Saturday, January 28, 2017

Federer Versus Nadal: Once More, for the Ages

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest tennis players of all-time, are just hours away from facing each other once again--perhaps for the last time--in a Grand Slam Final. Many commentators are touting this as the most important head to head match of their rivalry.

I disagree with the notion that this one match--out of nearly three dozen head to head matches and hundreds of other matches in their respective careers--is the most important match for either player. Both Federer and Nadal are well past their primes and the Australian Open is indisputably the least significant of the four Grand Slams (the top non-Australian players routinely skipped this event in the 1970s and 1980s).

I am not convinced that any one match can or should be singled out as the most important but if we are going to pick one Federer-Nadal showdown to elevate above all of the others then the choice has to be Nadal's five set victory over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Final. That Nadal triumph ended Federer's Open Era record 65 match winning streak on grass courts, it obliterated once and for all the notion that Nadal was only a clay court specialist and it paved the way for Nadal to supplant Federer as the number one ranked player in the world. That match is also arguably the greatest match in tennis history. There is no way that a match in Australia between two past their prime greats can come even close to matching the historical significance of the Wimbledon match that they contested when they were both at the peak of their powers.

Federer is such a media darling that it is easy to forget how thoroughly Nadal has dominated their head to head rivalry. Nadal leads Federer 23-11, including 9-2 in Grand Slams and 6-2 in Grand Slam Finals. Nadal beat Federer early in the rivalry (taking 11 of 17 matches prior to their 2008 Wimbledon showdown) and he has also dominated as both players moved past their primes (winning six of their eight matches since 2011). If Nadal beats Federer in the 2017 Australian Open Final then Nadal will join Roy Emerson and Rod Laver as the only players to win each Grand Slam at least twice (Federer claimed his sole French Open title by not having to face Nadal).

Federer holds the male record with 17 Grand Slam singles titles, but it is important to keep in mind that tennis professionals were not permitted to play in the Grand Slams until the Open Era began in 1968; otherwise, Rod Laver could very well have won 17 or more Grand Slams. Also, Federer has won 25% of his Grand Slam appearances (17/68), a lower percentage than Nadal's 30.4% (14/46); Federer is tennis' Emmitt Smith, a great player who set records based more on durability than dominance.

It must be mentioned in this context that Bjorn Borg, the Sandy Koufax of tennis, holds the record for percentage of Grand Slams won (11/27, 40.7%) and his simultaneous dominance of the French Open's slow clay plus Wimbledon's fast grass is unparalleled; Borg won both tournaments from 1978-80 and when he stopped playing Grand Slams at just 26 he held the modern record for most titles at both events, six and five respectively. Put Borg, Federer and Nadal in the same era with the same equipment and Borg would likely emerge as the best player based on conditioning, mental toughness and ability to dominate multiple surfaces.

Mary Carillo recently offered great insight about the Federer-Nadal rivalry: 
I have said and argued with John McEnroe and Ted Robinson during our French Open telecasts for many years that you cannot anoint Roger Federer the greatest of all time if he isn't the greatest of his own time. And it's not just on red clay. Nadal has the edge on hard courts as well. Like in boxing, it's all about the matchup. When Roger is playing at his luminous best he has no need to worry about the other side of the net. But if he is playing Nadal, even his best is often not enough.

People conflate [Federer's] beauty with supremacy and blur the line between high art and [Nadal's] impossible-to-ignore domination. I think Roger Federer is the most stylish, elegant and gifted tennis player I've ever seen. Roger is all that is right in this tennis world. Rafa Nadal is his perfect rival--powerful, explosive, gritty and gutsy.
Nadal has proven to be more dominant on more surfaces than Federer. Nadal owns a decisive advantage in their head to head rivalry. Nadal beat Federer in Federer's prime on Federer's best surface. I cannot imagine how this Australian Open Final would materially alter my opinion about Nadal and Federer; if Nadal wins, this is just a continuation of a well-established pattern of Nadal's superiority, while if Federer wins that would not change the fact that Nadal still owns a huge head to head advantage that he obtained when both players were at or near their primes.

Any Federer fan who hypes up this match as Federer's great opportunity to prove that he is a greater player than Nadal should be prepared to make the opposite declaration if Nadal wins; it makes no sense to act like this match matters if Federer wins but to give Federer a pass if he loses. Such thinking reminds me of a writer who years ago claimed that a Lakers-Rockets game seven would be the biggest game of Kobe Bryant's career (the writer hoped/expected that a loss would somehow define Bryant's legacy)--but after Bryant's Lakers won, this writer did not make any comment about this victory defining Bryant's legacy in a positive way.

Federer and Nadal have both defined their legacies already. This match will be one more chapter--and perhaps a poignant/nostalgic one if it turns out to be their last Grand Slam Final battle--but no one should make bold declarations about all-time rankings based on the outcome.

My prediction? Nadal wins in four sets. Either during the match or shortly thereafter, Federer will indicate that he was not at full strength physically. Nadal will be humble in victory and declare that Federer is still the greatest player; Federer's media fans will agree with Nadal and will state that Nadal's victory over an aging Federer is not really that significant (but if Federer somehow wins this match, brace yourself for a barrage of articles declaring that Federer is the greatest tennis player of all-time).


Anonymous said...

Agree definitely not most important match of either of their careers.

