Who is the Greatest of All Time? It’s a question that fans of each sport ask every now and again when a transcendent star comes along.
For tennis fans, this question has always been decided by who has the most Grand Slam titles. In the NBA Michael Jordan is considered the “GOAT”, despite the fact that he “only” has six titles. In golf, there are only two acceptable answers, and only one if you’re not a Tiger Woods fan. In the MLB, the steroid era has clouded the question. In hockey, there’s only one correct answer: The Great One. However, in tennis there now may be two acceptable answers.
In the French Open Final earlier this morning (and yes, I woke up at 6 AM to watch it) Rafael Nadal took down Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 to claim his 9th title at Roland Garros. While the match wasn’t particularly awe inspiring, what it represents is.
Nadal now has 14 Grand Slam title, which tied him for second all-time with Pete Sampras. He has 9 French Open titles, in 10 years no less, which is two more victories at any Grand Slam than any other tennis player in history. His career record at Roland Garros? How about 66-1. His lone loss at the French came in 2009 to Robin Soderling. That was 35 matches and 1,833 days ago.
Ok, so it’s clear that Nadal is the best clay court player that has ever graced the earth. That much is clear, not only by his titles, but his 90-1 record in best-of-five clay-court matches.
But the question remains: Is he the greatest tennis player to ever live?
In my mind there are now only two acceptable answers: Nadal and his long time nemesis/counterpart/fellow savant Roger Federer. Federer’s sand is slipping out of his hour glass; however, he holds the most Grand Slam titles of any player ever with 17. For most of the 2000’s he was the most dominant force in tennis and displayed an aptitude for the big stage previously unknown to the game. Not only does Federer have the most Grand Slams ever, but he holds the following records:
- Most GS titles (17)
- Most GS finals total (24)
- Consecutive GS Finals Appearances (10)
- Consecutive GS Semifinal appearances (23)
- Consecutive GS Quarterfinal appearances (36)
All of this is to say that Federer is the gold standard of tennis, not only in this era, but of all-time. Federer will forever be remembered for his domination of the sport, but he will also be remembered as an artist. No one has ever played tennis the way that Federer has. His ground strokes are picture perfect, his creativeness is off the charts, and his ability to close is up there with the greats in history of sports.
However, when Rafael Nadal came on the scene in 2004 the tide began to shift. Nadal’s athleticism changed the way tennis was played. He’s ferocious, to the point of almost being demonic. He has an flair for the dramatic unknown to the game. He’s a baller. Most of all, he’s a dominant champion. Basically, if you took Russell Westbrook’s mentality, put it into Kobe Bryant’s body, and gave him Bill Russell’s mind you would have Rafa Nadal.
Lob and Smash
He’s also the villian. For a lot of tennis fans, Nadal is like The Joker to Federer’s Batman. However, for fans like me, he’s more like Superman. He’s like the Mia Hamm to Michael Jordan in the infamous Nike commercial, which is to say “Anything you can do, I can do better”.
While Roger Federer may be considered by most to be the best tennis player ever, Nadal owns a 23-10 career record against him. Nadal is 13-2 against Federer on the clay, 9-6 on hard courts, and 1-2 against him on grass. While he’s only one once against Federer on grass, that one was worth one million. That would be the epic and infamous 2008 Wimbledon Final. In that final, which was the last of 8 consecutive French and Wimbledon finals they played against one another (a record), Nadal outlasted Federer 6-4, 6-4 , 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 in a match that is rightly considered to be the best tennis match of all-time.
Nadal and Federer are one of three men to ever complete the career Grand Slam, along with Andre Agassi. It’s almost as impossible to separate them historically as it is to compare their games. So how do you come to a decision on who is the best ever? Is there a discount for Nadal because he’s won the majority of his 14 majors on one surface, or does that enhance his legacy? Is Federer the greatest of all-time simply because he’s been around longer or is he truly the best?
I don’t know where you stand, but I assume you’re somewhere on the fence. You should be. It’s an impossible question to answer, and it’s one that is getting tougher every time Nadal flicks his incredible wrist for a winner.
The correct answer, for now, is that there is no good answer. Both can lay claim to the title. Federer has more titles, but Nadal is 28 and may well pass Club Fed in the next couple of years. Federer played a more beautiful game, while Nadal dominated and frustrated his opponents more than any other player in history. This question simply isn’t a matter of who won more matches against the other or who has more Grand Slams. It’s more complex than that, as it should be.
History and statistics will ultimately decided who the greatest of all-time is. However, for now, I’m on the fence. You could convince me to sway either way. But as time goes on, don’t be surprised if Rafael Nadal tears Federer’s stake out of the ground and claims the title all to himself.