Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Djokovic Once Again Bests Federer in a Grand Slam Final

A significant amount of the coverage leading up to the U.S. Open Final focused on Roger Federer as an ageless tennis deity who has remade his game and even developed a new shot (which--with his characteristic humblebrag modesty--he calls "SABR," meaning Sneak Attack by Roger) that supposedly is an unstoppable weapon. That is all well and good, except that this coverage has been rendered largely meaningless by a story that should be the headline grabber but likely will not capture as much attention as all of the praise that has been heaped on Federer: the real story is two-fold, namely (1) Novak Djokovic defeated Federer in the U.S. Open Final in four sets and (2) Djokovic is clearly the best player in the world, even if he has not named a shot after himself or convinced writers that it is their sworn duty to wax poetic about his every breath, move and statement.

Much of the mainstream media coverage of tennis defies logical analysis. It does not make sense to assert that (1) Federer is as good as he has ever been and (2) that he is the greatest player of all-time while relentlessly ignoring Federer's struggles versus Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. If Federer is as good as he has ever been and if Federer truly established himself years ago as the greatest player of all-time then he should still be winning Grand Slams. Otherwise, it is only logical to assert--at a minimum--that even if Federer achieved greatest of all-time status at some point in the distant past he has since been supplanted by Nadal and Djokovic. Logically and conceptually it simply does not compute to say that Federer is the greatest of all-time and that he has developed a new shot that makes him better than ever but that the successes of Nadal and Djokovic are irrelevant in terms of the greatest player of all-time debate--and this does not even take into account the fact that a very good case could be made that Bjorn Borg is better than all three of them.

There is no question that Federer is very durable. That durability has enabled him to amass some impressive career numbers, including his record-setting 17 Grand Slam singles titles. However, Federer has appeared in 66 Grand Slam events and his .258 Grand Slam winning percentage is not even close to the record Grand Slam winning percentage posted by Borg (.407). Borg never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam, he lost in the second round just once and he made it to at least the quarterfinals in 20 of his 27 appearances (.741). Federer has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam six times, he has lost in the second round once and he has advanced to the quarterfinals in 46 of his 66 appearances (.697).

Federer's head to head struggles versus Nadal are well documented, with the tally currently standing at 23-10 in Nadal's favor, including 9-2 in Grand Slam matches and 6-2 in Grand Slam Finals. Nadal has not been nearly as durable as Federer, though Nadal has been durable enough to win at least one Grand Slam for 10 straight years (2005-14), breaking the mark of eight set by Borg and later matched by Pete Sampras and Federer. Nadal is tied with Sampras for second on the all-time list with 14 Grand Slam singles titles but Nadal's Grand Slam winning percentage (.326) is much better than Federer's or Sampras' (.269). Injuries have limited Nadal at various points in his career and especially since the French Open in 2014 (Nadal's last Grand Slam singles title) but Federer has suffered an even longer drought, with his last Grand Slam winning coming at Wimbledon in 2012 (Federer's only Grand Slam title since 2010).

The Djokovic-Federer head to head rivalry is now tied at 21-21, but Djokovic enjoys the edge in Grand Slam matches (8-6) and Grand Slam Finals (3-1). Federer won five of their first six head to head encounters but Djokovic has captured 20 of the next 36, including each of the past three times that they have met in a Grand Slam Final. Djokovic has won 10 Grand Slam titles in 44 appearances (.227) while losing twice in the first round and twice in the second round and reaching the quarterfinals 34 times (.773, a percentage even better than Borg's).

If Federer had defeated Djokovic in the U.S. Open Final then this would have been cited as yet another piece of evidence that Federer is indisputably the greatest player of all-time--but Djokovic's win against Federer seemingly does not in the slightest way dent Federer's claim to that title. When Nadal beat Federer like a drum, Federer's fans made the excuse that Nadal was a clay court specialist. Now, Djokovic is beating Federer on hard courts (U.S. Open), on grass courts (Wimbledon) and on clay (2012 French Open, 2015 Italian Open) but nothing can seem to loosen Federer's supposedly secure grip on the mythical greatest of all-time title.

If Federer were washed up and just playing out the string then one could make the case that at least some of his losses to Nadal and Djokovic should not count when determining the pecking order among these three players--but the reality is that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been in or reasonably close to their primes from late 2008 to the present. During that time, Federer has been ranked number one in the world for 65 weeks, Nadal has been ranked number one in the world for 141 weeks and Djokovic has been ranked number one in the world for 164 weeks. During that same time span, Federer has won five Grand Slam singles titles, Nadal has won nine Grand Slam singles titles and Djokovic has won nine Grand Slam singles titles. It is difficult to make a reasonable case that Federer is better than Nadal and, considering Djokovic's recent success (three Grand Slam wins in 2015 while appearing in each of the four Grand Slam Finals), it is at least arguable syllogistically that Djokovic is better than Federer as well; after all, if Federer is as good as ever and Djokovic is beating Federer on multiple surfaces than Djokovic is not only better than Federer now but he is better than Federer has ever been.

Just once, it would be refreshing to see a Federer supporter in the media write an article making a point something on the order of "As Federer advanced through this tournament I was reminded of why I like his game so much and why he is so highly regarded but after Federer lost to (Djokovic or Nadal) I was also reminded that, while Federer excels in wiping out the lesser lights, he has never established clear superiority over the other two great players of his time." Federer's SABR turns into a butter knife when he faces Nadal or Djokovic and it is difficult to picture Federer having the necessary mental or physical energy to contend with the relentless Borg in his prime.


Andy said...


I’ll start by just giving you the point that Borg, Nadal and Djokovic should be ranked higher than Fed on a list of all-time greats. I personally don’t believe that (quite yet anyway in the case of the active guys – am very open to it though for any of the three other guys you mention, which maybe lots of Fed fans aren’t), but I’ll just give the point to you. Why? Well, because it really is totally beside the point of this post actually, that point being that your article, like each of your tennis articles, is unfair in many respects in my opinion. Again, I say that without asserting that Roger is the GOAT or GOME (greatest of the modern era). Fine, you may well be right that he is not. And I certainly acknowledge that some of your points are very valid.

But, and this list probably is not complete, here are 14 ways I think your article is unfair (in 3 parts probably):

1. Writers sometimes wax poetic about Fed, true, but to say (as you do) that Federer has “convinced” them to do this is unfair. As early as 2005 Letterman had Fed on his show and was talking GOAT stuff. This is old stuff which relates to a whole host of factors that have nothing to do with any active "convincing" from Federer. Blame the media if you like. But Fed has not “convinced” them to wax poetic, not in the sense you are implying anyway.

2. I agree with you about the lack of logic in saying Fed is as good as he always has been, etc., but your lack of any comment whatsoever on the very likely possibility that a 34 year old is in fact NOT as good as he was 8-10 years earlier (overall that is), shows an absence of fair analysis on your part. Where is the discussion of people, maybe even Fed, deluding themselves (because of his unusually high quality of play now) into thinking that he is playing as well as he did 10 years earlier when just about all of tennis history (and a lot of sports history in general) tells us this is very unlikely? To ignore this point entirely is simply unfair.

3. As with your other articles, you make it sound like durability is the ONLY thing Fed has going for him. His durability HELPED to enable him to amass his numbers, sure. But it is not the only thing. Where are your tennis comments on the aspects of his game that have contributed to those numbers (movement, serve placement, forehand, net play, sharp slices, underrated defensive play, fitness, …)? A fair analysis would at least mention some of those things as well, and moreover, would at least raise the additional point that, in any event, durability could indeed be considered a very key quality in a measurement of greatness.

4. You say Fed’s “.258 Grand Slam winning percentage is not even close to the record Grand Slam winning percentage posted by Borg (.407).” Yes, but it is of course somewhat unfair to compare as Fed is playing into his 30s now and Borg retired at 26. Of course a player’s percentage goes down as years go by especially if they play into their 30s. It is unfair not to at least address that point in some manner.

5. The quarterfinal numbers you cite are also very possibly affected by the longer career of Fed. There naturally is going to be a higher probability of Seppi, Robredo type losses as one gets older. Sure, Borg may nevertheless very well have ended up with a better stat here (especially because Fed struggled early and Borg to his credit didn’t), but again not to at least mention this point shows your unfair approach.

Andy said...


6. Nadal's Grand Slam winning percentage (.326) is much better than Federer's, true, but as I have said to you many times, break it down by surface (or “environment” if you like in the case of indoor hard) and there is a very different picture that is conveyed with the percentages. That you still don’t present it this way (or at the very least give the broken down numbers alongside the overall numbers) is an excellent example of the unfair mindset you seem to have when it comes to this topic.

7. You talk about Fed’s last Grand Slam winning coming at Wimbledon in 2012 (Federer's only Grand Slam title since 2010), without the fair balancing comment that he has been in his 30s since Aug of 2011 and that historically, for all players, it has been quite challenging to add to their Majors numbers after they hit 28.

8. Your discussion of the Djokovic-Federer head to head rivalry (now tied at 21-21) makes no mention of the fact that over 40% of the matches have occurred since Fed turned 30 and almost 75% since Fed turned 28. Any fair analysis would at least make some mention of this very significant contextual backdrop story to the Fed-Djokovic rivalry. Moreover, had Fed chosen to retire earlier (even the end of 2012, let alone a really early retirement like Borg’s), the H2H numbers would have been far better for Fed. Mentioning at least the latter point (especially after going on about Borg, who I do not deny was amazing and is a very legitimate GOAT candidate) would have shown some fairness, but ...

9. You talk about Nadal beating Federer “like a drum,” which even if one accepts as kind of a reasonable description on clay and outdoor hard, still shows gross unfairness by not at least mentioning that Fed beat Nadal “like a drum” too on indoor hard courts, and despite all that is made out of 2008 Wimbledon, the grass record still shows Fed in the lead at 2-1 with the one loss coming at 7-9 in the fifth.

10. You say, “nothing can seem to loosen Federer's supposedly secure grip on the mythical greatest of all-time title” without even mentioning that several former tennis stars have come out and questioned Roger’s claim to that title (not to mention loads of fans on blogs etc., just like you). You are unfairly crying over something that needs no tears.

Andy said...


11. You say, “Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been in or reasonably close to their primes from late 2008 to the present.” This is the worst one David. Totally unfair and you must know this! You know, I won’t even get into why and just let the obvious unfairness of this statement by you stand on its own. Wow!

12. You say, “Federer's SABR turns into a butter knife when he faces Nadal or Djokovic” but he has never used it against Nadal, and against Djokovic it may very well have have helped him win the Cincy title. A fair analysis would of course have mentioned this.

13. And on the SABR, you describe it as something “that supposedly is an unstoppable weapon.” Well, maybe I missed McEnroe or someone making a silly comment, as what I have basically heard (which is clearly true) is that it is a very risky tactic that requires very good timing/precision. Actually that is precisely what I have heard from Fed in interviews. Anyway, a fair analysis would have at the very least clarified that it is the media, not Fed, who may be overplaying the effectiveness of this tactic (I personally am not sure it will work well as time goes on by the way).

