Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Federer and Nadal as Non-Religious Experience

David Foster Wallace's lengthy, well-regarded essay titled Federer as Religious Experience depicts Roger Federer as an incomparably gifted tennis player who literally should be worshiped. Wallace's experience as a successful junior tennis player no doubt heightened his appreciation for Federer's talents but Wallace became such a devoted member of the Church of Federer that he failed to fully grasp Rafael Nadal's equally compelling greatness. As Michael Mewshaw put it in his August 15, 2011 Newsweek article titled Rafa!, "Though Wallace dismissed Nadal as 'mesomorphic and totally martial,' it seems that almost everything he wrote about Federer applies to Rafa and that it was the Spaniard's apostasy in beating Federer over and over that clouded Wallace's judgment." Federer's "apostasy" has indeed inspired many commentators to twist and torture logic to its breaking point (and beyond) in elaborate attempts to avoid stating the obvious: Federer has had few answers for Nadal in their battles against each other and Nadal's career accomplishments are at least as impressive as Federer's. It is puzzling that so many tennis aficionados blithely dismiss Nadal's head to head dominance versus Federer as if it were a small dirt smudge carelessly smeared against a masterpiece painting, an irrelevant splotch easily removed by a good restorer; the reality is that no portrait of Federer or Nadal is complete unless it depicts just how convincingly Nadal has owned Federer: Nadal enjoys an 18-10 head to head advantage over Federer, including an 8-2 lead in their Grand Slam encounters after Nadal's 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory against Federer in the 2012 Australian Open semifinals. Mewshaw adds, "A fantastic chimera, part bull, part bullfighter, Nadal has his own supernal gifts and wins not by making the game look easy, but by making it look every bit as demanding and difficult as it actually is. While Federer is planning points four shots in advance, Nadal often kills the ball before Federer has a chance to realize his arabesques of excellence."

Wallace's essay begins with an intricate--yet inaccurate (the New York Times later had to append a correction to the piece)--description of one point in Federer's 2005 U.S. Open match versus Andre Agassi; Wallace attempts to demonstrate why tennis observers--particularly those who also play the game--are so awestruck by Federer's skills. It is disappointing that Wallace focused more on breathlessly praising Federer than on accurately depicting the sequence from the Federer-Agassi match--lyrical flourishes are not more important than basic facts in a nonfiction article--but the larger issue is that, even though painting a vivid verbal portrait of a great athlete at work is a rare skill, such a portrait does not prove that Federer is greater than any one of several other players about whom Wallace could have also waxed poetic. When Wallace's essay was published in August 2006, Federer had played in 29 Grand Slam singles events, winning eight titles and losing six times in the first round. Bjorn Borg--the Sandy Koufax of tennis--won 11 Grand Slam singles titles in 27 appearances, never losing in the first round and only once losing in the second round. Pete Sampras won seven Grand Slam singles titles in his first 29 Grand Slam appearances, losing in the first round five times (he finished his career with a then-record 14 Grand Slam titles in 52 appearances, with seven first round losses). Rod Laver--who had five prime Grand Slam years stolen from him because of tennis' archaic rules preventing professionals from competing in the sport's most prestigious events--won six Grand Slam singles titles in 25 appearances as an amateur while suffering four first round losses (all in his first year on the tour) and then won five more Grand Slam titles as a professional for a career total of 11 wins in 40 appearances. Nadal won 10 Grand Slam singles titles in his first 29 appearances and did not suffer a single first round loss. Federer is an artist and Federer is a great player but Federer's artistry does not prove that he is greater or more dominant than some of his prestigious predecessors.

Federer acolytes are quick to point out that many great players--including Nadal himself--have anointed Federer as the greatest player ever but Mewshaw wryly notes that Nadal has good reason to say this: "Of course, humility is as much a part of the wallpaper of sport as Muhammad Ali's boasting. It's often good strategy to praise an adversary, all the better to aggrandize yourself. If Federer is the best ever and you beat him...well, you don't need to say the rest." Wallace's essay is an entertaining read but despite the large amount of technical and historical information Wallace included the lasting impression is not that Wallace objectively analyzed Federer's game but rather that he wrote a passionate fan letter about it.


fednadal said...

it's amazing that federer has won six out of the last nine titles. he's won 40 out of the last 43 matches. at this age, that's impressive. also convincingly beating nadal on the way to winning indian wells. it's shocking that nadal hasn't won a title since last year's french open. i can't remember a time during fed's prime, where he was unable to win a title for so long.

David Friedman said...


It's also "amazing" that Federer lost in the first round of a Grand Slam singles event six times. Borg and Nadal never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam singles event.

boyer said...

Why are you so caught up in these 1R GS losses? His first 2 were at age 17. 3 were at the FO. His last one was in 2003, since then, he's only failed to reach the QFs twice, including 31 QFs in a row(current), and 23 SFs in a row, both are records, including 16 GS. He won 16 GS over a span of 27. And has 23 GS finals, another record.

Other records include 6 year-end finals, with last year's win being the oldest to ever win it. He has 3 such seasons with 3 GS plus a year-end final. In many ways, the year-end finals are almost more presigious than the GS, as they're played at the end of the year like MLB/NFL/NBA/etc., should peak at the end. Also, it's the best of the best, just like the playoffs in these other sports. You could say, well, yea, but you're playing fewer matches and can actually lose, well, you can lose in MLB/NBA. And you have to play 5 matches in win it. Also, Fed has proved his durability, almost never retiring or withdrawing, which is common with Djoker and Nadal. Fed even made the SFs of 08 AO when he had mono, and just won indian wells when he was sick. Nadal still has yet to win a year-end final, only making it out of RR play 3x, and only making 1 final.

David Friedman said...


I believe in telling the whole story, not selectively choosing facts/stats that favor one player. Federer has been remarkably durable and that has enabled him to set many records but he has not been as dominant as other great champions; he accumulated a large number of first round Grand Slam losses and he has not won as high of a percentage of Grand Slams entered as Borg or Nadal. As I have said before, Federer is like the Emmitt Smith of tennis. Smith was a durable player who accumulated the most all-time rushing yards and he is clearly one of the best running backs ever but few people would say that Smith is THE greatest running back ever; Federer is a durable player who has accumulated the most Grand Slam singles titles ever but that does not make him greater than Borg, whose dominant run makes him the Sandy Koufax (or perhaps the Jim Brown, to extend the football analogy) of tennis' Open Era.

The year end finals are certainly prestigious but they are not more prestigious than the Grand Slams. The year end event has had four different formats since its inception in 1970. Sampras is tied for second (with Lendl) with five such wins and Nastase is fourth with four wins. Is that your Open Era top four--Federer, Sampras, Lendl, Nastase? Is it more significant that Nadal has never won this event or that Nadal has an 18-10 head to head advantage versus Federer, including 8-2 in Grand Slams and 6-2 in Grand Slam finals?

Federer is not the only player who has won events despite illness/injury, though Federer has certainly done a good job of making everyone aware of each time that he has felt out of sorts in some fashion.

boyer said...

But, that's just the thing, you're not even coming close to telling the whole story. I'm fine with you saying Nadal leads Fed overall and has a better winning pct. at the GS, but there's a lot more to it than that. Shouldn't we count it as a loss in the 1st round if he doesn't enter the tourney? Same thing, right?