But, there's a lot of problems with your slam percentages. You're using Fed's superior fitness level over his career as a black mark against him. Since he's been healthier than probably any other all-time great and played a full career, of course his percentage will be lower than other players. If Fed retired after the 2007 season, his percentage would be much higher. He won 11 of the 16 possible slams from 04-07. Nobody has even come close to this. He was much more dominant than anyone in history for his best stretch but this cannot continue for anyone especially with players like Djoker/Nadal on tour, it's odd you feel like you to need to slight him comparing him to Emmitt Smith. Couple that with very few players win slams in their 30s(Fed only has 2), especially after 30-31. Sampras had 1, Agassi 2, Mcenroe/Borg never won anything past age 25. I know you'll say Borg retired, but it's hard to maintain the demands of the tour and he no longer wanted to do that, plus he gave no indication he'd win any slam on hardcourt.

There's only so many slams available in a tennis player's career. It's great if these guys can continue to play as long as possible, but that makes no sense to hold that against them. It'll be interesting to see if Nadal, Djoker, and Murray can do much in their 30s. They are much luckier than Fed. Since when Fed turned 30, all of them were ridiculously great and in their primes, and much greater than any up-and-comer right now. Fed was much more dominant in best stretch.

Nadal has the better H2H vs Fed, but that's not how tennis works. Tournaments aren't set up with 2-player draws. If Fed had to play Murray and/or Djoker as well, he probably doesn't win the tourney, or if he had to play them in the 1st round, probably not either. And anyone who has ever played tennis knows it's about matchups. Every player has another player that they match up poorly against even if they're the better player. Nadal has won much less than Fed so far, and is ridiculously top heavy on clay. Nadal might hold the H2H advantage on hardcourts, but why hasn't he come close to winning as much on hardcourt as Fed does? That right there tells us H2H isn't nearly as important as many make it out to be. Of the 5 biggest tourneys, Fed holds ridiculous huge advantages over Nadal at 4 of them. You have to look at the whole body of work. If it's very close or a tie, then H2H might be the deciding factor, but it isn't. Fed's whole body of work is much better. I think he's the only player in the open era to win at 35, and that's with not playing a tourney in 6 months.

David Friedman said...


The first time that I ever heard tennis commentators minimize the importance of head to head was when young Nadal started beating prime Federer like Federer had stolen something. Borg-Connors and Navratilova-Evert are just two of many rivalries that are remembered for first one player dominating and then the other playing taking over. Head to head absolutely matters, particularly when players face each other as often as Federer and Nadal have. Nadal beat Federer on his best surface when Federer was at his absolute peak but Federer did not do likewise to Nadal.

Regarding Grand Slam winning percentages, here are the numbers/facts that refute your suppositions:

1) By age 26, Federer had won 12/34 Grand Slams (.353 winning percentage). By age 26, Nadal had also won 12/34 Grand Slams. If either had retired at that point, each would have had won one more Slam than Borg but with a worse winning percentage (and Borg essentially only played in three Slams, because he made just one early career appearance at the Australian Open).

2) Federer emerged when Sampras/Agassi were on the way out and Nadal had not yet arrived. Federer won four Slams during those wilderness years. Nadal had to deal with prime Federer and prime Djokovic, plus others.

3) From 2005-10 when Federer was at his absolute peak, he won 12 Slams and 13 Masters Series titles; Nadal won 9 Slams and 18 Masters titles during that period (which was not Nadal's absolute prime; his prime was 2008-13 and he won 11 Slams plus 17 Masters titles during that period despite missing three Slams due to injury).

4) At the age of 25, Nadal had more Slam titles, more Masters 1000 titles and more overall titles than Federer did at the age of 25.

5) Five of Federer's 18 Slam titles are Australian Opens (the least important Slam). Nadal has won Australia once but he owns 13 titles in the other three Slams, matching Federer.

Federer is unquestionably more durable than Nadal--but at a comparable age (25) before Nadal's injuries struck, Nadal had displayed more dominance than Federer. Nadal more than held his own against Federer when Federer was at his absolute peak. Nadal owned the head to head advantage against young Federer and even after the 2017 Australian Open he still owns the head to head advantage against old Federer.

I'd take Borg over either one, for reasons that I have described in previous articles, but it is hard to compare across eras. It is much less hard to compare two players who have faced each other nearly three dozen times and who have both sustained excellence for long periods.

Anonymous said...

Didn't say H2H didn't matter, but in the whole scheme of things, it's about winning tourneys, not beating one particular player. Nobody would say Richard Krajick or Lleyton Hewitt are better than Sampras, would they? Navratilova/Evert are tied at 18 GS, that's more important than Navratilova winning H2H, which is only 43-37, pretty close. Evert made 5 more GS finals, though. Navratilova's overall body of work is much better with dubbs included, but up for debate if just looking at singles. H2H is only one aspect comparing players. Winning tourneys is much more important to look at. Tennis is about matchups. Nobody would even suggest Nadal is a great AO player than Fed despite his 3-1 advantage over Fed there.

1)Doesn't refute anything I said. Nadal became greater at a younger age though, but once they each became great, Fed was much more dominant, but still time for Nadal to reach Fed's GS record. Nadal also missed 4 tourneys early on, which would drop his pct if counted. Something to think about is that Nadal's best season would be Fed's 4th best season. Fed won 3 slams 3 different times, which Nadal only did 1x, while making at least the finals of each slam 3 different years to Nadal's 0.

