Why Rafael Nadal is better than Roger Federer: A case for Nadal to be called the GOAT
On 10th June 2018, Rafael Nadal beat Dominic Thiem in straight sets to win his 11th French Open title and 17th Grand Slam title in all. This pulls him closer to Roger Federer’s 20 titles and revives the biggest debate in modern tennis history.
While Nadal and Federer are widely considered to be the two greatest male tennis players in the Open Era, only one person can be the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) in every sport. I am going to make a case for Rafael Nadal to be that person.
Grand Slam and Masters Titles
The natural place to start would be the number of Grand Slam wins. Roger Federer leads the way with 20, compared to the 17 won by Nadal.
Nadal is clearly the better player on clay, having won 11 titles at the French Open compared to Federer’s 1.
Federer is the better player on grass, having won 8 titles at Wimbledon compared to Nadal’s 2.
Federer has the edge on hard courts too, winning 11 titles at the Australian and US Open compared to Nadal’s 4.
While the Grand Slam wins do tilt the case for Federer, this should not be the only criterion. If ATP Masters Series 1000 titles are also considered as a measuring stick it is Nadal who leads the way, having won 32 titles compared to Federer’s 27. It can be argued that their Grand Slam and Masters Series titles balance each other out.
Nadal at 32 is five years younger than Federer and has played fewer Grand Slams. It is also highly likely, barring serious injury or early retirement, that he will eventually surpass Federer’s tally of Grand Slam wins.
While keeping that probable conclusion in mind, there is a case to be made to call Nadal the GOAT right now. Let us analyze various factors other than Grand Slam wins to support this argument.
Head to Head record
Considering that there is little to separate them when it comes to Grand Slam and Masters Series success, it becomes extremely important to examine their head to head record. Nadal has a massive advantage over Federer, leading 23-15. This advantage becomes more protracted in Grand Slams, where Nadal leads 9-3.
Nadal has predictably dominated their encounters on clay, winning 13 of 15. Federer has won 2 out of their 3 encounters on grass. Federer also leads 11-9 in their hard court matches.
There is one result however that undoubtedly tips this argument in Nadal’s favor. In the 2008 Wimbledon final, Nadal beat Federer in a demanding 5-set thriller lasting 4 hours and 48 minutes, in what is widely considered to be the greatest match of all time.
With this win, Nadal demonstrated that he could beat Federer on any surface. The fact that Federer has not been able to return the compliment at the French Open should tilt this debate in Nadal’s favor.
Dominance on clay
What is baffling is the fact that Nadal’s sustained superiority on clay is now being used by some to designate Nadal as a one-trick pony, and weaken his legacy. On the contrary, this is where the argument for Nadal being the GOAT is at its strongest.
It is beyond doubt that Rafael Nadal is an absolute monster on clay. Along with his French Open wins, he has also won the claycourt Tournaments at Monte Carlo and Barcelona 11 times.
While no other tennis player has ever won a single event this many times, Nadal has done so in three events, which is astonishing. The closest Federer has come is with nine wins at the Halle Open, played on grass.
Nadal at the French Open has accumulated a staggering win-loss record of 86-2. He was a consistent roadblock to Federer completing his Career Grand Slam, beating him at the French Open every year from 2005-2008.
It was only in 2009, when Nadal bowed out early from the competition, that Federer finally won the French Open. Who knows how many French Open titles Federer would have won if he did not have to contend with Nadal year in year out.
Winning in a tougher era
This is another argument to be made in favor of Nadal. By the time Nadal won his first Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2005, Federer had already won five titles. He won those five titles in 2003-05, in a period when greats such as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras were on the wane. Federer’s main rivals at the time were Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, who while being terrific tennis players, did not have enough mental resolve to win multiple Grand Slams.
After 2005, with the rise of Nadal and subsequently Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, it was the dawn of a new era of the ‘Big 4’. All four of these players had the ability and durability to win multiple Grand Slams.
2008-2018 is therefore considered to be the most competitive era in tennis history and it is Nadal and Djokovic, not Federer, who really stand out as the best. In this decade, Nadal has won 14 Slams, Federer has won 8, Djokovic has won 12 and Murray and Stan Wawrinka have won 3 each.
In the toughest era in tennis history, it is Nadal who has been the most successful.
While pure numbers and statistics make a great case for Nadal to be considered the GOAT, it is his incredible mental strength to recover from debilitating injuries time and again that has been remarkable. Nadal has faced injuries at horribly inopportune moments throughout his career.
For instance, his knee injury in the year 2009, when he had just became the number one ranked player in the world. Not only did he recover from that injury, but he went on to win three Slams in 2010.
His second major injury was towards the end of 2012 and he had to withdraw from the Olympics and US Open. He managed to bounce back stronger the next year, winning the French and the US Open in 2013.
His third serious injury proved to be the worst of his career. The years of accumulated wear and tear on his knees were evident in his results in 2015 and 2016, when he not only failed to win a Grand Slam but did not even manage to reach a semi-final.
As usual, however, Nadal came back stronger in 2017, reaching the finals in three Grand Slams, and winning two of them. With his victory at the French Open this year, he has now won 3 Grand Slam titles after the age of 30, joining Federer, Rod Laver, and Ken Roswell as the only people to do so.
Nadal is also the second youngest player to achieve the Career Grand Slam in 2010, at the age of 24. He also won the Olympic singles gold in 2008. Andre Agassi is the only other male tennis player to achieve this feat, known as the Career Golden Slam.
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are considered to be the two greatest male tennis players of all time. However, tennis greats such as Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova have shown a preference for Nadal when picking the GOAT, and I support them.
Nadal's achievements have been truly remarkable, especially considering the adversity he has faced in his career with injuries. In my opinion, this debate will definitely end in Nadal’s favor if he manages to finish his career with more Grand Slams wins than Federer.