So, Borg is .898, Nadal .877(.856 if count his 4 GS non-shows, Fed is at .869. Borg's best season would be 4th best for Fed. Fed had 3 seasons with 3 GS and the year-end final. And he went 81-4 in 2005, but only picked up 2 GS, so really Borg's best season would possibly only be 5th best for Fed. Not sure why you think Fed wasn't as dominant. To me, it looks like Fed is easily the most dominant in history. It's not like Fed has won 1 GS/year for 15 years. No, he's won multiple GS in 5 different years to only 3 years for Borg, and 3 GS 3x, something Borg never did. Once Fed won his 1st GS, he won 16 in a span of 27. Borg won 11 in a span of 21, and I'm not counting his AO and FO non shows, which would've made it 11-29. If anything, Fed is like Koufax more than any other player in history, since he won 16 in a 27 span. But, I guess Borg could be similar since he retired early.

We can talk about Borg copping out and retiring early. We can talk about Borg not playing the AO, fine somewhat valid pt., but then he never won the US Open either. And I'm not sure when they went away from the grass courts at the AO and the US open, but for a time, 3 GS were on grass. Fed has won 3 of the 4 GS, 4x each. While only getting 1 win at the FO, he's made several finals, and Nadal is probably the best clay courter in history. Mcenroe/connors are certainly not that close to being the best hardcourt players in history.

Borg is .682, Nadal .474, and Fed's at .848 at the year-end finals.

If you say the year-end finals aren't more prestigious than GS, I agree, but I still think the year-end finals in a way could be more prestigious as I mentioned before and are certainly important, it just adds to my pt. that Fed is amazing on every surface, much more so than Borg or Nadal ever was/is.

boyer said...

Nadal is a specialty player. He's not a one-trick pony, but for the top players of all time, he's as close as it gets to this. Roughly 20% of the season is played on clay, but yet roughly 90% of Nadal's success comes on clay. It's the great equalizer surface. And now they're making the faster surfaces slower or else they're using larger balls to bring more parity, in other words, they've been handicapping players like Fed, much like Augusta tried to Tiger proof it. Nadal is 12-2 on clay, but is only 6-8. I don't think this H2H means a whole lot. It's just fuel for Fed detractors.

The object of tennis is to beat the field(win tourneys), if you have a bad matchup against one player, so be it. Nadal crushes everyone on clay. If Fed wasn't so great on clay, he could be 0-0 against Nadal since he wouldn't make it deeper into the tourneys, but since Fed is awesome on every surface, then he meets Nadal more on clay than any other surface combined, well, the same amount. They've met 14x on clay, which composes about 20% of the season, while 14x off it. That should tell you something. If Nadal met Fed on grass 14x or fast surfaces overall 14x and/or they met only 3-4x on clay, the H2H would be much different. Fed is 6-1 against Nadal on very fast surfaces. Nadal isn't as good on these other surfaces, so they don't meet as much on them. That's why just saying 18-10 and leaving it at that is somewhat irrelevant.

And we could say murray leads fed 8-7 overall, but who cares, nobody would say murray is anywhere better than Fed. Nadal lead djoker 16-14, but djoker owns nadal now, winning the last 7 and 10 of the last 12. It took djoker longer to get into his prime than nadal, but now he's there, but djoker has a long way to being as good as nadal has been over their careers. Clay is the surface that we see young guys have some success very early during their careers because you don't have to be as good of a player to win on it. It took nadal several years to do much off of clay.

David Friedman said...


I have told the "whole story" over the course of my numerous articles regarding Borg/Federer/Nadal; there is a whole section on the front page of this site with links to my articles on this subject, so I suggest that you read those articles and educate yourself.

In those articles I already addressed and refuted most of what you mentioned in your two most recent comments so I will just offer a quick summary here and you can find the details in those articles.

1) There is a difference between not playing in an event and withdrawing. In your previous comment you unfavorably compared Nadal to Federer because in your opinion Nadal too frequently withdraws from tournaments but my point is that if Nadal withdraws from a tournament that lowers his career winning percentage and Nadal's career Grand Slam winning percentage is higher than Federer's anyway so your comment is irrelevant. I do agree with you that Federer has proven to be quite durable. Derek Fisher is one of the most durable players in the NBA but that does not make him a great (or even above average at this point) player. Federer is of course a great player but his durability alone does not prove that he is THE greatest.

2) Your comparisons of Borg's seasons to Federer's seasons are entirely subjective and fail to take into account the differences between the eras. Few non-Australian top players of Borg's era played in the Australian Open. If you take Federer's Aussie wins out of the equation he has 12 wins in 38 appearances at the three most important Slams, while Borg had 11 wins in 25 appearances at those Slams. Borg was much more dominant than Federer in the Slams that counted the most and Borg faced stiffer competition (Borg beat more players in Grand Slam Finals who had previously won Grand Slams than anyone else, as noted in this article).

3) Borg did not "cop out." The idiots who ran tennis at that time came up with a stupid rule that would have forced Borg to play in events he didn't want to play in or else have to play in qualifiers in order to enter Slams where he had set all-time records. Borg would have played in the Grand Slams in 1982 if not for those stupid rules but by the time those rules were changed the next year he had already taken a year off and thus he retired. Borg won a Grand Slam for eight straight years (a record he shares with Federer and Sampras) so he had a pretty long run at the top. The only legit quibble with Borg's career record is that he did not win the U.S. Open.

4) I don't know why you suddenly are fascinated with the year end Finals but you are the only person who thinks that these events are as important as Grand Slams. Again, if that is what you think then you have to rank Lendl and Nastase very highly on your personal all-time list.

5) Nobody is trying to "Federer-proof" the tour to stop Federer from winning; the networks and the people who run the sport are promoting him as the greatest player of all-time! Your conspiracy theory is completely ridiculous. The Murray comparison is equally ridiculous; his head to head record versus Federer is almost even, involves significantly fewer (and less important) matches than Nadal-Federer and Murray has yet to win a single Slam. Nadal has dominated Federer for years en route to winning 10 Slams and posting a better career Grand Slam winning percentage (both in terms of matches won and in terms of events won). Navratilova is considered greater than Evert largely because she won the head to head rivalry 43-37. Navratilova was better on grass and Evert was better on clay but Navratilova won overall and that is very important. Nadal's 18-10 margin is much greater than 43-37 and Nadal has vanquished Federer at Wimbledon while Federer has not beaten Nadal at Roland Garros.

