Why Rafael Nadal is a serious GOAT contender despite his clay-heavy record

Rafael Nadal with the 2020 French Open trophy
Rafael Nadal with the 2020 French Open trophy

Rafael Nadal recently won his 13th French Open, and 20th Slam overall, by defeating Novak Djokovic in the final at Paris. That has unsurprisingly thrown open the GOAT debate once again, even if Nadal himself has tried his best to downplay it.

Time and again Rafael Nadal has been called by both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as their 'greatest rival'. Nadal has 20 Grand Slams, the same as Federer, and 35 Masters 1000s, one shy of Djokovic’s 36. He also has an Olympic gold in singles to his name, and owns a 100-2 record with 13 titles at Roland Garros.

Nadal is, incredibly, the youngest to complete the Career Grand Slam in the Open Era (at only 24). The Spaniard has been so successful as the second-best player to Federer and Djokovic at their peak that people tend to forget how brilliant he himself has been as a dominant force in men's tennis.

Rafael Nadal's French Open Legacy - a boon or a bane?

Rafael Nadal often gets discredited for having won the French Open so many times. The argument is that he is not as versatile across surfaces as the other great champions of the sport, given that more than 60% of his Slams have come on clay.

But let’s try and put things in perspective. Nadal has won the French Open 13 times in 16 years, a feat that will arguably not be matched in tennis – ever.

You need grit, game, perseverance and tenacity to triumph on the red Parisian dirt. No Slam is easy to win, let alone winning it four times without dropping a set the entire tournament. But Rafael Nadal’s invincibility at Roland Garros has taken away the rarity of the achievement.

He has made winning the French Open look habitual, almost ordinary. It's almost as though he is expected to take home the trophy in Paris, so when he actually does it nobody bats an eyelid.

But isn't the fact that he has made such a difficult feat look easy, worthy of respect? Neither Federer nor Djokovic has been able to dominate a single tournament, or even a single surface, the way Rafael Nadal has.

What the Spaniard has done at Roland Garros is beyond the dreams of any other GOAT contender. That in itself puts Rafael Nadal in truly rarefied air.

Slamming stats!

Even aside from Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal has compiled a staggering set of records at the Grand Slams.

Nadal has won a third of the Slams he’s played – 20/60 (33%). In comparison, Djokovic has won 17/62 (27%), and Federer has won 20/79 (25%).

Of the three, Nadal’s conversion ratios beat those of his rivals at two Slams – French Open and US Open. Federer meanwhile owns the record at Wimbledon and Djokovic at the Australian Open.

Rafael Nadal has the highest win rate in men’s tennis after Roland Garros 2020. He also has a better Grand Slam win rate than his rivals.

Moreover, the Spaniard has a winning Grand Slam finals head-to-head record against Djokovic (5-4) and Federer (6-3). He has been on the right side of ‘bagel’ (6-0) sets against both of them in a Grand Slam final.

Going deep in Slams

Rafael Nadal is known as the greatest single surface player, the undisputed ‘King of Clay’. But using that as an argument against his performances is unfair given his numbers at non-clay tournaments.

Nadal was able to win seven other Slams in what is probably the most competitive era of all time. He has made the final of each Grand Slam tournament at least five times.

If we look at the points accumulated by the Big 3 per Grand Slam participated in, Nadal stands atop at 976.25 (58,575 points across 60 Grand Slam appearances). Djokovic trails him at second place with an average of 946.21 (58,665 points across 62 appearances), while Federer is third at 890.06 (70,315 across 79 appearances).

In a game of such fine margins, these are ‘real’ differences and also a testament to Rafael Nadal's ability to go deep into Grand Slam competitions.

Year-end finishes and rankings

Such has been the competitiveness of the Big 3 era that it would be unfair to only consider weeks at No. 1 and year-end No. 1 finishes as a metric to determine the Greatest of All Time. While the Big 3 are all tied at five year-end No. 1 finishes each, Rafael Nadal has also finished No. 2 on six occasions, compared to five for Federer and three for Djokovic.

Nadal has also spent the most amount of time as one of the top 2 ranked players of the world, at 555 weeks. Federer is second at 528 and Djokovic is third at 433.

For a player with an injury-ravaged career, and competing with two other GOAT candidates, these stats speak volumes about Nadal's consistency.

Rafael Nadal's head-to-head against his GOAT rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic

Rafael Nadal has faced off against Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer 96 times combined, and has a 51-45 record against them for a 53.13 win percent record. Djokovic, on the other hand, has won 56 and lost 50 encounters for a clip of 52.83%, and Federer has a losing record of 39-51 and a win rate of 43.33%.

In a three-horse race, it is only fair to compare against both other competitors and not just pick one. Of these matchups, Nadal has a 20-10 edge at Grand Slams, for a win rate of 66.67%. Djokovic has a record of 17-16 (51.52% win rate), and Federer has an underwhelming 10-21 record and a win rate of 32.25%.

Rafael Nadal also has a Career Grand Slam distinction wherein he’s beaten one of Federer or Djokovic in capturing one of each Major. Nadal has never been beaten at Court Philippe Chatrier in the finals, and hence neither Djokovic nor Federer possesses that distinction.

There is no single answer to who the greatest of all time is; we might never agree on a clear GOAT candidate given how close the margins are. But one thing is clear: Rafael Nadal can never be discounted from the discussion.

Whether it’s holding serve from 0-40 down, or breaking when returning at 40-0, Nadal never gives up. And he has the stats to back his claim too, no matter what the naysayers claim.

Edited by neesha1925

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