2)Most tennis players are at their best in their mid 20s. Maybe easier for Fed then, but he continued his greatness for several more years and he can't choose his competitors. The game was still much more competitive than in the past. Borg was an unremarkable 7-7 vs his main competitor, McEnroe, who has a 3-1 advantage in slams. Nobody would say McEnroe was better either. And can you actually see McEnroe winning anything today? He did nothing after 25 in his era. By the time players approach 30, slams very rarely happen. Fed made a remarkable 18 of 19 finals in one stretch during his career, only one he missed was 08 AO when he had mono.

4)Through age 25, they both had 11 GS titles. Maybe Nadal had more titles through age 25, but that's with a huge emphasis on clay. He's fortunate there's a lot more clay tourneys(his favorite) than grass tourneys(Fed's favorite).

5)I'd say the FO is least important now. Didn't used to be, though. Not sure why the AO shouldn't count. Take away the FO, and you have 17-5 in favor of Fed. Wimby and the USO are by far the 2 most prestigious tourneys now. Fed owns a nice 12-4 advantage in those two. Taking any one tourney out except the FO, which I don't understand this notion, Nadal at best has an 12-11 advantage compared to 17-5 without the FO. And least we not forget, Fed leads 6-0 at the Year-end final. Nadal was a huge edge at the FO, but Fed has huge edges at every other big tourney.

I don't think Nadal showed more dominance even through age 25 even counting all of his clay-heavy results. Before Nadal won a slam other than the FO, his results were very sporadic. He put together a solid 2008 campaign, then very sporadic until a dominant 2010 season, then pretty good through 2012 FO, but very extremely sporadic ever since. Fed never showed this until he was nearly 32 at 2013 Wimby, an age most tennis players are retired and nobody wins slams. I give Nadal credit for being greater at an earlier age, but a lot of that has to do with him having a great specialty on clay and during a time when there wasn't another great claycourt player on tour. Every player is different, but Fed has remained great longer, and when he became great, his dominance was second to none for 4-6 years, but nobody can maintain this level of play forever.

Andy said...

Hi David,

I agree that it is hard to say that one match is the most important match for either player. But I have a few comments on other points. Actually, before starting, I again will just give you the point that Rafa is greater than Fed. To me there is no decisive “argument-killing” problem with such a conclusion (but I also think there is no such problem with the opposite conclusion). There are of course problems with each argument, but not decisive "argument-killing" ones in my opinion. But let’s put that aside. I'm okay with acknowledging one of the main points of your numerous articles over the years. Rafa is greater.

Okay, here we go.

1. You say the Australian Open is “indisputably the least significant of the four Grand Slams.” Even if there remains a difference in significance, for the last 25 years at least (closer to 30-35), the difference in significance has not been very large. Certainly not anywhere near as large as you are trying to make it seem. The AO is a huge title, as it has been for years since the top players started to go in the ‘80s. I certainly understand your point in Borg-Fed or Borg-Nadal comparisons, but emphasizing the “AO does not mean as much” point the way you do makes no sense in a Fed-Nadal comparison. It’s a very significant tournament. Both guys entered into it plenty of times (very often together). Fed has come away with 5 titles. Rafa 1. Huge checkmark for Fed at the AO in the Fed-Nadal discussion, even despite the 1-3 H2H.

2. You say “Federer has won 25% of his Grand Slam appearances (17/68), a lower percentage than Nadal's 30.4% (14/46)…” But David, when Fed was at the point where he had played 46 Majors, what was his percentage? Let me answer that for you. 34.8% (16/46). Better percentage than Rafa despite Fed’s first Major-less years.

3. Mary Carillo’s quote that “you cannot anoint Roger Federer the greatest of all time if he isn't the greatest of his own time” works both ways. If Rafa is the GOAT, why is he so far behind Fed in titles at three out of the four Majors? I mean even if we accept your dismissal of the AO, why the huge gap in titles at two out of three of the remaining “Way more significant according to David” Majors? The “weak era" theory might explain part of it but 7-2 and 5-2 are pretty large gaps. Throw in as an extra (NOT saying nearly as important) indoor hard’s biggest venue, the YEC, and there is yet another place where GOAT Rafa falls way short of titles – in fact has been blanked there.

4. Mary Carillo does say one thing that’s more important I think when she says, “it's all about the matchup.” If you played competitive tennis David, you would understand this point better.

5. You say, “Nadal has proven to be more dominant on more surfaces than Federer.” I assume you mean simply the H2H. Against the field, this is not correct, especially if we break hard into outdoor hard and indoor hard (but even if we don’t, it’s a clear checkmark for Fed on “hard” and “grass” when we are talking against the field).

6. Anonymous makes a great point when he says, “They are much luckier than Fed. Since when Fed turned 30, all of them were ridiculously great and in their primes, and much greater than any up-and-comer right now. Fed was much more dominant in best stretch.” Yes, Fed may have had a weak era early, but Fed also had a VERY tough era in terms of the presence of other GOAT contenders (two of them) 5/6 years younger than him in Fed’s post 30 period. Novak and Rafa may well benefit from the lack of the same amazing younger players now. That is not to say that Raonic, Dimitrov, Nishikori etc. are not great players, but they are not several-year-younger GOAT contenders.

