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Roger Federer settled into a seat for his post-loss press conference, his monogrammed cap, with the designer F, pulled down hard on his head and the collar of his monogrammed jacket turned up, as if there was a chill breeze blowing against his neck.

Roger Federer

This has been a most difficult year for Federer’s swollen ego with losses at the French Open quarterfinals (Robin Soderling), in the Wimbledon semis (Tomas Berdych) and now in the U.S. Open semis on Saturday (Novak Djokovic), and this downturn in his fortunes has caused even those who have been enraptured by Federer’s performances over the years to wonder if he really is the greatest player ever to wield a racket.
This is the legend Federer wants for himself. The 16 Grand Slam titles, and who knows that there may be more, are important to him, but, in a sense, only as a ticket to being proclaimed tennis’ greatest.

But with every failure to reach a Slam final this year, coupled with the still rising quality of 24-year-old Rafael Nadal’s game, the doubts are creeping in.

“Could you be the best player ever?” one reporter asked Nadal after he had defeated Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets to reach the championship match earlier in the day.

“I am not of the way to be the best of the history, because that is very far,” Nadal countered with great dignity in an evolving English that manages to convey in almost poetic terms his full understanding of the issue that has placed on the table.

A few moments later Nadal was pressed again on the “greatest player ever” issue, a reporter citing his 14-7 career advantage over Federer. “Head to head is not an element for me. Is a part of the statistics, but is not the decisive element,” Nadal insisted. “Even a Grand Slam is important element, but is not all on the tennis, because for me some things, more important things and more difficult things to do than win a Grand Slam.”

There is still one match to go after persistent rains caused USTA officials at about 6:30 to declare the final between Nadal and Djokovic postponed until Monday.

But if Nadal wins this match, as expected, the “greatest ever” question is going to come to a quick boil on the front burner.

It’s a tricky issue, trying to determine who is the greatest anything, in any sport. Too often, the players being compared are from different eras, where the level of competition was not the same, where the equipment was not the same, where pressure of winning that comes with the big money is not the same.

Rod Laver or Federer? Pete Sampras or Federer? Any of those players and Nadal?

Who is to say how many Slams Laver would have won in the 1960s if there was Open Tennis before 1968? Who can say how much tougher it would have been for Federer if the All England Club had not changed the grass at Wimbledon to slow the game and make serve-and-volleyers like Sampras all but disappear?

Certainly a monumental case can be made for Federer with his 16 major titles and so many semifinal-or-better finishes in Slams that one loses count.

What makes the Federer-Nadal argument so intriguing is that they are from the same era and they’ve played each other 21 times, and therein lies the blurry lines for Federer’s claim to “greatest ever.”

To me, when you call someone the greatest player ever, it means, by definition, that there is no one who is better. And one of the beauties of tennis is that it’s one-on-one. Jack Kramer vs. Pancho Gonzalez. Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi. The best player is going to win, and that’s a fact that Federer can’t escape.

Nadal has won 14 of their 21 matches and, what’s even more telling in analyzing their one-on-one confrontations, is that the last three times they’ve met in a Grand Slam final – the ultimate test – Nadal has won each time. And each time on a different surface – clay, grass and hardcourt.

You could make a case that Federer was, at one time, the best player ever. But to say that today, at this moment in tennis history, he is the best player in the world is easily refutable.

The greatest difficulty, perhaps, in the debate of “greatest ever” is that the phrase commands no single definition. Does it mean the player with the highest number of Grand Slam singles titles? Does it mean the most titles overall? Does it mean the best player over a standardized number of years? Or is it, on the bottom line, simply a subjective view based on one’s examination of the skills of the players being considered?

Probably it’s a combination of all those things and, notwithstanding Nadal’s very diplomatic downplaying of head-to-head competition, it’s critical because it directly separates two players.

You say you’re the best ever. I say I’m the best ever. Let’s go on court and settle the issue.

If Nadal wins the Open, he will have nine Grand Slam titles, seven fewer than Federer. But Nadal will hae won his ninth major at age 24 years and three months. Federer won his ninth at age 25 years and one month. It doesn’t mean Nadal is going three more majors by the time he’s 25 (June 3). It’s just a benchmark to show you how each is proceeding.

