Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Nadal Clearly Establishes Himself as the Best Player in the World

In most sports it is difficult to single out who is the best player of all-time but it is generally somewhat easier to determine who is the best player at any given time--and right now Rafael Nadal is clearly the best tennis player in the world.

Nadal's convincing Wimbledon victory is a landmark event in Open Era history. Nadal now owns a Secretariat-like 3840 point lead over number two ranked Novak Djokovic, while Roger Federer has dropped to number three, his lowest ranking since November 2003. Nadal's Wimbledon triumph is his eighth career Grand Slam singles title, making him the second youngest player in the Open Era to win that many majors; the prodigious Bjorn Borg was just 23 years, 31 days old when he reached that milestone, exactly one year younger than Nadal was on Sunday when he blew away Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the Wimbledon Finals. Nadal has dominated the ATP Tour this year with a 47-5 match record while winning five events; he was similarly dominant in 2008 and the early portion of 2009--winning three out of four Grand Slams at one point, including the tough French Open/Wimbledon double--before injuries slowed him down and enabled Federer to also pull off a French Open/Wimbledon double to reclaim the number one ranking. Borg remains the only player in tennis history to accomplish the French Open/Wimbledon double three times and he did it consecutively (1978-80), arguably the most difficult feat in the history of the sport.

Nadal is now tied for seventh on the all-time Grand Slam singles title list, matching Fred Perry, Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi; two more wins will enable Nadal to tie Bill Tilden for sixth on the list and one more win after that would match the 11 Grand Slam wins tallied by Rod Laver and Borg. If Nadal wins the U.S. Open he will become just the fourth player to complete a career Grand Slam in the Open Era, joining Laver, Agassi and Federer.

When Federer was Nadal's age he had won six Grand Slam singles titles, so Nadal is significantly ahead of the pace established by the player who many people have proclaimed to be the greatest tennis player of the Open Era. I have repeatedly said that these pundits prematurely crowned Federer; in a 2008 post titled Fantastic Four: Nadal Matches Borg's French Open Streak I wrote:

For quite some time, people have been trying to anoint Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time but despite his impressive accomplishments it makes no sense to confer that title on him when it is not even certain that he will be considered the best player of the current era: his main rival Nadal owns an 11-6 head to head record against him and has come much closer to beating him on the grass at Wimbledon than Federer has come to defeating him on the clay at the French Open. Considering that Nadal is almost five years younger than Federer it is entirely possible that he will eclipse what Federer has done; after all, five years ago Federer had just won his first Grand Slam, while Nadal already owns four Grand Slam titles, beating Federer along the way each time.

Then, in a 2009 post titled Debunking Myths about Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Roger Federer, I declared:

Wilt Chamberlain once said that if he had thought that anyone was going to break his all-time NBA career scoring record then he would have put it "way out of sight." If Borg had been interested in setting the career Grand Slam record, then he would have annually journeyed down to Australia and most likely dominated that event the way that he dominated Wimbledon and the French Open--and he certainly would not have skipped the 1982 French Open when a victory there would have tied Roy Emerson's then record total of 12 Grand Slams (six of which were Australian Open titles won by the amateur Australian player between 1961 and 1967; professional players were banned from playing in any of the Slams until the start of the Open Era in 1968).

Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head, owning a 14-7 advantage, and after Nadal's 2008 Wimbledon win it was clear that Nadal had surpassed Federer as an all-around player; if injuries had not hobbled Nadal during 2009 then Federer would likely only enjoy a 14-10 lead over Nadal in career Grand Slam singles titles instead of his current 16-8 margin--but even as things stand now Nadal has a very realistic chance of approaching Federer's record.

I will not make the mistake of prematurely crowning Nadal the way that some people foolishly prematurely elevated Federer; all that can reasonably and objectively be said right now with both Federer and Nadal still actively playing is that the short list of greatest Open Era tennis players must include Borg, Pete Sampras, Federer and Nadal.


NMRN said...

If Nadal wins the Open this year, he will have surpassed Borg's achievements, doing something that Borg failed to do in four tries (win the Open after reaching the RG and Wimbledon finals). The fact that he has won on three surfaces and would have matched Borg's 3 RG/Wimbledon doubles had he not been injured last year probably already put his achievements at the level of Borg's entire career accomplishments...

tennis said...

nadal is definitely creeping up on the greats of all time, laver/borg/sampras/federer, but for me, he's still a notch below them.

Anonymous said...


fed was fortunate last year nadal got hurt to enhance his lead to 16-8 but fed is probably the greatest player in the era 16 grand in 7 years really 6. he is the most consistently dominant player ever.

it is over now well see what nadal does but where is everybody else? last 31 grand slams 24 won by fed nadal is there any one else on men tennis is real question

fednad said...

well last year federer benefited from nadal's injury, and it seems like nadal has benefited from federer's injury.