David Friedman said...


You said that if Federer had retired in 2007 then his GS win % would be higher than it is now. While that is true (his percentage was 13/38, .342 at that time), his percentage was still much lower than Borg's record (11/27, .407) and barely better than Nadal's at a similar stage of Nadal's career (end of his 10th season of playing Grand Slams, when Nadal's percentage was 11/33, .333).

If you research the coverage of Navratilova-Evert (who, like Federer-Nadal, each had a favorite surface), Evert was considered the greater player when she owned the head to head advantage. Then that flipped and now Navratilova is generally considered greater, even though the head to head margin is slim and they won the same number of GS singles titles. Nadal's head to head advantage is decisive and there is no reason that clay should not be counted or should be counted less than anything else. That is why I said that if we are going to start tinkering with the numbers then let's take out the AO, not the French. Taking out the AO also enables us to make a fairer comparison with Borg, Connors and McEnroe, each of whom routinely skipped the AO.

The argument for Federer being the greatest of all-time is that he won the most GS titles and was supposedly the most dominant ever during his prime--but Nadal showed up during Federer's prime and, despite not having peaked yet, started beating Federer like a drum, first on clay but then on other surfaces too. This culminated with Nadal beating Federer on his "home court." As noted above, Nadal won more by age 25 by any measurement than Federer did and, unlike Federer, Nadal had to deal with Federer in his prime to put up those numbers. If Nadal had emerged when Federer did and played the non-entities that Federer was playing until Nadal emerged, Nadal would likely have won even more than he did.

The argument for Federer being indisputably the greatest of all-time just makes little sense to me. An argument stating that durability is very important and that Federer's durability is more meaningful than Nadal's higher GS winning % and Nadal's decisive head to head advantage is at least worth considering (though I don't buy it) but this notion that Federer proved his superiority in 2006 and nothing that Nadal ever does can change that makes no sense. For a while, the goal post was that Nadal had to win Wimbledon. Then he did that, knocking off Federer in the process, and the goal post got moved somehow. If Nadal picks up four more GS titles to tie Federer, I have no doubt that then this goal post of most GS titles will be moved as well.

David Friedman said...


There seems to be some kind of inherent bias against Nadal because his game is supposedly not as beautiful as Federer's and if that is what drives people then I wish they would just admit it explicitly instead of pretending to argue about greatness when they are really making a case for aesthetics.

I am not necessarily saying that is what you are doing but I am saying that I don't find the pro-Federer arguments particularly compelling. Arguing for Federer always involves mental gymnastics: head to head doesn't mean much, Nadal's early wins against Federer don't matter because they were on clay, Federer's past his prime win against Nadal this week is the most important match in tennis history, Nadal's superior GS win % does not matter (for some reason that is never really explained), etc.

Nadal's case involves no mental gymnastics: He has bested Federer head to head on both clay and hardcourts, he dethroned Federer on Federer's "home court" during Federer's prime and his pre-age 25 rise to the top was even more spectacular than Federer's (which is doubly impressive since he had to face peak Federer to accomplish this). Then I would throw in just one subjective consideration: most of the times that Federer played Nadal, Federer looked scared and played a different style than he did against anyone else. The greatest player of all-time should not look scared and should not have to change his game for anyone else. If Federer just looked scared against Nadal once or twice or it only happened on clay, then I could dismiss it--but when I watch Federer play Nadal I just do not feel like I am watching the best player on the court, much less the greatest player of all-time; if Nadal's speed and relentlessness unnerves Federer in long matches, Federer would have had fits against Borg, whose philosophy was to keep pounding away and make his opponent hit hundreds of good shots to beat him. If Borg and Federer had played in the same era Federer might have played longer but I doubt that he would have taken many matches from Borg--none at the French Open, for sure, and I don't believe that Federer could have withstood Borg at Wimbledon.

David Friedman said...


I agree that the Federer-Nadal argument can validly be made either way (though I personally find the arguments in Nadal's favor to be more convincing). I argue Nadal's case more vigorously because I feel like Federer's case is pushed heavily by most members of the media. The pro-Federer arguments are repeated endlessly, while the pro-Nadal arguments seem to get less airtime.

Regarding the Australian Open, I agree with you that it would be more precise to say that historically it is less significant, which is important to consider when comparing Borg to Nadal and Federer but less important when comparing Nadal and Federer.

Nadal is behind Federer at three out of four majors because Federer has been playing longer and is more durable. Young Nadal had to deal with prime Federer, while older Nadal had to deal with prime Djokovic.

Was Federer really "much more dominant" in his prime than Nadal? As I noted in an earlier comment, "From 2005-10 when Federer was at his absolute peak, he won 12 Slams and 13 Masters Series titles; Nadal won 9 Slams and 18 Masters titles during that period (which was not Nadal's absolute prime; his prime was 2008-13 and he won 11 Slams plus 17 Masters titles during that period despite missing three Slams due to injury)." Nadal nearly went stride for stride with Federer when Federer was at his best and Nadal's best six year run contained one less Slam but four more Masters titles than Federer. I don't understand why Federer's 2005-10 is considered so much better than Nadal's 2008-13.