For further elaboration about these and other points relating to Borg/Federer/Nadal, please consult the articles referenced above.

analysis said...

i'm kind of tired of hearing that nadal is better off now than fed when he was at nadal's age.

i'm not comparing ages, because comparing nadal now, at the age of 25, to fed when he was at the age of 25 is not accurate. one has to compare mileage, how long they have been on the court. since nadal turned pro in 2001 (played his first match on 10th of september) , and fed turned pro in 1998 (played his first match on 6th of July), that means that fed has only been on tour for three seasons and two months more than nadal, not five, which is what one would assume from the age difference)

so i went to the atp tour websites and checked their records. nadal until today (not including the miami tournament which is currently in progress) has earned a win loss record of 554-119. So overall, he has played 673 matches in his career upto date. and if you divide 554/673, you get a winning percentage of 82.3, which is impressive. nadal has also won 10 grandslams, and 46 titles overall. for me, those are the three most important statistics, winning percentage, grandslams won and overall titles won.

now to make an accurate comparison to fed's career, one would have to look at his win loss percentage after 673 matches as well. i checked federer's first 673 matches, which is until the latter stages of the 2006 season, and he posted a win loss record of 542-131. that's a winning percentage of 80.5, not as impressive as nadal's winning percentage. however, he had won 12 grandslams until that point, and a total of 51 titles. so he had posted better records than nadal in two of the three important statistical categories.

so contrary to what ppl think, nadal is only better off in the winning percentage, not in grandslams won and overall titles won. and considering his recent struggles against djokovic, and the fact that he has only won one title since last year's french open, it's only going to get tougher

David Friedman said...


Do you see the elephant in the room? It's name is "18-10."

I have yet to hear one good explanation for why Federer-Nadal should be the one rivalry in which a decisive head to head advantage should be completely disregarded.

Furthermore, think about what you really "proved" with your "analysis." The mainstream media is consistently pumping out the story that Federer should be acclaimed as the greatest player of all-time and the best you can do to refute the contrary point of view is to say that, at a similar point in their respective careers, in your opinion Federer was slightly better than Nadal. You also neglected to mention that at the time Nadal won his 10th Grand Slam title he had entered just 28 Grand Slam events, while it took Federer 31 tries to claim his 10th Grand Slam.

Whether you go by age or by events entered, Nadal's accomplishments at any stage of his career thus far equal or surpass what Federer accomplished at a similar stage--and Nadal has dominated Federer head to head. Meanwhile, in his era Borg was more dominant and versatile than either player. It makes no sense to act as if Federer is clearly the greatest player of all-time; Federer is one of the viable candidates for that title but the fact that he alone among those candidates has a lopsided negative score against his main rival is a serious mark against Federer.

analysis said...

a player's overall body of work is more telling than a head to head record against one player. last time i checked, there were more than two players on the atp tour. if you ask any sensible tennis analyst, they look at three statistical categories, and those are the ones that i mentioned. according to the atp website (which is the official website for the atp tour), federer's record is better than nadal's in two of them. so yes, his overall body of work is slightly better than nadal's.
(note: i made an error in the previous post. federer's 673 match mark stretched to the latter stages of the 2007 season, not 2006 season.)

boyer said...

That's not true if you withdraw from a tourney. If you withdraw, you don't get a loss, your winning pct. remains the same. Ok, I combined Djoker/Nadal together. By withdraw, I mean either not play in an event or pull out of a match. I'm using withdraw for both. Nadal has missed several GS, so him not playing at all in these, it doesn't hurt his winning pct., which is why only stating winning pct. is necessarily that good to use.

Fed's durability isn't 'the' reason why he's great, it's just 'a' reason among many, big difference. You mention dominance often, but I can't find anyone as dominant as Fed as been. It’s obviously harder to come up at a younger age today than 30 years ago and win as much now as then. And Fed has had a complete career or near complete career now, playing past his prime, which Borg didn’t, so the overall GS wins pct. you talk about are irrelevant. Once Fed entered his prime, he won 16 of 27. Nobody discredits Jordan for not winning for his first 5-6 years or during his last 2 years with the wizards, do they? Same concept.

I disagree about the slams. I think the FO is the least prestigious slam now. The AO probably was in the past. Wimbledon and the USO are obviously the 2 most prestigious, and sampras leads with 12 titles in both combined, with Fed right behind at 11. Borg had 5 combined, while Nadal has only 3.

Maybe it’s a legit claim about that organizer rule you talk about, but Mcenroe and others kept on playing. I find it hard to believe if you were a big time competitor, you’d just quit playing. He got burned out like other players have, which makes it so amazing that someone like Connors played as long as he did, to cite one example.

I said in my previous post that I agree with you that the year-end finals aren’t more prestigious than the GS, but in a lot of ways you could make a legit argument that they are, as I already talked about. In any sense, I feel they’re extremely important, and easily the next most important tourney after the GS.

It’s not a conspiracy theory. I’ve heard many times over the past few years how they’re using larger balls at wimbledon, citing the ivanisevic title match as one example, as the wimbledon folk wanted longer pts. I’ve heard many times how they’re making the faster surfaces slower and/or using larger balls. And I’ve seen articles proclaiming how Djoker is the king of the ‘slow court’ era. Wimbledon was always the fastest courts of the GS, but almost every year lately I hear that the USO is the fastest courts of the GS. Things have changed.

I feel it’s extremely important that if you’re going to mention 18-10, then at the very least saying 12-2 on clay. It’s extremely misleading to say it like this. Fed/nadal met only 3x on grass, all at wimbledon, yet they’ve met 5x at Roland Garros. If Fed was garbage on clay, then they’d never meet on clay, and Fed would have the winning record. As this would be extremely important to mention between borg/mcenroe, but not sampras/agassi, because they only played 3x on clay, and agassi wasn’t a claycourt specialist. I just looked and borg/mcenroe never played on clay, which is why their H2H is 7-7 probably, and mcenroe was 3-1 in GS. If mcenroe was much better on clay, they’d meet on clay more often, and most likely borg would win almost all those matches.

I still contend that Borg’s best season would only be the 5th best season for Fed.

David Friedman said...


As I mentioned to Boyer, there is an entire section on the front page of this website that contains numerous articles discussing Borg, Federer, Nadal and other tennis greats. Please read those articles so that you will clearly understand that I am most assuredly not solely relying on head to head records.

I don't know who nominated you to decide what the qualifications are to be a "sensible tennis analyst" but it makes very little sense to watch Federer repeatedly be drubbed by Nadal and then declare that Federer is clearly the greatest player of all-time. The statistics that you cited indicate that at a similar stage in their respective careers Federer and Nadal's numbers are very close--so why should we rush to declare that Federer is clearly better than Nadal, particularly when Nadal repeatedly beats Federer?

Federer is a candidate to be considered the greatest male player of the Open Era but Borg's candidacy for that title is at least as strong as Federer's and Sampras must be mentioned as well. Nadal deserves consideration, too; he is only one Slam away from tying Borg and four Slams away from tying Sampras. Leaving Nadal out of the discussion for the moment, each of the other three candidates has at least one obvious flaw: Borg never won the U.S. Open, Federer has a decisive losing record against his main rival and Sampras was completely helpless on Roland Garros' clay.

David Friedman said...


Please read the articles that I cited, because I don't want to waste my time answering things that I have already addressed and it is tiresome to read--let alone answer--nonsense. You call Nadal a "one trick pony" but Nadal is one of a select few players who have won a career Grand Slam--and he won six of his Grand Slams by beating Federer in the finals!

Also, you say "maybe" the Grand Slam organizers were going to force Borg to play in qualifiers--but this is a matter of historical record that you can easily verify by an internet search of archival articles from that time period.

You are entitled to your own opinions--however misinformed--but you are not entitled to your own facts.