David Friedman said...


Last year, Nadal had well documented injuries that greatly limited his mobility and/or forced him to miss tournaments. Federer is not injured now, though he deplorably made a bunch of excuses after losing at Wimbledon; Federer should have simply congratulated Berdych, kept his mouth shut and moved on instead of whining. When Berdych was informed about Federer's litany of excuses, he replied, "I mean, I don't know if he just [is] looking for some excuses after the match or something like that."

Many writers and commentators correctly blasted Federer for ungraciously taking the focus away from how well Berdych had played.

fednad said...

your tone suggests that you're clearly biased towards nadal, so there's no point in responding to your comment

David Friedman said...


Your answer is an admission that you cannot refute what I said by citing a single documented injury that Federer currently has that would have caused him to lose to Berdych.

Gene said...

Federer is 29 years old now. He has clearly lost a step compare to his peak. Nadal is 5 years younger - it's a very big gap in tennis terms. Nadal didn't surpass Federer until 2008 when he was 22, exactly when most tennis players reach their peak. So I submit to you, how is it fair to simply point at the head to head record and declare Nadal is the better player?

You often stressed that players across different eras can not be compared directly. It comes across as hypocritical when you then compare Nadal and Federer based on point in time performance, when the two players are not at the same stage of their careers.

A 27 year old Federer is not the same player as a 23 year old Federer. Just as Nadal wouldn't be the same player 4 years from now, even if he is still good enough to win slams. History tells us that much. Look at all the all time greats, even the ones with the greatest longevity have a small clear-cut window of peak performance.

Several of the Federer-Nadal finals were absolute cliffhangers, if Federer was just that little bit better he would have won. Would you deny that?

At the beginning of 2008 Federer lost to a then 20 year old Dojkovic in the Australian Open final, so he already wasn't the player who could simply demolished every one in sight, although he was still a great player.

The Nadal at his absolute peak never played the Federer at his absolute peak. Do you agree?

The Nadal at this absolute peak has played the Federer just off his absolute peak more than a few times. Do you disagree?

No one is arguing that Federer is the better player now, it is as obvious as the ATP rankings - your tone of superiority comes from beating up a straw man.

The fact that they have played each other 24 times should be viewed as a testament to both players. They each have to win many rounds to meet in a final.

When they were both younger Federer was usually the only one still standing - Nadar often couldn't make it that far - is it Federer's fault he couldn't play the 18-21 year old more often to pad his head to head? Remember up until 2008 Nadal only ever beat him on clay.

For the record, I think Federer was classless in Wimbledon. And every time Nadal and Federer played, I cheered for Nadal even before he became world number one. However that's besides the point when comparing two players, where the full body of work must be considered.

Your post seems opportunistic. I note your multiple posts about Nadal winning French and Wimbledon in 2008. Where were the Federer posts in 2009 when he achieved the same feat? There wasn't any. Was it Federer's fault that Nadal wasn't in the way? He could only play the players that were there. Staying healthy is a big part of the game. Nadal's getting hurt is tough luck and all the should haves would haves are just that.

David Friedman said...


It is fair to point to the head to head record because Nadal has enjoyed a head to head advantage for quite some time and he has bested Federer at Federer's favorite Slam (Wimbledon) while Federer has been unable to topple Nadal at Nadal's favorite Slam (French Open).

It is also fair to once again mention that Nadal is currently well ahead of Federer's pace in terms of career Grand Slam singles titles, trailing only the prodigious Borg in that regard.

It is irrelevant that some of the Federer-Nadal matches were "cliffhangers." Many great sporting events are "cliffhangers" and then the individuals/teams that win those "cliffhangers" are considered to be the best. I agree with you that there is not much point in dwelling on "should haves," so apply that logic to your own comment and you will see why it does not matter that some of the Federer-Nadal matches were "cliffhangers."

I am not beating up a "straw man"; I am continuing to make the point that I have been making for years: it was premature for people to call Federer the greatest player of the Open Era--let alone the greatest player of all-time--when he had trouble dealing with a contemporary player (Nadal). Now that Nadal's game has fully blossomed we see that he is besting many of the feats that Federer accomplished just a few years ago. Note that I am not making an analogous mistake by calling Nadal the greatest player of the Open Era or the greatest player of all time; all that can reasonably be said now is that Nadal has shown enough consistency and versatility to be mentioned along with Borg, Sampras and Federer as a candidate for the title of greatest player of the Open Era. I still would cast my vote for Borg, but good arguments can be made for the others.

What difference does it make how many posts I made about various other Slams? All that matters is whether the posts that I have made are logical, objective and well written.