Then, of course, there is Borg's 1976-81 period when he won five straight Wimbledons plus four straight French Opens to simultaneously dominate fast grass and slow clay in a manner that no one else has done before or since. Borg also made four U.S. Open Finals in that six year span and he did not play once in Australia or else his six year Grand Slam title haul would likely have bested both Federer's and Nadal's top runs. Borg never lost to a younger player--on any surface--until McEnroe came along. Borg owns the best winning percentage against top 10 opponents in the Open Era and he won at least 90% of his matches for an unprecedented four straight years (1977-80). Borg's late 70s/early 80s run stands the test of time against Federer or anyone else.

I'd take Borg over Federer and Nadal but the cross-era argument is harder to prove; my main point is that Nadal has put up enough numbers across the board--head to head, Slams won, overall tournaments won, etc.--that his greatest of all time claim deserves more consideration than it is often given. At the very least, we will not know who is the greatest player of the post-Sampras era until both Federer and Nadal have retired.

Andy said...


I agree that there is a Fed bias in the media, but I also think that an "anti-Fed" bias grew out of that for certain fans (and some members of the media too). As with many things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. What I mean is that Fed might not be as "great" as he is built up to be by lots of the media, but at the same time he may be being overly downgraded for the faults on his resume by his detractors.

Don't get me wrong. I acknowledge the seriousness of the faults, the Rafa H2H being the biggest one. The H2H is of course a problem for any "Fed is the GOAT" argument. I totally agree with you on that, and actually always have (where I disagreed at one time, but changed after Rafa's 2013, is whether Rafa had done enough, particularly on hard courts, to seriously enter the GOAT discussion – after 2013 he clearly had in my opinion).

But the H2H fault also sometimes gets exaggerated. You do this, for example, David when you say "beaten like a drum." That description can't be completely accurate if the player Rafa is "beating like a drum," a) has a 5-1 record against Rafa in one environment in which the game is played (indoor hard), with some of the wins being quite one-sided, b) has won over a third of the 35 matches in the rivalry (this is not just one win out of fifteen matches like Gasquet versus Rafa or three wins out of twenty-four matches like Roddick versus Fed), c) has won three Major title finals against Rafa (and not to discount the FO losses at all, but outside of clay the finals count is now 3-1 for Fed with the one loss being 7-9 in the 5th), d) has beaten Rafa on every surface, and e) at one time (at the end of 2007), actually had the H2H at a reasonably close 6-8. Again, don't get me wrong. The H2H is bad. I am not putting out these facts to say otherwise, but simply to refute "beaten like a drum" as an overall tagline for the Fed-Nadal story. While it is true that, on clay and, actually most significantly, outdoor hard, Roger has been, if not "beaten like a drum," beaten in a very lopsided way (especially on clay of course where I think I can live with "drum" expression actually), it is not an appropriate overall tagline.

And what happens with the "beaten like a drum" type analysis is unfortunate in my opinion in that, just as media over-hype of Fed takes us away from the ultimate "truth" of his overall story and the very unique and really quite fascinating Fed-Nadal story within it, so too does "beaten like a drum" which leads to other myths such as "Nadal OWNS Fed on ALL surfaces."

And you know, it's funny, some of my fellow Fed fans who would, very unfairly, ram 18-14 and 302 weeks down your throat, would not even disagree with such myths but rather just accept the "TOTAL domination" description, and then, rather illogically in my opinion, dismiss the H2H as meaningless or of little meaning. I don't get that dismissal at all. That is one point we totally agree on David! The H2H matters, and not just a little. And, if the H2H truly equaled practically TOTAL domination (a la Rafa-Gasquet 14 to 1), it would matter a whole lot more.

As I say, we have to look to the middle. The H2H is not meaningless, or of little meaning. But it's not the be all and end all either. Similarly, Fed's 18-14, 302 weeks, etc. of course are far from having little meaning, but are not the be all and end all either.

More on some of your other points in my next post.

Andy said...

Correction - The count in Major finals off clay is 3-2 for Fed. Forgot about the 2009 AO final. My apologies.

Anonymous said...

David, you started the AO omission. I followed suit with showing the #'s if the FO was omitted. Winning pct. is nice, but not nearly as important as # of wins. Every player is different when they peak along with differing career lengths, and it's much harder to win at a younger age today than during Borg's day. Borg benefited from not playing/losing the AO every year, too. His dominant stretch wasn't as dominant as Fed's, it just started at an earlier age. Who knows what he could've done, which is up for debate but comparing players across eras is done by what they actually accomplished, and he also didn't do so hot at 82/83 Monte Carlo.

I'll reiterate the problems with H2H and add a few things:

1)I see you failed to comment on Krajick/Hewitt vs Sampras. How important is H2H? If it's as important as you seem to claim, it's hard to say Sampras was better than either one of them.
2)Murray was ahead 6-2, 8-5, 11-9 vs Fed until Fed has won the last 5. Did Fed just suddenly become greater than Murray? Fed is up 5-1 in GS, but even if Murray won those 5 he lost, it would still make no sense to say Murray is better than Fed.
3)Djoker leads Nadal 26-23, why is Nadal better then? Djoker is 11-1 in last 12 matches. In reality, each player peaked at different times, even if they're 1 year apart.
4)The AO between Fed/Nadal is probably the best example. If you want to say Nadal is better than Fed on AO courts, fine. But, you have to ask yourself, why does Fed lead 5-1 in titles? If Nadal is so much better, then why can't he win more titles?
5)Nadal has a phenomenal surface, he leads 13-2 vs Fed on clay. It's important, but still a specialty surface, and by far the least important surface played on. And he's had the luxury of having so many more clay tourneys than Fed has grass tourneys.
6)Nadal leads 9-8 vs Fed on hardcourts, which is by far the most common surface played on. However, why does Fed lead 10-3 for GS hardcourts, and 16-3 if we count the year-end final? These are serious questions you have to ask yourself if you're going to say H2H is truly as important as you claim. If Nadal led Fed in GS hardcourts or was very very close, then yea, I might see your point, but that's not the case at all. Fed also leads 18-8 in Masters hardcourts.