In fact, Nadal’s road to 16 or more majors probably will be more difficult than Federer’s. Roger dominated at a time when his most important opponents (Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray) were very young and still finding the maturity and consistency that takes you from very, very good to very, very elite.

Nadal will have to face a fully matured Murray and Djokovic, plus Federer, plus emerging elite players Soderling, Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro in his immediate future.

As for the details of the Federer loss to Djokovic on Saturday:

It was surprising on two counts. First, because Djokovic has had a very up and down year, hiring Todd Martin, then dismissing Martin, changing his serve, then changing back to his old serve. For a long time he didn’t resemble a top-10 player and I and many others who know the game could not select him as one of the three players most likely to win this U.S. Open. Yet he arrived in New York emotionally strong and stayed that way throughout the tournament.

Secondly, because he’s never looked this strong emotionally, not even when he won the Australian Open a couple years ago. His focus and aggressiveness down the stretch of the fifth set Saturday finally showed how powerful a figure he can be, when he wants to, in professional tennis.

Federer, meanwhile, had seldom looked this good in some time. The addition of Paul Annacone to his coaching staff influenced him to become more aggressive early in the points. Federer is one of those players who has liked to take complete command of a point, when receiving, at about the fifth or sixth stroke. At this Open, he was more aggressive, riskier if you will, right off service returns.

He hadn’t lost a set in the tournament until Djokovic won the second set 6-1. But when the money was on the table with Djokovic serving at 6-5 in the fifth, Federer went to pieces.

At 15-30, Federer could easily have been up 15-40 with double-break to get into a tiebreak after forcing Djokovic to stretch wide right for a volley that was so short and high that Federer easily reached it.

There was Djokovic dead center of the court, apparently frozen there. Novak’s backhand side was wide open. You could almost have bunted the ball down the line for the point. Incredibly, Federer out-thought himself, apparently thinking Djokovic was going to dash left to cover the down the line. Federer hit the ball instead right at Djokovic, who parried it away for 30-all.

Still, Federer had a break point at 30-40. This time, he had a simple forehand from the center of the baseline – not quite a real inside-out – and he slapped into the net for deuce.

On match point, weary of a long rally in which he could not break down Novak, he decided to take his shot – an inside-out from the left corner. It was wide. It was over.

Maybe Federer thought this was 2007 again, where he preyed on Djokovic’s then-fragile emotional state to win in straight sets. But there would be no mental breakdown this time.

At least not by Djokovic.



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12 Responses to “Federer or Nadal? Re-Analyzing the Greatest of All-Time Debate”

  1. Finally, a totally objective and analytical perspective on this topic! Thank you Mr. Bricker for your insight. I was quite impressed by Nadal’s post-match interview on Saturday. I am equally impressed by your commentary of the GOAT topic. As we would say in Montreal … “de toute beauté” ! Merci.

  2. BigPictureTennis September 12, 2010

    Federer almost beat Djokovic, given he had those two match points at 5-4 as well as an opportunity to get two breakpoints at 4-3 in the fifth set. Djokovic had to play his best match in recent years — better than Nadal at this US Open — in order to defeat a Federer who was not playing his best tennis. Federer was inconsistent and subpar from the start of the match, serving well below par and making almost 70 unforced errors off both sides.

    Even IF he wins the US Open, it is ludicrous to prematurely anoint Nadal as the greatest of all time (as it would have been to anoint Federer that accolade after he twice won three Grand Slams in a row in 2005/2006 and again in 2006/2007).

    Let’s not forget that from May 2009 to April 2010, Nadal failed to win a single title. Yet on the basis of a few months success, we have rabid analysts trying to proclaim him as the GOAT.

    Indeed if Djokovic beats Nadal on Monday, it would indicate that Nadal at his peak in 2010 and 2008 is unable to dominate his competition the way Federer did from 2004 to 2007. If Djokovic rolls over Nadal then it really would be Federer who deserves the runner up trophy, not Nadal.