14. In general, where is the credit to Fed for just making it to finals of Wimbledon at almost 34, USO at 34, and winning in Cincy at 34 against GOAT contender and almost 6 years younger Novak? The “coverage” of Fed may be overblown sure, but there is also clearly a creditworthy story here considering his age. I agree the Novak story should have gotten more attention, but his success does NOT “render largely meaningless” Roger’s story. Not to any fair analyst anyway.

So that’s it. Whether Fed is the GOAT/GOME or not, your article is very unfair in many respects. Yes, that's just my opinion, but I sincerely suspect that any fair and reasonable person out there, regardless of where he/she ranks Fed on a greatest ever list, would agree with me on a lot of these points about the lack of fairness in your article, if not all of them.

Andy said...

Correction: In Number 6, please ignore,

"(or 'environment' if you like in the case of indoor hard)"

as you were only talking about Grand Slam Winning percentages (I forgot that when I added that bracketed part, sorry).

My point to you though is to break down the percentages by Major. Show the winning percentages of each guy at each Major. It will show a different picture, and that information should be given too in my opinion (if you want to be fair).

Andy said...

Clarification: My point in Number 7 is not that players historically haven't been able to get some Major titles after 28, but that it seems to be tougher to get a lot of them from that age on in general. Agassi was quite successful (5) and Connors too (3), but they are the exceptions to the rule. Fed has done okay at 2. Yes, as a GOAT contender, perhaps you would expect more, but he also was playing in that period with two other GOAT contenders several years younger than him (for the most part, Rafa and Novak were in their primes, at least basically when Fed was in the 28-31 period). Agassi had relatively easy competition (Connors didn't mind you, even considering that Borg wasn't around at that point - not a fan of Jimbo, but gotta give him some credit for his 3) .

That's it, for now anyway.

David Friedman said...


Thank you for taking the time to read the article and offer such in depth comments. Here are brief replies to your points:

1) By "convinced" I don't necessarily mean that Federer is verbally arguing that he is the GOAT but that somehow his playing style or personal demeanor seems to be very attractive to many media members.

2) My point is that Federer acolytes cannot have it both ways: they cannot say that he is as good as he has ever been but that his losses after the age of 30 (or whatever) against Djokovic and Nadal do not count. The reality is that Federer's ability to retain a high ranking well past the age of 30 speaks to his great durability but in no ways proves that at his best Federer is better than Djokovic or Nadal (never mind Borg).

3)The commentators who tout Federer as the best ever rely more on his stats and the beauty of his playing style than a comparison of how effective his particular strokes are/would be against Nadal, Djokovic and Borg. My approach in critiquing those views is to focus on the accomplishments of these players and not a technical breakdown of their strokes.

4) I disagree that my approach is "unfair," as Borg's mark has stood the test of time and is not even remotely approached by anyone else. However, for your benefit, I will note that when Borg played in his last Grand Slam he had just turned 25. After Federer had just turned 25, his Grand Slam winning percentage was .300 (9/30). If Federer had retired at the same age as Borg he would have finished with fewer GS titles and a worse GS winning percentage.

5) Federer's QF appearance percentage has actually increased, not decreased, in recent years. Federer is great at staying healthy and consistently beating the lesser lights but he has consistently struggled versus Nadal and Djokovic.

6) If anything, I think that the Australian Open should be separated because it is the least important and least demanding Slam. Also, players from Borg's era routinely skipped the Australian, so in essence Borg's stats in three Slams are being compared to modern players' stats in four Slams. I see no reason to pick and choose among surfaces when comparing the greatest players of all-time. Borg dominated fast grass and slow clay. I hold all other GOAT contenders to that same standard.

7 & 8) Addressed in #2. Again, Federer's supporters cannot have things both ways.

9) Federer's supporters claim that he is the greatest ever but the reality is that he cannot touch Nadal on clay while Nadal has beaten Federer at the highest level (Wimbledon) on grass. Likewise, Djokovic has beaten Federer on multiple surfaces.

10) Mainstream coverage (including outlets such as ESPN, SI, Wall Street Journal, Tennis Magazine, etc.) almost uniformly and reflexively touts Federer as the greatest of all-time.

11) Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are the only three players who have been ranked number one during the time frame in question. If you are going to limit Federer's prime to wipe out his losses to Nadal and Djokovic then you have to also limit Nadal and Djokovic's prime to wipe out their losses to him. Again, you cannot have it both ways. Since 2008, all three players have been high level performers but Federer just has not been able to keep up with the other two.

12) You are correct that Federer has not used SABR against Nadal. I was using a play on words to suggest that Federer's "sabers" (weapons) do not work against his main rivals the way that they work against lesser lights.

13) I think that both Federer and the media have made too much of SABR. Whether or not you are right about this does not change the overall veracity of my article.

14) Federer receives so much credit from the rest of the media that he hardly needs any credit from me but it is worth noting that I have consistently called him the Emmitt Smith of tennis. Being compared to the NFL's all-time leading rusher is hardly an insult.

Andy said...

Hi David,

I appreciate your answers and the way you wrote your post. Thanks.

Relatively briefly, here are my responses:

1. Your clarification makes it seem fairer to me, but still fairer would be something like “it’s not Fed's fault, but the media tends to wax poetic about him just because of his playing style and personal demeanor.”

2. I understand your point. But there are Fed fans (like me) who do not say he is “as good as he has ever been.” Moreover, we do not say that his losses “do not count.” We just say 1) What Fed is doing now should be considered in the overall analysis of his greatness, and 2) Fed generally shouldn’t be beating Novak now as Novak is 28 and Fed is 34. And while I agree that what Fed is doing now in no way proves that at his best Fed is better than Novak/Rafa, it still can be considered in the overall analysis. There is no absolute “proof” of course, but one can make a reasonable deduction that if a near 33 year old Fed is pushing Novak to a 5th set at Wimby in 2014, a younger version of Fed might have had a good chance to win. Now, I can understand you thinking that such a deduction is not worth so much (and frankly I think Fed would have been better retiring at the end of 2012 anyway). But asserting this point is not "having things both ways."

3. The point is (i) Fed's accomplishments are not JUST the result of durability, and (ii) in any case, durability is an important measure in determining greatness and shouldn’t be dismissed.

4. Actually, your note is not only for my benefit, it’s for the sake of fairness (as .300 paints a different picture than .258). Yes, Borg’s number is still better, but a fairer picture is conveyed when you mention this point.

5. Interesting. But, more than anything, this shows how Fed’s early career struggles really have had an effect on his overall numbers, as obviously his quarterfinal percentage was way better (than the current number) during the period of his amazingly long quarterfinal appearance streak. I only say that as an aside though.

6. The reason to show the Major by Major stats is simply to tell the whole story. I have no problem with also showing the overall stats. It’s just about fairness.

7 & 8. Addressed in #2. It is not “having things both ways” to raise the age factor in this discussion. One somewhat objective thing one can do with the Novak rivalry by the way is to imagine what if there were an even distribution of their matches before Fed became 28 and after using the same “before 28” and “after 28” winning percentages as Fed has now against him. Obviously the overall H2H would be a little more in Fed's favor had there been an even distribution of their 42 matches instead of 31 of them having been played since Fed turned 28.

9. “Beating like a drum” is an unfair overall description. If you want to say that, to be fair, you have to acknowledge those surfaces/environments where Fed has not been beaten like a drum, and where in fact he has beaten Rafa like drum.

10. May be true about mainstream coverage, but it’s not as if there isn’t a very strong “Fed is not the GOAT” voice out there.

11. Wow again. WAY off on this one David. Here is your original quote again. “Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been in or reasonably close to their primes from late 2008 to the present.” Oy vey! I suggest you give a clear and unequivocal correction to that quote.

12. Your play on words was unfair for the reasons I gave.

13) I agree they’ve made too much of it. Still, when you make it seem like people are touting it as an “unstoppable weapon,” you’re being unfair.

14) It’s one thing not to go out of your way to give Fed credit because he hardly needs it from you, it’s another to essentially say that Novak’s story renders the story of what Fed has done since the end of the FO this year “largely meaningless.” That’s unfair.

Andy said...


In #9, "and where in fact he has beaten Rafa like drum" should be,

"and where in fact (in the case of indoor hard) he has beaten Rafa like drum for the most part"

David Friedman said...


1) My point is that the coverage is inaccurate/tendentious. I did not say that this is Federer's fault.

2) Federer is number two in the world and is playing at a high level, yet he still cannot topple Djokovic. This is similar to the problem that Federer had versus Nadal. I see no reason to think that Federer from a few years ago would beat Djokovic now.

3) Again, durability is part of Emmitt Smith's greatness but no credible football expert would rate Smith ahead of Jim Brown. I acknowledge Federer's durability and greatness but disagree that he should be ranked ahead of Borg, Nadal or Djokovic just on the basis of accumulating 17 Grand Slam singles titles.

4) In this context, .300 is not really that much different than .258 because both numbers are so inferior to Borg's.

5) Federer's QF numbers in the past several years reinforce my point that Federer has been in OR NEAR his prime during that period.

6) I am not particularly interested in determining who is the greatest player of all-time on a given surface, at least not in articles that focus on GOAT status.

7 & 8) I don't think that your assertion is obvious at all. Federer has trouble against GOAT contenders who are not intimidated by him, as demonstrated by his results against Nadal and Djokovic.

9) Nadal is 23-10 versus Federer. "Beat like a drum" seems fair to me.

10) The voices against Federer are not being heard in mainstream outlets as far as I can detect.

11) "OR REASONABLY CLOSE" is the key phrase. Three players have been ranked number one in the world during the time frame in question. Federer may not be in his absolute prime but at the very worst he is not far from it. By the way, in late 2008 he was 27. Are you really saying that his prime ended before that time?

12 & 13) Maybe--but the logic underlying my points did not hinge on that one phrase.

14) The whole mainstream media buildup to the U.S. Open Final was about Federer and SABR and why Federer must be the GOAT. All of that verbiage was rendered meaningless when Djokovic dismantled Federer. Federer deserves credit for his accomplishments and I give Federer that credit every time that I write about him--but he is not the GOAT. He is not even the GOHE (Greatest of His Era). Borg surpassed Connors, played the younger McEnroe evenly and had a far better GS record (totals and winning percentage) than any of his rivals. Borg owned the slow clay and the fast grass simultaneously. Federer has not matched in his era what Borg did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Andy said...


Well, you and I are just going to have to agree to disagree on a whole lot of this. Again, I'm not questioning your conclusion that Fed is not the GOAT here. Anyway, I won't comment further on almost all of the points, but since you asked me a question in your response to #11, I‘ll discuss that one briefly.