Fed had won 5 consecutive Wimbys before the 2008 Wimby Final. He was going for #6 in a row, which is unprecedented for any GS. He's the only man to win 2 GS 5x in a row. He was bound to lose at some point. Credit to Nadal, who played his best match ever. Fed still played well, but far from his best. Fed has gone on to win 2 more Wimbys in 4 finals compared to 1 win in 2 finals for Nadal after that match.

Nobody is indisputably the best in any sport. Everyone has a blackmark somewhere. Fed just has by far the fewest. It seems very reasonable and accurate when anyone says he's the GOAT. Borg/Nadal have even said it themselves. Athletes have a lot of pride, it would make no sense to say that if they didn't believe it, unless Nadal is/was playing some type of psychological game, which might be slightly true but I think he mostly believes it.

David Friedman said...


Nadal has beaten Federer nearly 2/3 of the time head to head. I don't think that it is extreme to say that Nadal has beaten Federer like a drum. This started when Federer was at his absolute peak while Nadal was still developing, it continued when their primes overlapped and it has held true as they wind their careers down (the most recent match does not alter the overall late career trend).

Nadal has also beaten Federer on every surface.

Those who exalt Federer as clearly the GOAT have the burden of proof. They are essentially stating, "Head to head does not matter. Winning percentages do not matter. The only Federer-Nadal matches that matter are the (rare) ones that Federer won, because Nadal's wins came on the 'wrong' surface or when Federer was (supposedly) not at his best. The fact that Nadal at 25 had accomplished more than Federer at 25 (despite having to face Federer in his prime) does not matter. The only stats that matter are the ones that favor Federer." The cherry-picking of stats and the mental gymnastics of Federer fans have always both amazed and bemused me.

David Friedman said...


Head to head matters when there are a significant number of matches contested among players of equal status. Murry, Krajicek and Hewitt do not belong anywhere in this discussion.

Djokovic deserves to be in the conversation as well. My two most recent articles focused on Federer-Nadal (with some mention of Borg) because they faced each other in what could be the last showdown of their great rivalry. It is a classic misdirection tactic to criticize a writer for what he did not write as opposed to focusing on the merits of what he wrote. If I mentioned Djokovic and Laver and Borg and others then the article could balloon out to 5000 words.

It is also misdirection to assert that I was trying to prove that Nadal is better than Federer at the Australian Open. I said no such thing. I made the case that Nadal belongs in the GOAT discussion alongside Federer.

I have yet to hear a compelling explanation of why Nadal's dominance of clay matters less than Federer's record on other surfaces. At least Nadal can beat Federer on grass and hardcourt. Federer has little to no chance against Nadal on clay.

How many of Federer's wins against Nadal on Federer's best surface came during Federer's absolute peak?

What makes you think that Borg would have won a lower percentage at the AO than at other Grand Slams? If Borg had played the Australian Open 10 times and won four of them he would have maintained his .407 winning percentage. You can look at Federer early or late or in the middle but however you chop up the numbers he is not clearly better than Nadal or Borg. Borg's 1976-81 run is at least as impressive as anything that Federer did, as is Nadal's 2008-13 run.

I agree that no one (or at least very few) are indisputably the best in any sport. That is precisely my point about Federer: people should stop asking like the GOAT debate is open and shut. You say that he has fewer "black marks" than any other GOAT candidate but the reality is that he has the biggest "black mark" of any of them: one of his contemporaries beat him 2/3 of the time that they faced each other. You blithely dismiss Nadal's Wimbledon victory over Federer by saying that Federer had to lose sometime. Federer was at the peak of his powers and considered unbeatable there when Nadal won. That match means far more than Federer's most recent win, which could rightly be dismissed by saying that Federer was bound to beat Nadal sometime after losing 23 matches to him.

Borg and Nadal are two of the most modest and self-effacing champions. Borg never touted himself as the greatest even when he was in his prime. Nadal has a similar attitude. I would not misinterpret their graciousness as definitive evaluations of Federer's status.

Andy said...


In my opinion it is extreme to say that Rafa has “beaten Fed like a drum,” as it gives the impression that matches like, for example, the 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011 YEC matches did not occur. And even you David, a keen follower of the sport, seem to have kind of taken this mindset. Your comment to Anonymous that “Federer's most recent win … could rightly be dismissed by saying that Federer was bound to beat Nadal sometime after losing 23 matches to him” indicates a kind of subconscious dismissal in your mind of even the wins Fed actually did achieve against Rafa. Sure, such wins are few compared to Rafa’s wins against Fed, but they did at least happen, didn’t they? If even someone who knows a bit about tennis like you has come to think along these lines, imagine what a novice tennis reader thinks when they see “beaten like a drum.” And if you come back with, imagine how they feel when they see "Fed is clearly the GOAT," all I can say is "two wrongs don't make a right."

