Monday, September 9, 2019

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic Reconsidered--and Why Borg Still Stands Alone

Rafael Nadal's triumph in the 2019 U.S. Open is his 19th Grand Slam singles title, placing him just one behind Roger Federer on the all-time list. This is the closest Nadal has been to Federer on that list since 2004, when Federer led Nadal 1-0 in Grand Slam singles titles won. Federer had captured four Grand Slam singles titles by the time Nadal won his first, the 2005 French Open.

The thin reed upon which Federer fans prop their man over Nadal appears to be about to snap. Federer is 38 years old, while Nadal is 33 years old. Some may have assumed that Federer's much-praised finesse style would prove to be more enduring than Nadal's pounding, powerful style, but--despite Federer's five year lead in age--Nadal is now the first male to win five Grand Slam singles titles after the age of 30, and Nadal seems likely to add to that total no later than the 2020 French Open. If Nadal matches or breaks Federer's record, there will be no rational basis to rank Federer ahead of Nadal--but the reality is that a rational evaluation of these players has favored Nadal for quite some time.

The first time that I wrote about Nadal versus Federer was Federer's Fifth Wimbledon Final is One for the Ages, when I wondered if Nadal would soon surpass Federer: "Will the younger Nadal eclipse Federer on grass next year and become the sport's undisputed number one player or will Federer continue to hold him off as he marches toward Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles? I think that Nadal is closer to beating Federer on grass than Federer is to beating Nadal on clay and that 2008 could very well be Nadal's opportunity to match another Borg feat: winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year."

That analysis proved to be prophetic, as Nadal not only routed Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the 2008 French Open Final (tying Bjorn Borg's record by winning that Slam for the fourth straight time) but Nadal then defeated Federer in an epic five set Wimbledon Final, after which I wondered why anyone would rank Federer higher all-time than Nadal: 
Even when Federer was at the absolute peak of his powers Nadal still held the head to head advantage, a fact that some people dismissed by noting that the vast majority of Nadal's wins over Federer came on clay--but that is not relevant in a discussion about the greatest player of all-time, because the greatest player of all-time should be able to win on multiple surfaces and should not have a losing record against his main rival. Nadal is just entering his prime years but he already owns four more Grand Slam wins than Federer did at the same age. Just like I thought that it was too soon to call Federer the greatest of all-time two or three years ago, I think that it is too soon to call Nadal the greatest of all-time now--but in many ways Nadal seems to be making a more potent case to claim that title than Federer ever did. Who can say for sure that in four or five years Nadal won't own more career Grand Slam titles than Federer's 12? Nadal has more speed and hits with more power than Federer and Nadal is also in better physical condition; perhaps Federer has a more delicate touch on certain shots but that is not enough to cancel out Nadal's advantages.
Federer is a great and graceful player, but his public image and status have been boosted by the adoring fan letters disguised as analysis that many writers have penned on his behalf, as I noted in my 2013 article titled Why is Rafael Nadal Not Praised Now the Way that Roger Federer Was Praised in 2006?
When David Foster Wallace gushed over Roger Federer in an August 2006 essay, the 25 year old Federer had won eight Grand Slam singles titles in 29 appearances (.276 winning percentage) and had amassed six first round losses--yet Wallace and others openly and enthusiastically touted the notion that Federer had already established himself as the greatest tennis player of all-time. The first dubious aspect of such a wide-ranging declaration is that it is unfair--if not impossible--to compare Open Era players with players from earlier eras; the rules, conditions and overall context were just too different. If Rod Laver had been permitted to play in the Grand Slam events during his prime years then he likely would have set unbreakable records--but we cannot know for sure what he would have accomplished, so all that can be intelligently said is that Laver deserves to be prominently placed in any discussion of the greatest tennis players ever: he should not be punished for "only" winning 11 Grand Slams, nor can he be credited with all of the Grand Slams that he almost certainly would have won.

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

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

While Federer's fans struggled to accept the notion that Nadal is greater than Federer, another player showed up as a worthy challenger to both champions: Novak Djokovic. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam singles title at the 2008 Australian Open and on July 4, 2011 he became the first player in seven years other than Federer or Nadal to be ranked number one in the world. Except for a 10 month run at the top enjoyed by Andy Murray from November 2016 through August 2017, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been the only players ranked number one since 2004.

