Federer, Nadal and the Unceasing Debate of the ‘Greatest of All Time’

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It is a debate that has enticed tennis fans for the better part of the last decade, yet even with the sudden and apparent demise of Roger Federer (Bio), the debate wages on about the greatest tennis player of all time.

While the discussion is entirely subjective, it is one that has captivated the tennis community and sent them into a heated frenzy as they attempt to calculate the competitor worthy of inheriting the title of “greatest ever.”

Nadal (Bio) fans are quick to remind us about the Spaniard’s dominant head-to-head advantage over the Swiss legend.  The world no. 2 leads the head-to-head stats at 21-10 and has won four of their last five encounters – three of which ended in straight sets. Federer has only taken one set off Nadal in their three encounters in 2013 which is arguably his worst string of performances against his biggest rival.

There is no doubt that Nadal has taken a healthy lead in his historic rivalry with Federer, yet the debate has now shifted as to whether the Spaniard is capable of surpassing the Swiss no. 1 Grand Slam title record, thus further cementing his claim to the title as the greatest of all time. It is believable after all. Nadal currently holds 13 grand slam titles, including 8 French Open titles and counting. What makes this a remarkable feat is that he is 27-years-old and in his current form, is likely capable of winning several more.

Federer currently holds 77 career titles, which is 18 more than Nadal. This may seem like a significant gap, yet when you consider that the Spaniard won 9 titles (and counting) in 2013, surpassing Federer’s title wins is not out of his reach, particularly when the Swiss star has only managed one title this season.

While the trajectory currently favors the world no. 2, there is more than simply numbers to consider when debating the all-time greatest tennis star. Charisma, style, and grace are characteristics that come to mind when discussing the greatest players. They may not need all of these traits, yet they are always remembered for at least one of the above. Federer, dubbed ‘Swiss Maestro’ by adoring fans, is considered the most beautiful player in the history of the game. It is his grace and style on the court that captivated millions of fans for the past decade. His off-court attitude is exceptional as well; Federer dresses the part of a top class player, speaks like a perfect gentleman and is the perfect poster boy for sport. In many ways, it is this could arguably keep Rafa a step behind him in the debate.

For all of Nadal’s immense talent and world-class ability, he arguably does not have the incredible stage presence that Federer retains. While he is a visually appealing athlete, he lacks the verbal skills and the charisma to connect with his audience in any way other than through his on-court performances. Although neither Nadal no Federer are English speakers from birth, yet the language barrier is only truly significant with the Spaniard. While this in itself creates a certain aura of mystery and intrigue around Rafa yet it could also be limiting when attempting to establish loyal, passionate fans – particularly casual fans, who are not as accustomed to watching tennis on a regular basis.

There is no doubt that Rafael Nadal is capable of becoming the most decorated tennis star in the history, yet will he ever surpass Federer as the greatest player of all time? That will likely remain a heated dispute for many years to come.

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10 thoughts on “Federer, Nadal and the Unceasing Debate of the ‘Greatest of All Time’

  1. This is, for the time being, going to be an un-winnable debate. I personally feel that the title “best ever” is hard to determine, and as the article suggests, it is an opinion, and it is subjective. The biggest reason to me is that it’s problematic to compare eras. Each era is unique, and contained a different set of players, different circumstances, different technologies, etc.
    Plus, sheer numbers alone, no matter how large, do not tell the whole story.
    Federer did not play in every era, and we can only guess how he would have done in any of them outside of his own. We’ll never know for sure.
    There are those who say that it’s absurd that Federer’s head-to-head record with Nadal takes him out of being the GOAT. And to a large extent it’s true – it’s not about playing one player. Leander Paes has a 1-0 record against Pete Sampras (Paes beat Sampras at a smaller tournament in 1998, the only time they played). Does that make Paes the greater singles player than Sampras? It would be utterly absurd to think so.
    But the Nadal-Federer rivalry is infinitely more serious!! It’s not just any old head to head record!! It has infinitely more ramifications. We’re talking about a player in Nadal who has an 8-2 edge over Federer in the Majors. He has beaten Federer in 3 of 4 majors. And the one major they didn’t play in – the US Open – is on  a surface that Nadal leads Federer in: outdoor hard courts (let’s not forget that he doesn’t just lead on clay). If Nadal were to beat Federer in the US Open, he will have beaten him in all 4 majors, Federer winning in only 1. That is not to be treated as absurd – it’s serious.
    Federer won 12 of his 17 majors in the period 2003-2007. Granted, during those 5 years he did have serious competition: Agassi, Safin and Hewitt, for example. But what he didn’t have to face is Nadal and Djokovic at their absolute, all-court peak. Once those 2 got better, Federer’s dominating record simply declined – in the 6 years since 2007, Federer has won 5 majors, not nearly at the yearly rate he was winning them prior.
    And it’s not fair to say that this decline after 2007 happened only because he got past his prime. I think Federer has only really been past his prime in the last year or so, since winning Wimbledon last year. Players do get better. They do find ways to beat the previous dominating player. And that happened often after 2007.
    So what I am getting at, is that sheer numbers don’t always tell the story, and we cannot really compare different eras. This is why the title “best-ever” is just an opinion, and not a very definitive one at all.