If a player withdraws from a tournament his record will still reflect that he participated. In other words, that will count as a tournament that he entered but did not win. This is different from skipping an event entirely, a distinction you don't seem to grasp. Anyway, the only Grand Slam that Nadal has missed since 2006 is the 2009 Wimbledon; considering that Nadal beat Federer in the 2008 final, then won the 2010 final and lost to Djokovic in the 2011 final I don't see how Nadal missing this one Slam bolsters whatever feeble case you are trying to make. If Nadal had been healthy in the summer of 2009 he likely would have won Wimbledon. Injuries severely hampered Nadal in the 2009 French Open or else Federer likely still would not have won at Roland Garros. Federer deserves credit for his durability but this does not in any way prove that he is a better, more skilled tennis player than Nadal.

What proof do you have that it is "harder" to win titles at a younger age today? Tennis in fact has been skewing younger for quite some time and some of Borg's age level records have been broken by players who clearly were not greater overall (Wilander and then Chang at the French Open, Becker at Wimbledon). Remarkably, at one time Borg was simultaneously the youngest player to win the Italian, French and Wimbledon Opens--and he also had set the Davis Cup record by winning 19 straight matches, a mark that he later extended to 33 (it still stands today, three decades after Borg retired).

I love how Federer's fans simultaneously discount his early first round losses, praise his dominance (even though he was repeatedly getting trounced by Nadal during his prime) and then dismiss his recent losses because he is supposedly past his prime--but of course if Federer wins anything now that "proves" he is the greatest. Federer literally can't lose--his losses don't count but every win reaffirms his greatness! Give me a break.

You can think whatever you want about the importance of the various Grand Slams and how they compare to the various incarnations of the year end event--but throughout the 1970s and early 1980s the great players spoke with their feet by not traveling to Australia, so it makes no sense to compare Federer's victory totals in four events with Borg's victory totals in three events.

Borg simultaneously owned the French clay and the Wimbledon grass for the better part of half a decade. That dominance is unprecedented in the history of tennis (perhaps Laver could have matched it if the tennis authorities did not restrict those events to amateurs during his prime).

You are choosing Federer over Borg because Federer boosted his Grand Slam total with four Australian wins and you are willfully ignoring that Federer's rival owns him. You simply do not understand the historical context of Borg's era and you are overrating what Federer accomplished. Again, let me emphasize that Federer is clearly a great player who must be included in the discussion for the title of greatest Open Era player--but it makes no sense for people to act as if Federer has earned that title hands down.

David Friedman said...


By the way, since you are fond of cherry picking numbers from Federer's career, it is worth noting that during one stretch Borg won 9 of the 14 Grand Slams that he entered--a better ratio than Federer's 16 of 27. Again, it is important to understand that Borg and most of the other top non-Australian players skipped the Australian during that era.

Also, regarding your aside about McEnroe and other top players not caring about the rule that played a significant role in Borg's retirement, while McEnroe played in two of the 1982 Slams he also publicly criticized the rule for being completely absurd. If you understood Borg and his era then you would know that Borg, like Tiger Woods during his prime, focused his schedule around the majors; that is why Borg did not want to go trotting around the world to play in minor events just to meet the requirements of that rule (and it should be obvious why the dominant player of his era was indignant at the thought of having to play qualifying matches at the Slams because he did not play in enough Podunk Opens to satisfy the lords of tennis).

DanielSong39 said...

At this point, is it fair to claim that Borg is a more accomplished player than Nadal?

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I believe that Borg still should be considered the greatest male player of the Open Era because his simultaneous dominance at Wimbledon and the French Open is unmatched; Borg proved that he could beat the clay court specialists on the slow surface and that he could beat the serve and volleyers on grass. Borg's unsurpassed winning percentages and his record-setting Davis Cup performances add to his resume.

Federer is the Open Era's Emmitt Smith, a great player who is very durable but accumulated his records through endurance more than dominance.

Sampras mastered the fast surfaces at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open but was completely inept on the slower surfaces.

Nadal has mastered clay in a manner only matched by Borg and he has proven his versatility by also winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. One could certainly make a case that he is the best Open Era player based on those accomplishments plus his head to head dominance of Federer but Nadal has yet to simultaneously dominate slow surfaces and fast surfaces the way that Borg did in his prime.

Borg's accomplishments are not fully appreciated because the media is always looking for the next big thing and because the tennis authorities would much rather say that an active player like Federer is the greatest.

When I wrote my series of articles about the pro basketball Pantheon I avoided comparing retired players with active players because you can never be sure what course a player's career will take until it is over. Maybe a year from now Djokovic will have made everyone forget Federer and Nadal; maybe a year from now Nadal will be number one, Federer will be out of the top 10 and Djokovic will look like a one year wonder. All we know for sure is that Borg displayed an unmatched simultaneous slow court/fast court dominance and that Federer, Sampras and Nadal rank among the best Open Era players. If Nadal keeps winning the French Open and adds at least two more Wimbledons to his collection then I would rank him ahead of Borg. I would not rank Federer ahead of Nadal unless Federer repeatedly beats a healthy Nadal and unless Federer at least once wins the French Open with a healthy Nadal in the field.

DanielSong39 said...

At this point I'm interested in seeing whether Nadal will challenge Djokovic for #1 and how close Nadal can come to Federer's 16 Grand Slam wins.

However, what I really want to see is guys like Murray, Del Potro, and Tsonga winning a few slams and break the Federer-Nadal and Nadal-Djokovic stranglehold on Grand Slams.

Hopefully some new contenders will emerge and start providing some meaningful tennis. At this point there is no use in watching any Grand Slams before the semifinals since Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and Murray will occupy 3 or 4 of those spots and Djokovic or Nadal or Federer will win.

David Friedman said...


I am interested to see if Djokovic is a one/two year wonder like Tracy Austin was three decades ago or if he can establish himself as a consistently great player. If Nadal stays reasonably healthy and maintains his current motivation level then he should be able to make a run at 16 Grand Slams by winning two or three more French Opens plus perhaps at least one more title at each of the other three Slam events.

DanielSong39 said...

I, too, am interested to see how high Djokovic will rank among the game's all-time greats by the time it's all said and done. I would also like to see him battle a few different names in his quest to win Grand Slams.

While we never know how he will hold up, I believe he is less likely to fade away in the next couple of years than Nadal. Would love to see Andy Murray rise up to the occasion and allow the tennis world transition from the Federer-Nadal rivalry to a Djokovic-Murray rivalry.

DanielSong39 said...

As for Tracy Austin, she was every bit as good as Evert and Navratilova for a very short stretch and it was a shame that injuries/burnout derailed her career. She very well could've been the equal of those two - or at least the equivalent of someone like Billie Jean King or Evonne Goolagong.

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Nadal has already captured 10 Slams and a career Slam while posting a decisive head to head advantage against Federer, so even if Nadal "fades" (which I don't expect him to do) he has secured a high historical ranking.

You are right that Austin perhaps "could have" ranked among the greats of her era but injuries prevented her from doing so. Unlike Federer and Nadal, Djokovic's place in history is not secure if injuries or other factors prevent him from winning more Slams; Djokovic has not yet accomplished enough to be ranked as an all-time great.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity, what is your criterion for "all-time great?"

