So Roger Federer just lost another French Open final to Rafael Nadal. I was really hoping he’d win it, as a win against his greatest rival in a French Open final seems to be the only thing standing between Federer and universal acclaim as the Greatest [tennis player] Of All Time. I reckon he deserves that title anyway, and here’s why:
Federer has an obvious statistical claim, in his record number of Grand Slam wins (16, 2 ahead of Sampras, still 6 ahead of Nadal), complete collection of Grand Slam titles and record 237 consecutive weeks as world number 1. No player past or present can compete with those stats, especially when you consider the fact that earlier greats such as Rod Laver only played Grand Slam matches on two surfaces – grass and clay.
On less statistical, but still widely acknowledged, grounds, Federer plays with unmatched style and grace: he has an all-court game, mastery of the full range of shots, general elegance, invention and panache, panther-like movement (go cliches!), a one-handed backhand (come on, you’ve got to admit it, a one-hander is much more pleasing than the more common double-fisted swipe), etc etc. Enough has already been written and Youtubed. Jonas Bjorkman, following a straight-sets Wimbledon semi-final defeat, was simply glad to have had the best view in the house for the Federer show (and yes I do agree that that’s kind of a pathetic thing for an elite sportsperson to say, but it does sum up the style thing quite nicely).
The problem for Federer fans is that it’s very easy to knock down all of the above by just pointing to one guy: Rafa Nadal. Federer’s record against him is woeful: he is down 17-8 overall and of the eight Grand Slam finals they have contested, Nadal’s won six. People argue that you can’t acclaim someone as the GOAT when they have such a poor record against a contemporary. The odd thing is, though, that you can’t claim Nadal is the GOAT either, as he only has 10 Grand Slam titles and much less time as no. 1. This leaves us with Federer as a sort of tainted GOAT.
However, I’d argue that the Nadal record doesn’t actually take that much away from Federer’s overall greatness and, for the moment at least, he should be considered a perfectly legitimate GOAT. For me the key to the head-to-head record is the predominance of clay-court matches: of the 25 overall, a vastly disproportionate 14 have been on clay (clay-court tournaments account for only one third of the ATP Tour). And that’s because throughout their joint preeminence, Federer and Nadal have played each other almost exclusively in finals, and Federer has made finals on clay more consistently than Nadal has made finals not-on-clay. Federer would have been happy to beat Nadal in US or Australian Open finals in 2005-8, but Nadal kept losing in earlier rounds to less-good players. The fact is that during that period, Federer was comfortably better on clay than everyone who wasn’t Nadal, but several players proved better than Nadal on hard courts. Yet Nadal’s near-indestructibility on clay meant that he kept accumulating wins in the head-to-head rivalry. In fact the extraordinary thing to consider is that had Nadal not existed, Federer would have won four or five French Opens by now, leaving any questions of his GOAThood as mere memories.
Removing clay from the Nadal-Federer rivalry, the record is 6-5 in Federer’s favour: hardly stellar, but noone would argue that it was serious enough to dethrone Fed as the GOAT. So in Federer, we have a player who was far and away the best in the world on 2 of the three main surfaces for most of his career, and on the remaining surface was a strong second, still managing to pick up a Grand Slam title on that surface. I think that’s enough.
As for Nadal, there is every chance he’ll surpass Federer’s achievements and come to be regarded as the GOAT eventually. He has years remaining in his career during which he could dominate on all surfaces, although Djokovic and perhaps Murray will make it very difficult for him on hard courts. I don’t see any argument against him being the greatest clay-courter of all time, and the way he adapted his game to Wimbledon over the years bodes well for his chances of fully mastering the US and Aussie Opens.
Overall I’m in little doubt that the combined careers of Federer and Nadal will be seen as defining excellence in men’s tennis. There are parallels to other rivalries such as Borg-McEnroe, Navratilova-Graf and Sampras-Agassi, but I’m not sure that any of those represented competition at a level so far elevated above the rest of the game. Wish I could be at Wimbledon this year; I reckon they’re both gonna have a good old crack at it once again.