It's the year 2015. Having already lost in the first week at the last three Wimbledon to players ranked over 100, Rafael Nadal kept the streak going against Dustin Brown, a 102-ranked qualifier. The critics, fans, and pundits ripped into him for his lack of confidence, a poor dwindling first serve, not so potent backhand and a visible discomfort against players with strong serves. More than a decade of Nadal's intensive and aggressive playing style seemed to be showing effects on his body and his fragile knee. If the alarm bells were put on hold after only his second ever defeat at Roland Garros to Novak Djokovic, who was arguably at the peak of his career at the time, they were ringing overtime now. A miserable year and a half followed to that epic 2017 Australian Open Final between him and Roger Federer. Just when it felt in the final set that he had turned a page when he was a break up, a painful decline at the end saw him losing out to his arch-rival in the most heart-breaking fashion and left him some way off him on the Grand Slams chart. One was left wondering whether he could even maintain his lead over Djokovic, let alone chasing down a massive gap to Federer who would go on to consolidate that even further.
But he returned to form at his own hunting ground later that same year. He has since that 2017 Australian Open loss has, lost another Australian Open Final to a different arch-rival but in a very devastating manner, won a hat-trick of French Opens, a couple of US Opens and reached consecutive semis at Wimbledon.
This leaves us at the cusp of history with Nadal, for the first time in his career, trailing Roger by a single Grand Slam. While it's just a statistic, it weighs in heavily towards the 'greatest of all time' claim. But Federer's lead seems quite certain to vanish this year by the time French Open Winner is decided. Such has been his domination at the red courts of Paris that irrespective of how indifferent his form is arriving into the French Open, barring a phenomenal run by Dominic Thiem, you can already add a number 13 to his cabinet. While Australian Open and Wimbledon seem difficult against a roaring Djokovic and a soaring Medvedev, both of whom are better suited for the faster surfaces, if the draw and pace of the courts are as favourable as last year at New York, he might even surpass Federer this year itself.
If Nadal manages to reach Federer's tally, he already has more Masters 1000 titles, multiple Davis Cup wins and an Olympic Gold to further boost his claim. The only cynic to his claim would be his over-achievement in a single slam. But winning multiple slams at the other two surfaces with his low, slow, top-spin heavy baseline game that is more suited to slow nature of the clay surfaces is also an over-achievement. Among the three, he has missed the most slams with injuries which have been a frequent feature of his long career of around two decades. While one can never claim the 'greatest of all time' title unchallenged, relatively, the pendulum swings towards Nadal with him catching Federer; as, when and if, it happens. But where does that leave Federer?
It has been widely speculated now that what might be keeping Federer going even at this age could be his ultimate quest for most Grand Slams. Federer wants to keep fighting till the end to preserve his lead till the day he finds himself competitive. And like Nadal finds solace and a favourite tag irrespective of current and past performances at Roland Garros, Federer will always fight for the honours at Wimbledon. While his decision to return to French Open after a 3-year sabbatical proved extremely successful with a run to semis followed by a heart wrenching loss in tie-breaker in a one-for-the-ages Wimbledon final, it showed a deviation from his attempt to preserve his body and condition it to play fewer events at his best possible physical condition. So if Nadal does catch up soon, which Federer himself recently admitted both Nadal and Djokovic will do 'obviously', he might reconsider his retirement plans at the end of the year and we might end up crowning a new 'greatest of all time' and bidding adieu to another. It will always be impossible to say which of them is the pretender.