The direct answer to your question is simply, yes, I personally believe Fed’s prime (absolute prime anyway) ended before the end of 2008. Well before actually. I think Fed’s prime was about a 3 year period (2004, 2005 and 2006) and that the peak of his prime was early 2007 at the AO. Already by mid-2007 I felt there was a drop off in his game (despite the Wimby and USO titles that year). That’s my opinion based first and foremost on my view of his tennis performance (NOT results), and also on what history tells us about players primes and what I know from my own experience as a competitive tennis player.

But let’s put that aside for a second, and just assume that my opinion is completely wrong (which I am open to, as I am a reasonable guy who recognizes “prime” is not objectively defined anywhere, and also am quite aware that Fed of course still played at a very high level for a long time after early 2007, and still plays at a high level).

Even then though, your statement is completely bizarre to me because of the words “to the present,” which by the way, in my opinion, render any fairness that you think you are providing with the “reasonably close” qualification largely meaningless. I say this because, even if my opinion is wrong and his prime went on for a long period after early 2007, it definitely ended well before “the present.” And not just a year before. Or two years before. Or even three years before. I mean, even if one wants to stretch “prime” well beyond what my opinion of it is, it would be bordering on ridiculous to argue that it went much past Aug 2010, when Fed turns 29. Not too many players in tennis history have had “primes” that extended beyond 26 or so let alone 29, and even guys like Agassi and Connors, who had success past 29, were still not really in their “primes” when they were winning those late titles. And it would be simply super-duper ridiculous (border smashed right through) to argue that it went past Aug 2011 when Fed turn 30. So even if you want to stretch his prime until Aug 2011 (where you are already in ridiculous territory in my opinion), you are talking about a time point that is a full 4 years ago now. That is not “reasonably close"!

David, your comment simply is a misrepresentation of the truth. All three guys are NOT in or close to their primes in the late 2008 to present period. One of the three guys clearly does NOT fall within that description. It is a comment that misses the whole contextual point that there is a significant age difference between these guys and that their primes fell at (at least somewhat, if not very) different times.

As for your related comment in #5, no, the quarterfinal appearance percentage lends nothing at all to your point in my opinion. We can look at Fed’s career in three parts in this context. Part 1 is early career up to the 2004 FO where he does not make that many quarterfinals (4 QFs I think, in about 20 tries); Part 2 is from Wimby 2004 to Wimby 2013 where he has a 100% record for getting to quarterfinals; and Part 3 from 2013 on, with some early losses, but still way better than his early career struggles in Part 1. So all this is telling us is that his Part 1 was really bad for this stat, and even though Part 3 isn’t as good as Part 2 (of course as Part 2 is perfect), Part 3 is still better than Part 1, so the stat continues to go up.

Anyway, have a nice weekend.

David Friedman said...


If we take your analysis to its logical conclusion, then Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are all past their primes now. You state "Not too many players in tennis history have had “primes” that extended beyond 26 or so..." Nadal is currently 29 and Djokovic is currently 28. So, according to you the only three players who have been ranked number one in the world since late 2008 have all been past their primes for at least two years. What you are doing is just a perhaps slightly more nuanced version of the kind of commentary I am criticizing. You are essentially saying that Federer's losses past the age of 26 or 29 do not count because he was (in your opinion) no longer at his best, but any wins that he logged during that period boost his resume and add to his greatness. On the other hand, Federer's wins against Nadal and Djokovic before they reached their peaks presumably deserve full credit. Again, it just seems like every Federer fan comes up with all kinds of excuses to explain why Federer's Grand Slam winning percentages and head to head records against his two main rivals do not comport with his alleged GOAT status. I do not understand why so many people provide so many excuses and qualifications for Federer. Let's just look at the record as it is, without excuses. Federer is very durable and he is very consistent against players not named Nadal and Djokovic. Federer grabbed more than half of his Grand Slam singles titles after Sampras dropped off/retired and before Nadal and Djokovic were fully formed. Once Federer, Nadal and Djokovic were all playing at a high level, Federer became the third wheel in that group. Those are the facts. Anything else requires a lot of excuses for Federer.

If you are going to give Federer a pass for the first phase of his career then you also have to acknowledge that during the 2004-07 period Nadal and Djokovic had not yet peaked, which means that Federer piled up Grand Slam wins against weaker competition than Borg faced or then Federer faced post-2007.

I don't think that Federer's game has dropped off in the way that you suggest. He flew through the U.S. Open until he ran into Djokovic. That did not prove that Federer is the greatest of all-time, as some suggest, but it reminded us of how Federer won a bunch of Grand Slam titles against relatively weak opposition. If Djokovic retired now and Nadal remained hurt then Federer would be winning Grand Slam titles--which would not prove that Federer is the greatest of all-time but merely be a reflection of circumstance (playing in a non-competitive era). If Borg had kept playing, it is reasonable to assume that Connors, McEnroe, Lendl et. al. would have won fewer Grand Slams. Nadal and Djokovic have taken away many Grand Slams from Federer in the post 2008 period; Federer has not beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam event since Wimbledon 2007 and Federer is 4-7 versus Djokovic in Grand Slams since late 2008. Six of the seven times that Djokovic beat Federer in those Grand Slams he won the event, while Federer won the event just two of the four times that he beat Djokovic.

You interpret this data to mean that Federer is past his prime, while I interpret it to mean that Federer largely stayed the same (which is why he has been ranked third or better for most of the post-2008 period) but was simply surpassed by two greater players.

Put the current Djokovic or the uninjured Nadal at his best in the 2004-07 time period and Federer would have won much fewer Grand Slams. Put the 2004-07 Federer into today's game and I don't think that the recent results would have changed much, if at all. Nadal and Djokovic go after Federer until he breaks and Federer does not have answers for that psychologically or strategically. Federer just looks uncomfortable playing against those guys most of the time.

Andy said...


I’m not doing what you say I'm doing. Nowhere am I “essentially saying that Fed's losses past the age of 26 or 29 do not count...” His losses count. This is one reason why I think he should have retired at an earlier age. At the same time though, I think what he’s doing now is impressive, given the age factor, which deserves some recognition in the overall analysis. Whether one believes that his performance now considering his age boosts his resume more than the damage being incurred by the losses is part of an interesting debate, and we can fairly have different opinions about that. But to have a discussion about Fed-Novak-Rafa without any consideration of the age factor (other than an “okay, he is very durable” nod) seems unfair, just as a Borg discussion without reference to the context in his story would seem unfair. And yes, it works both ways. I do not look at it the way you accuse me of. I’m not saying this win by Fed in 2007 is worth full credit but this win by Novak in 2015 is not. Both are worth full credit. I’m saying each case has its own contextual factors. How much importance should be given to them in the overall analysis is something we can debate, but we can’t just completely ignore them. Not if we want to be fair.

Also, I did not say anywhere that Fed should get a “pass for the first phase of his career.” I just pointed out that his results from his early career are still resulting in increasing his QF appearance percentage.

As for Rafa/Novak not being in their primes in late 2008 to present, I agree with that in Rafa’s case, BUT, in the period you’re looking at you’ll find a whole lot more of Novak/Rafa’s “primes” (or something close) than you will find of Fed’s. And your translation of what I said to “according to you the only three players …” is unfair. I did not say that. When I said “not too many players…” I left open the possibility for exceptions, of which Novak is one, with a later prime.

Also, you say, “Once Federer, Nadal and Djokovic were all playing at a high level, Federer became the third wheel in that group.” Again, you’re ignoring that once Rafa/Novak started playing at whatever you’re calling a “high level,” Fed was no longer so young. Moreover, in Novak’s case, Fed’s wins over Novak a lot later than that point (2011 FO, 2012 Wimby and wins in Masters, 500 tourneys in recent years) show that Fed has done reasonably well against Novak, regardless of his “third wheel” status. A fairer analysis would have mentioned this.

As I said, I make my judgement about “prime” NOT based on results but on my assessment of a player's top level of tennis. This seems to be a big difference between us. When you say I interpret the “data” to mean Fed is past his prime, you’re not correct. I interpret his “play” (win or lose). In mid-2007, he was winning, and playing very well obviously, but I saw a drop-off starting even as he was winning Majors then (before the results significantly changed as Novak/Rafa got more and more into their primes while Roger got older).

While I don’t disagree that if you put the current Novak or the best Rafa in the 2004-07 period, Fed would have won fewer Majors (question “much fewer” though), I totally disagree with you that if you put the 2004-07 Fed into today's game, the recent results wouldn’t have changed much, if at all. BUT, that’s a different discussion, as again, my posts here were not about Fed being the GOAT (I gave you that). Despite anything I say above, I DO see the arguments for Rafa, Novak and Borg being above him. My posts here were about the way in which you are presenting your case. I can’t convince you that you are being unfair, I know that. But if you have some readers out there, I would hope that my posts serve as a counter-balance to what I view as your unfair approach to this topic, epitomized by the poster-child for your unfairness, and again I quote, “Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been in or reasonably close to their primes from late 2008 to the present.” Your words, David. All three guys were? Really? Again, oy vey!

Andy said...

Clarification: I agree that Novak's prime too does not cover the whole period. Probably started in 2011 (or maybe late 2010). What I meant to say in my last post was that I agree that in Rafa's case his prime has been over for almost two years now. Probably since the end of 2013. My point is that even if you stretch Roger's prime until the end of 2011 (which I personally don't agree with, but okay, let's go with that), you will find more prime or near prime in the late 2008 til present period we're talking about for Rafa/Novak than for Roger. And even if you do that stretch til the end of 2011 for Roger's prime, there comes a point in the subject period when we are talking about a Roger that clearly is not reasonably close to his prime, but rather past his prime.

Andy said...

Sorry for the multiple posts. I meant to say "well past his prime" in the clarification I sent a little earlier.

David Friedman said...


I think that you are getting too caught up in how to define the concept of "in or reasonably close to prime." My point in using that phrase to describe Djokovic, Nadal and Federer in the time period in question is to note that those three players have clearly been the three best players in the world for the past seven years and that all three of them are playing at a very high level; moreover, it seems to me that what distinguishes that time period from 2004-07 is not a drop off in Federer's play (which could also be described as Federer being past his prime, your preferred phrase) but rather that Djokovic and Nadal have improved. If Federer were significantly past his prime (in terms of playing ability, not age) then he would be losing to many players, his ranking would plummet and he would not be making it to the QF, SF and F rounds of Grand Slams. Instead, he still has stretches of dominance but those stretches screech to a halt when he sees Djokovic or Nadal (when healthy) on the other side of the net. Federer looks nervous against those guys and he has for several years. You can see it in the unforced errors and the mental mistakes. Federer is not losing to those guys because he is old or over the hill or past his prime; Federer is still a top notch tennis player. Federer is losing to those guys because they are better than he is, even when he is playing at his best.

