When Rafael Nadal emerged onto the tennis scene after his win at Roland Garros in 2005, little known to the world, no one predicted that the Spaniard would have gone on to become one of, if not the greatest tennis players of our time. Moreso, no one imagined that Pete Sampras’ 14 Grand Slam Record, would have been obliterated. With the dawn of a new decade in Tennis, and the Grand Slam count between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal being the closest it ever has, and arguably will be, the GOAT talks have become more open. In this week’s point/counterpoint, Andrew Morrison and Nicholas Martin debate who will close out their career with the edge in Grand Slam titles.
Nicholas: Rafa boasts a mountainous 12 French Open titles; ‘La Decima’ as coined by his 10th win, a year ago. Notably, he produced nine of 10 between 2005 and 2014. Over the same period, Federer won 16 slams, nabbing the majority within the decade ending in 2009. Nadal on the other hand, managed to win a mere six. Therefore, I think Federer’s peak season has been over, and Nadal has attained his.
Now we see the sport undergoing a slow or stagnant transition as observed in the fact that no player under 30 years has broken the ‘NextGen’ drought, I think age has now taken on an active role in the GOAT debate. Federer has been the debates front runner for the last 10 years. Between 2010 and this year, he’s managed a total of five majors, not to discredit his efforts by any means, but just barely there by his standards. Moreover, that is just under half the total he won in the last decade.
Nadal however, has found time on his side, despite the obvious five-year age difference between the two. I think the King of Clay has at least three or four majors left in him, with at least two being La Coupe des Mousquetaires, making him more likely to stand alone GOAT. Of course there’s additional statistics, number of titles overall, weeks at number one, and career win/loss record. But the reality is, we will only remember the number of majors won.
One might look at Novak Djokovic’s current performance, and assume he might just upset the apple cart, and end his career with the most slams among ‘the big three.’ But, based on his sporadic injuries, it’s safe to argue that Nadal, less injury-prone, will emerge as the true GOAT.
Andrew: Without a doubt, both players are getting saddeningly close to the end of the road. It’ll be a sad day when the world of professional tennis no longer includes two of the greatest figures the sport has ever seen. Will Federer go down as undoubtedly the better player than Nadal or Djokovic? I’m not sure, but he will finish with more Grand Slam titles.
First off, I would contest the argument that Federer is the more injury-prone athlete. Nadal has struggled with chronic knee and foot issues for much of his career, on top of a slew of back, ankle and other ailments which have only become more frequent in recent years. Not to say Federer hasn’t had his fair share of recent injuries, but both players at this point are really on a tournament-to-tournament basis, and you can only hope their bodies can handle the stress.
As you mentioned, Nadal is the “King of Clay,” and there’s absolutely no doubt about that. After all, 12 of his 19 titles have come at the French Open. That’s a heavy dependence on one tournament, and if his knee happens to be acting up in May or he happens to have an off day, I don’t have as much confidence in his ability to win on other surfaces. Federer, on the other hand, has five or more titles at three of the four events, meaning I see more potential for him to add another title or two, even if he sits out a tournament to heal up.
Nicholas: You’re absolutely right, Andrew. I won’t contest the position that Fed has more slams over more surfaces, but if you go back a bit in time and observe the pattern, since Novak’s return in 2018, following his lengthy absence, he’s won all of four. I say that to point out that, though Federer’s wins have come on every other surface, I think Djokovic might be his biggest problem, especially at Wimbledon and the Aus Open. That to me puts Rafa in an advantageous position, since he is his only threat at Roland Garros.
Despite Rafa’s struggles with chronic knee issues, he’s still able to produce slam W’s when it matters. Even if Novak is less injury prone than Rafa, as you put it, with this surge of names such as Medvedev, Thiem and the evergreen Marin Cillic, Novak will have problems winning as much as he’d like to, though he trails marginally by three. Something I’d take into consideration is Federer’s grand slam drought between 2013-2016, and Rafa’s between 2015 and 2016. Even those patterns to me are precursors, indicative of how it will end.
We’ve enjoyed superior performances over the last 15 years from both Federer and Nadal. But with Federer nearing the end of his decorated career, and his wins sure to be stopped by Djokovic, Nadal stands clear favorite to retire as the greatest tennis player of our time.
Andrew: Djokovic retired from the U.S. Open, and he’s been essentially shut down for the rest of the year. If he can get healthy, I have no doubt that he could win another title or two. But even with the six-year age difference in his favor, I don’t see Novak surpassing either Nadal or Federer in titles won, if only because I don’t see Djokovic playing for much longer than the other two. With that said, I still think Federer poses just as much of a threat to Novak as Rafa, especially on grass or hard.
Overall, as much as I would love to see both Federer and Nadal win a boatload more titles, given their age and deteriorating health, it’s simply not going to happen. I go with Federer mainly because he still has the one title lead, and I just don’t see Rafa winning two more titles than Roger before he hangs it up. If they’re tied in titles upon retirement, we could debate endlessly who the real ‘GOAT’ is, or even if it’s either one of them. You could easily make the case it’s neither; that it’s Djokovic or Lampras or Laver (or Serena?) — but that’s an argument for another day. Regardless, Federer will finish his career with the most Grand Slams of all-time, ahead, if only just, of Nadal.
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Nicholas Martin is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org