In my humble opinion, Yes!
Note: GOAT means “Greatest Of All Time”.
Let me try and explain my point of view.
I am the biggest Roger Federer fan around. Ever since I saw that wonderful performance at 2003 Wimbledon. It was so refreshing to see a Serve & Volley player after the Leyton Hewitts of the World. (It is true that within a few months, Federer retooled his game to be what is now called “All-Court Game”, which involves sporadic Serve & Volley, as the situation demands). I am such a big fan that I can recount all major highlights of his career off the top of my head! I am not kidding 🙂 After a golden period from 2004-2007, he is still going quite strong, with a solid performance at the Slams. As is understandable, he is toning down his performance (and in some cases, his appearance) at the other tournaments, including the Masters Series. No one can fault the logic behind trying to focus just on the Slams, at his age. Who would have thought in 2002 September, after the great Pete Sampras set the bar at 14 Grand Slams after winning his 5th US Open, that his record would be broken in 7 years? I remember going on and on about Federer to my friends in early 2004 and them thinking “Whats up with this guy?”. But, as a fan, I had a gut feeling that this guy was something special. And he turned out to be very very special.
Even more weird is the thought that probably in another 3-4 years even Federer’s record would be broken.
Let us look closely at Federer and Nadal.
When Federer was the Top Gun, in early 2005, a youngster by the name Nadal (19 years at that time, wearing clam-diggers) was coming up. I remember that Miami Masters Final in March 2005 when Nadal led Federer 2-0. Though Federer managed to come back and win in 5 sets, viewers were left with the thought “Hmmm …. Look out …”. In just a few more months, Nadal won the French Open and thereafter started a long stint at No:2 (3 years). On Clay, without a doubt, Nadal was the king. There were tags like “Clay Court Specialist” hung on him. That all went away once he started retooling his game to be more like Federer’s (All-Court). He reached Wimbeldon Finals in 2006 and lost in 4 sets. He reached Wimbledon Finals in 2007 and lost in 5 sets and finally, he reached Wimbledon Finals in 2008 and beat Federer in (easily) the best match I (and a lot of people) have ever seen. I am mentioning this to illustrate the journey of a “Clay Court Specialist” towards a Wimbledon Title. It was not that he was bad on the Hard Courts (he kept reaching 4th Rounds, Quarters, Semis etc.) at US Open and Australian Open. Once he won his 1st Wimbledon, he really improved on aspects of his game which makes him a real threat in any tournament (forgetting the surface). Now, he has won a Career Slam and is ranked No:1 by a margin of over 5000 points!
Federer and Nadal have played 21 times, with Nadal winning 14 times. They have played in 7 Grand Slam Finals, with Nadal winning 5 of them (3 of them on Clay). A lot of their matches have come on Clay, Nadal’s favorite surface, and we should be careful in reading too much into their head-to-head records. Federer has been so other-worldly consistent on all surfaces that he manages to reach all/most of the Clay Court Finals, where he promptly loses to the best Clay Court Player of all time (Nadal), whereas Nadal until recently never showed up too much in the Finals on Federer’s favorite surfaces.
Nadal is relentless and fearless. If you see Nadal volleying nowadays, you would think that he has been a Serve & Volley Player all the time 🙂 His court coverage and defense is outstanding. Above all, I think we need to consider his remarkable improvement from being a “Clay Court Specialist” in 2006 to being a “Career Slam Winner” in 2010 (and that too in the Era of Roger Federer)!
Federer, 29 years old, has another 2-3 years of good tennis left in him, assuming his back does not detoriate too much. Considering that his movement is so smooth and his shots are fluid, there is a decent chance of his health holding up till 2012 Olympics. In such a case, he would win another 1-2 Slams (remember that he was 1 point from reaching the 2010 US Open Finals). That would leave him at 17-18 Slams overall.
Nadal, 24 years old, has a couple of problems. Foremost is his style of play, which puts a lot of strain on his body, especially his knees. That is part of the reason Federer was able to regain his No:1 ranking in 2009 (while Nadal was not at his best). Secondly, there is the presence of Big Shots like Del Potro, Berdych, Soderling, along with the “Why the heck am I in this generation?” Djokovic. Djokovic is a great All-Court player and he will be a big threat at US Open and Australian Open. These guys can hit through the ball and their height makes it easier for them to handle Nadal’s spin and bounce.
Side Note: Isnt Djokovic one of the unluckiest players? First he got throttled by the Federer Era. After patiently waiting around for it to end, he sees the rise of Nadal Era 🙂 Already he has lost 8 times to these guys at Slams!
Let us say, Nadal stays healthy till an age of 29. I am not giving him the 31 years we are giving for Federer (because of his wear & tear style of play). That gives him another 5 years of top flight tennis. He currently has 9 Slams. Another 5 French Opens (where he is the King/Emperor/Shah/Da-Man/Tsar), will net him another 4. I am bracing for atleast 1 major upset (similar to Soderling in 2009). That takes him to 13. In 5 Australian Opens, he can realistically win 2 (allowing for the other 3 to be spread amongst Federer/Djokovic/Others). In 5 US Opens, he can realistically win 2 (allowing for the other 3 to be spread amongst Federer/Djokovic/Others). This takes him to 17 Slams. In 5 Wimbledons, he can at a minimum win 2 (allowing for the other 3 to be spread amongst Federer/Djokovic/Others). This takes him to 19!
But total number of Slams is just one aspect. What about the head-to-head? Going forward, with Federer on an understandable decline (it is not easy to play your best tennis after 30) and Nadal entering his peak, we can assume that the head-to-head will stay in favor of Nadal.
Wont someone who has the most Slams, won on all surfaces, had a great record against another All-Time-Great (No:2 of all time) be considered the Best Ever?
That is why I think that Nadal is on his way to be the GOAT!
Note: Given a choice, whose game would I pay to watch? Without a doubt, it is Federer. Federer at his best is like an artist working his magic on canvas …