  2. Federer is still the greatest, but perhaps Rafa will get a few more Slams under his belt, and then he will have claimed that title:)

  3. Frederick75 You made some excellent points on the whole, and I would like to add to your piece. Each player’s “greatness”, like it or not, is tied to one another and ironically, saying if one is “greater” than the other involves diminishing the comparative player’s accomplishments. It would almost be some sort of poetic justice for both Roger and Rafa fans if the GS count was deadlocked at 17 so to continue this fun yet pointless debate about GOAT. In the end, each player has done things the other hasn’t, and more importantly, in their style and manner.
    A comment about player in different eras. This is the biggest X-factor or undeterminable variable in proclaiming a GOAT. Imagine if Roger or Rafa played in the 90’s against Pete, Andre, Edberg, Becker. Would Rafa had won that may FO or Roger Wimby’s or US’s? Personally, I doubt that either man would achieve the same accomplishments then but that question can never been answered. How about Rod Laver- would he claimed the Grand Slam twice if he played in the last 30 yrs? Again, hard to say.
    Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story. But it does shed some light and bring some of the pieces of the G O A T puzzle together.  What exactly determines the GOAT? Number of titles? H2H’s? Shot-making ability? Athleticism?  Longevity? And how do you measure such intangibles such as mental fortitude, competitiveness, will to win, or even creativity? In the end, it is up to the fans to base their decision on what are the most important factors and what constitutes a GOAT – as mentioned previously – a highly subjective affair. 
    Keep it friendly and fair, and most of all, have fun with it!

  4. Nadal-davydinko head to head is 7-6 in favour of davydinko.
    this suggests nadal is not better than dinko, forget about
    greatest of all time.

  5. This article is a joke. So now even he becomes the most decorated player this author believes Fed should reman the GOAT because his English is better, haha! Fed is already today GOAT-off: he could not dominate the era of the big boys above 30 (Pete & Andre) until 2002, he could not dominate since end 2007 with Djoko, Nadal & Murray still only 20-21. 80% of all Fed records (slams, consistency, weak @ 1) are all cemented in a weak 2004-2007 window  with Hewitt the main contender and Agassi way past 30. I.e. 80% of Fed’s records is double/triple/quadruple counting the same achievement.
    Incidentally, more damning than H2H is the fact that Nadal beat Fed in his prime on all three surfaces in GS finals. No GOAT in any sport can have a losing record IN HIS PRIME against his main rival. Period.

  6. In a sport where you have hundreds of persons playing, a head-to-head record can only come into play, if all other factors to be considered are equal. THEY ARE NOT in the case of Federer and Nadal.

  7. As far as I am concerned, Federer is the greatest of all time. Nadal’s winning record would only come into the debate if all other things are equal and, guess what? All things are NOT equal where Federer and Nadal are concerned. Think of, # of grand slam titles; # of ATP titles; # of weeks at number 1 (including 237 consecutive weeks) etc, etc, etc.

  8. I’m just loving tennis these days. It was great in the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s, the 00’s etc. Whether men or women. It is the competition of each match that interests me. The will to win. The GOAT is just a debate with no winners, and not even a competition. Just hot air. The gods in heaven laugh at us humans and just Enjoy. Rafa, Federer, and Djokovic are just laughing (along with Sampras, Laver, Borg, McEnroe, etc)

  9. Carlos Marti Figueroa October 12, 2013 at 7:04 am -

    Hi Meg. Just a quick note. Rafa has the best winning percentage in Tennis history, most Masters 1000 (which is also equivalent to the Super 9, Grand Prix, Etc of earlier years) in tennis history with 26, lop sided record vs Federer in outdoors HC, clay, and grand slams, winning record vs everyone in the top 30 (including his main rivals of the era), second best Grand Slam winning rate (which is number of slam wins per slam entered, Borg is first), second best Masters 1000 win rate (Borg is first here as well), Olympic Gold (and in Rafa’s worst surface, indoor hard of Beijing), 4 Davis Cups and 13 Mayors (third only to Sampras and Federer). Rafa may or may not be the GOAT, but he certainly is putting up an amazing case. The only reason he hasn’t surpassed Roger in slams is because Roger played in 20 more slams to this point (due to Rafa being younger and also to injuries). Week at number 1 is very debatable. Just imaging if Rafa didn’t get injured in 2009 when Roger regain top ranking. That’s 52 week less for Roger that would have been for Rafa. How different would that story be. So it is important to be objective in this debate and understand the cirmcenstances.

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