This reminds me of what Coach Larry Brown used to say during timeouts to Allen Iverson about the guys trying to guard him: "They don't want to guard you. They don't want to be on the same court with you." Federer has looked uncomfortable on the court against Nadal for many years and this has become increasingly the case versus Djokovic as well. Federer is actually reaching the QF round at a better clip than ever during this time period, so this is not a matter of him being past his prime and losing to people who previously could not touch him. Djokovic and Nadal present problems for which Federer has no answers. THAT is the story and that is the point that I keep pounding home; it is ridiculous to call Federer the greatest of all-time when there are two players from his era who are both just as good, if not better, than Federer ever has been.

The other bits that you focus on--about breaking down the stats for each Grand Slam or figuring out how to define the term "prime"--are just distractions from the main issue.

If I wanted to state my thesis in one sentence, I would write, "Federer doesn't want to be on the court versus Djokovic or Nadal because they pose problems for which he has no answers." The rest is commentary, which I have fleshed out in various articles on this subject for nearly a decade now.

Andy said...


Thank you for your comments.

I think, if anything, I’m more caught up in the “to the present” part of your statement. I certainly agree that Fed is still a top-notch player. When I say “drop off” or “well past his prime” I’m not saying otherwise. But to me the fact that he has been one of the three best players the last seven years and has generally been playing at a very high level does not automatically mean that his level did not drop (to an extent beyond “reasonably close”) from what it was earlier in his career (whether we’re talking about the 2004 to early 2007 period or a period ending even 5 years later if you prefer). And also importantly, it does not do away with everything that is generally known from tennis history about player’s primes and what we simply know about our bodies and the aging process. While whatever “prime” means may not have everything to do with age, a player’s top level performance certainly has something to do with it, and we cannot totally ignore the relationship between the two things (top level performance and age). Whether Fed is somewhat defying this or not, we age and lose something, mentally and physically. If you have played competitive tennis, as maybe you have, you would understand clearly that there are things you can’t do quite as well at a certain age that you could do when you’re in your mid ‘20s, and while the opposite may be true to a certain extent in some ways, overall, aging takes its toll.
And yes, of course a big part of the difference in results is the improvement of Rafa/Novak. But one can consider BOTH factors (A) Fed getting older and more and more away from his prime, and (B) the improvement of Rafa/Novak.

Related to the above, a point that requires at least some consideration in my view with respect to the Fed-Novak rivalry specifically is, again, that almost 75% of their matches have been played since Fed turned 28 (and over 40% since he turned 30). I just have trouble understanding how you can simply ignore that contextual point about their rivalry (by writing it off as a “distraction”) and feel that you are being fair.

Anyway, we agree to disagree on the above key points.

Now I just want to correct some parts of your last post.

First, you say, “If Federer were significantly past his prime … then he would be losing to many players, … and he would not be making it to the QF, SF and F rounds of Grand Slams.…” and later, “Federer is actually reaching the QF round at a better clip than ever during this time period, so this is not a matter of him being past his prime and losing to people who previously could not touch him.”

Neither of the above statements paint a true picture as Fed has indeed lost to several players in the last few years who previously could not touch him, and prior to the QF too (Seppi, Gublis, Robredo, Stakhovsky). While it’s true that Fed was suffering from back issues in 2013, they weren’t a factor in the other matches (and there are more losses which I haven’t listed which one could argue wouldn’t have happened in 2004-2007). Also, I’m not sure what you mean by him reaching the QF at a better clip than ever “during this time period.” He obviously reached the QF at a better clip in the 2004 to 2007 time period. Again, if you mean that overall his QF appearance percentage continues to go up, that would be because the percentage was low in the early part of his career.

Secondly, you say,

“Djokovic and Nadal present problems for which Federer has no answers.”

Not totally true, certainly not for Novak. Fed actually had a 3-2 H2H record with Novak in 2014 and beat him twice in 2015, as recently as a month or so ago in straight sets at a Masters tourney. And even for Rafa, it’s not totally true unless you unfairly ignore indoor hard where Fed had plenty of answers.

Anyway, breaking down the stats for each Major and considering the age factor may be just “distractions” to you, but to me they are good examples of the theme of my posts here, fairness.

David Friedman said...


We have both staked out our positions pretty clearly and there does not seem to be a whole lot more to say but I will add a few concluding words.

It never ceases to amuse me how much Federer fans have to torture logic and statistics to bolster his standing. For Federer fans, his prime, Djokovic's prime and Nadal's prime all have to be precisely defined in order to make it clear that Federer at his best could not possibly lose to his main rivals--and if he did lose to his rivals, it was only because of the surface.

It is rare, if not unheard of, for commentators to break down players' Grand Slam wins by surface or location when ranking those players overall. The first time it came up on this site is when Federer fans wrote in to disagree with my assertion that Nadal is better than Federer. Suddenly, Wimbledon titles meant more than French Open titles and Nadal's clay court wins versus Federer should not be held against Federer.

Usually, the great players are pretty much ranked by Grand Slam win totals. I think that it is important to look at Grand Slam winning percentage and to consider the context of each era (level of competition, pro versus amateur distinctions prior to 1968, etc.)

When Borg was chasing Emerson's record for Grand Slam singles titles, I do not recall anyone making much of the fact that Emerson was an Australian player who won half of his 12 Grand Slams in the Australian Open, a tournament that most top non-Australian players did not bother with until the mid to late 1980s.

I am the only tennis commentator I know about who consistently makes the point that Emerson (and other Aussie players) padded his totals with Australian Open titles and also that Federer (among other modern players) has similarly padded his totals in comparison with guys like Borg and Connors. If you want to break things down Slam by Slam, then let's stipulate that of the three most historically significant Slams Federer is 13/50 while Borg is 11/26. Those numbers make it crystal clear that Borg was far more dominant than Federer in the most important Slams but of course Federer fans prefer to focus on 17-11, ignoring the Aussie Open context and the fact that Federer needed 66 appearances to get those 17 wins.

When Nadal beat Federer in the French Open and Wimbledon in 2008, that pretty much shut down the idea that Federer is better than Nadal; Nadal can beat Federer on Federer's very best surface when Federer is at the height of his powers and Federer cannot touch Nadal on clay. It really is that simple. Saying that Federer is as good as Nadal just makes no sense (but people keep saying it anyway). When Federer plays other guys, he looks loose and confident. When he plays Nadal, he looks tight and uncertain--and the same thing is increasingly true when Federer plays Djokovic.

Federer is a great player and I give him all the credit that he deserves. I just object to the idea that he is so vastly superior to his contemporaries and to all-time greats from previous eras. Federer was praised for surpassing Borg long before Federer won his first French Open (without facing Nadal) and that is absurd because Borg accomplished the French/Wimbledon double three years in a row en route to retiring with the most wins at both events. Federer has not come close to doing something that dominant and historically significant. Federer is also treated as though he is superior to Nadal and Djokovic, though the numbers do not back that up.

If Federer in his prime (however you define it) faced Nadal in his prime (however you define it) on any surface I would give Nadal a better than 50% chance of winning. The same is true for Djokovic versus Federer. Nadal and Djokovic are relentless grinders and their styles may never win over the media but their styles wear down and frustrate Federer. That is the point of my articles and I think that my articles very fairly and logically support that point.

David Friedman said...


Since you are so concerned that I am not providing proper surface context for my readers, here is some food for thought.

Nadal is 13-2 versus Federer on clay and 9-6 versus Federer on hard courts. Federer is 2-1 versus Nadal on grass (all at Wimbledon but Nadal won the final encounter, as mentioned above). So Nadal is 22-8 versus Federer everywhere in the world except for Wimbledon and he is 10-8 versus Federer on all surfaces other than clay.

The players have never met at the U.S. Open. They were one match away from doing so five different times and on three of those occasions a Federer loss prevented a showdown with Nadal.

Those numbers have to be tortured severely in order to see anything other than a decisive 23-10 advantage for Nadal. That advantage would not matter in the all-time rankings if it were a small sample size fluke and if Nadal had only won a few Grand Slam titles--but this rivalry is lengthy and has been contested at the biggest events. Furthermore, Nadal has won Grand Slams at a higher percentage than Federer overall and he has beaten Federer at least once in three different Slams.

The case for Federer involves massaging numbers and making excuses, while the case for Nadal involves stating facts.

Anonymous said...

All good points about Federer not being the greatest. But let's not get carried away with Borg, Sampras, Laver, Djokovic being better then him. A little stretch if you ask me.

While Borg DID dominate the French Open, it was not like Nadal did. Borgs wins themselves at the French, on the surface look impressive. But upon closer inspection, the reality of the situation is reveal. Just as you point out, "Who did Federer beat?", I ask, "Who did Borg beat at the French that had a Grand Slam under their belt at the time?"

Borg won those French Opens...But who did he play, that was at his peak, that he beat? Other than Vilas, Borg never faced anyone other than Andriano Panatta that had actually won the French Open before. Vilas, Borg only faced twice, and one such time was before 1977, when Vilas won. Lendl was not in his prime in 1981 (And he still took Borg to five). Panatta was probably the best player Borg ever faced in the French Open. But guess what? Borg was 1-2 against him at the French! Does that detract from Borg's titles. Well, if Federer's wins from 2003-2007 in the Slams were against poor players (Grand Slam count-wise), then by the same token, Borg's French Opens must also be similarly discarded. And who, does Nadal have a losing record against at the French? Not a single player. Not helping matters either is that Borg won the French in 1974, the year the first two rounds were best-of-three. Nadal is better than Borg on clay. Plain and simple.

Yes, I know Borg retired too young. I also happen to know Rod Laver was barred from playing in the Grand Slams from 1963 to 1967. No telling how many more he wins. Was Laver dominated by his peers?

In no way shape or form can Federer be expected to beat Djokovic at this stage of the game. Why? Because who can beat him? Not Nadal (That French Open debacle of this year...Pretty much sums up their rivalry now), not Murray, not anyone. Yes, I know Stan The Man beat him in the French Open Finals, but upsets happen.

Nadal himself cannot be considered better than Federer. Why? Well, quite simple, look at his head-to-head vs. Djokovic. While it appears on the surface to be close, the reality is, it isn't. Since Nadal beat Djokovic back in 2009 (Two years before Novak's prime) in Cincinnati (Djokovic's worst tournament to date), it's been pretty much all Djokovic. 17-9, to be exact. Yep, Raf has been beaten like a drum the last six years by Djokovic, who will finish this year ranked #1 for the fourth time (Compared to Nadal's two (And since one was in 2010, then only once since Djokovic has hit his prime). And given what we've seen from Nadal this year, what could possibly happen to leapfrog Nadal over Federer? Federer has beaten Djokovic twice this year. Nadal? Not since the 2014 French Open finals.

