Most tennis fans, including myself, believe that Roger Federer is the greatest male player of all-time. He has a record 19 Grand Slam titles, adding two this year, has won the career Grand Slam, and holds some absurd records that no one will ever touch – like reaching ten straight Grand Slam finals and making at least the quarterfinals in 36 consecutive majors. That’s nine years of quarterfinals… no one is ever doing even close to that again!
But right behind him in the conversation for best ever sits the current US Open titleholder, Rafael Nadal. Nadal is five years younger than Federer, but trails him by just three major titles. Nadal has some fantastic accomplishments in his career as well, leading to the question:
Will Rafa eventually pass Roger as the greatest of all time?
At first glance, that may sound preposterous. But there really isn’t as big of a gap between the two legends as you may think.
Federer may have cemented his place as the current GOAT by winning two Slams this season after missing most of 2016 with various knee and back injuries. He looked like a shell of himself last year, and everyone thought that we had seen the last of the Maestro. Then he showed up in Melbourne without playing a warm-up tournament, and ran through the field, defeating four Top 10 players, including Nadal in a sublime five-setter where he won the last five games of the final set.
He followed that up by skipping the French Open and then hoisted the title at Wimbledon for a record eighth time. His Grand Slam season ended prematurely, as former US Open champ Juan Martin del Potro spoiled New York City’s chance to see a Rafa-Roger duel for the first time ever by defeating Federer in the quarters.
Federer vaulted from #17 at the start of the Australian Open to #2 currently. The only player ranked ahead of him right now is… Rafael Nadal.
Nadal also won two majors, claiming his tenth French Open title before winning the US Open earlier this month. Prior to this year, it looked like he may have been on the twilight of his career, as knee and wrist injuries hampered him from 2014 to 2016. He failed to make it past the 4th round in a Grand Slam last year, and his body seemed to be breaking down due to his physical style of play.
Rafa regained the #1 ranking a week before the US Open, which gave him the longest time span between holding the top spot for the first time and the most recent time in ATP history (August 18, 2008 to August 21, 2017).
Comparing the two, Federer has more majors (19 to 16), more titles (93 to 74), and more time as the top-ranked player in the world (302 weeks to 145 and counting). Federer also has 257 more wins than Nadal, but he has been playing for three more seasons and is five years older. Nadal actually has a higher winning percentage (82.4% to 81.8%), and is one of only two players to win the Golden Slam in his career (winning all four Slams plus a gold medal in singles). Federer has never won a gold in singles, as he lost to Andy Murray in the gold-medal match in 2012 (but he has won gold in doubles).
Nadal also leads the head-to-head series with Federer by a wide margin (23 wins to 14). Rafa is 9-3 in Grand Slams against Fed, and is 13-2 on clay and 8-5 on outdoor hard courts when facing Federer. Nadal is 6-3 in Grand Slam finals against his main rival, and is the only player to defeat Federer in the final of a Grand Slam on all three surfaces (clay, grass, and hard courts).
Nadal is also the only player to win a Grand Slam tournament ten times, and will be the overwhelming favorite at the French Open for as long as he competes there. If he plays for another three of four seasons, he could conceivably reach 19 or 20 major titles just by winning the French Open.
If Nadal surpasses Federer in major titles in a career, then the argument for greatest ever gets really interesting. Federer dominated on the grass courts, while Nadal has been basically unbeatable on the clay at the French Open. Once Federer developed, you could see that his game would be well suited for any surface. Many looked at the early version of Nadal and thought that he would be just another clay-court specialist, and that he would never be able to succeed on hard courts or on grass. Nadal became an all-court threat, winning twice on the grass at Wimbledon, once in Melbourne, and three times at the US Open. He also has two gold medals – one in singles and one in doubles – and has won the Davis Cup with Spain four times.
The numbers are impressive, and really the only one that truly favors Federer is Grand Slam titles. If Rafa had held on in Australia, he would be just one major behind Federer, and this conversation would be more prevalent after his US Open triumph.
For now, Federer is still at the top of the greatest ever list, but Nadal is creeping closer and closer every year.
Written by: Adam Belue (@albinomamba44)