    Nadal’s achievements so far are massively eclipsed by Federer’s body of work. Federer has won a record 4 Laureus World Sportsman of the Year awards to Nadal’s 0. Federer won his 16 Grand Slam titles at the fastest pace in tennis history, within a span of only 27 majors. Nadal took a span of 22 majors to win his 8 Grand Slam titles, 65% of which are clay titles. Federer has been to an unprecedented record 23 Grand slam semifinals in a row and 10 finals in a row. Federer already has one career grand slam, and every French Open he wins in future adds another career slam. Federer also has 4 ATP World Tour Finals championships to Nadal’s 0. Federer was an unprecedented 237 consecutive weeks as No. 1 and currently is virtually tied with Sampras in total weeks at No. 1. Federer has many more titles than Nadal, more evenly distributed on all surfaces while 70% of Nadal’s titles are on clay. The greatest tennis players and coaches in history agree that Federer is the most talented, complete and beautiful player they have ever seen. Federer has won 6 ATP Sportsmanship awards to Nadal’s 0.

    If age was really a criteria, Don Budge, Rod Laver and Borg would have achieved more than Nadal at a younger age.

    Nadal may have a 14-7 winning record over Federer but most of those wins were on clay because Federer is far more competent in reaching clay finals than Nadal is in reaching non-clay finals. Pete Sampras would not have a losing record to Nadal because he would not be able to reach clay finals. The last three times Nadal beat Federer in a Grand Slam event Roger was affected by Federer’s mononucleosis and back injury. A healthy Federer would have beaten Nadal on grass and hardcourts.

    If Wimbledon had not slowed the grass, Federer would have won more grass titles (since he played serve-volley to beat Sampras on that faster grass in 2001) while Nadal could not have won Wimbledon.

    If Austrslia Open and the US Open had not slowed the hardcourts, Nadal would have less chance on the faster surfaces.

    Really, who in his right mind could prematurely justify calling Nadal the greatest of all time at this moment?

  3. This article is left a lot to wishes.

    Only to exclude:
    Nadal out at the same time? This is limited, he is nevertheless five years younger. Same time would then tend Andy Roddick, Hewitt Lleyton, only to enumerate two times.

    Roger had only Nadal, Djockovic Mury as great rival (development). a very limited view! Only some of a few big names against which he had to enforce a certain time.

    First: Agassi, Pet Sampres, Nalbiandi and and and (were still some big names).

    Then about his generation Andy Roddick, Hewitt Lleyton, only by two of the big names of that time count.

    then Nadal, Djokovic, Murray ……

    And now the even younger generation BERDYCH, Gulbis, Soderling.

    Have doubts whether the writer really knows the history of tennis.

    Also determined the best player to hit to hit, I think too easy!

    We take to BERDYCH we increase, and of which i expect, and he would eventually result in hit to hit against Nadal, and he wins one on any surface, would he be the best player of all time, in this Moment?!!!

    Please that can not be there.

  4. As I see it, there are several ways that Nadal could establish a reasonable basis to be considered the greatest player of all time:

    (1) Win more major singles championships than Federer (8 down, 8 to go), or
    (2) Be ranked #1 longer than Pete Sampras (60 weeks down, 226 to go), or
    (3) Win more “Grand Slams” than Rod Laver (0 down, 2 to go).

    I’m sure there are other measures that could be employed, but, any of these would probably do it.

  5. BigPictureTennis September 13, 2010

    Lefty,
    Martina Navratilova summarized what makes the greatest player of all time: “(The Greatest Of All Time is) a combination of how many grand slams have you won, how many tournaments have you won, how many years you were number one and he’s got all those combinations. The body of work is phenomenal and now he has got that French Open and I think he can just go on and sip Margaritas for the rest of his life.”

    No one measure is suffice. All the greats would tell you that the greatest player of all time requires achievement of a few key measures. It’s a combination.

    In any case, using your measures:

    Federer’s 16 majors were won in a span of only 27 majors in 6.75 years (during that span he reached the finals or semifinals of 25 majors!). Nadal’s 8 majors took longer to win — in a span of 22 majors over 5.5 years (during that span he reached the finals or semifinals of only 13 majors, meaning he lost before the semifinals of 9 majors). Furthermore. 65% of Nadal’s majors are on clay, while Federer’s record is more all rounded. If Federer wins his fifth Australian Open he will be the first man to win 5 titles in at least 3 different majors.

    It is unlikely that Nadal, with his vulnerable body, can remain No. 1 for another 226 weeks. At the moment, Lleyton Hewitt has been No. 1 longer than Nadal, at a far younger age than Nadal, accomplished during the Sampras-Agassi era.

    Rod Laver’s Grand Slams were both Calendar Year Grand Slams, meaning all four majors won in the same year. So far Federer has reached the finals of all four majors (winning three) for two years in a row. Nadal has not been able to do this even once.