Djokovic has held the top spot since November 2018, but Nadal's U.S. Open win puts him in great position to be the year-end number one ranked player for the fifth time (which would tie him with Jimmy Connors, Federer and Djokovic for second most all-time behind Pete Sampras, who accomplished this feat six times). The ranking system has typically been weighted to reward activity and other factors that do not necessarily correlate with greatness, and thus the ranking statistics should just be considered a small part of evaluating the greatest players of all-time. It is doubtful that any reputable tennis evaluator would consider Sampras and Connors to be among the top five players of all-time or to be greater than Bjorn Borg, who was the year-end ranking leader just twice even though he had a four year stretch during which he made the Finals in 11 of the 12 Grand Slams that he entered, winning seven of them (he did not play in the Australian Open in any of those years, and he skipped other tour events as well, which negatively impacted his ranking). It is worth noting that from 1946-76, the Australian Open was won by a non-Australian just four times; the Australian Open has been a Major/Grand Slam event in name since 1924/25 but for most of its history non-Australian players did not treat it as such.

Federer holds the male singles record with 20 Grand Slam titles, but he has played in 78 events. His winning percentage of .256 is not dominant compared to the other players who are in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Federer achieved his peak career Grand Slam winning percentage (.366) in 2009 after he won Wimbledon, his 15th title in 41 Grand Slam events. Federer has won six times in 20 appearances (.300) at the Australian Open--the least important of the four Grand Slam events--and he has won 14 times in 58 appearances (.241) at the other three Grand Slam events. He has one win and five Finals appearances in 18 trips to the French Open, an event that he skipped three times. Federer has lost in the first round of the French Open four times and he has lost in the first round of Wimbledon three times.

Nadal has won 19 Grand Slam singles titles in 58 appearances (.328). His peak career Grand Slam winning percentage was .368, achieved after he won the 2014 French Open, his 14th Grand Slam singles title in 38 appearances. While Federer padded his career numbers by winning the Australian Open six times, Nadal is 1/14 in his Australian Open appearances (with five total Finals appearances) but 18/44 (.409) in the three most important Grand Slam events. He has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam event just twice, once at Wimbledon and once at the Australian Open.

Nadal has a 24-16 career head to head record versus Federer, including a 10-4 record in Grand Slam matches. Nadal is the only player who has beaten Federer in a Grand Slam Final on grass, clay and hard court; if you believe that Nadal is a one surface wonder then you have been reading too much propaganda and not enough objective analysis.

Djokovic has a 16/59 record in Grand Slam singles events (.271) and this is essentially his peak career winning percentage (he stood at 16/58 prior to the 2019 U.S. Open, .275). Even more than Federer, Djokovic's Grand Slam singles record is boosted by his performance in the Australian Open, where Djokovic has won seven titles in 15 appearances. He is 9/44 (.205) in the other three Grand Slam events, including just 1/15 (with four total Finals appearances) in the French Open. Djokovic has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam event twice, both times in the Australian Open.

Djokovic owns the advantage in his career head to head matchups with both Federer and Nadal. Djokovic leads Federer 26-22, including 10-6 in Grand Slam events and 4-1 in Grand Slam event Finals. Djokovic leads Nadal 28-26 overall, though Nadal is up 9-6 in Grand Slam events and they are tied 4-4 in Grand Slam event Finals.

The mainstream media narrative is apparently etched in stone that everyone is chasing Federer, but when you look at the numbers and the percentages without considering subjective propaganda, it is difficult to see how anyone would rank Federer first among these three players, let alone as the greatest player of all-time across eras that operated under vastly different conditions and circumstances. Nadal is the all-time career leader with 18 victories in Wimbledon/the French Open/the U.S. Open, ahead of Federer (14), Sampras (12), Borg (11) and Bill Tilden (10). Nadal has a decisive head to head advantage over Federer, has played Djokovic essentially to a standstill overall (and with an edge in the Grand Slam events) and Nadal has a significant edge in overall Grand Slam event winning percentage. While Djokovic enjoys the head to head advantage over both of his rivals, his overall accomplishments do not quite measure up: fewer Grand Slam titles, a worse Grand Slam event winning percentage than Nadal, and nearly half of his Grand Slam event wins coming in the Australian Open. Djokovic is perhaps the greatest Australian Open player of all-time, though!

Anyone who sees the larger historical perspective is amused by all of the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic talk, because none of those guys measure up to Bjorn Borg, who I described as the "Sandy Koufax of tennis." Borg outdistanced his contemporaries by a greater margin than any player in the Open Era. Consider these statistics:

* Borg was the youngest player to win the Italian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. Borg's records for the French Open and Wimbledon have been broken but he is the only player who was simultaneously the youngest ever champion of all three events.

* Until the age of 21, Borg never lost to a player younger than he was.

* Borg achieved the French Open/Wimbledon double each year from 1978-80. No player before or since has accomplished this feat in three straight years, or even two straight years.

* Borg tied the all-time record by winning three Grand Slam titles without losing a set (1976 Wimbledon, 1978 French Open and 1980 French Open).

* Borg simultaneously held the record for most career French Open singles titles (six) and most career Wimbledon titles (five). While both records have since been broken, no other player in the Open Era has simultaneously held both marks. For half a decade, Borg was the best grass court player in the world and the best clay court player in the world. In other words, he was Nadal and Federer rolled into one, while competing against at least two players who should still be listed among the 10 greatest of all-time (Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe).

