Roger Federer has won 16 Grand Slam titles, reached the Finals of 6 others (where he lost to Nadal (5) and Del Potro (1)). He had reached 10 successive Grand Slam Finals, another run of 8 successive Grand Slam Finals, 23 successive Grand Slam Semifinals, 24 successive Grand Slam Quarterfinals (ongoing streak) and last but not the least, has been No:1 for 285 weeks, 1 week less than Pete Sampras’ overall record.
But there is that lingering doubt about whether he can be annointed as the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) when he is being thumped in the head-to-head by another significant competitor in his own era, Rafael Nadal. Nadal currently owns a 14-7 record against Federer. Nadal has won Grand Slams on all the surfaces, Clay, Grass and Hard Courts. He has beaten Federer in 5 of the 7 Grand Slam Finals they have played and the only 2 losses were at Wimbledon, when he was still learning the ropes on grass. Nadal is only 24, with atleast another 4 years of peak tennis left. He can easily win another 4-5 French Opens. This would take his tally to 12 (he currently has 7 Grand Slams, 5 French, 1 Wimbledon and 1 Australian). Throw in a couple or more other Grand Slams, we are talking Federer territory here! Please note that the only Slam he has not won, US Open, is not a far stretch for him. He has reached multiple Semifinals. Nadal has also overtaken Federer in Tennis Masters Series victories. Many of Federer-Nadal matches makes it appear that Federer is in a trance, trying to outhit Nadal from the backcourt, backhand to Nadal’s looping forehand twisters (Nadal is a lefty player).
Following is my take.
– Nadal’s head-to-head of 14-7 contains a 10-2 record on Clay, his best surface. Without a doubt, by the time he retires, he would be considered the greatest clay court player of all time. It is more a testament of how Federer is the solid No:2 Clay player of his time, that Nadal holds such a record. I.e. most of the time Nadal has made the Finals of a Clay tournament, Federer was his opponent. In a wierd way, if Federer was not the No:2 Clay player, his head-to-head would not be so bad! If he was a lousy Clay player, his head-to-head would have been 5-4, in his favor!
– Other than the period from March 2008 to Jan 2009, Nadal has not been able to dominate the game as Federer has done from February 2004 till January 2008 (almost 4 years) and set up streaks like the ones mentioned above. Note: This does not mean Nadal cannot put up such a streak from now on. As I mention, he is only 24!
– Tennis (the No:1 ranking and Grand Slam titles (the main barometer)) is not a one-on-one game. It is a game of tournaments, with a wide variety of opponents.
Calling Nadal GOAT (over Federer) is akin to annointing Charlotte Bobcats the NBA Champions, because they have thumped the Los Angeles Lakers in their head-to-head matches.
In my opinion, it takes continued/sustained excellence to be called GOAT.
Though I prefer Federer’s game a notch more than Nadal’s and am a bigger fan of Federer, I have a lot of respect for Nadal’s records, his abilities and above all, the way he conducts himself. His interviews give a lot of insight into how he respects his opponents.