But even if you’re right about it not being extreme, part of my point is that Fed would then be far and away the most accomplished “beaten like a drum” victim in a H2H ever, and I hate to think of the description poor Vitas Gueralitus would get at 0 for 16 against Borg. It has to be an expression that conjures up images tens of times worse than “beaten like a drum.” I mean almost 2/3 is great for Rafa yes, but the last time I checked 66% is a much lower grade of domination than 85%, 95%, 100%. And remember too that your burden of proof paragraph doesn’t apply to me. The stats I raised were not to exalt Fed as the GOAT but simply to point out that the “ownership,” “drum beating,” “total domination,” etc. suffered by Fed is of a level that is worlds apart from that of guys like Vitas, Gasquet, Roddick etc.

I’ll leave it at that on the “drum” point. Agree to disagree.

Andy said...

Just two other points.

1. You say, "Nadal is behind Federer at three out of four majors because Federer has been playing longer and is more durable. Young Nadal had to deal with prime Federer, while older Nadal had to deal with prime Djokovic."

The "playing longer" part is not right as, at the 47 Majors point (where Rafa is now), Fed had way more titles at the 3 Majors in question (by then 6 Wimby, 5 USO and 4 AO). So it doesn't have to do with how long Fed has been playing. More durable in terms of avoiding injury? Sure, maybe that led to lost opportunities for Rafa a bit, but my view is that it is what it is and can't be used to decrease the meaning of the gaps in question. Rafa plays the way he does and that reaps great benefit for him (helped get him his titles), but there are costs that go along with playing his style.

Your second sentence is a big component of any "weak era" theory, and I buy that point to a certain extent. If the gaps were a little less I think this sort of argument might explain everything, but 6-2 (now 7-2) at Wimby is a huge gap, 4-1 (now 5-1) at the AO is a very big gap, and 5-2 at the USO is a big gap. And though Rafa was stopped by Novak at many of these tourneys in 2011/2012 it's not like we've seen Rafa falling to Novak at them recently (we've seen Fed do that!). So I buy that one can't just say 18-14 end of story, and I think that means I buy the "weak era" theory to a point. But the question is how much weight to give it. And I recognize that Rafa's unbelievable performance at the FO needs to be factored into this too. He of course doesn't have to completely close these gaps elsewhere as a result. For me, if there were even one other non-FO Major where the gap was somewhat more reasonable (e.g., where Rafa at least halved what Fed has done there), I would feel much stronger about Rafa's GOAT claim. It's a very subjective thing though, I admit. Anyway, certainly more non-clay Majors would be VERY helpful for Rafa's case. But given that the criteria is so subjective, I have no huge problems with a conclusion that Rafa is greater than Fed now.

2. You ask (looking at Nadal's 2008-2013), "Was Federer really 'much more dominant' in his prime than Nadal"?

First, I inadvertently left that line from Anonymous's post in the part that I quoted (my point was about the over-30 Fed facing two younger GOAT contenders). I'll leave the debate on this one mainly to you and Anonymous, and just make two comments.

Much more dominant in the periods you are looking at? I don't know, maybe not by leaps and bounds, but there are several points in Fed's favor such as no Rosol-type losses (Rafa had 1st, 2nd and 4th round losses in that period whereas Fed's worse was a QF loss in his period, and actually that came in the last year of it, prior to which his worst losses were semi-final losses, two of which he had match points in), significantly better winning percentages at three of the four Majors in Fed's period, better "at least to the final" overall percentage – (17/24 for Fed versus 13/21 for Rafa), etc. I mean, maybe you have a point in that the overall title winning percentage is only a bit in Fed's favor in the subject periods, but when you take into account these other factors, I think it's clear that Fed was not just a little more dominant. Not a blowout for Fed, but not that close.

And we also have to consider 2004. I understand why you left it out, but in a hypothetical scenario with no Fed in 2004, I think it is quite possible a prime Rafa does not win 3 Majors. One can't assume that Rafa fares as well against the "weaker" competition, given that there were many Rosol-type guys around back then.

Again, all of this is just to address the points you raised. You don't need to convince me that Rafa may be greater than Roger. And I certainly agree with you that we need to wait until the end of their careers.

David Friedman said...


The "drum" statement is obviously hyperbole. I don't know how to precisely quantify if it is apt or not but I still think that it is a reasonable description.

David Friedman said...


Nadal has won 14 majors in 47 attempts--and he had to contend with prime Federer to amass that total. I don't understand this idea of acting like the French should count less than the others. As I keep saying, if we are going to discount any Slam then I would vote for the Australian, which was largely skipped by non-Australians in the 1970s and for a good part of the 1980s as well.

If we are counting all of the majors, then Nadal is essentially on the same pace as Federer was when Federer was already being called the GOAT. Federer has played more majors than Nadal, he has been more durable and he has been healthier. Those factors account for Federer owning four more GS titles than Nadal. Federer has not been "greater" than Nadal in any meaningful sense of the word; Federer has been more durable and I have never denied that--I just don't reflexively equate durability with greatness.

Federer has more first round losses overall than Nadal. Again, as I keep saying, the only way to make a case for Federer is to cherry pick numbers: Federer's first round losses don't "count," but Nadal's do "count." As I already indicated, if we count wins during their best six year period, Nadal matches up quite well with Federer--and Nadal faced prime Federer, whereas Federer's best run started before Nadal hit his prime.

