Rafael Nadal is unlikely to ever match Roger Federer's durability and grace but the frailties of Nadal's body and the brute force nature of his playing style do not diminish his greatness. Nadal defeated Federer 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 in the Western & Southern Open quarterfinals last weekend en route to claiming his ninth title in 12 ATP Tour events this year. This was Nadal's 26th ATP World Tour Masters title, extending his all-time record. Federer has won 21 such titles and Novak Djokovic, who currently is the top ranked player in the world, is third on the all-time list with 14. Nadal won the Rogers Cup event in Canada two weeks ago, so he has now captured consecutive hard court titles in back to back weeks for the first time in his career.
Federer rarely misses an event due to injury and his record of 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals appearances--more than doubling the standard previously set by Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl (10)--may never be broken. Federer's game is very aesthetically pleasing; when he is at
his best, he seems to glide all over the court, flicking winners without
breaking a sweat.
Nadal sometimes misses months at a time due to injuries and he prowls the court like a hungry predator hunting for food, not a ballet dancer, but Nadal has already surpassed Federer in several important categories. Nadal is the second youngest player to win 10 Grand Slam singles titles (trailing only Bjorn Borg). Nadal owns 12 Grand Slam singles titles in 35 appearances, a .343 winning percentage that is much better than Federer's .298 winning percentage. Nadal has won at least one Grand Slam title in nine straight years, eclipsing Borg's previous record of eight, so if he can string together four or five healthy years while maintaining that winning percentage then he could match Federer's record 17 Grand Slam singles titles.
Federer's durability, consistency and aesthetically pleasing game have inspired many commentators to crown him as the greatest player of all-time but such a designation unfairly ignores the accomplishments of Laver and Borg. Federer's supporters also have to disregard (or attempt to rationalize) Nadal's 21-10 head to head advantage over Federer. While the matchups Laver-Federer and Borg-Federer will only take place in the theater of imagination, there is irrefutable video evidence that Nadal bludgeoned Federer into submission nearly two dozen times; no such footage taints the greatest ever titles that have been unofficially awarded in other sports. It is erroneous to suggest that Nadal only started beating Federer after
Federer's overall dominance waned. Nadal is younger than Federer but Nadal
defeated Federer five of the first six times that they met, meaning that he took down Federer at the peak of Federer's game (and before Nadal had reached his prime). Federer fans may prefer to view Nadal's most recent triumph over Federer as a sign that Federer has declined but the reality is that Nadal's win is just a reaffirmation of a superiority that has been repeatedly and conclusively demonstrated for several years.