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Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal - who is the greatest of all time?

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal is undoubtedly among the fiercest battles ever seen in the history of tennis. There have been epic rivalries in the past, from Bjorn Borg vs John McCenroe, to Boris Becker vs Stefan Edberg, and later Pete Sampras vs Andre Aggassi, but for today's generation of tennis fans it is Federer vs Nadal that is considered the definitive rivalry of the sport.

The reason why I call the Federer vs Nadal rivalry the best rivalry in tennis history is because each of them has at some point or the other been called the greatest player of all time by different tennis legends – right from Sampras openly admitting that Federer is tennis' greatest ever to Aggassi saying that Nadal is the 'all time no. 1'. Then of course, there's the sheer mutual respect between Federer and Nadal which makes them praise each other as the 'greatest ever' in tennis.

The views are often contrary to each other; they all differentiate, and hence, can make it really hard for a tennis fan to actually come to a conclusion about who among these two is the 'GREATEST' of the game. 

I'll acknowledge here that I've always been fond of Federer's classy tennis style, it's something that makes him stand out from the rest. But having said that, Nadal’s strengths cannot be ignored. His grasp of the court, his long reach and on top of that, his sheer fitness and enthusiasm for the game absolutely have to be respected.

Through this article I'll be looking at some very key aspects about the games of these two, including their respective records in the four Grand Slams as well as their overall sucess in all tennis tournaments. I'll also be taking into consideration the 'age factor' and the fact that both of them have been world No. 1.

Grand Slams

Nadal has always been rated as the 'king of clay' and Federer as the 'master of grass' - so the differentiation between these two must begin from these two very courts. Let's begin with clay first.

Claycourt: Nadal and Federer have played 15 matches on clay and thus far, Federer has performed shockingly below par with Nadal clinching 13 of the 15 matches that they've played. Nadal has always been the superior player on clay and in fact, has the highest win percentage in tennis history on claycourts. He’s won eight French Open titles to the solitary one that Federer clinched in 2009. No doubt, in this aspect, he's well and truly miles ahead of Federer.

Grasscourt: This is where Federer has enjoyed tremendous dominance throughout his career. Federer has won seven Wimbledon titles and Nadal only two. For the 3 consecutive years 2006-08, Federer and Nadal met in the Wimbledon finals, the first 2 were sealed by Federer and the last one - truly a thriller, Nadal snatched away from Federer 4-6,4-6,7-6,7-6,7-9, the match was played for 4 hours 48 minutes, making it the longest ever Wimbledon final. Tennis greats, critics and commentators widely consider this as tennis' "greatest match ever".

Hardcourt: Nadal and Federer have played 14 matches on hardcourts with Nadal having the upper hand here too, leading the tally 8-6. We have to distinguish this further and compare the stats in terms of - indoor and outdoor courts. In the former, Federer leads Nadal 4-1 but in the latter, Nadal leads Federer 7-2. In terms of Major victories, however, Federer leads the tally with nine as opposed to Nadal’s three.

Back in 2012, Nadal labelled Federer as the 'favourite on these kind of courts' - with reference to their match at the Australian Open earlier that year, which even though Nadal won, was a very neck-and-neck battle with the scoreline reading 6-7,6-2,7-6,6-4. The two have never played at the US Open so no comparison can be made there.

Rankings

In this area, there aren’t too many complications. Federer has been ranked No. 1 in the world for 302 weeks, while Nadal so far has been at the top for 137 weeks. The Swiss is the clear winner here.

Overall titles

Federer leads the tally here with 78 titles to Nadal’s 63, but Nadal has won far more Masters 1000 titles – 26 to Federer’s 21. So it’s difficult to say who comes out on top here.

Head-to-head matchup

It was fascinating to hear Federer admit after his match against Nadal earlier this year at the Australian Open that he is forced to alter his natural mode of play to compete against Nadal. For the Spaniard, however, the game plan has always been simple – attack the Federer backhand with the huge topspin crosscourt forehand. Nadal’s leftiness has always been an advantage for him against Federer, which partly explains the huge discrepancy in the head-to-head record on clay, where the ball bounces higher than other courts.

The bottom line

One of tennis' most well regarded players Bjorn Borg said in 2010 that Federer is the 'greatest' the game has ever seen, but went on to add, 'But Rafa has the chance to be the best ever'. It's always been very neck and neck between these two - one has been superior on claycourts and the other has been better on grasscourts. 

Just a few months ago Federer had said that 'Nadal can break my record of 17 Grand Slams', further reinforcing the fact that these two don't actually mind the other being the superior, which is great to see. These two have had a friendly relationship for years now, playing charity matches together and engaging in fierce battles at the Slams, and it's very heartening to note that they have always had great respect and admiration for each other.

In terms of age, Federer is 32 and Nadal is 27. Age is just a 'number' for sportspersons, but surely in the context of this article, it cannot be ignored. Nadal does have the age factor in his favour and as Becker said, if Nadal "continues to be healthy", he may go on to become the greatest in the game.

Thus far in his career, Federer has won 17 Grand Slams, while Nadal has won 13. If we consider this from the age viewpoint - Nadal is 27 - it would be evident that if he does play till the age of 32, he still has about four years of solid tennis ahead of him. With that in mind, let's consider this - four years means 16 grand slams (four in one year), and Nadal at this point of time is just four Slams behind Federer. So if he even wins one Slam per year for the next four years, he'll be equal with Federer, and that is the worst case scenario for him.

Going by that projection logic, it clear that Federer is correct - Nadal can definitely break his 17-Slam record. There are very strict parameters for longevity in tennis though - it is not an easy game, and it requires a high level of mental and physical fitness. If Nadal continues to be strong mentally and physically, then he's surely a force to be reckoned with - even as far as being the 'greatest ever' in tennis is concerned.

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