How Nadal’s US Open win has reignited the GOAT debate in tennis
Now that the Laver Cup is over, and the Fedal bromance has had its day in the spotlight, tennis fans are back to their respective groups and vouching for their favourite to end the year as the No. 1 ranked player.
After Roger Federer had won his eighth Wimbledon and 19th Grand Slam, it seemed the debate over the “Greatest Player of All Time” was over. Rafael Nadal’s struggles on grass and his losses to younger opponents on the North Amercian hard courts had raised question marks over his ability to win more big titles outside of clay.
Federer also looked primed to be the biggest contender for the US Open title, which would have taken his tally of Grand Slam titles to 20.
However, Nadal rose to the challenge and won a third title at Flushing Meadows. The triumph has further raised his already great legacy and reduced the gap between him and Federer in terms of Slam titles. The GOAT debate is alive and kicking again!
Let us try to analyse who the real tennis GOAT is - Federer or Nadal?
Federer has been a more consistent tennis player than Nadal over the course of his career. He has been ranked the No. 1 tennis player in the ATP rankings for a period of more than 300 weeks. He has dominated lesser opponents over all surfaces more consistently than his rival.
During his prime, Federer would often run roughshod over his biggest opponents, the only exception being Nadal, whose lefty topspin gave him troubles.
Nadal on the other hand struggled to dominate big servers on grass and hard courts, and often had to fight his way through to win matches. Injuries also hampered his quest to stay dominant for longer periods of time. His total “weeks at No. 1” tally is less than even half of Federer’s number.
Clearly, when it comes to consistency at the top, Federer scores above Nadal.
Big match toughness
However, Nadal has the better record when facing GOAT level competition in the big tournaments. Nadal’s combined head-to-head against Federer and Novak Djokovic in Grand Slams stands at 18-7, in contrast to Federer, whose head-to-head record in Slams against the other two reads 9-18. Even Djokovic has a better record here than Federer (13-15).
This clearly shows that Nadal has fared better than Federer when facing equal competition in the biggest tournaments.
There cannot be any doubting that these three are amongst the all-time GOATs, and battles between them are like heavyweight bouts between fellow legends. And Nadal has dominated more than Federer in these big matches.
This shows greater mental toughness and strength when facing an equal opponent in a big match environment.
All Court prowess
Federer has arguably the most complete game of all time. He can adapt easily to all surfaces and conditions. His all-court skills have enabled him to become the only man in tennis history to win five times or more at three different Slams.
Even on clay, Federer would have won five Slams or more, had Nadal been not there. Federer lost four French Open finals against Nadal.
The same cannot be said about Nadal. While Nadal has no match on clay, he has not been anywhere as dominant as Federer on grass and hard courts. His game is based on clay court dominance.
Absolute dominance on one mixed with adaptability on others
But Nadal has dominated the clay courts like no other athlete in history. His record at Roland Garros reads 79-2, which is beyond imagination. No other athlete has dominated on one surface in the manner that Nadal has dominated on clay.
When people talk about the greatest grasscourt player of all times, the names of Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rod Laver come into the fray. On hardcourts, the names of Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic come into GOAT discussions.
On clay, there is no discussion. It starts and ends with Nadal.
However, Nadal has also adapted very well to the other surfaces. He has won six Slams so far outside of his clay kingdom. These include three US Open crowns, two Wimbledon titles and one title at the Australian Open.
Four of these six wins have come by defeating either Federer or Djokovic in the final. Clearly, Nadal has risen to the occasion more than once against opponents whose game suited the faster surfaces more than his. Federer on the other hand has failed to beat Nadal even once at Roland Garros in multiple attempts.
The GOAT debate has only heated up with both Federer’s and Nadal’s dominance this season. And it is hard to pinpoint any one of these two as clearly ahead of the other on all parameters.
And let's not forget, there is a certain Novak Djokovic who is still in the GOAT picture along with these two gentlemen. Anything may happen in future, as these three seem to be unaffected by Father Time, which has led to the demise of many tennis legends in the past.