Let's do this once and for all. Let's figure out who the Greatest Male Tennis Player of all time (GOAT) is, while leaving out all of the feelings and using all of the statistics instead.
Numbers cannot lie. Numbers cannot be biased. On the basis of Grand Slams, ATP Finals, ATP Masters 1000s, ATP 500s and then a couple of other stats, let's ask:
"Mirror, Mirror on the wall,
Who's the greatest of them all?"
Also, fair bit of warning: this article will only pit Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer against one another, because these three are head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of numbers. So apologies in advance, Pete Sampras fans.
There is nothing much to say here; everyone and their mother knows Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are tied for the most Slam wins, with 20 apiece. And that is precisely why now is the perfect time to have this discussion.
You can see how each one of them prefers a particular surface in one way or the other. You can also see how Rafael Nadal is so much better at clay, and not quite so on grass, that the trickle-down effect reflects in the others' stats too.
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic pretty much split the difference with Australian Open and Wimbledon; Federer has 14 at these two events combined, while Djokovic has 15. The US Open tallies are perhaps the most surprising; conventional wisdom suggests hardcourt would be harder on Nadal's knees, but currently he is ahead of Djokovic in New York.
Another point of interest is that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have won their Slams over 15 years (2003-2018 and 2005-2020 respectively), but Novak Djokovic has managed to achieve the feat in just 13 (2008-2021).
Moreover, Djokovic is the only one who has managed to hold all four Slam titles at the same time, albeit not in the same calendar year. He is also the only player among the three to have won a Major after saving match point (Wimbledon 2019 against Federer).
However, Nadal and Federer have been the ones to win Majors without dropping a set - four times by the Spaniard (obviously at Roland Garros) and twice by Federer (once at Australian Open and once at Wimbledon).
Fun fact: Roger Federer's best result at Slam before his first title (Wimbledon 2003) was a quarterfinal appearance (Roland Garros 2001 and Wimbledon 2001), while Rafael Nadal's best result before his first title (Roland Garros 2005) was reaching the fourth round (Australian Open 2005). Novak Djokovic, however, had reached a final and two semifinals before his first Slam title (Australian Open 2008).
Verdict: Honestly, there is no way to pick a clear favorite here since they're all on 20. Depending on your personal preference, you could pick Djokovic based on how he has won each Slam at least twice, or Nadal for being the most dominant at a single Slam, or Federer for winning three of the four Slams at least five times each.
The second most prestigious tournament on the ATP circuit, the ATP Finals, is considered the unofficial "fifth Grand Slam" by some. The round-robin group stage is a significant departure from the sudden-death format of every other tennis tournament, and it is definitely an interesting way to sort out who the best player at the end of the calendar year is.
Here, Roger Federer leads the other two with six titles to his name. Novak Djokovic is not far off with five titles, but Rafael Nadal surprisingly has never won this tournament.
Nadal's best performance at the ATP Finals has been a runner-up finish, which he achieved in 2010 and 2013. He lost Federer in 2010 and to Djokovic in 2013.
Federer has been a runner-up four times, losing thrice to Djokovic and once to David Nalbandian (in 2005). Djokovic has been a runner-up twice, losing out to Andy Murray and Alexander Zverev.
Longevity is another area where Federer edges out the other two; he has appeared a whopping 17 times at the ATP Finals, winning 58 matches. In contrast, Djokovic has made 13 appearances with 38 wins and Nadal has made 10 appearances with 20 wins.
Fun fact: The ATP Finals is definitely the most diverse tournament in the circuit, seeing as how five different players have won in the last five years, and none of them have been the Big 3. The last time one of these three won the title was in 2015, when Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer for the title. Djokovic also won four times on the trot, between 2012 and 2015.
Verdict: Federer is the pick here because of the sheer consistency and longevity he has displayed. Being among the top two players of a year-end tournament as many as 10 times is a rather astonishing feat.
ATP Masters 1000s
The ATP Masters series consists of nine tournaments that award 1000 ranking points to the winner. These nine titles are the most prestigious on the circuit after the Grand Slams and the ATP Finals.
Right now, the events in the Masters series are: Canadian Open, Italian Open, Indian Wells Masters, Miami Open, Madrid Open, Monte Carlo Masters, Cincinnati Masters, Shanghai Masters and Paris Masters.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are tied at the top in this category with 36 titles each. Roger Federer, meanwhile, lags behind with just 28.
The entire breakdown is as follows:
Out of the nine Masters events, Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome are played on clay, while the rest are on hardcourt. Rafeal Nadal's clay preference comes to the fore once again, given that 26 out of his 36 titles have come from these three alone.
Novak Djokovic's titles, by contrast, are more evenly split across the nine. The Serb is also the only person ever to have won all nine of these tournaments - a feat he has staggeringly managed to achieve twice.
Nadal and Federer have each won seven out of the nine. The Spaniard has never won Miami and Paris, while Federer has never triumphed at Monte Carlo and Rome.
In finals appearances, Djokovic edges out Nadal by 1; he has 53 finals appearances to Nadal's 52, while Federer has played in 50. Djokovic also has 10 Masters 1000 titles to his name without dropping a set, while Nadal has eight and Federer has seven.
Verdict: Even though Djokovic and Nadal are tied in this category, I'd pick Novak over Nadal for his sheer consitency and dominance. Again, he has won every tournament at least twice here, while Nadal has got the bulk of his wins on clay.
