Here I am, taking a plunge into a debate as never-ending as the rising sun. I have tried to steer clear of this debate because it is difficult to have it without a sense of bias, influencing one’s eventual judgment. What is the point in having a debate with someone whose mind is already made up? Why discuss it when we cannot tear ourselves away from our innate attraction to one player over the other? Is there a need to wonder who is truly the greatest tennis player of all time? Right now, there are two players who stand at the center of this heated tennis topic. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Their names will forever be entwined in this beautiful game’s history. You simply cannot mention one, without mentioning the other. This is a fact, both men have probably come to accept – though I imagine it took a little time to wrap their heads around it. They have handled it very well. It is truly beautiful to see a pure and genuine friendship emerge from one of the game’s greatest rivalries, if not the greatest rivalry.
So is Roger Federer greater than Rafael Nadal? Is Rafael Nadal greater than Roger Federer? The questions are two sides of the same coin and the order of the names most likely depends on your current inclination when thinking about this subject. It could also be dependent on which player you are a fan of. I do not believe I have the answer to this question. If we are doing this the right way, then we should all agree that the most viable answer right now is this: “Let us wait till both men have retired from professional tennis.” The logic behind this answer is straightforward. Once Federer and Nadal put their rackets down – there is no reason to believe they will do so simultaneously – the numbers they have posted throughout their respective careers up to that point, become frozen in time. They become immutable. It is at that point that we can truly answer this eternal question. I do suspect that even then, with the question answered, the debate will continue. As long as bias exists, it will continue.
The purpose of this article is to attempt to answer a very closely related question. Who is the greatest right now? To properly analyze this question, we need to step away from throwing numbers around with no real meaning behind them. We need to deeply analyze each and every aspect of what it truly takes to be in that discussion. While this is an article addressing the debate between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, I will be making occasional references to Novak Djokovic, to drive home certain points. Brace yourself. This might be quite a long read.
Head to Head
One of the fiercest areas of the debate about who the greatest is, is this one. The head to head between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. This statistic is considerably in Rafael Nadal’s favor. He leads their matches with 23 wins to Roger Federer’s 14 wins. As it stands, when these two face off against each other, there’s a 62% chance that Nadal will emerge the victor. However, tennis is not a one-dimensional sport. It is played over the course of a season, on various surfaces that affect the myriad of playing styles differently. In the case of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, their performances against each other have been heavily affected by what surface, they are playing on. The specific surface characteristic we are looking for here is speed. So let us break it down.
Clay (Nadal 13 – Federer 2)
This is the slowest of surfaces, and also happens to be where Rafael Nadal’s game is at its most formidable. He is not called “The King of Clay” for no reason. Nadal’s clay court prowess and his accomplishments are truly mind-boggling. So great are his clay court accomplishments, that he makes other clay court greats look like novices in comparison. I struggle to think of one player who has a winning record against Nadal on clay. Clay also happens to be Roger Federer’s worst surface and the surface he played Nadal the most on, early in their rivalry. It is probably the surface that set the tone for their rivalry and is the most lopsided of the surface head to heads.
Outdoor HardCourt (Nadal 8 – Federer 5)
The overall hard court head to head stands at 10 – 9 in favor of Federer, but I have broken it down into the outdoor and indoor hard court head to head, in order to account for the characteristic we are focusing on. Speed. Over the last fifteen years or so, the tennis tournaments have experimented with the speed of the court surfaces, in order to find a good balance that allows for more riveting rallies and minimizing ‘boring’ tennis matches. This is mostly to meet the demands of an increasingly insatiable tennis community. The speed tweak bug has caught all tournaments and all surfaces, including clay. Remember the blue clay experiment of Madrid 2012? These tweaks have affected both players both positively and adversely. On the outdoor hard courts, Nadal took the ascendancy when the surface speed slowed down. If the surface was sped back up, the advantage went to Federer. For the most part, the outdoor hardcourts are the second slowest surface we have in tennis (though the speeds are coming back up, just like in Australia this year), and that plays more to Nadal’s strengths than it does to Federer’s. However, the outdoor hardcourt still affords Federer a better surface to truly exploit his attacking game. The result, the head to head is a bit closer here.