If you're talking about pure ability at the moment of physical and mental peak, then I'd agree with Borg being the top, but if you're talking about the best tennis player over the course of a career, then it becomes a very different discussion. We can speculate endlessly about what Borg might have accomplished had he not retired, but the fact of the matter is that he did. Whether it was a lack of willpower or a lack of mental fortitude, only Borg himself can truly know, but there's no question that those are both fundamental to the game, and thus very important qualities for anyone in contention for the title of all-time-great.

Similarly, we can also speculate endlessly about how much more Nadal might have or will have accomplished if it weren't for injuries, but, again, the constitution of a player's body is fundamental to the game. Furthermore, Nadal's playing style is one that lends itself to frequent injuries while Federer's is one that is very light on the body. Injuries are simply the cost of Nadal's style, so there's little justification in trying to use that as an rationalization of any shortcomings (not saying there will be any by the ends of both of their careers, it's just something I hear a lot).

I personally believe that the greatest tennis player of all time should be one who has demonstrated the greatest degree of dominance under ALL playing conditions. For this, I would consider there to be five primary categories, in increasing "speed" of court: clay, slow hard (Australian Open), modern grass, fast hard (US Open), indoor hard.

Federer was, for about 4-5 years, the unquestioningly dominant player on slow hard, grass, fast hard, and indoor hard courts. What's even more amazing is that even today, at age 30, with Nadal and Djokovic in their primes, he's still the most dominant indoor hard court player. Of course for the last two years Nadal and Djokovic have somewhat overtaken him on the other three surfaces. Now, here's the key point: Federer has also been almost undoubtedly the second best clay court player.

Indoor hard courts seem to get overlooked a lot, probably because there's no slam for them, but they are still a large part of tennis (about a fifth). Nadal has yet to even show significant proficiency with this type of court. And, while he's shown signs of dominance on both slow and hard courts, that has, thus far, only been for the last two years (1 win, 1 final for each of the hard court slams). Grass is a little complicated, since he's easily been at least the second best grass player for a long time, though he hasn't quite proven his dominance over the surface to the extent Federer, Sampras, or even Borg have. Clay, on the other hand, is simple: no one will deny he's been the dominant clay player.

Anonymous said...

Also, I would like to discuss the aforementioned comment about "Federer-proofing." While I highly doubt that anything was done with the express goal of hampering Federer's performance, there is no doubt that recent changes in court conditions, particularly at the majors, have harmed him while giving an advantage to players like Nadal and Djokovic. Just looking at the comparisons of ball bounces and speed at Wimbledon before and after the change in surface material makes it clear. Similar, though less drastic, changes were made at the US and Australian opens, with the overall theme always being: higher bounce, slower speed.

I won't use this in support of Federer or against Nadal/Djokovic, because one might argue that this is simply the evolution of the game. Personally, though I find it quite sad. The true challenge of completing the career slam was winning on four very different types of surfaces, and thus being dominant with four different styles of play, whether it's baseline grinding on slow clay, serve-and-volley on fast traditional grass, or all-court offense-defense transitions on hard courts. The Nadal's ineffectiveness on a fast court (and, conversely, the effectiveness of Federer's) shows through clearly during the indoor season, the last bastion of fast-surface tennis. I have little doubt that if Wimbledon were played on traditional grass, neither Nadal nor Djokovic would have a title there. It is this glaring hole in Nadal's abilities as a tennis player that cement Federer's place in my mind as the greatest tennis player of his time.

Finally, since you seem to put so much emphasis on it, I won't neglect to mention the head-to-head. Nadal dominates on clay, leads on outdoor hard. Federer dominates on indoor hard, leads on grass. Looking at it this way, i would argue that they're pretty even. The reason for the higher number of meetings on clay over the other surfaces is because, for a very long time, Federer was clearly the second best clay player, while Nadal was further down on the ladder for the other courts. Due to their consistent rankings, they wouldn't meet until semis at the earliest, so Federer would often make it to clay court semis, while Nadal would usually be knocked out before on other courts. In a weird way, it supports the idea that Federer is the more "complete" candidate for greatest of all time.

But we're all getting ahead of ourselves. Both Federer and Nadal still have a few years left in their careers, and now with Djokovic entering the equation, the question of dominance will get a lot messier.

In summary, from what we've seen so far, my opinion is: Nadal is the greatest slow court tennis player (with Djokovic quickly closing in), Sampras is the greatest fast court tennis player (Federer a close second), Federer is the greatest overall tennis player (with Borg in second only because I'm judging on overall career rather than peak ability).


David Friedman said...


You certainly offered a detailed and thoughtful appraisal of Federer and Nadal.

My various articles about Borg, Federer and Nadal have made it pretty clear what criteria I consider when ranking tennis players--and those articles have also made it clear that the significant differences between various eras make it very difficult to compare players from different eras.

I rank Borg as the greatest Open Era player because his simultaneous dominance of both Wimbledon and the French Open is unmatched; he beat the grass court specialists and the clay court specialists, retiring as the modern era leader at both events: Nadal has tied his French Open mark and Sampras and Federer both broke his Wimbledon mark but no one has come close to simultaneously holding both marks or to winning both events three years in a row. Sampras was far too one dimensional to be compared to Borg. Federer is obviously much better on clay than Sampras was but Federer's overall Grand Slam winning percentage does not match Borg's and Federer has a contemporary rival who has repeatedly made him look silly. Nadal's clay dominance is similar to Borg's but he has not dominated grass the way that Borg did. Djokovic has not accomplished nearly enough overall (or for a long enough period of time) to be in this discussion just yet.

I don't buy the excuses that are offered for Nadal's head to head dominance over Federer. Evert and Navratilova each had their respective favorite surfaces, Evert dominated Navratilova at first but the lasting impression--the verdict of history--largely revolves around Navratilova's overall head to head advantage over Evert (and that 43-37 lead is not nearly as decisive as Nadal's 18-10 lead). Nadal has beaten Federer at Wimbledon but Federer has never beaten Nadal at the French. If Federer had advanced further at Wimbledon in 2010 he probably would have lost to Nadal. If you are unwilling to indulge in hypothetical speculation about Borg's career then you must apply that same standard to the Nadal-Federer rivalry. Nadal has dominated that rivalry and I cannot think of a similar one sided rivalry between two contenders for best player of their era in which the loser of that rivalry is still considered to be the greater player.

I think that if Borg, Federer, Nadal and Sampras competed against each other at the same time under the same rules with each player at his absolute peak that Sampras clearly would not win anything on clay, that Borg would hold a slight advantage over Nadal on clay (Borg was a more consistently accurate shotmaker than Nadal) and that Borg's mental toughness/endurance would enable him to more than hold his own against Federer and Sampras on grass. This really is very much a fantasy enterprise, though, because these players used different equipment, played under different rules, had different training conditions, etc. It would not really be possible to even all of those things out even if we could accomplish the fantastic feat of using a time machine to get them all in the same place at the same time in their respective primes.

So, opinion about what might happen head to head (other than with Nadal-Federer, which we have seen 28 times) is just opinion but Borg's winning percentages and simultaneous multi-surface dominance are facts. You can also throw in Borg's Davis Cup dominance.

Anonymous said...

Given your criteria, I'll agree with Borg, but what do you have to say about Nadal's apparent lack of ability to play on fast surfaces (I don't have data for this, but it seems quite clear that from an objective, empirical measurement, Wimbledon grass would no longer be considered a "fast" surface), as opposed Federer's demonstrated proficiency on all surfaces, having been dominant on all but clay and second best on clay?

