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Peak Federer, Peak Djokovic or Peak Nadal: Who's the best?

Analyzing who would win the most consistently if Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all played each other at their peak.

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Feature 21 Dec 2017, 14:17 IST
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ATP Heritage Celebration - Inside
(From left to right): Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

Recently Robin Soderling and Rafael Nadal stoked a debate on who would be the winner in a timeless match between two of the greatest players to ever grace the game, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, if both were at their peak. But we decided to bring in another player in the fray - Nadal himself.

If we go purely by the existing head-to-head, then it would be a very close call with Djokovic edging out the other two and Nadal bagging the second place ahead of Federer. But tennis is more than just head-to-head records, isn't it?

Let's do a more in-depth analysis of these players and take each surface separately.

Clay

Nadal is like a sponge on this surface. Due to the slow speed of dirt, his defensive capabilities are magnified. He is able to slide on the surface very effectively, defusing every missile thrown his way.

It is obvious that the King of Clay will best the other two. But who would win between Federer and Djokovic? Both of them have had relatively equal success on the red surface and have each won one French Open at the peak of their powers.

Djokovic, the prefect specimen of a textbook player, would be able to absorb a lot of pressure with his immense court covering abilities. But at the same time Federer, the artist and the ultimate innovator, would be able to attack Djokovic's forehand with impeccably timed cross court shots.

On clay, the slowest surface, the thing that matters the most is stamina; the ability to chase down every ball and be ready for the next point again. And stamina is something in which Peak Djokovic can trump basically anyone.

So that does it for clay. Nadal would take the lead over his opponents and Djokovic would trump Federer, but just barely.

Final Ranking: 1. Nadal 2. Djokovic 3. Federer

Grass

Grass is generally the fastest of the three surfaces, which benefits aggressive players with good volleying skills. Federer, from 2003-2007, had a serve which was almost unreturnable on fast courts. His service games usually didn't last for more than 1.5-2 minutes.

He also had a volley that he could place where he wanted, and he glided on the court like Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring. In short, it would've been nearly impossible to beat the man at his peak on grass.

Now we come to the other two. Nadal showed inspired tennis at Wimbledon from 2006-2010 (apart from 2009, where he pulled out due to injury). He won arguably the greatest tennis match of all time by defeating Federer in 2008, and in 2010 he dismissed Tomas Berdych in teh final.

Djokovic, however, has won it on three occassions - in 2011, 2014 and 2015. If you look at Nadal's best showing at Wimbledon, that is the 2008 win, he heavily relied on his ability to hit glorious passing shots, and also a bit on Federer's unforced errors. Djokovic, on the other hand, is neither too fond of coming to the net nor does he commit too many unforced errors.

So even though the match would be a very interesting one, Djokovic should be able to win it.

Final Rankings: 1. Federer 2. Djokovic 3. Nadal

Hard court

Hard courts are faster than clay but slower than grass, and require a fine balance between aggression and defense. This surface has been a thorn in the side of Nadal, who has only won four of his 16 grand Slams on it, whereas Djokovic and Federer have won 8 and 10 respectively.

Nadal's not-so-great attacking abilities occasionally let him down on this surface, with his knees also constantly giving him problems. With that in mind it wouldn't be unfair to say that Federer and Djokovic would both edge Nadal on hard courts, when at their peak.

When it comes to Federer and Djokovic, this surface poses the hardest question. With their styles of play and apparent invincibility on hard courts during the height of their powers, it is almost impossible to separate these two.

Djokovic has better defence but Federer has better offence. They both have an impeccable serve. They both handle pressure really well.

After brainstorming for hours, we finally came to a conclusion that this is one match which can only be decided if someone is able to make a time machine and pit 2006-07 Federer against 2015-16 Djokovic.

Final Ranking: 1. Tied Federer-Djokovic 3. Nadal

So there you have it. Each of the Big 3 at his peak would be able to defeat the other two at their peaks given a particular surface. With due apologies to Messrs Soderling and Nadal, it's not entirely fair to say any one of them is the 'best' at his peak.

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