* Borg won five straight Wimbledon titles from 1976-80, a feat that had not been accomplished since the 1880s, when the defending champion was automatically seeded into the next year's Finals.

* When Borg retired from Grand Slam competition at the age of 25 he ranked second all-time with 11 Grand Slam singles titles, trailing only Roy Emerson. Emerson won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, but six of his were in his native Australian Open; until the 1980s, non-Australian players regularly skipped the Australian Open, and Borg only played the event once, as a teenager.

* Borg remains the youngest player to ever win 11 Grand Slam singles titles (25 years old).

* Borg still holds the highest career Grand Slam tournament winning percentage (.407; 11/27).

* Borg still holds the highest career Grand Slam match winning percentage (.898; 141-16).

* Borg still holds the highest career Grand Slam five set match winning percentage (.889; 24-3).

* Borg remains the only player who posted five straight years with a Grand Slam match winning percentage above .900 (1977-81).

* Borg still holds the highest career Wimbledon match winning percentage (.927; 51-4).

* Borg still holds the record for consecutive Wimbledon matches won (41).

The main knocks against Borg are his lack of longevity and the fact that he never won the U.S. Open. The funny thing about Borg's longevity is that he won at least one Grand Slam title in eight straight years (1974-81), a record that stood alone until Sampras matched it in 2000. Federer achieved the feat from 2003-10, and Nadal now holds the record with 10 (2005-14). In terms of Grand Slam dominance--as opposed to mere Grand Slam participation--Borg enjoyed enviable and nearly unmatched longevity. Regarding the U.S. Open, Borg reached the Finals four times in nine appearances, and his Finals losses all came at the hands of Connors or McEnroe, two of the most decorated U.S. Open champions ever. The lack of at least one U.S. Open title is the only legitimate mark against Borg, and in terms of ranking the greatest players of all-time that one negative mark does not outweigh all of the positive marks listed above.

Borg remained solidly in second place with 11 Grand Slam singles titles from 1981 until 1998, when Sampras tied him. Sampras passed him in 1999 and retired in 2002 as the all-time leader with 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Sampras won 14 of the 52 Grand Slam singles events that he entered (.269). He never made it to the French Open Finals, and he only made it to the French Open semifinals once in 13 tries. Sampras was not nearly as dominant as Borg. While Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have each subsequently passed both Borg and Sampras in terms of total Grand Slam event wins, no one has approached Borg's .407 Grand Slam event winning percentage or his astonishing 16 Finals trips in 27 appearances (.593). Borg on his best day could beat anyone from any era on grass or clay. That is clearly not true of Sampras, Federer or Djokovic, particularly regarding clay. Borg versus Nadal on clay would be an incredible spectacle but Nadal at his best is not beating Borg at his best on grass.

It will be interesting to see if Nadal surpasses Federer in term of total Grand Slam events won. I suspect that if this happens, the Federer acolytes in the media will shift the goalposts (apologies for mixing sports metaphors) and find some other reason/excuse to still rank Federer ahead of Nadal--and no one will seriously talk about why Borg should still be listed ahead of both. Borg is the victim of a phenomenon brilliantly described by William Goldman in the wonderful book that Goldman co-authored with Mike Lupica, Wait Till Next Year. Goldman wrote, "The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware it's begun and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. Stripped of medals, sent to Siberia...It really is a battle to the death." He noted that Wilt Chamberlain's accomplishments were so outlandish that he is the exception to this rule, but that most athletes are downgraded--if not forgotten--as time passes.

Think about how even Michael Jordan has seen his status decline in the less than 20 years since his final retirement. Many commentators say, with a straight face, that LeBron James is greater than Jordan--never mind that James has won fewer championships, fewer regular season MVPs, fewer Finals MVPs, fewer scoring titles and fewer of just about anything else that matters. Another aspect of this that was true when Goldman wrote those words over 30 years ago and is even truer now is that the sports/entertainment business makes its money by promoting today's games and today's players. If ESPN states that LeBron James is not as great as Michael Jordan or--gasp--Julius Erving then ESPN is essentially devaluing the product that it paid billions of dollars to broadcast. The same is true to a lesser but still significant extent for other media outlets. You are not going to make much of a living as a writer, commentator or analyst talking about how great Bjorn Borg, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan were; maybe you can write a retrospective about them to commemorate the 20th or 30th anniversary of one of their accomplishments, but on a day to day basis your bread is buttered and your paycheck is signed based on praising Federer and LeBron James. How/why the media picks favorites among athletes who are/were contemporaries--why Federer over Nadal, or James over Kobe Bryant when they were both active and Bryant was winning championships--is an entirely different discussion that extends beyond the scope of this article.