It seems much of your admiration of Borg was his ability to dominate on both very fast and very slow surfaces (something I share), so it seems like your primary criterion is this sort of versatility.

If it's fair to point out Sampras's absolute ineffectiveness on clay, shouldn't it also be necessary to hold Nadal up to similar consideration? If that's the case, should Nadal even be in the running for greatest ever when he's essentially the inverse-Sampras?

The key point of your argument is "Nadal has dominated that rivalry and I cannot think of a similar one sided rivalry between two contenders for best player of their era in which the loser of that rivalry is still considered to be the greater player." The validity of that point has been argued many times, so I won't go into it here. It just seems that, by your own criterion, the more fundamental assumption that Nadal is a contender is false.

Head-to-head is heavily based on match up. There's a reason Djokovic consistently has much more trouble against Federer than against Nadal. Nadal just happens to have a near perfect game to counter Federer, and that high up in the game, even small advantages make huge differences. In that sense, many would agree that it should only be used as a final "tie-breaker" type thing, so if you consider them both true contenders, then I'll agree that overall it's a point I can't definitively refute.

So really, it boils down to just one question: How can you defend Nadal as a legitimate contender when he's shown no signs of even near-dominance on fast surfaces?

David Friedman said...


Nadal has won two Wimbledons, one U.S. Open and one Australian, thus completing a career Grand Slam with wins on "fast" surfaces. You are the one who has decided that the "fast" surfaces are either no longer "fast" or are not "fast" enough for your taste. Nadal has won 10 Slams overall out of 31 appearances, while Federer has won 16 out of 51. Thus far, Nadal has been slightly more dominant than Federer in Grand Slam play--and Nadal has been completely dominant head to head versus Federer. It is very strange for anyone to suggest that Federer is clearly greater than Nadal; the subject can be debated but that is not what usually seems to happen: people tend to state definitively that Federer is the greatest Open Era player or even the greatest player of all-time (apparently they have never heard of Laver and other pre-Open Era greats).

There is no similarity between Nadal and Sampras; Sampras never even made it to the French Open Finals once, while Nadal has completed a career Grand Slam.

Borg's simultaneous Wimbledon/French dominance is unparalleled in the Open Era. Perhaps Laver could have accomplished something similar in his time were it not for the rules restricting his participation in those events during his prime years. If Borg had won the U.S. Open then he would have also played in the Australian to complete the career Slam and then his Open Era primacy would be beyond dispute but even as his record stands it is tough to argue that Federer, Nadal or anyone else has simultaneously been as versatile and as dominant as Borg, who won at least one Slam for eight straight years and who is the only Open Era player who beat eight Grand Slam champions in Grand Slam Finals. Borg faced off against two all-time greats (Connors and McEnroe) in their primes, while Federer has only faced one all-time great (Nadal, with the jury still being out on Djokovic--who, in any case, emerged when Federer was no longer the number one player) and has been less than successful against his main rival.

Federer's durability and longevity earn him a place in the conversation but I cannot rank him above Borg and it is difficult to rank him ahead of Nadal, particularly if Nadal is able to add a few more Grand Slam titles to his resume while maintaining a better Grand Slam winning percentage than Federer (Nadal is ahead of Federer's pace but we obviously don't know if Nadal will maintain his current pace).

Anonymous said...

I'm not questioning Borg's place. Really, I don't know enough about Borg to discuss that issue and the generation was so different then that it's difficult to compare. My primary interest is in understanding why you consider Nadal a legitimate contender for greatest of this generation.

One difference in our opinions may come down to the weight we place on Grand Slams. Slightly ironic, since many die-hard Federer fans tout 16-10 a little too frequently for my tastes. Personally, I think the Grand slam record between them is quite even already, since Australia, US, and Wimbledon are all clustered relatively closely in terms of style-of-play, with France being somewhat of an outlier. As a result, going on the number of titles alone clearly favors those whose styles are closer to them. As I have said before: for me, dominance on the full range of styles far outweighs dominance of those four tournaments. If we disagree on that fundamental point, then we will certainly disagree on the Federer-Nadal debate.

However, just to be clear, I suppose I made a mistake in my wording, since courts being "fast enough" is certainly subjective in nature. If you'll allow me to rephrase one last time:

What I meant by "inverse-Sampras" is that Sampras was quite impotent on the slowest surfaces while Nadal is fairly weak on the fastest . (I use the words "fastest" and "slowest" because they refer to qualities of surfaces that are objectively measurable, so there's none of the subjectivity of "fast enough" vs "slow enough" anymore.) Sampras did indeed have less success on the slowest surfaces than Nadal did on the fastest, but the concept is similar.

I had hoped to do this without too many stats, because they are deceiving, but I think this difference is stark enough that the take-home message is rather undeniable.

Nadal ranks 46th for all time win-loss on indoor matches (a relatively atrocious 52-29). In perspective, here are the active players that rank above Nadal in this regard: Federer, Murray, Soderling, Roddick, Nalbandian, Tsonga, Djokovic, Hewitt, Monfils, Baghdatis, and Haas. That puts him at a mere 12th for his own generation.

For comparison, Federer ranks 13th on all time win-loss for clay, with Nadal as the only active player above him. A clear 2nd for his generation due to having the misfortune of overlapping with one of the two far-and-away greatest clay-courters of all time. (Also, just for fun, Sampras is all the way down at 81 all time.)

So, worded in a more exact way, then:

What do you have to say about Nadal's apparent lack of ability to dominate (or at least come close to dominating) on the full spectrum of surfaces?

If you don't consider the full spectrum important and only care about the region covered by the four slams, then that's that. Personally, though, I find it difficult to ignore the fact that about a fifth of tournaments are played on indoor hard courts, making it an integral part of tennis. As a result, I can't consider Nadal a legitimate contender for greatest of this generation as of yet.

David Friedman said...


Thank you for the clarification of what you meant regarding fast and slow surfaces but I still do not agree with your contention that Nadal is as "impotent" on fast surfaces as Sampras was on slow surfaces. Sampras was never a threat at all at the French, even during the span when he was annually the number one ranked player in the world. Nadal already holds the career Grand Slam and has won two Wimbledon titles, with one of those victories coming against the player who so many are touting as the greatest of all-time.

I am not saying that the indoor hard court tournaments are unimportant but I can't rank Federer ahead of Nadal because of Federer's triumphs in Bangkok and other such events. Those events are not more important than Grand Slam events or than Nadal's head to head dominance of Federer, which is especially pronounced in Grand Slams. Putting it another way, Nadal beat Federer on "Federer's turf" (at Wimbledon) but Federer has not beaten Nadal on "Nadal's turf" (at the French Open). That is quite telling. The only edge that Federer has over Nadal is that Federer is older/more durable, so he has amassed more total wins, more weeks at #1, etc. This is what I mean when I say that Federer is Emmitt Smith; Smith holds the NFL career rushing record and he deserves praise for that but few people consider Smith to be the greatest running back of all-time because Jim Brown rushed for more yards per game and more yards per attempt while also winning more rushing titles. This is analogous to Nadal winning a higher percentage of Grand Slams even though Federer has won more total Grand Slams, with the added twist being that we have seen Nadal and Federer face each other head to head, something that Brown and Smith would have never done even if they played in the same era.

