Friday, March 13, 2015

Evaluating Tennis Greatness: Serena's Dominance and Nadal's Superiority Against Federer

Tom Perrotta's Wall Street Journal article The Unconquerable Serena Williams makes a strong case that Williams is the greatest female tennis player of the Open era. Williams is tied with Helen Wills Moody for third on the all-time Grand Slam singles titles list with 19 (Williams had won 18 at the time Perrotta's article appeared) but Perrotta points out that perhaps the most impressive aspect of Williams' legacy is "she has yet to meet her match."

Williams is 17-2 against Maria Sharapova (16-2 when Perrotta made the comparison), 14-11 against her sister Venus Williams, 14-3 against Victoria Azarenka, 10-1 against Caroline Wozniacki, 8-6 against Justine Henin, 10-4 against Lindsay Davenport and 7-2 against Kim Clijsters. Martina Hingis briefly gave Williams a run for her money by winning three of their first four matches but Williams took their last three encounters to finish with a 7-6 record against Hingis.

Perrotta notes Williams' strong record in Grand Slam Finals (now 19-4) and her plus-.700 winning percentage against Top-10 opponents before concluding, "In tennis, 'greatest' means different things to different people: Total majors, weeks at No. 1, career titles, longevity and consistency are among the variables that shape the debate. In one important measure, though, Williams seems to have the best credentials of any player in the Open era. She figured out how to beat everyone who tried to dethrone her, and she did it often. Even if she fades away in the next few years, she'll be able to retire knowing that no other champion got the better of her."

A similar statement can be made regarding Rafael Nadal, as I have noted in several articles (including Why is Rafael Nadal Not Praised Now the Way that Roger Federer Was Praised in 2006? and More Fun With Tennis Numbers). About a decade ago, it became popular to assert that Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all-time--but then Rafael Nadal emerged, beating Federer head to head as if Federer had stolen something from Nadal. Those who touted Federer's all-time supremacy not only shortchanged great players from previous eras like Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg but they also failed to adjust their thinking after Nadal's strong groundstrokes pounded gigantic holes into the credibility of their assertions.

Some Federer supporters say that the Nadal-Federer comparison is not fair because Nadal is younger and because Nadal is supposedly a clay court specialist while Federer is an all-around player. Paul Gibson of The Guardian tears apart both of those claims:

Every tennis player is different, but if we assume that these two entered their peak years around the age of 22--the time Federer won his first Grand Slam title (Nadal had already won three French Opens before he turned 22)--and both will compete somewhere around this level until their 30th birthday, that gives each an eight-year period at the top of their game. It also allows that both men faced each other in their simultaneous primes from the summer of 2008 until the summer of 2012.

Closer analysis of this window of time is telling. They met 14 times in that period, with Nadal winning on 10 occasions. Federer's victories came on the clay of Madrid in 2009 and on the hard courts of London and Indian Wells--neither were Grand Slam events. Among Nadal's 10 wins, three were on hard courts, one was on grass and the rest were on clay. Notably, four of his victories were when it mattered most, in Grand Slam finals. They also occurred on three different surfaces--the Mallorcan ceased being a clay court specialist very early in his career. 

In total Nadal won eight Grand Slams in these four years, compared to the five Federer collected, and he amassed 12 Masters titles with Federer winning six. Nadal also won the Olympic gold medal in 2008, and in 2010 he became the only player in history to win three Grand Slams on three different surfaces in one season. He has already bypassed Federer on the all-time list of Masters triumphs--no one has more than Rafa's 27 trophies in their cabinet. 

It should also be noted that in 2009 Nadal, struggling with tendonitis in both knees, suffered the only defeat of his career at Roland Garros (in the fourth round to Robin Soderling) and was unable to defend his title at the Wimbledon Championships. In his absence Federer won both tournaments and in doing so completed the career Grand Slam of winning a Major on all four surfaces and broke Sampras' record number of Grand Slam titles. Few believe he would ever have won the French Open had he had to contend with a fit Nadal.

Clearly, the majority of Federer's achievements have come when Nadal is not around. Indeed, the Swiss already had twelve Grand Slam titles in the bag before Nadal entered his peak years. This is perhaps not surprising when a quick look at his major rivals pre-Rafa reveals a distinctly different calibre of opponent. Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin were all good players; but certainly no more than that. When one sees the names of Mark Philippoussis, Marco Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez also on the list of Federer’s victims in Grand Slam finals, it suggests that this was not exactly a golden age in men's tennis. 

Comparing Federer, Nadal and other modern players to the greats of yesteryear is difficult because the sport has changed so dramatically over the past few decades--but there is no problem comparing Federer with Nadal and any objective person can see that Nadal has more than taken the measure of Federer, no matter how many paeans are penned in Federer's honor and no matter how beautiful Federer's game is said to be by so many (including Federer himself, who Gibson notes bizarrely criticized Nadal for being "content to do one thing the entire time" en route to beating Federer into submission in the 2011 French Open, as if for the sake of art and/or sportsmanship Nadal should have deviated from an unstoppable tactic in order to give Federer a better chance). 

Borg versus Nadal is a fascinating historical matchup to contemplate--but Nadal-Federer is a matchup that we have seen 33 times and we know how it ends: Nadal wins (23-10), Federer whines (about Nadal's game not being aesthetic--as noted above--or this gem, also after the 2011 French Open: "If I play well, I will most likely win in the score or beat him; if I'm not playing so well, that's when he wins." It's such a shame for tennis history that Federer has played poorly against Nadal 23 times out of 33; this spate of bad luck is apparently baffling to Federer).

It is not too late for those who prematurely called Federer the greatest of all-time to admit the error of their ways.