Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why is Rafael Nadal Not Praised Now the Way that Roger Federer Was Praised in 2006?

Rafael Nadal earned his 13th Grand Slam singles title by defeating number one ranked Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the U.S. Open final. Nadal is authoring one of the greatest calendar year performances in the Open Era: he has a 60-3 match record in 2013 and he has won 10 titles, including two Grand Slams (French Open, U.S. Open). Nadal is 22-0 on hard courts this year, further refuting the notion that he is just a clay court specialist. Injuries forced Nadal to miss the 2013 Australian Open during a seven month break from competition but, even though his durability is a constant concern, he has won at least one Grand Slam in nine straight years--a remarkable record, surpassing the standard of eight set by Bjorn Borg and later matched by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

The second ranked Nadal did not officially take over the number one spot but it is obvious that Nadal is the best player in the world. Nadal now needs just one more Grand Slam win to tie Sampras for second place on the all-time list and Roger Federer's record of 17 does not look quite as safe as it did at the start of 2013. The 27 year old Nadal owns a .361 Grand Slam winning percentage, capturing 13 titles in 36 appearances. Borg ranks first all-time in this category (11/27, .407), while Federer (17/58, .293) and Sampras (14/52, .269) are far behind Nadal and Borg. Federer's peak Grand Slam winning percentage--achieved after he won Wimbledon in 2009--was .366 (15/41).

When David Foster Wallace gushed over Roger Federer in an August 2006 essay, the 25 year old Federer had won eight Grand Slam singles titles in 29 appearances (.276 winning percentage) and had amassed six first round losses--yet Wallace and others openly and enthusiastically touted the notion that Federer had already established himself as the greatest tennis player of all-time. The first dubious aspect of such a wide-ranging declaration is that it is unfair--if not impossible--to compare Open Era players with players from earlier eras; the rules, conditions and overall context were just too different. If Rod Laver had been permitted to play in the Grand Slam events during his prime years then he likely would have set unbreakable records--but we cannot know for sure what he would have accomplished, so all that can be intelligently said is that Laver deserves to be prominently placed in any discussion of the greatest tennis players ever: he should not be punished for "only" winning 11 Grand Slams, nor can he be credited with all of the Grand Slams that he almost certainly would have won.

The second dubious aspect about declaring Federer to be the greatest player of all-time is that he has never established the simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open dominance displayed by Bjorn Borg. When Borg made his final Grand Slam appearance in 1981--at just 25 years old--he held the modern male record for both Wimbledon titles (five) and French Open titles (six) and he had won the "Channel Slam" (capturing Wimbledon and the French Open in the same calendar year) a still-unmatched three times in a row. Sampras and then Federer dominated Wimbledon during their primes and Nadal has dominated the French Open but no one has ever mastered grass and clay at the same time the way that Borg did.

By the time that Sampras broke Roy Emerson's record for most career Grand Slam titles, many commentators touted Sampras as the greatest player of all-time but Sampras' relative ineptitude at the French Open--he only made it to the semifinals once in 13 trips to Roland Garros--disqualifies him from being favorably compared to Borg, Federer and Nadal. Federer won one Channel Slam (2009)--albeit without facing Nadal that year in the French Open--and Nadal has captured two (2008, 2010). Nadal owns a 21-10 head to head advantage over Federer and Nadal built that lead from the beginning of his career, when Federer was at the height of his powers. Nadal and Djokovic have faced each other more often than any other Open Era rivals, with Nadal winning 22 of their 37 matches. Nadal leads Federer 8-2 in head to head Grand Slam matches and Nadal has beaten Djokovic eight times in 11 Grand Slam matches.

The Borg-Nadal comparison is intriguing; Nadal owns more total Grand Slam wins, more French Open wins and a pair of U.S. Open titles (Borg reached four U.S. Open finals but never captured the crown) but Borg has a better career Grand Slam winning percentage and he established himself as his era's best grass court player and best clay court player. It is reasonable to assume that if Borg had kept playing then he would have won at least a couple more French Opens and perhaps even finally bagged the elusive U.S. Open title. Borg and Nadal are very similar in terms of athletic ability and fighting spirit.

While Borg-Nadal is difficult to call, it is very hard to understand how anyone who supported Federer's greatest player of all-time candidacy circa 2006 would not be even more strongly in favor of Nadal now: Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than Federer did, Nadal has a much better Grand Slam winning percentage, Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head and Nadal does not have a problematic individual matchup or surface. The only advantage that Federer has ever held over Nadal is that Federer has been healthier/more durable, which will make it even more remarkable if Nadal wins four more Grand Slams to tie Federer's mark.


Anonymous said...

What is your opinion if Borg had played, say, to 30 years?

David Friedman said...


I think that Borg would have won at least three more French Opens and at least one more Wimbledon. He also would have reached the U.S. Open Final multiple times and perhaps finally captured that elusive title.

Anonymous said...

It's difficult to say who is the best player of all times, because situations are not the same. For example when everybody thinks about winning 4 slams in a year as Rod Laver did. If Rod Laver played nowadays he would probably don't win those titles in a yer. in the past only a few countries had good players. in the open era there are more players, from serbia, Sweden, Germany, Spain, etc., not only from the "Britidh world" like before open era was. Rod Laver was the best in his time, but it is strange that nobody has been able to get the year slam in 50 years