ATP 500 events
ATP 500s make up the fourth highest tier of tennis tournaments. And while they aren't held in the same regard as the others, they are included in this analysis because it is mandatory for players to participate in at least four ATP 500 tournaments a year.
There are 13 tournaments in total comprised of three claycourt events, two on grass and eight on hardcourt. Roger Federer leads the pack in this category with 24 titles, while Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have 22 and 14 respectively.
Federer has also reached the most finals (31), with Nadal and Djokovic making 28 and 17 such appearances respectively. If we include 250 series tournaments, Federer has won 25 of them and the other two aren't in the top winners list. But that's not too relevant because 250s aren't really considered that important.
Fun fact: The only ATP 500 in 2021 won by any of these players is the Barcelona Open, where Nadal triumphed. And the only ATP 250 won in 2021 by any of these players is the Belgrade 2 event conquered by Djokovic.
Verdict: Even though this might be a category that doesn't generate the same interest in all players, the winner here has to be Federer. The Swiss has also had the advantage of time; he has spent more years on the circuit, and consequently played more tournaments too.
This is where things really heat up. The Big 3 have played 148 matches in total amongst each other, with 71 of them being finals. 48 matches have been played in Grand Slams, out of which 23 have been finals. And at ATP Masters and ATP Finals, the three have played 68 and 16 matches respectively (with 34 and four finals respectively).
Novak Djokovic's head-to-head against the Big 3
Novak Djokovic has played the most matches against the two, and has a winning head-to-head record against both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. The Serb has played 108 matches in total and has won 57 of those, with a 52.8% win rate.
In finals he gets even better, with a 59.6% winning rate; Djokovic has triumphed in 28 of those 47 matches.
Splitting up by surface, Djokovic has won 40 out of the 65 matches (62% win) on hardcourt, five of the eight (63% win) on grass, and 12 out of 35 (34% win) on clay.
Rafael Nadal's head-to-head against the Big 3
Rafael Nadal has a winning head-to-head record against Roger Federer, but loses out against Novak Djokovic. All in all, Nadal has played 98 matches and has won 52 of those, with a 53.1% win rate. In finals, his numbers come down a little to a 51.9% winning rate; the Spaniard has won 27 of those 52 matches.
Splitting up by surface, Nadal has won 16 out of the 47 matches (34% win) on hardcourt, three of the eight (38% win) on grass, and a whopping 33 out of 43 (77% win) on clay.
Roger Federer's head-to-head against the Big 3
Roger Federer has played the fewest matches against the two, and has a losing head-to-head record against both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. All in all, the Swiss has played 90 matches and has won 39 of those with a 43.3% win rate. In finals, Federer gets worse with a 37.2% winning rate, winning 16 of 43 matches.
Splitting up by surface, Federer has won 29 out of the 58 matches (50% win) on hardcourt, four of the eight (50% win) in grass, and a mere six out of 24 (25% win) on clay.
Verdict: This is a win for Djokovic, seeing as how he has a better H2H record against both of his competitors. A case can be made for Nadal, in that he enjoys a much bigger lead against Federer than Djokovic does. Moreover, the gap between them is just two, and so Nadal has the bigger win percentage. But considering direct H2H, the answer is clearly Djokovic.
Novak Djokovic has spent the most weeks as World No. 1, with 330 weeks (and counting) at the top. Roger Federer meanwhile has been No. 1 for 310 weeks and Rafael Nadal for 209 weeks.
But if expanded to their presence in the top 3 of the rankings, Federer has been there for 750 weeks as against Nadal's 653 and Djokovic's 622. If further expanded to top 10, Federer once again has the lead; he has been hung in there for an unbelievable 956 weeks, while Nadal and Djokovic have been there for 826 and 691 weeks respectively.
In terms of year-end ranking, Novak Djokovic has ended six years as the No. 1 player in the world and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have ended five years each. Federer, however, has ended 15 years as a top 3 player, while Nadal and Djokovic have done it for 13 years each.
As a top 10 player, Federer has ended 18 years as compared to Nadal's 16 and Djokovic's 13.
Interestingly, while Federer has been the oldest ever No. 1 player ever (in 2018), Djokovic has been the oldest player to finish the year as the No. 1 player (in 2020).
Verdict: Personally, I'd pick Federer over Djokovic here because of the same "longevity" concept. It is hard to be a top 10 player for 18 years, and even though Djokovic has spent more time as the World No. 1, it remains to be seen if his career will last as long as Federer's.
Roger Federer leads the two in terms of total titles won - 103 titles as against Nadal's 88 and Djokovic's 85. Quite understandably, he also leads in terms of total matches won - 1,251 wins as against Nadal's 1,027 and Djokovic's 968.
If we move from just head-to-head records to their records against the top 10 seeds in general, Federer has a slim upper hand with 224 matches won. In contrast, Djokovic has 223 wins and Nadal 178.
All things considered, it would be fair to say that Novak Djokovic is currently the greatest male player of the Open era.
Djokovic is consistently at the top in every statistic, and the only thing Federer has over him is time. Nadal isn't far off from Djokovic either, but their personal head-to-head record makes it easy to rule in the Serb's favor.
The only question that remains to be seen now is - where will Djokovic stand by the time of his retirement? Will he scale even more peaks, and thus become the unanimous GOAT with or without stats? Or will the coming years bring another set of competitors who will do to him what he did to Federer?