I a case could be made for Borg as better than Federer on grass could be made. But it would have taken Borg such an effort to match what Federer has done on grass. Here are the W-L records of some of the best grass courters in recent times:

Federer 142-20, 87.7%
McEnroe, 119-20, 85.6%
Borg 61-11, 84.7%
Murray 90-17, 84.1%
Sampras 101-20 83.5%
Connors 170-34, 83.3%
Becker 116-25, 82.3%
Djokovic 67-15 81.7%
Roddick 86-22 79.6%
Edberg 99-27, 78.6%

Behold! Notice how Roddick (What, he wasn't good on grass?) and Murray make appearances? Djokovic also moving up the latter. Rather stunned that Sampras is a little low, but that's the way it goes. Notice how Borg's big rival, McEnroe, has a better W% on grass, despite playing until 1992?

Tennis Enthusiast

Andy said...


I agree that we have both staked out our positions pretty clearly. So I won’t say much in this post. I just thought it would be good for all of the facts below to be revealed in this discussion. Your readers can make of them what they will. Hopefully there are no errors, but if you find any please point them out.

Overall Major Percentages


Borg - 11/27 = 40.74% (without AO - 11/26 = 42.30%)
Nadal - 14/43 = 32.56% (without AO - 13/33 = 39.39%)
Fed - 17/66 = 25.76% (without AO - 13/50 = 26%)

Had Fed/Nadal Stopped at Borg’s Point
(Following two full Majors after turning 25)

Borg - 11/27 = 40.74% (without AO - 11/26 = 42.30%)
Nadal - 10/30 = 33.33% (without AO - 9/23 = 39.13%)
Fed - 10/31 = 32.25% (without AO - 7/23 = 30.43%)

Fed’s breakdown by Major

Actual Had Fed Stopped at Borg’s Point (Following two Majors after he turned 25)
AO 4/16 = 25% 3/8 = 37.5%
FO 1/17 = 5.88% 0/8 = 0%
Wimby 7/17 = 41.17% 4/8 = 50%
USO 5/16 = 31.25% 3/7 = 42.86%

Had Fed Retired at the end of 2012

AO 4/13 = 30.77%
FO 1/14 = 7.14%
Wimby 7/14 = 50%
USO 5/13 = 38.46%

Rafa’s breakdown by Major

Actual Had Rafa Stopped at Borg’s Point (Following Two full Majors after he turned 25)
AO 1/10 = 10% 1/7 = 14.29%
FO 9/11 = 81.82% 6/7 = 85.71%
Wimby 2/11 = 18.18% 2/7 = 28.57%
USO 2/11 = 18.18% 1/9 = 11.11%

Borg’s breakdown by Major


AO 0/1 =0% (but should be ignored due to the context)
FO 6/8 = 75%
Wimby 5/9 = 55.55%
USO 0/9 = 0%

I am not putting this info up to say “See, this shows Fed is the GOAT.” Of course not. As I say, there is clearly stuff shown in this info that can certainly be argued against Fed. Obviously that is so as he is Number 3 in all the "overall percentage" categories. And I realize there are solid arguments to be made for Borg based on his outstanding numbers above at the FO and Wimby. And I also realize that one can make the argument, as you do, that the main thing that matters is the overall percentage, which Rafa too has a lead over Fed on. Personally I believe it is important to see that Fed leads by fairly substantial margins in the percentages at 3 of the 4 Majors over Rafa, but let’s let your readers decide on their own, with this info in front of them, what to make of it. I just put this info up first and foremost because it simply gives us more information, and secondly, because actually I think it’s kind of interesting.

I don't show Novak and I don't show the YEC (where Fed of course would have a huge lead over Rafa) as I wanted to keep this relatively simple. Maybe in a year we should put up Novak's numbers as well.

I show the end of 2012 by the way because, for me, this would have been a good time for Fed to have retired. I don’t view 2012 as something that should have been expected but rather as a nice comeback. He had a good year overall, and his H2H with Rafa was at 10-18 then (with a solid win in Indian Wells over Rafa being the then most recent match), and with Novak it was at 16-13. He was about 31.5 at the end of 2012. It just felt like a good time for him to retire to me back then, and I still believe that (my fellow Fed fans don’t like me saying that by the way). To me it was kind of his Ali-Spinks 2 moment. Of course, there really is no comparison there (harm to Ali going on after that was greater in terms of both legacy and, more importantly of course, health), but I just equate the two in the sense that it would have been a nice way to “go out” (Ali blowing kisses as being carried away; Fed winning his last Wimby, etc.).

Anyway, it is interesting (for me anyway) to have a good discussion with you on this topic, and for allowing me to do that, I thank you.

David Friedman said...


I never said that Sampras is greater than Federer. Laver and all other players who thrived before the Open Era are a separate discussion, though most commentators lump them in together with Open Era stars like Borg, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Borg did not have a losing record against any Top 10 player who he faced more than four times. Borg never lost to a younger player until McEnroe showed up in the late 1970s. Part of the reason that Borg did not face many former French Open champions in that event is because he took out all members of his generation before they could win any.

Borg did the French/Wimbledon double three times IN A ROW. No one else has done it three times in an entire career. When Borg retired, he owned the modern era records for career titles in both events. He also still owns, by far, the best Grand Slam winning percentage. Borg had a relatively short career but he dominated his era. His record of winning at least one Grand Slam for eight straight years stood for more than two decades before being tied by Sampras and Federer and later broken by Nadal.

Borg did not have a rival who owned him like Nadal owns Federer. Borg came along when Connors was at his absolute peak and Borg surpassed him in Grand Slam titles and in head to head battles. The younger McEnroe posed a good challenge but their head to head rivalry ended far too soon in a 7-7 tie. When they faced each other in big-money non-Tour events in 1982 Borg did quite well, as I have mentioned in previous articles.

Federer cannot beat Djokovic now for the same reason that 2004-07 Federer likely could not beat Djokovic now. Djokovic is aggressive and he is not intimidated by Federer. Federer looks much less comfortable against Djokovic then he does against anyone else other than healthy Nadal. Federer breezes through the 2015 U.S. Open until he saw Djokovic across the net. Federer has aged well and is remarkably durable and I acknowledge both of those facts--but his actual game, in terms of strokes and in terms of psychological wherewithal, does not measure up to Djokovic or Nadal. Watching Federer struggle against the two players who are physically equipped to challenge him, it is almost an insult to Borg to even discuss how Federer would have fared in that hypothetical battle. Nastase used to say that the rest of the pros were playing tennis and Borg was playing something else. Federer is very comfortable against the guys who fold and/or who do not have the physical tools to deal with him. If Federer hit a nice passing shot against Borg, Borg would have had no reaction and would have had the attitude, "You will have to do that 1000 times to beat me." Federer crumbles when Nadal and Djokovic keep coming at him.

Nadal and Djokovic have played the most matches against each other in any Open Era rivalry and Nadal, despite being injured for the past couple years, is still up 23-21. Your attempt to twist the numbers in Djokovic's favor fails miserably. Nadal may not ever return to full health, but there is no evidence that peak Djokovic is better than peak Nadal.

The grass court statistics that you cite are not relevant. Borg was 51-4 (.930) at Wimbledon, the premier grass court event. Federer is 79-10 (.888).

As usual, in order to demonstrate Borg's greatness it is only necessary to cite relevant facts. Federer fans always have to engage in mental gymnastics of some sort.

David Friedman said...


All you are doing is dumping out raw statistics that anyone can look up. My articles are not "hiding" anything. I am focusing on the statistics that are most relevant and explaining why they are relevant. Here is a summary of what is relevant from the career Grand Slam numbers of these players (this summary will look remarkably like a summary of my articles about these three players).

1) Borg has a better Grand Slam winning percentage than any player in history
2) Even if you arbitrarily pretend that Federer and Nadal retired at a younger age, their winning percentages still do not match Borg's (which is why I don't bother getting into that comparison in my articles, because the result is the same as a full career comparison)
3) Borg simultaneously dominated the French Open and Wimbledon in a way unmatched by any other player, retiring as the career singles title leader at both events. Federer and Nadal kept playing beyond Borg's retirement age but will never match that feat; if Borg had kept playing, he almost certainly would have extended his French Open record and likely would have added more Wimbledon titles as well. He might have even grabbed the U.S. Open and then journeyed to Australia to complete the Career Slam. Those are reasonable, if unprovable, speculations.
4) Prior to the mid-1980s, most of the great non-Aussie players did not care about the Australian Open. So, Borg's career totals from three Grand Slams are now being compared with modern players' totals from four Grand Slams--and it is still difficult for modern players to pass Borg's career total from a shortened career and no modern player has come close to Borg's winning percentage.
5) Winning percentages broken down by Grand Slam event or by surface do not tell us anything about the overall greatness of these players. These comparisons are only brought up vis a vis the Federer-Nadal rivalry because that rivalry is so lopsided that Federer fans are desperately searching for ways to hide the truth. Let's review the surface issue one last time:

Federer fans make much of Nadal beating up on Federer on clay but, as I pointed out in a previous comment, Nadal is 9-6 versus Federer on hard courts, 10-8 versus Federer on all surfaces other than clay and 22-8 versus Federer everywhere on Earth not including Wimbledon. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics for Federer fans to ignore this clear evidence of Nadal's superiority.

Looking at head to head and at Grand Slam winning percentages, we see that Nadal is a better tennis player than Federer. Djokovic is making a good case that he is at least as good as Federer.

Federer is remarkably durable and Federer had the good fortune to show up after peak Sampras and before peak Nadal, so Federer amassed a Grand Slam singles win total that may not be broken anytime soon, just like Emmitt Smith's career rushing record has lasted for a long time. If greatness just means outlasting everyone else even though there are a handful of players whose peaks were better, then Federer can be counted as the greatest--but the people who are counting him as such should be honest that this is their method, not that Federer's shots or skills or psychological toughness against other great players is the best, because the evidence shows that he is not the greatest in those areas.

Andy said...


The percentages broken down by Major are an important part of the story. If you think it’s not relevant that Rafa, having entered most of the tourneys where Fed got his titles, has a lower percentage (and not just by a little) at 1. Wimby 2. USO and 3. AO (not to mention, 4. YEC), despite the fact that Fed’s percentages are obviously affected by his slow start and his playing until he is 34, well, I’d say you have a bizarre definition of “relevant.” Of course this point about Rafa being out-performed at all of the most important places but the FO (and the Olympics), is a point to be considered. Showing the percentages obviously presents a much fuller/fairer picture, even if there are still very good cases in the end to support Rafa, etc. over Fed. Again, for at least the third time, I see the arguments for the other guys. But I absolutely call you out for not presenting fair articles on this topic. You simply do not.

And putting up the numbers as of Borg’s departure from tennis may reveal the same result in terms of order, but it shows a closer picture than the unfair one you like to present so as to convey a larger gap between Borg and Fed in the percentage stat than actually exists.