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of closing points, because I hope that I'm sending the right message:

I didn't claim that Nadal is as impotent on fast surfaces as Sampras was on slow surfaces. In fact, I explicitly stated: "Sampras did indeed have less success on the slowest surfaces than Nadal did on the fastest, but the concept is similar."

Secondly, I would argue that "Federer's turf" is actually indoor courts (on which he's 4-0 head to head with Nadal). They seem to split grass/hard (i.e. the "medium speed" courts) fairly evenly, with Nadal having an edge on the slower hard courts like Miami and Australia. In that category, Federer does hold a "direct" edge over Nadal aside from just longevity. The fact that there is no indoor slam is one that Federer must lament, much as Nadal might lament the fact that there is only one clay slam.

Nadal has a part of his game that is not even top ten material for his generation and hardly top 50 for all time (as stated before, not as bad as Sampras on clay).

I'm not questioning that Nadal would have the advantage over Federer in a direct match at any of the Slams. I'm also not suggesting Federer be "ranked ahead" of Nadal for his victories at Paris Masters or World Tour Finals. This isn't a question of Federer vs. Nadal for me. This is a question of whether Nadal is even in contention for the title of greatest overall player.

Based on demonstrated ability across a full spectrum, Nadal has not shown that he's is capable of being dominant under any conditions. For the question of the greatest Slam player of this generation, you have a strong argument for Nadal. But for the greatest overall player, he doesn't yet deserve consideration, rendering the head to head rather irrelevant to this particular point.

David Friedman said...


You also explicitly stated, "If that's the case, should Nadal even be in the running for greatest ever when he's essentially the inverse-Sampras?" I understand the larger point that you are attempting to make by citing Nadal's record in minor events held on "fast" surfaces but Nadal beat Federer in the Wimbledon Final, won another Wimbledon and also captured the U.S. Open title, so any assertion that Nadal is the "inverse-Sampras" strikes me as incorrect, if not tendentious.

DanielSong39 said...

FYI, here is the peak period for some of the all-time greats:

Borg 1978-80
6 of 9 Grand Slams
2 of 3 Year-end championships
224-19 record
31 tournaments (of 50)

Federer 2004-06
8 of 12 Grand Slams
2 of 3 Year-end championships
247-15 record
34 tournaments (of 49)

Nadal 2008-10
6 of 12 Grand Slams
1 Final appearance in Year-end championships
1 Gold Medal
219-35 record
20 tournaments (of 55)

Sampras 1993-95
6 of 12 Grand Slams
1 Year-end Championship
234-44 record
23 tournaments (of 67)

When it comes to peak value I'd have to go with Federer slightly over Borg. Nadal's peak looks fairly similar to Sampras.

Good win for Nadal today though. He'll be odds-on to win the French Open and it would be a major disappointment if he did not win. I wouldn't count out Djokovic, however.

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Tennis record keeping was sporadic and inconsistent until fairly recently, so I am not sure what your source is for Borg's non-Grand Slam performances during 1978-80 but I'll assume that your numbers are accurate or at least pretty close.

Borg's record during 1978-80 included an unprecedented run of three straight years during which he won both the French Open and Wimbledon, a feat of simultaneous slow surface/fast surface dominance that may never again be matched. Borg made the Finals of seven of the nine Grand Slams that he entered during that time, with his worst result being a QF loss to hard serving Roscoe Tanner at the U.S. Open in 1979. Borg's other two Slam losses were in the 1978 U.S. Open Finals (Connors) and a five set loss in the 1980 U.S. Open Finals (McEnroe).

During Federer's 2004-06 run he claimed two of three Australian titles (Borg did not play in that event during his prime and only appeared there once during his entire career) but was not quite as dominant as Borg overall. Federer lost in straight sets to Kuerten in the 2004 French Open third round (Kuerten was three years removed from the last of his three Grand Slam titles), he lost to Safin in five sets in the 2005 Australian semis and he lost to Nadal in the 2005 French semis.

Keep in mind that many commentators are asserting that Federer should be considered the greatest player of the Open Era, if not all-time, by a wide margin. Even a superficial glance at the statistics you listed suggests that, at the very least, Borg's prime is certainly comparable with Federer's--and when you consider that Borg displayed multi-surface dominance while facing down two top 10 all-time players (Connors, McEnroe) while Federer padded his GS totals with Australian Open wins but struggled against the only top 10 all-time player he faced (Nadal) it becomes even more clear that the case to rank Federer ahead of Borg is very shaky.

DanielSong39 said...

I think what the stats show is that Nadal's peak and career accomplishments are very similar to Sampras' and it's very conceivable that he will end his career with similar career accomplishments.

As for Djokovic I think he'll top out at 7-8 slams, though catching Nadal's total is also a real possibility.

Borg's prime was almost as dominant as Federer's and had he won a couple of US Opens and added another 2-3 years to his prime, he would probably be considered the greatest tennis player ever. Alas, that did not happen.

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

By completing a career Grand Slam, winning 10 Slams total and dominating Federer head to head Nadal has already made a good case to be ranked at least equal to Sampras. Why should Sampras' 14 Slam wins in 52 appearances be considered more impressive than Nadal's 10 Slam wins in only 31 appearances?

Borg appeared in 27 Grand Slam singles tournaments, amassing 11 wins and 16 trips to the Finals; his winning percentage and his Finals percentage are both unparalleled, as is his simultaneous dominance of the French Open and Wimbledon. Borg retired as the career modern leader in both French Open and Wimbledon titles (i.e., not counting the era in which Wimbledon champions were automatically seeded into the next year's Finals), a feat that is unlikely to be matched again.

Federer has appeared in 51 Grand Slam singles events, amassing 16 wins and 23 trips to the Finals, a record that is much less dominant than Borg's--and Federer is not being "punished" for playing longer than Borg: Federer's winning percentages never matched Borg's at any stage of his career.

David Friedman said...


You belittled the significance of Nadal's clay court dominance but the clay court season is much more important than you realize. Here is an interesting quote from an article at the official ATP site:

"Thomas Muster, who's big-ripping, dual-winged baseline aggression was the forerunner of today’s clay-court game, says simply, 'Playing on clay, in my mind, was the greatest test in tennis.'

And there’s no greater test on clay than the European clay-court swing. With three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments - the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, the Mutua Madrid Open - and Roland Garros as the highlights, this stretch can determine a player's success or failure for the whole year.

Gustavo Kuerten, a three-time titlist in Paris, who compiled a 181-78 record on clay courts including 14 titles, told ATPWorldTour.com, 'In my opinion the heart has a direct link with the clay. You have to get involved and practice for hours.'"

tennis said...

i expect nadal to win the french open. this is his favourite surface. if he doesn't, it would be disappointing

Andy said...

From the outset, I will say that I agree with you that Fed should not necessarily be considered the unequivocal and unquestionable GOAT. It's worthy of questions. There are other candidates, with Borg and Laver being the top two in my view. However, I don't think Sampras can be a candidate given his mediocre results on clay. Secondly, I acknowledge that we can’t just look at the number 16 but rather must look at the historical context of Borg and Laver’s numbers. Thirdly, I admit that the “Nadal problem” is indeed a big problem for Fed in this type of discussion. The difference we have is in the weight we place on the problem. I don't think it is big enough to make Fed ineligible for the GOAT title. Nor do I see it as a problem big enough to say Nadal is “greater than him.” (*Nadal just won his 7th FO – certainly he's very much moving into the GOAT discussion.)

