For the longest time, Roger Federer has been celebrated as the greatest tennis player of all time. That accolade is almost always tied to a sportsman’s or sportswoman’s success. And with 20 Grand Slam titles under his belt—more than any other tennis player in the almost-150-year history of the sport—it’s almost impossible, to dispute.

But is it? We all know about the eight Wimbledon, six Australian Open, five US Open titles, plus one French Open title, which total a record-setting 20 Grand Slams. There are no ifs or buts with the number.

But there has always been an asterisk to the GOAT title. And it’s a relentless, hard-hitting Spanish asterisk. 

Rafael Nadal has won 19 Grand Slam titles—just one shy of the Swiss maestro. But the Spaniard leads their tally of 40 head-to-head matches 24-16. That means that the Spaniard gets the better of the Swiss in 60 percent of their matches. A substantial difference—and one that makes the case for Nadal being the better player of the two.

Let’s break it down further. Of their 40 matches, 20 have been on hard court, 16 have been on clay, and four have been on grass. That’s 24 matches on Roger’s favorite surfaces and 16 on Rafa’s. (Nadal is the undisputed King of Clay, after all.) But given their respective favorite court surfaces, that would mean that Roger should have won 24 matches to Rafa’s 16. Yet, it’s exactly the other way around. 

Federer leads on hard court (11–9) and grass (3–1), while Nadal leads on clay (14–2). Federer leads but Nadal comes very close on hard courts. Roger’s grass court winning ratio versus Rafa is 3:1, but the Spaniard’s clay court winning ratio against the Swiss is a stunning 7:1. Nadal also leads 14–10 in finals matches.

A total of 14 matches between the two have been in Grand Slams with Nadal leading big at 10–4. Nadal leads 6–0 at the French Open and 3–1 at the Australian Open, while Federer leads 3–1 at Wimbledon. (The two have yet to meet in the US Open.) A big takeaway here is that Nadal has beaten Federer—twice—on Roger’s favorite grass and hard court surfaces while Federer has never beaten Nadal on clay. In six attempts. The only time Federer became champion in Paris was when Nadal was upset by Robin Soderling in the semis. (Federer handily dispatched Soderling in the finals.) But the odds—0 of 6 matches—would’ve been severely stacked against Federer had it been Nadal.  

And now, as Roland Garros approaches (this May 24 to June 7), Nadal looks set to clinch a staggering 13th French Open title. He won four straight French Open titles from 2005 to 2008 and five straight French crowns from 2010-2014. He is the defending champion. In fact he’s won the last three French crowns. This year could be a second time he’ll win four straight titles.

More than that, a championship in this year’s French Open would level him with Federer at 20 Grand Slams apiece. Objectively speaking, whether you’re a Federer fan or Rafa diehard, who then would be the Greatest of All Time?     

A Djoker in the cards

Let’s not forget Novak Djokovic—fresh from his 2020 Australian Open conquest. He’s at 17 Grand Slams now—just two short of Nadal and three off Federer. Consider everything I’ve said about Nadal having the upper hand against Federer in career head-to-head matches. If you think that Nadal deserves the GOAT title by virtue of having the measure of Roger in career matches, then consider the fact that Djokovic has the better of Nadal in their head-to-head matches.

While Federer and Nadal have faced off 40 times, Djokovic has fought against Nadal a whopping 55 times—and won 29, three more than the times Nadal won. Djokovic also leads their career finals match-ups 15-11, although Nadal leads 9-6 in Grand Slam matches. (They’re tied 4-4 in Grand Slam finals.)

So who’s the real GOAT? Personally, I feel the accolade will transcend the admittedly significant numbers and statistics. Non-quantitative aspects like who is the more humble victor when he wins and the more gracious vanquished when defeated, as well as who has the more sublime yet effective game (as opposed to what can sometimes look like desperate shot-making) will often come to the fore. And we know who personifies that best among the three.    

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