David, think of it this way. If a Mork-like being from outer-space (let’s call him Shmork) landed on earth without any knowledge of tennis whatsoever and read just your articles at first, he would later be quite surprised to learn at least the following (if not more):

1. Of the most important tourneys in all of tennis (FO, Wimby, USO, AO, YEC, Olympics), there are only 2 where Rafa has a lead on Fed in terms of winning percentages or titles. A huge one at the FO yes, but there are 4 ones where Fed’s leads are not small (some fairly large actually).
2. Fed is 5/6 years older than Rafa/Novak.
3. There is something called indoor hard, which is very different than outdoor hard. 9-6 has parts. Shmork is gonna be surprised at that as good old David never mentioned a thing about it.
4. Fed has a 4-1 lead on indoor hard. Shmork will be astonished when he sees Fed beating up on Rafa here. He won’t be surprised of course when he sees Rafa beating up Fed several times, especially the 2008 FO, because, well, he has heard about this a LOT. But Shmork has never heard about the 2007 mauling Rafa endured at the YEC, or the 2011 one.
5. Borg having no USOs will have come up a tiny bit in your articles, so Shmork will not be totally surprised about that, but he’ll be very surprised to find out that Borg had chances to win the tourney on a version of clay. Shmork may then wonder how much heat Fed would have taken if the tennis Gods would have said in 2005 “Let’s make the FO a grass tourney for a couple of years” and he still wouldn’t have won. But Shmork will learn from some fair guy like me that Borg had some unfortunate injuries that are part of his USO story.
6. Shmork will be quite surprised to learn that Borg’s rival, McEnroe, beat him the last three times they played at Majors. Not only that though, but the one and only win Borg had at a Major was 8-6 in the 5th.
7. On your articles on Novak, Shmork will laugh when he finds out how many of their matches have been played since Fed turned 28, and then 30. He’ll wonder what this David guy expects from Fed? He might even start to think that you’re unfairly punishing Fed for being so good so late.

After all this though, Shmork, being a fair fella (unlike some fellas he knows), will say, “You know, having considered all the above, I still think for various reasons that Borg, Rafa and Novak rank ahead of Fed.” And David will start to say,“You see …” Only to be interrupted by this from Shmork,

“But it sure is a lot tougher call than I thought it was after reading those articles from that David guy. Boy, this is an interesting situation and there a lot of factors to it. The articles from that David guy don’t really give an out-of-planet dude like me the full picture.”

David Friedman said...


You decided that the Australian Open, the Olympics and the Year End Championships are on par with Wimbledon, the French Open and the U.S. Open. That does not make it true. The Olympics did not even include tennis as a full medal event until 1988. The Australian Open historically is far less important than the other four Grand Slams. I have never heard anyone else make YEC success a substantial part of a GOAT argument. Federer is first with six such titles but Lendl is tied for second and Nastase is tied for third. Lleyton Hewitt won as many such titles as Borg (two each). YEC matters but it is a small factor in the discussion.

Your hypothetical alien would wonder why it is so important to Federer fans to elevate the significance of certain events and he would see that I apply the same standards to all tennis greats without discrimination. I base my evaluations on Grand Slam winning percentages, multi-surface dominance and, when there is a large enough sample size, head to head results among great players. I also factor in the peculiarities of each era (for instance, the relative insignificance of the Australian Open to non-Aussies until at least the mid-80s). The standards that I apply are logical, consistent and well-explained in my articles.

There really is not much more to say on this subject at this time.

Andy said...


I didn't say all six were on par with one another, just that they seem to be the most important tourneys out there. Certainly the Majors are, and as between Rafa and Roger, I do believe the 4 Majors are all on basically equal level. Your AO point applies to a Borg-Fed discussion, yes. I have (fairly) tried to deal it with it there. But as between Rafa and Fed, there is not much at all to your point about the AO. The Majors are basically equal now and have been for their careers. The next 2 most important after the Majors, whether we like it or not, seem to be the YEC and the Olympics. I am not such a big fan of the Olympics myself actually (and would say so even if Fed had a gold in singles there), but I think if you asked the 10 best players in the world "which are the most important tourneys?” the six I mentioned would almost always be cited.

I of course agree that the YEC and Olympics are not near the level of a Major, but that does not make them unimportant. I particularly think that the YEC is important in the Rafa-Roger discussion because it shows yet another environment where Fed got the better of Rafa from an overall performance result point of view (in addition to the outdoor hard courts at the AO and USO and the grass courts at Wimby). Actually at the YEC it is not just overall performance results where Fed has a big lead, but H2H, as a closer look at those matches shows that, to put it in your words, on a very fast court, Fed had many answers for Rafa. That is a significant contextual part of the Rafa-Fed story. To totally ignore it is unfair.

One of the great examples of your unfairness is the AO. You are perfectly happy to talk about Rafa's 3 wins over Fed there (which I agree are significant), but you don't make much at all of Fed's 4 titles to Rafa's 1 there (except for two times, both guys basically entered the same AO tourneys in the time span of those titles). This again seems to be our basic difference David. You come away from the AO saying it is a plus for Rafa in this discussion. I come away saying, look at Rogers titles and titles to tourney played percentage compared to Rafa's. The AO is overall a plus for Roger (and not a small one), despite the admittedly significant 3 H2H losses to Rafa there.

Last point. Shmork (my hypothetical alien) would note that it is not just Fed fans who scratch their heads at the gross unfairness of your articles. He will see me and a totally unbiased friend, a tennis pro no less, talking at a bar about your articles. This friend believes Rafa may be the best ever. Yet when we talk about your comments, he says, “Well, he’s just being unfair …” That’s where I got the “unfair” thing from actually, and have used it with you and others since, because that is what your comments on this topic are.

Anyway, I agree, there is not much more to say at this time. If you don’t hear back from me, you can take “oh well” in advance as my response to any more unfair comments you put on here.

David Friedman said...


Since "fair" and "fairness" are your favorite buzzwords, I think that it is fair to say that your statement "Of the most important tourneys in all of tennis (FO, Wimby, USO, AO, YEC, Olympics), there are only 2 where Rafa has a lead on Fed in terms of winning percentages or titles" places those six events "on par with one another." You certainly did not offer Shmork any reason to think otherwise and since you take great pains to instruct me on how important it is to fairly and clearly explain things to my readers I can see no other possible interpretation except that you do in fact place those six events "on par with one another."

The four Majors have never been on completely equal par. The Australian Open has always been the least important, though it has more prestige now than it did during Borg's era. I doubt that players outside of Australia dream of winning the Australian Open. Tennis players grow up dreaming of winning Wimbledon and the French Open. American players also grow up dreaming of winning the U.S. Open. If a player wins a couple Grand Slams then he may begin thinking about collecting all four but that does not mean that they are all on equal par. Wimbledon tests one's ability to thrive on the fast and, at times, unpredictable grass. The French Open tests one's ability to thrive on the slow clay. Winning both multiple times, as Borg did, displays a mastery of the overall sport.

The Year End Championship is important but I have never seen or heard serious commentators basing their greatest of all-time evaluations on those titles. That is a factor to consider but not a main factor. The Olympics may be the premier overall sporting event in the world but all-time tennis greatness is not measured by Olympic medals.

I do not understand why you and other Federer fans have such a hard time understanding or grasping the simple fact that even taking Nadal's best surface, clay, out of the equation, Nadal still owns a 10-8 head to head advantage over Federer, including 9-6 on hard courts.

I have explained why I don't do a Major by Major comparison. It is not like I am only neglecting to do so vis a vis Federer and his rivals. What matters is Grand Slam winning percentage and the ability to win on both fast grass and slow clay. As a fan, I like Sampras better than Nadal or Federer but I cannot rank Sampras ahead of Nadal because Nadal's game is more well-rounded and his overall Grand Slam record is more dominant.

Similarly, I think that McEnroe is overrated, maybe because he has become such a popular TV personality. McEnroe's main rival, Borg, retired at the height of his powers (after a year in which Borg won one Grand Slam and reached two other Grand Slam Finals) and McEnroe managed to win just three more Grand Slams total, finishing with seven Grand Slam singles titles in 45 attempts compared to Borg's 11 in 27. If Borg had played three more years McEnroe might not have won any more Grand Slams. McEnroe may be the greatest doubles player ever but for many years a number of commentators touted him as the greatest player of all-time and I could not understand why.

David Friedman said...


It is hilarious that you just brush past Nadal's French Open dominance like it does not matter but you make a big deal out of Federer beating Nadal four out of five times on indoor hard courts at the Year End Championship. Do you really think that matters more? The French Open is a Grand Slam tournament of historic and traditional importance. The Year End Championship is a modern invention. The tournament is played at the end of the year on a fast surface. Both such conditions favor Federer, who is more durable than Nadal (and thus in better health by the end of the long season in most years) and who prefers fast surfaces--and even with all of that in Federer's favor, Nadal has still beaten Federer in the YEC on indoor hard courts while Federer cannot touch Nadal at the French Open. Nadal totally dominates Federer on clay, he beats Federer on hard courts and he can at least compete with Federer at Wimbledon and on indoor hard courts but you think that a complete recitation of these facts favors Federer? Or that a complete recitation of these facts is necessary for a full understanding of the subject? Shmork is shaking his head (or heads, if he comes from a species that has more than one head) at such twisted "logic."

Think about Navratilova-Evert. When Evert enjoyed the early head to head advantage, she was considered the greater player. When Navratilova turned that around, she was considered (and is still considered in most quarters) the greater player. They only played 14 times on clay, with Evert winning 11 of those, but no one seriously argues that this is unfair to Evert. Navratilova won the head to head rivalry 43-37. They both won all four Grand Slams at least twice and they both won 18 total Grand Slams. Evert's Grand Slam winning percentage (18/56, .321) is actually better than Navratilova's (18/67, .269). Navratilova is more than two years younger than Evert. The bottom line is that head to head records not broken down by surface or Major actually matters when comparing tennis greats--unless Federer is involved, because he has somehow convinced the media and his fans to make endless excuses for why he cannot best Nadal on clay OR hard court and why he cannot come close to matching Borg's Grand Slam winning percentage or simultaneous dominance of grass and clay.

David Friedman said...


The reality is that the deeper one goes and the more one looks, the less reason there is to elevate Federer above his contemporaries.

Forget YEC and the Olympics and let's look at Davis Cup, which is much more important. Borg went 37-3 in his singles matches, including a still-standing record 33 match winning streak that was intact at his retirement. Borg led Sweden to one Davis Cup title. Federer's Davis Cup singles record is 40-8 and he led Switzerland to one Davis Cup title. Nadal's Davis Cup singles record is 22-1 and he led Spain to four Davis Cup titles. Djokovic's Davis Cup singles record is 27-7 and he led Serbia to one Davis Cup title. In the Davis Cup category, Federer is no better than third out of these four players, well behind Borg and Nadal.

Borg's incredible Davis Cup record is yet another reason to rank him as the best of the Open Era and a contender for greatest of all-time status (even though we have been throwing around GOAT terminology, I prefer to rank Open Era and pre-Open era players separately). Nadal's tremendous Davis Cup record is yet another reason to rank him ahead of Federer.