Who knows what prime Nadal would have done in 2004? That is not the point. The point is that Federer racked up GS wins in a down period, while Nadal never had that opportunity.

The more anyone tries to make the case for Federer, the more I feel that Nadal is getting the short shrift. The pro-Federer arguments are so convoluted and involve so much cherry picking of data that it becomes obvious that Nadal's case is very strong. The bottom line is that Nadal wins at a greater rate than Federer does, period. Federer has been playing longer and has been more durable, so of course his totals are higher than Nadal's, but that argument only matters if you also think that Emmitt Smith was greater than Jim Brown because Smith played more years, had more carries and amassed more yards.

Andy said...


You asked me a very specific question regarding why Fed's 2005-10 is considered so much better than Rafa's 2008-13. I tried to give you my thoughts on your question and provided some facts about the different periods (by the way, I shortchanged Fed on the “at least to the final” stat which actually is 18/24 (75%) versus Rafa’s 13/21(62%)). I do not totally disagree with your point as I clearly said by acknowledging that the domination discussion is not a blowout win for Fed. In the context of our discussion here, it makes no sense for you to now turn around and start mentioning things outside the relevant two periods (e.g., early round Fed losses outside the 2005-10 period). Those types of comments belongs in a GOAT discussion. My post had nothing to do with a GOAT discussion. It had to do with why Fed’s 2005-10 might be considered more than just a little better than Rafa’s 2008-2013.

Similarly, you gave me a very specific answer in your earlier post that “Nadal is behind Federer at three out of four majors because Federer has been playing longer and is more durable.” Note the wording “three out of four” right in your own words. The discussion was about the three Majors outside of the FO, not for the purpose of in any way discounting the FO, but just to point out that Mary Carillo’s comment that, “you cannot anoint Roger Federer the greatest of all time if he isn't the greatest of his own time” works both ways. Three is greater than one (at least that’s what I hear), so it would make sense for anyone, upon hearing that Rafa is the GOAT, to ask, “wait a second, there is a guy who played a good chunk of his career at the same time as Rafa who has won way more titles at three out of the four Majors. How can we anoint Rafa the GOAT if he is not even the greatest of his own time?”

And as for pace if we are counting all of the Majors, as mentioned in a previous post of mine, at the 47 Majors-played point, Fed had 16 to Rafa’s 14. So actually, when comparing apples to apples (rather than oranges), the bottom line is that Rafa does not win at a greater rate than Fed does. It’s not a huge lead for Fed, but at the 47 Majors-played point, he was at a pace that is a bit ahead of Rafa’s current pace (sure, maybe Rafa will cut into that lead in the years to come, but maybe the opposite will happen too). And moreover, as I’ve said many times to you, if we then take the next analytical step of breaking down the percentages by Major, we see that Fed has a much better title-winning percentage at three out of the four Majors, and Rafa has a humongous lead at the FO (the leads for Fed are of course that much greater if we are measuring at the 47 Majors-played point, but are still quite big even at the 69 Majors-played point).

Regarding 2004, while simply “who knows what Rafa would have done” is one way of answering the question, another way is “who knows what Rafa would have done, but it’s a high bar that Fed has set and there were a lot of guys like Rosol and Darcis (Rafa killers in his prime) around in that down period.”

David Friedman said...


Nadal has dominated the French Open more than any player in history (though Borg is close and may have matched Nadal had he not retired so early) AND he has beaten Federer on Federer's best surface. I understand that there are valid arguments in favor of both players but my point is that Federer's fans dismiss all of the pro-Nadal arguments as if they have no merit at all. Federer and Nadal are clearly two of the greatest players of all-time and each would have won even more majors if he did not have to contend with the other guy.

Looking back at tennis history, has there ever been a GOAT candidate who lost head to head matches to his main rival for supremacy by a decisive margin? It just strikes me as such an odd claim to make. If Federer and Nadal had played fewer than 10 matches or if Nadal had never beaten Federer on any surface but clay then perhaps one could give credence to the conceit that Nadal is "merely" the greatest clay court player but not a serious contender for overall GOAT status. McEnroe was a serious GOAT candidate in the eyes of many commentators for a number of years (I disagreed with that notion as well but that is a story for another day). McEnroe won seven Slams total, while Nadal (who is obviously still quite active) has won five Slams not counting the French! Nadal is being held to a very odd and shifting standard compared to other previous GOAT candidates.

Federer's record for most weeks at number one is a testament to his durability but right behind him on that list are Sampras, Lendl and Connors. Would anyone now rank those guys as #s 2-4 in tennis history? They are all great players but having the most Grand Slam titles and the most weeks at #1 only became the biggest arguments for GOAT status once Federer attained those marks. When Roy Emerson held the total slams record for years no one called him the GOAT. Same thing for Lendl and the most weeks at number one record. Sampras received some GOAT consideration during his time but his weakness on clay made it tough to put him ahead of Borg and a few other more versatile champions (Sampras is one of my favorite players of all-time but I never thought that he was the GOAT).

Federer is the most durable of the GOAT candidates, no doubt about that--but on his best day was he better than Borg or Nadal on their best days? I just don't believe that. The evidence suggests otherwise.