    If Nadal loses to Djokovic today, it suggests that at his prime he has not been able to dominate his peers in the same way Federer has been able to do while in his prime.

  6. It’s become quite clear to me that Federer is suffering from Victory desease. He almost made that point and he didnt. He let his victory slip. He’s become nonchalant and a tadbit arrogant on the courts this past year.

    I hope he’ll recover but I doubt it.

    For those who dont know what victory desease is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victory_syndrome

  7. This is a response to BigPictureTennis and others about Rafa and his place in history.

    First everybody is entitled to their own opinion and one can make a legitimate case for either Roger or Rafa to be the GOAT.

    Comparing each one now simply by stats is not fair as each one is at different career points. One is in his prime (Rafa), the other has already seen his best years (Roger).

    This discussion would be better served (pardon the pun), 5 yrs down the road or when each of their respective careers has ended.

    But the numbers that people will look at are: number of slams won, yrs at no.1, and h2h record.

    Right now, the slams are in Rog’s favor, no doubt. 16 to 9. So there is no question who is superior here. But taking a look winning percentage in slam finals. Rafa is 9/11- 81% and Roger is 16/22- 72%. It is telling that almost all losses have come in the hands of each other (except for Roger’s US Open 2009 defeat by DelPo).

    Weeks at No.1. Roger is way ahead here, yet again. 285 vs 60 weeks. But this number is bound to be very different in a couple of years.

    Finally, h2h record. There should be no argument here. Rafa has the edge over Roger. This does not mean that Rafa is necessarily “better” than Roger, but it does raise the question: “If you can’t defeat your greatest rival in your own era, how can you be considered the greatest of all time.”

    In closing, both players will in all likelihood go down as either the #1 or #2 greatest players of all time. Rafa does NOT have to “beat” all of Roger’s records to surpass him and vice versa. He is building his own legacy and really the only one who can make judgment on whether he is the greatest is time itself. Who’s to say that there is not another Rafa or Roger in the wings? Each player is setting amazing standards, and to argue who is greater is belittle what each has accomplished in tennis.

  8. Federer like one person said was very much under par. As for the head to head, what to you make of Murray or Djokovic and Nadal ? Are they as good or better than him or if they end up at 5-4 ? This statistic needs some sort of interpretation.

  9. bigpicturetennis you are absolutely right. overlooking all the incredible statistics, i believe the best of all times should have a beautiful tennis game, make everything look effortless and no one can argue the fact that federer is that person, and certainly not nadal. regarding that article to decide that nadal is or isnt the goat based on the results of 1 USO is simply ridiculous. wouldnt nadal’s poetic conference look different if nadal meant am not “off” the way to be the best of the history, because that is very far. i bet thats what he meant.

  10. I think it’s important to note that Federer is not in his prime and he can still go toe to toe with today’s top players. I think it’s also important to note that while many people point out that Nadal’s winning record against Federer is based on a large number of clay court matches, very few point out that the reason why they’ve played so many clay court matches is that Federer was, far and away, the second best clay court player in the world. Had Nadal played as brilliantly on hard court as Federer played on clay, they would have met more often on hard court and Federer would have the winning record – it’s kind of ironic when you realize that it is Federer’s talent on clay and Nadal’s lack of talent on hard court that is responsible for such a lopsided record. And, when we consider that in their last two Grand Slam match-ups, with Nadal in his prime and Federer out of his prime, how competitive Federer was, one can’t help thinking that if Federer were just a couple of years younger, he’d have been the better of the two. Finally, even today, when Nadal is at his best, he is no where near as dominant as Federer was in his prime – even against players, like Roddick, who could never beat Federer. It can’t just be about statistics – level of play is the key – and I believe that Federer, at his best, had a higher level of play, and more consistently. Bottom line – Nadal may well become the GOAT at some point, but he isn’t there yet.

  11. alessandra December 20, 2010

    response to duke:

    im really getting tired of federer fans making 1001 exuses for their idol. their newest one is fed being out of his prime; the funny thing is they dont bring that up when fed beats nadal or wins a slam but its always brought up when nadal beats the s… out of fed or other players. we all seen how much of a sore loser mr federer is, his fans tho are not much better. both of them make me sick. nadal is better just live with it, its not the end of the world.