When one looks at all of the stats in context, the real question is how to rank Nadal versus Borg? That is a tough one. Borg simultaneously dominated grass and clay and retired as the career leader in both FO and Wimbledon wins but Nadal surpassed Borg's French Open record, owns a career Grand Slam and broke Borg's mark by winning at least one Slam for 10 years in a row. I doubt that Nadal could beat Borg at Wimbledon if they were both in their primes and I am not sure what would happen if they played each other at the FO if they were both in their primes but it hurts Borg in this comparison that Borg never won the U.S. Open. If Borg had won at least one U.S. Open then he probably would have played the Australian that year and won it as well. Under those circumstances, Borg would be the fairly clear choice--but those things did not happen.

So, Borg-Nadal is a fun comparison to debate, but the idea that Federer belongs in that discussion on equal footing--much less that he should be considered the GOAT--is bizarre.

Andy said...


As I said very clearly, I do not place those six events “on par with one another.” This is a silly point by you, as obviously I didn’t mean that by any reasonable and fair interpretation of that post. All three heads of Shmork would have no trouble understanding that a group of things can be said to be the “most important” relative to other things and not necessarily of equal importance among themselves. In any event, my immediate clarification (only necessary really because for some strange reason you got stuck on this point) makes my position totally clear.

As for the AO, I don’t totally disagree with you (only about 90% disagree). That’s why I put the word “basically” in my sentence about “equal value." I used to agree with you more on this actually, but things changed a long time ago. These days the AO is considered a very significant title, and it’s really much harder to distinguish between its importance and the importance of Wimbledon, the FO or the USO (if there is a big difference we have to seriously reassess Novak’s case by the way). It has been this way for many years now actually (at least the last 20). I do see your point to a small degree about kids dreaming of Wimbledon in particular (more than the FO/USO I think unless you are from certain countries maybe), but really, so what? The difference is not THAT big anymore and it doesn’t change the fact that the AO is a Major of very great significance, and that has been so throughout the careers of Rafa/Roger.

I’m not “basing” my greatest of all-time evaluation on the YEC. I’m not saying it’s the main factor. I’m not saying it's more important than the FO. All are grossly unfair readings of my posts.

I have no trouble understanding 10-8 and 9-6. They are part of the reason why I can accept the case for Rafa over Roger. I do think you should break down 9-6 into 8-2 for Rafa (good for Rafa) and 4-1 for Roger (good for Roger). Have you played tennis seriously David? I have several personal cases of widely different results with the same player on indoor hard and outdoor hard. They are very different environments, and the Fed-Rafa results are good evidence of this.

By the way, you left out of your comments on the YEC that Rafa’s one win came against a 32 year old Fed in a year when Fed was struggling with back troubles. And while I have no problem with your contextual comments about the end of the year, etc. it is hilarious to me that such explanations are legitimate to you but the contextual explanations I provide for Fed are “excuses.” Shmork is shaking his heads again.

As for Navratilova-Evert, the reference to that rivalry would be a lot more relevant if Chrissy were well up in terms of titles/winning percentages on every surface (or Major) but one like Roger is against Rafa. That is not the case. In any event there is indeed a point about that rivalry that can be applied here, and that is EVEN if they would have played more matches on clay and Chrissy would have had the better H2H as a result, there would STILL be a good case for arguing that Martina was the better player (I actually think you agree with me on that). But wait a second, in that hypothetical, the player with the better H2H isn't the "better" player. Hmmmm.

As for Davis Cup, it’s a team event (deserves some value in this, but not that much). A separate entity as it is not a tournament between individuals but rather between groups of individuals.

Oh, McEnroe? Overrated. Okay. I guess that means an overrated player beat Borg in 3 out of 4 of their Major matches, with the only loss being 8-6 in the 5th. Hmmmm. Shmork is banging his heads together over that one. And 1984 Mac was way better than any Mac Borg ever faced by the way.

As for the rest (in these recent post and future ones), I just continue to say “oh well.”

David Friedman said...


If you are "fair" with yourself then you realize that by lumping those six events together without distinction and then further stating that Nadal only leads Federer in two without stating that some of them are more significant than others you are, in fact, giving the reader the clear impression that you believe that the six events are of equal stature. Otherwise, why bring them up and make the Nadal-Federer comparison the way that you did? Any other interpretation of what you wrote makes no sense.

When you write that I "left something out" or words to that effect--a sentiment that you repeatedly express--it seems that you do not understand that I am writing tennis articles, not tennis encyclopedias. When writing an article, there is a selection process involved in what facts and analysis to include. You obviously are dissatisfied with my selection process--mainly because the facts and analysis do not favor Federer--but it is not necessary to place every fact and every piece of analysis into overtly stated "context." The relevant facts are that Nadal owns a huge head to head advantage over Federer and that Nadal owns a head to head advantage over Federer even if we subtract clay court results from those totals. Could we break down each and every match based on surface, who had a head cold and the players' astrological signs? Sure. Would that in depth context really provide meaningful information? No.

Let's break down the analysis step by step, very simply.

1) Nadal has established a clear head to head superiority over Federer.

2) The next logical step is to see if the sample size is large enough. I think that 33 matches is a large enough sample size.

3) The next logical step is to see if Nadal has amassed enough other titles and accomplishments to be in the GOAT conversation. If Nadal owned a 3-2 head to head advantage over Federer and two career Grand Slam titles then one could argue that the head to head results are flukes but Nadal actually has won Grand Slams at a greater rate than Federer.

4) Here are some other relevant facts:

Nadal owns a career Grand Slam. Nadal won at least one Grand Slam for a record 10 years in a row. Nadal beat Federer in Federer's best Grand Slam event (Wimbledon) but Federer never beat Nadal in Nadal's best Grand Slam event (French Open). Nadal's Davis Cup singles winning percentage is much better than Federer's.

Is there a story and a context behind every match, every set and every point? Of course there is, but we do not need to recount all of those details to reach reasonable--or, in your words, "fair," conclusions.

To make the case for Federer, one has to rely on the theory that raw Grand Slam win totals mean more than the dominance demonstrated by a higher Grand Slam winning percentage and/or one has to come up with a lot of excuses to explain Federer's shortcomings.

The case for Borg is simple and I have outlined it above and in previous articles. Yes, Borg's case would be even stronger if he had won the U.S. Open or if he had played longer and accumulated more Grand Slam titles. Yes, I could provide some contextual explanations for Borg's U.S. Open Final losses. However, even without context or explanations/excuses Borg's case is great.

Federer's case involves making endless excuses and explanations.

The Evert-Navratilova comparison is very apropos because the perception of the rivalry flipped when the head to head results flipped. Everyone knows that Navratilova was better on the fast surfaces and Evert was better on the slow surfaces but the final number that stands out is 43-37--which is much less decisive than 23-10. Navratilova is two years younger than Evert but one rarely hears much about that, either.

David Friedman said...


As for Borg-McEnroe, the final tally in Tour matches was 7-7. Borg pounded McEnroe in 1982 when they faced each other in some non-Tour events, most notably the Akai Gold Challenge: Debunking Myths About Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Roger Federer Since you love surface and context, why did you not mention that two of McEnroe's GS wins versus Borg came on McEnroe's home court (U.S. Open) and that all three of them came on his best surfaces but that McEnroe never faced Borg in the French Open? If you are going to use flawed contextual analysis to prop up Federer, at least be consistent and do the same for Borg.

I am consistent and I apply the same analysis to Borg and McEnroe that I do to Federer, Nadal and everyone else. Borg won 11 Grand Slams in 27 attempts, a far more dominant overall record than McEnroe. Borg retired as the career singles title leader at the French Open and at Wimbledon. McEnroe did not come close to matching either distinction. Borg won at least one Grand Slam in a then-record eight straight years. McEnroe's best such streak was three years. I could cite other numbers (check out my previous articles if you interested for more details) but the point is that Borg's overall career was more dominant than McEnroe's and Borg dominated both slow and fast surfaces. The other step in the analysis is to look at head to head results for players who were contemporaries. As mentioned above, Borg and McEnroe split their Tour matches 7-7. That outcome over 14 matches does not change the final analysis. McEnroe was a challenging opponent for Borg (and vice versa) but he did not dominate Borg or even finish with the advantage. McEnroe also trailed Lendl 21-16 head to head, further diminishing McEnroe's claim on GOAT status.

As a closing thought to this thread, regarding my tennis playing experience, do you have to visit the moon to write about space travel? Writing competency is measured by analytical skills and knowledge of the subject matter. Personal experience can be useful if it supplements those other qualities but personal experience is not essential, nor is it sufficient in the absence of those other qualities.

Andy said...


Ten last one-sentence comments by me (admittedly run-on sentences maybe).

1. I am not giving the impression that the six events are of equal stature at all, as anyone would understand that I was merely saying the six events are more important than other tournaments (especially anyone who has read this thread where I actually went to the trouble of excluding the AO when presenting the facts in one thread, and have only introduced the YEC in a "not to mention ..." kind of way).

2. It doesn't take a whole lot of extra space in your articles to refer to a contextual point like breakdowns by Majors, which, whether you like it or not, is a very relevant point which any fair-minded reader is going to appreciate, and one can say that and say you are 100% right that Fed is not anywhere close to being the GOAT/GOME at the same time without there being any contradiction at all.

3. Your step by step breakdown was totally unnecessary as I have already conceded that I understand Rafa's GOAT/GOME case, unlike many Fed fans out there who will try to totally bat you down (unfairly) based simply on 17-14 and 302 weeks at No 1.

4. Similarly I understand the case for Borg very well, and having grown up in his era I have no problem saying he was amazing.

5. Having said that, Borg's case ends at the no USO point for many tennis commentators/fans out there, so actually, whether you think he needs it or not, the contextual points about the USO are important

6. Related to the above, for the record, I think Borg is a very valid GOAT candidate depsite the USO point and give him credit for the 4 finals there (and recognize the contextual points).

7. Your making it seem like I said McEnroe was greater than Borg is just a Straw Man argument by you, as I never said anything of the sort but simply was commenting on your comment that Mac was overrated and pointing out that, if that is so, not only did Borg lose 3 out of 4 matches at the Majors to his biggest rival, but (according to you) he lost them to an overrated rival.

8. Related to the above, I fully understand that Mac and Borg never played on clay, which is one of the reasons (amongst many better ones) why I have never ranked Mac over Borg (and don't think there is even a discussion there), so though I may not have specifically mentioned it in this particualr comment (which was simply about your reference to "overrated) I have indeed taken into account the clay point in conisidering the Borg-Mac story.

9. Your take on Evert-Navratilova is one take, but my different take, is both an interesting one and a telling one, as if we hypothesize that there were more clay matches in their H2H (as there was in the Fed-Nadal rivalry), we would end up with Chrissy leading Martina in the H2H, but would probably not have a good argument that Chrissy was the better player due to Martina's overall body of work.