Okay, here are some of the main problems with your comments.

1. You say things like “Nadal has dominated that rivalry and I cannot think of a similar one sided rivalry between two contenders for best player of their era in which the loser of that rivalry is still considered to be the greater player.” My answer to this is, even if you're right about your sports history point, that it has never happened before in history shouldn’t lead us to automatically conclude that the 18-10 and 8-2 stats mean Nadal is “greater” than Fed. Just as Borg and Laver’s end results have their own unique factors that must be looked at with a historical perspective, the uniqueness of the historical period of Fed-Nadal has to be looked at. And the unique peak here actually is in 2006, when Fed only lost 5 times, 4 of the losses being to Nadal. In analyzing what produced that result, we can’t just look only at the losses to Rafa, but must look at Fed’s ability to succeed on each surface, including clay. Let’s say hypothetically, for example, that in his career Fed was only “fairly good” on clay (good enough to make a couple of FO finals, win a few clay titles) but not good enough to make half the finals that he managed to make in reality. In other words, cut 12-2 to 6-1. Then, the overall head to head is a relatively close 12-9 for Rafa and Fed still goes down in history as a solid all-surface player. In fact, he goes down in history better than he does in reality. This is the uniqueness of the situation. The reality is that Fed’s very good results on clay have actually hurt him in discussions like this one!

2. You often refer to Navratilova-Evert, saying things like “I don't buy the excuses that are offered for Nadal's head to head dominance over Federer. Evert and Navratilova each had their respective favorite surfaces, Evert dominated Navratilova at first but the lasting impression--the verdict of history--largely revolves around Navratilova's overall head to head advantage over Evert (and that 43-37 lead is not nearly as decisive as Nadal's 18-10 lead).” But where is the obvious qualification about the percentage of the matches that were played on clay? Here are the results between Navratilova-Evert (Hard: Navratilova 9-7; Clay: Evert 11–3; Grass Navratilova 10–5; Carpet: Navratilova 21-14). In other words, only 14 out of their 80 matches were played on clay. That’s 17.5%. Compare that with Fed-Nadal where 14 out of 28 matches were played on clay. That’s 50%. Huge difference in my opinion!

3. You use words like “dominate” a lot to describe Fed-Nadal. But is this really a fair description given that Fed leads on all non-clay surfaces and clearly has a very solid command of one particular surface (indoor hard)? Moreover, even forgetting that point, is it really “domination”? I mean, if you beat me 2 times out of every 3 chess matches are you “dominating” me? Domination on clay? Sure. Domination overall? I don’t think so.

Other points later.

David Friedman said...


No matter how one frames the discussion, it is not logical to say that a player who has been dominated head to head by his greatest rival is clearly the greatest player of all-time, yet many people have been saying exactly that about Federer for the past several years.

Nadal has also "succeeded" on each surface and he owns a career Grand Slam just like Federer does. Nadal beat Federer on Federer's favorite Grand Slam surface but Federer has never come close to beating Nadal at the French Open.

More significantly, Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than any Open Era player other than Borg yet there is no rush to crown Nadal as the greatest player ever the way that people rushed to crown Federer. It made sense around 1980 for people to say that Borg was arguably the greatest player ever--he was completely dominating both grass and clay at the same time in a way that no one else has done before or since. Federer never did that and almost as soon as Nadal showed up on the scene Nadal kept beating Federer like a drum.

You are entitled to your opinion regarding the comparison of the Nadal-Federer rivalry to the Navratilova-Evert rivalry but all your numbers prove, at most, is that Federer is the premier grass court player of his era and that Nadal is the premier clay court player of his era. Why should Federer's grass court dominance be more highly valued than Nadal's even greater clay court dominance? Nadal has beaten Federer on Federer's "turf" but Federer has not done likewise. It just makes no sense to call Federer the greatest player of all time when he is not even clearly the dominant player of the post-Sampras era.

The definition of "dominance" can vary from sport to sport; an MLB team that wins 100 games in a 162 game season (.617) is considered dominant but an NFL team that wins that percentage (10 games in a 16 game season) might not even get a Wild Card berth. However, in a one on one head to head rivalry in sports like tennis or chess someone who beats his rival two thirds of the time is dominating that matchup. In chess, a 2/3 winning ratio is roughly equivalent to a rating difference of 150 points, which is nearly a full rating class level; that is very significant.

Carlos Ramos said...

excuse me for appearing out of the blue here, but I'm curious about that point in the 2005 us open final that david foster Wallace described as one of those Federer moments. is it really in that set, first or third game with federer serving? I can't see anything remotely like what he describes. an appended correction is mentioned here up above. is that point somewhere else or did he just embellish it so much that it's just remotely based on what occurred. that would surprise me. thank you anyway.

David Friedman said...


When I click on the NYT story link now, the appended correction no longer appears. At the time, literary critics opined that Wallace's inaccuracy did not detract from the overall value of the piece. I think that a non-fiction journalist's first responsibility is to be accurate and that any inaccuracy inevitably detracts from the value of a piece.

Wallace offered very poetic descriptions of Federer's game but Wallace did not prove that watching Federer is a "religious experience" or that Federer is indisputably the greatest tennis player of all-time.

Carlos Ramos said...

thank you david. I read the article (and his tornado alley piece and the one about michael joyce too) with great pleasure.
I just had trouble identifying this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDwG5rJVtdc)
as the 'moment' point he describes.

I guess he just tries to prove what an experience Federer is to him. Greatest of all time is too much to prove.

thanks for exchange and for your blog,

carlos (sam was an old alias)

Carlos Ramos said...

found the correction
warm regards,

Correction: Aug. 27, 2006

An article in PLAY magazine last Sunday about the tennis player Roger Federer referred incompletely to a point between Federer and Andre Agassi in the 2005 United States Open final and incorrectly described Agassi’s position on the final shot of the point. There was an exchange of groundstrokes in the middle of the point that was not described. And Agassi remained at the baseline on Federer’s winning shot; he did not go to the net.

Anonymous said...


Jumping in a couple years late on this great post, but it is interesting to check out in retrospect. I love Wallace and I love Nadal.

(A) Nadal-Federer now 23-10.

(B) Nadal is back, better, balanced (even if still just behind Djokovic right now).

(C) The original argument looks like it got off track. I thought the point was something like this: (1) there's a good argument Federer is/was an overall more accomplished player than Nadal. (2) There's an okay argument that Federer is/was the best player ever (compared with say Borg), but (3) he seems to have a unique problem in that he has a Nemesis (Nadal) who is really specifically great at beating him - what should we make of that/how should we factor that in (it also felt very unsatisfying to just say that Nadal was better than him).

Maybe it's a sort of an elemental thing. A raging fire might consume more in its path than a flooding river (or anything else), but the fire will never consume the river. I think there was a master Go player who had the same problem - he had one unique opponent who could beat him handily yet that same opponent was overall less able to defeat the other player sin the community. :)