAT distinction, we can all agree that we’ve been lucky to watch two of the sport’s all-time greats battle it out in this century. And another Slam title at Wimbledon (which starts next week) this year for either would go a long way toward deciding this argument.
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