10. Thank you for the discussion and "oh well" to the (probably) unfair response that comes my way, but please feel free to surprise me with at least an ounce of recogntion of the validity of some of my points (and not just the "Borg was amazing" ones) and a couple of nice words here and there.

Andy said...


I noticed a few places in the post I sent earlier that I would like to correct (English and content-wise), so please let me repost soon.

Thank you in advance.


Andy said...


Thanks. Here is the repost (corrects typos, etc. and a few content changes, but not many).


Ten last one-sentence comments by me (admittedly run-on sentences).

1. I am not giving the impression that the six events are of equal stature at all, as anyone would understand that I was merely saying the six events are more important than other tournaments (especially anyone who has read this thread where I actually went to the trouble of excluding the AO when presenting the stats in one post, and have only introduced the YEC in a supplementary kind of way to point out that there is yet one more place/surface other than the Majors where Fed has superior performance results, namely indoor hard), and in any event I have clarified that I do not view them as “on par” at all so there is no need to go on about this point.

2. It doesn't take a whole lot of extra space in your articles to refer to a contextual point like breakdowns by Majors, which, whether you like it or not, is a very relevant point which any fair-minded reader is going to appreciate, and one can say that and say you are 100% right that Fed is not anywhere close to being the GOAT/GOME at the same time without there being any contradiction at all.

3. Your step by step breakdown was totally unnecessary as I have already conceded that I understand Rafa's GOAT/GOME case, unlike many Fed fans out there who will try to totally bat you down (unfairly) based simply on 17-14 and 302 weeks at No 1.

4. Similarly I understand the case for Borg very well, and having grown up in his era I have no problem saying he was amazing.

5. Having said that, Borg's case ends at the no USO point for many tennis commentators/fans out there, so actually, whether you think he needs it or not, the contextual points about the USO are important

6. Related to the above, for the record, I think Borg is a very valid GOAT candidate despite the USO point and give him credit for the 4 finals there (and recognize the contextual points).

7. Your making it seem like I said McEnroe was greater than Borg is just a Straw Man argument by you, as I never said anything of the sort but simply was commenting on your comment that Mac was overrated and pointing out that, if that is so, not only did Borg lose 3 out of 4 matches at the Majors to his biggest rival, but (according to you) he lost them to an overrated rival.

8. Related to the above, I fully understand that Mac and Borg never played on clay, which is one of the reasons (amongst many better ones) why I have never ranked Mac over Borg (and don't think there is even a discussion there), so though I may not have specifically mentioned it in this particular comment (which was simply about your reference to "overrated) I have indeed taken into account the clay point in considering the Borg-Mac story.

9. Your take on Evert-Navratilova is one take, but my different take is both an interesting one and a telling one, as if we hypothesize that there were many more clay matches in their H2H (for example, to the extent that there were in the Fed-Nadal rivalry), we would end up with Chrissy leading Martina in the H2H, but would probably not have a good argument that Chrissy was the better player due to Martina's overall body of work.

10. Thank you for the discussion and "oh well" to the (probably) unfair response that comes my way, but please feel free to surprise me with at least an ounce of recognition of the validity of some of my points (and not just the "Borg was amazing" ones) and a couple of nice words here and there.

David Friedman said...


You may have meant something different but, in the context of our conversation, what you said strongly implied that you place equal or nearly equal weight on those six events. My take is that Grand Slam winning % and the ability to dominate both fast grass (Wimbledon) and slow clay (French Open), along with head to head records (if there have been a sufficient number of head to head encounters), matter most when comparing the great players. Since those metrics do not favor Federer vis a vis Borg, Nadal and Djokovic, you countered with the proposal to break down the Grand Slams by surface and event and then also suggested throwing in the YEC and the Olympics. If you don't think that those factors matter as much as the factors I mentioned--and I agree that they don't--then why bring them up in that context?

I agree that the lack of a U.S. Open title is the biggest gap in Borg's resume. Rather than making excuses for Borg--like Federer fans do for their guy's resume gaps--I just take Borg's record for what it is. If I want to do so, at some time I could write an article about the context of Borg's U.S. Open losses but it just does not seem as important or relevant as focusing on all that Borg accomplished. I am more interested in comparing his accomplishments to Federer's accomplishments as opposed to comparing excuses or contexts about what those guys did not accomplish.

McEnroe was a great player who had a great rivalry with Borg but McEnroe subsequently became overrated, in the sense that I don't think he should have ever been considered the greatest player of all-time no matter how well he played in 1984 (and his 1984 season was great).

You are entitled to your take on Navratilova-Evert but the actual way that the rivalry has been covered over the years does not conform with your take.

tennis said...


What do you make of Nadal's struggles this year? I find it a bit perplexing that he is struggling to beat the likes of Fognini, Lopez and Verdasco, let alone the top players.
Djokovic completely dominated him in the French Open. And let's not forget, Nadal is only 29! Federer never suffered such a dip in form throughout his prime.

David Friedman said...


I am not sure what to make of Nadal's struggles. He had some injury problems in 2014 and perhaps those issues have lingered and/or during the recovery process he lost his timing/confidence/stamina to persevere through long matches and tournaments.

It is worth noting that from 2005-2014 Nadal set a record by winning at least one Grand Slam for 10 straight years, exceeding the record eight set by Borg and later matched by Sampras and Federer. Nadal is also the only male to win one Grand Slam at least nine times and he holds the record for most consecutive titles at one event (eight Monte Carlo wins). Nadal and Wilander are the only males to win at least two Grand Slams on three different surfaces (hard court, grass, clay). Nadal also has an active streak of 12 straight wins when he reaches a Grand Slam semifinal, second only to Borg's record 14.

I bring up these numbers because when Nadal first emerged as a threat to Federer some commentators suggested that Nadal would never do well on surfaces other than clay and that Nadal's style would shorten his career. The latter may turn out to be true, at least in terms of Nadal possibly not playing as long as Federer has, but Nadal has proven to be a master of all surfaces and he deserves a lot more credit for his durability than he gets. Nadal's record-setting streaks listed above, along with his Grand Slam winning percentage and other accomplishments (including a decisive head to head advantage over Federer), cement his spot as the best player of his era (though he obviously is not the best player right now; that would be Djokovic).

tennis said...


It's not looking good for Rafa. He just got schooled today by Djokovic, 6-2 6-2. It's only a matter of time before Djokovic has a superior head-to-head record against him. If Nadal continues to perform at this level for the next few years - not being able to reach the quarters of majors - then it will make Roger's performances over the past few years look even more impressive.

David Friedman said...


No one knows what will happen in the future.

Based on past performance, we can say that Federer is more durable than Nadal but that Nadal at his peak is better than Federer at his peak. That is why Nadal's Grand Slam winning percentage is better, why Nadal owns the decisive head to head advantage and why Nadal--despite his injury problems--has won at least two Grand Slams on three different surfaces.

Will Djokovic ultimately surpass Nadal in career accomplishments and/or the head to head battle? That remains to be seen. Djokovic now is better than Nadal now but Djokovic now is not better than peak Nadal.

tennis said...


You have conveniently failed to address the fact that Nadal has not qualified for the second week at the majors throughout this year. Not only has he struggled but he has lost to players ranked outside the top 100 four consecutive times now at Wimbledon. Not to mention how he lost a two-set lead against Fognini at the US Open (a player who he has lost to three times this year). If things don't turn around quickly, he will continue to play the top seeds early on in tournaments, making his chances of adding a major even tougher.

David Friedman said...


If I addressed that fact how would it change the reality of what I wrote? Even if Nadal never wins another Slam his peak still was greater than Federer's. We don't yet know what Djokovic's peak is/will be but I would not yet put him above Nadal or Federer in the all-time rankings.

Federer has won one Grand Slam in the past five years, while Nadal has won five in that period. Nadal has gone six Slams without winning one--and he missed one of those Slams due to injury. This is Nadal's longest dry spell since he won his first Slam in 2005. Starting in the year when Federer turned 29 (Nadal's age now), Federer went nine Slams without a victory and he has a current streak of 13 Slams without a victory. So, after the age of 29, Federer has won two Slams in 24 tries. Before you or anyone else gets too excited about assuming that Federer's post-29 career will be better than Nadal's you might want to wait a year or two. Nadal could yet have a better post-29 career than Federer.

Nadal reached the top levels at a younger age than Federer (Federer had a string of first round Slam losses early in his career), Nadal's peak was better than Federer's and we do not yet know what Nadal's post-29 years will look like. Nadal has been written off before and bounced back, so Federer fans might not want to get too giddy, lest they will have to come up with some excuse about why post-29 wins don't count (which is what we will surely hear if Nadal gets three of them to tie Federer's all-time mark for Grand Slam singles titles, because no matter what Nadal does there is a cadre of true Federer believers who will be quick to discount it).

Anonymous said...

Interesting article :

Not sure if you watched the match, but even with Nadal playing his best tennis in recent months, he still wasn't able to beat a 34 year old Roger.

David Friedman said...


So a Federer win in his home country on his favorite surface in a minor event is a very important milestone in a rivalry during which Nadal has otherwise dominated Federer. That is a very interesting way of looking at things.

Of course, if Nadal had beaten Federer then we would hear that the match did not matter at all because Federer is 34.

Basically, Federer can do no wrong: when he wins, it proves that he is the greatest of all-time--and when he loses, well, he already proved that he is the greatest and isn't it unbelievable that a 34 year old can even pick up a racket, much less play in a professional tennis tournament?

Federer is the Emmitt Smith of tennis. He is more durable than Nadal and than most other elite level tennis players. Federer is going to own many of the raw number records. He does not have a better Grand Slam winning percentage than Nadal, he does not even approach Borg's Grand Slam winning percentage and the vast majority of times he has faced Nadal over the years Nadal beat him like he stole something. Nadal has not only dominated Federer on clay but Nadal still--even after this critically important match in Basel--owns a head to head advantage against Federer overall on all other surfaces.

Whether or not Federer is better than Nadal on November 1, 2015 does not even come close to settling the issue of who is the greater player overall. Put Nadal at his best versus Federer at his best and my money is on Nadal.

Matt said...

I'm a little late to the tennis discussion; some interesting detailed debate that gets a little repetitive (and I've only been reading this morning ;) but good stuff.

The idea that Roger is better now than ever is ludicrous. So, whoever is making that claim is bananas. The SABR is a gimmick; so that whole point you attribute to someone (that it's this amazing shot and further endows his legacy) is weak.

Roger's case is an interesting one. He has lots of numbers. But he's flawed. So is Nadal, Djokovic, et al. The GOAT debate is even flawed.

The idea that they've all been in their primes since 2008 does look pretty good at first glance, but Roger was involved earlier. I watched the 2005 AO SF between him and Safin recently; more proof there was great tennis before 2008 ;)

Keep up the good work!

David Friedman said...


Thank you for your input!