Legendary allrounder Kapil Dev maintains that there is no such thing as the “greatest of all time” (GOAT). He says one can always be best of a generation and it is not fair to compare across generations.
However, whatever Kapil says, there will always be such debates as these are an integral part of sport.
In tennis, Roger Federer is popularly regarded as the GOAT but there remains one major question mark on such claim – his record against Rafael Nadal.
Federer has an enviable record versus most players. However versus Rafa, the stats are clearly in the Spaniard’s favour.
23-12 record in Rafa’s favour
6-3 Grand Slam final record.
9-3 overall in Grand Slams
Let us look at how their career has progressed. Since the two maestros have played 35 matches, let us break it into five sets of seven matches each.
Set 1. 2004-06
Nadal won six of the first seven matches they played. This was unprecedented as Rafa was a 17-year-old ranked 34 in the world while Federer was already world Number 1. This set of seven includes two Grand Slam matches, both on French Open clay and won by Nadal.
Set 2 2006-2007
Federer won five and Rafa two. This included both Wimbledon finals (won by Federer) and the French Open final, won inevitably by Rafa. The head to head now was 8-6 in Rafa’s favour which was still respectable.
However after this Rafa would simply keep on increasing it. This too was the last Grand Slam win for Federer versus Rafa for the next ten years
Set 3 2008-2010
Rafa won six of this set. He won all four matches they played in 2008 including Wimbledon for the first time in what many call as one of the best matches of all time. Rafa broke Federer’s 65-match winning streak on grass.
2008 also saw one of the most one-sided Grand Slam Finals in the French Open with Federer winning just four games in three sets. The 2009 Australian Open win of Rafa in the fifth set was also important as it broke Federer’s run of eight consecutive Grand Slam finals wins on hardcourts.
Overall head to head was now 14-7 and comfortably in Rafa’s favour.
Set 4 2010-12
This set of seven once again goes in Rafa’s favour with his wining four to make overall head to head 18-10. This included the French Open final yet again and a semi-final at the Australian Open
Set 5 2013 to present
Rafa won the first five matches in this set to make his career head to head an embarrassing 23-10. It seemed as if he had the complete measure of Federer. The Swiss wizard did defeat Rafa in three sets in the 2015 Swiss Indoors Final and many thought they would never meet again. However then Australian Open 2017 happened. It still seems unreal that Fed-Rafa met in final. After all Federer was seeded 17 which meant that he would face tough opponents from the third round onwards.
He did but won one match after another, including two five setters. Rafa too won two five setters en route reaching the final where Federer prevailed after being a break down in the final set.
What is it about Federer? After all, even with Djokovic he has a good record. Why is it embarrassingly poor versus Rafa?
I can identify the following reasons.
The first is Rafa’s dominance on clay. The two legends have met 35 times. Out of that 15 times is on clay where Rafa has won 13.
Otherwise its 10-10. In Grand Slams too, out of the 12 times they have met Rafa has won nine times out of which five times are at the French Open where Rafa is unbeatable.
Otherwise it is 4-3 in Rafa’s favour which looks more reasonable than 9-3. Ironically the fact that Federer is a wonderful clay court player itself resulted in his reaching the final stages as many as five times where he came up against the unbeatable Rafa.
Then there’s Nadal’s mental toughness. Over and over again it has been seen that in matches between them, Rafa has proved mentally tougher. It started with the 2006 Rome Final, Federer held two championship points on Rafa’s serve, but Rafa held serve, and in the tiebreaker too Federer was 5-3 ahead but Rafa won it.
This continued again and again with Rafa winning from seemingly un-winnable positions. So much so that it was almost as if there is a mental block of Federer versus Rafa.
Rafa’s game is peculiarly suited to neutralise Federer’s game. His heavy topspin is something which Federer just cannot tackle, especially on clay and hardcourt . On grass and indoor courts Federer does make a match of it
Two bad years. In 2008 and 2013, Rafa won all four matches each versus Federer. These eight matches versus zero by Federer further accentuates the gap. Otherwise its 15-12 in favour of Rafa which, while still being in the favour of Rafa seems much better than 23-12.
What does the above mean? Can someone who is not the best in his generation be the best of all time? For certainly as seen above Rafa is one to one better than Federer. The answer is not that simple, for tennis is not a game of one versus one but one versus 200.
Number of Grand Slam wins is one significant factor in deciding who is the GOAT and another is number of weeks at the top. Federer at 18 Grand Slam wins and 302 weeks is way ahead of all contenders.
But with the French Open around the corner, Rafa can continue to add to the debate.