Grass (Federer 2 – Nadal 1)
Grass has always been known as a fast surface and at one point, it was the fastest surface to play on. That title went away with the 90s decade. Grass slowed down considerably, beginning in 2002, all the way up to maybe 2010. Despite this, grass, -like clay – is a natural surface. Unlike clay, it naturally offers a speed boost to player’s shots as the ball tends to skid on the blades of grass. For Federer and Nadal, all their clashes on the surface have come at Wimbledon, where Federer has defeated Nadal twice, with Nadal’s lone win coming in 2008, in a match regarded as the greatest in history.
Indoor Hardcourts (Federer 5 – Nadal 1)
I earlier stated that if you look at hardcourts as a whole, Federer leads the head to head, 10 – 9. This is the reason why. Indoor hard courts are the fastest surfaces we have in tennis today. It is also a surface that Federer has owned throughout his career and might be the best surface for his game. Federer and Nadal have faced off six times on this surface, and Nadal has managed a single victory.
Are there other factors that have contributed to the head to head? Definitely. The matchup has generally been a better one for Nadal. His heavy topspin forehand to Federer’s backhand is a destabilizing weapon Federer has had to deal with on all surfaces. On clay and generally slow surfaces, it all too often proves to be the difference maker. So, does this make Nadal a greater player than Federer? The answer is no. Head to Heads are about matchups and do not in and of itself tell who is greater. The head to head from a 30,000-foot view says that Nadal is the better player when they face off, 68% of the time. On closer scrutiny, you will see that Federer is the better player on two of the three tennis surfaces, as 56.2% of Nadal’s wins over Federer, have come on Clay. This, however, pales in comparison to Federer’s interesting stat. 71.4% of his wins over Nadal have come on hard court. For now, Nadal is still the better player between the two when they face each other.
Dominance Against The Big Four
Now let us turn our attention from Nadal against Federer, to Nadal and Federer against their fellow big four members. It really started with Federer and Nadal, and then expanded to include Djokovic and Murray by 2011. For the better part of six years, the big four have won just about every single thing in sight, and are the top champions of this decade. How do Nadal and Federer stack up against them? Let’s see.
Rafa has a 64 – 47 win-loss record against the big four, till date. His only losing head-to-head within this group is to Novak Djokovic, who leads by two matches at 26 – 24. One trend sticks out when looking at Nadal’s record against his fellow big four members. He holds a considerable lead on them in their claycourt head to heads and manages to put in his fair share of wins in their hard court head to heads. Andy Murray is the only member of the big four who has a losing record to Rafa on all surfaces. Against Novak Djokovic, he leads their head to head on clay and on grass, ceding to Djokovic, 18 – 7, on hard courts. Against Federer, he holds a staggering winning streak on clay and is marginally behind on grass and hard courts. This reinforces Rafael Nadal’s greatness on clay, as he truly has no equal on the surface, as well as the way his game matches up against his fellow big four members on other surfaces. In total, Nadal has won 35 clay court matches against his fellow big four members, against just 11 losses. Another way to look at it? Approximately 54.6% of his match wins against the big four, have come on clay.
Roger Federer holds a losing record against the big four, with 50 wins against 57 losses. He has losing head to head records against both Nadal and Djokovic, and a winning record against Andy Murray. The record against Djokovic is very slim. Djokovic just edges Federer out at 23 wins to Federer’s 22. Yet to truly get a sense of how slim it is, just take a look at their head to head per surface. 4 – 4 on clay, 17 – 17 on hard courts and 2 – 1 (advantage Djokovic) on grass. I suppose Novak Djokovic is the greater grass court player. Ahem, please excuse my sarcasm. Roger Federer leads Andy Murray 10 – 2 on hard courts and 2 – 1 on grass. They have never played on a clay court before, which is surprising. Overall, 78% of all Federer’s wins against his fellow big four members have come on hard courts. That is staggeringly one-sided and shows how ineffective he becomes when he meets them on other surfaces.
This one goes to Nadal as well. He makes the most of his clay court matches and still poses problems for his fellow champions on other surfaces. Judging by this statistic, Federer certainly comes into his own on hardcourts but is very vulnerable when he is off it. Federer does have a winning record against Nadal and Murray on grass, but he has a losing record against Djokovic. All wins and losses on the surface are 2 – 1, 2 -1, and 1 – 2, in that order. One could argue that Federer has not played as many matches on grass to build a big enough lead. Point is he is not making the most of his best surfaces, the way Nadal is… at least not against the big four when he has met them.
The verdict is a simple one. Against each other and against the big four, Rafael Nadal has had more success than Roger Federer as he has protected his favorite surface more i.e. more wins against fewer losses and has held his own against them on their stronger (his weaker) surfaces. However, tennis goes beyond Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. For the next few sections, we’ll be looking at their consistency and how they’ve done against the game’s very best, throughout their careers. By very best, we mean the top ten. To be the greatest, you have to do more than be better than your rival and two other guys. You have to be consistently better than an ever-changing lineup of talented, dangerous players, who could also be grand slam champions.
Career Dominance Against Top Ten Players
When Rafael Nadal faces a top ten player, he wins approximately 65.1% of the time as opposed to 65.7% by Federer. It is a 0.6% difference, but that is telling in itself as it will have ripple effects on one or two later areas of discussion. Federer has been the more dominant player in his career against the game’s best players. This one goes to Federer.
Grand Slam Consistency – Week One/Fourth Round Exits in Grand Slams
This might not mean as much to some readers, but it does tell a lot about how vulnerable or how dialed in these two greats can be when it comes to the slams. For fairness, I am counting Roger Federer’s early exits from 2003, and Rafael Nadal’s, from 2005. These are the years they won their first grand slam titles, respectively. I’m sure we mostly agree that anything before that doesn’t really count as much because both players had not found their grand slam winning selves by then. I will also be leaving out the number of slams both players were absent from as… well… it also doesn’t matter for this exercise.
For Federer, counting from 2003 till date, I found out he failed to go past the fourth round of a grand slam 8 times out of the 57 grand slam tournaments he competed in, during that time. That means approximately 86% of the time, he was in the quarterfinals or better. What is even more impressive? He had seven consecutive seasons, from a period of 2005 to 2012 where he never missed the quarterfinals of a slam. That’s seven calendar years without a blip before the quarters. In that timeframe, Federer’s most consistent slam has been Wimbledon. He’s failed to make it past the 4th round just once since 2003, at his favorite grand slam.
For Nadal, counting from 2005 till date, I discovered he failed to go past the fourth round of a grand slam, 14 times out of the 46 tournaments he competed in, during that time. What does this mean? Rafael Nadal was in the quarterfinals or better approximately 69.5% of the time, even though he’s played fewer tournaments. He’s never been able to avoid a major upset at a tournament for more than two years calendar years at a time. Still, he’s most successful tournament is Roland Garros where he has failed to make it past the fourth round just once in his entire career. He didn’t play in 2003 or 2004.
What does this tell us? At the game’s biggest tournaments, facing the best 128 players in the world, Roger Federer is less susceptible to a defeat before the quarterfinals, than his great rival, Rafael Nadal. It doesn’t matter who could have dealt them the loss. A top ten player, another member of the big 4, or a dangerous player (former top 10, inspired big hitter, up and coming talent, journeyman having a phenomenal day), it all doesn’t matter. Federer rarely takes a loss before putting himself into the quarterfinals, which is generally where you want to be before thinking about your chances of a winning the slam. This one goes to Roger Federer.
Grand Slam Win Dispersion
This is another subtle yet telling statistic. Can I call a player who wins twenty Wimbledon titles for his twenty grand slams the greatest player of all time? That’s a question to ponder on. One of the telling signs of a higher level of greatness is just how dominant a player can be across all surfaces on the highest of stages. So let us begin.
The percentages of Federer’s victories across the slams go as follows:
- Australian Open: 26.3%
- Roland Garros: 5.3%
- Wimbledon: 42.1%
- U.S Open: 26.3%
It is easy to tell that while Federer’s had the greatest and least success at Wimbledon and the French Open respectively, his combined success at the Australian Open and the U.S Open, surpass his singular achievement at Wimbledon. He has got a fairly balanced winning record across all four grand slams, with his numbers not at all that heavily dependent on one grand slam. Add four french open finals to that and you can easily see Federer’s all-court mastery at the game’s highest of levels.
Nadal’s percentages are listed below.
- Australian Open: 6.25%
- Roland Garros: 62.5%
- Wimbledon: 12.5%
- U.S Open: 18.75%
Evaluating Nadal’s grand slam win dispersion, it is easy to see how heavily dependent it is on his success on Roland Garros. This will tell any fair reader one thing – Rafael Nadal, while he is great, has enjoyed the lion’s share of his grand slam success, on clay. His favorite surface. He is still quite far from being the all-court grand slam champion Roger Federer is, even if both men have won a grand slam at least once on all surfaces. This one goes to Federer.
The World Tour Finals
Remember when we talked about career dominance against top ten players? It really comes to bear here. I always say tennis is more than a game of inches. It is a game of minute increments and a game of percentages. 0.5% might not seem like much until you’ve got 8 of those 10 best players in a tournament with no one else. Just the top 8, against each other. In this tournament, often regarded as the unofficial fifth grand slam, Federer has reached 10 finals, winning 6 of them. Nadal has only gotten to the finals twice. Both times he has lost. Once against Federer, and once against Novak Djokovic. Till date, he has never stood as the best among the top 8 players in the world. This one goes to Federer.
Weeks at World Number One
Another mark of sustained consistency. That is why it is tracked. Federer has spent a record 302 weeks as the number one player in the world, including another record 237 consecutive weeks in that position. Nadal is currently ranked number 7 behind Federer, Sampras, Lendl, Connors, Djokovic, and McEnroe. He has spent a total of 146 weeks at world number 1. As for consecutive weeks, Nadal doesn’t even make the top 10. He is ranked number 11, with 56 consecutive weeks at world number 1.
Davis Cup and Olympics
Adding these to the Greatest of all Time debate has always been a debate within itself. How seriously should we take the Olympics and the Davis Cup in a sport that is as individual as they come? The generally accepted rule is if you have accomplished something in any one of these, then it is a check on the list. Rafael Nadal has two Olympic gold medals. One in Singles and one in doubles. Federer has won one Olympic gold medal – in doubles. As for Davis Cup victories, Nadal has won this four times with Spain, while Federer has won it once with Switzerland. Considering the Davis Cup is especially dependent on how strong the country’s team is (a factor that varies from year to year), this is essentially a checklist item. Do both players have it, yes they do. This goes to both of them.
Grand Slam Titles Won
This statistic sits at the center of the GOAT debate, but we’ll place it in a larger context and relate it to the grand slam win dispersion we analyzed earlier. Not only has Federer won more across the four grand slams, he’s won more, period. At 19 to Nadal’s 16, this goes to Federer.
The way they play the game
This is immeasurable. It is one of those abstract factors that just might be the key difference between being a fan of one, or the other. Nadal is a physical force of nature. A wicked combination of brute force and absolute will. As can be seen by his record against Federer and the big four, he is probably the game’s best closer, when he gets to a final due to the sheer force of his game and will. The will, being more so a factor. Roger Federer on the other hand, plays a brand of tennis that is beyond a dream. When Federer is in full flight, few watchers of the game can confidently claim they have seen anyone strike the ball more sweetly. Your choice ultimately depends on your preference. Grit, muscle, grunt and will or Elegance, finesse, talent, and easy power. You pick.
This article is not exhaustive and but hopefully it is long enough and covers enough to offer a broad perspective. Rafael Nadal is probably the better one-on-one player between himself and Federer, and within the big four as a larger group. Since tennis at its purity is about one-on-one matches, I can understand a lot of Rafael Nadal’s supporters. He has bested Federer, and his biggest rivals, more times than they have bested him when they have faced each other. From the beginning till date, that remains his strongest argument. However, tennis extends beyond a group of four players. Tennis is about consistent excellence, and how far-reaching any great’s dominance over the entire sport is. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but when one focuses on the aspect of matchups alone, Nadal comes across as a big match player who is so far ahead of his main rivals, and everyone else on one surface, but can’t turn it on consistently enough against other players and on other surfaces. He is more than that.
However when you consider Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s respective performances over time, and how heavily dependent or not their greatness is around one grand slam, you begin to see that Federer has dominated the field through roughly three generations of players more so than Nadal, any other member of the big four, and any other player before him. The numbers are there to prove it, as I have shown.
That’s the final thing I want to touch on. The numbers. As I said in the beginning, the answer as to who the greatest tennis player of all time is, won’t be known until these two retire. The numbers will inevitably change – to whose benefit or detriment, is left to be seen. This is why we watch the game with bated breath. As for that other question, who is the greatest tennis player of all, right now? I have to give it to Roger Federer. Right now, he is the GOAT. The BULL is still in the hunt.