Friday, March 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Andy said...

David - I agree that people may have prematurely called Fed the greatest of all-time, but that doesn’t mean that he is not eligible for the title (a title which is hard to define/measure of course).

As mentioned elsewhere, Rafa’s 2013 season really had an impact on me. I will admit to the error of my ways to the extent that I may have doubted that he could pull off something like his phenomenal 2013 hard court success.

Anyway, I’m going to send 2 posts. In the first one, I’ll set out statements by Gibson that I basically agree with but which need some qualifications in my view. In the second one, I’ll set out some statements by Gibson and yourself that I basically disagree with – not many (the second one may not come for a bit). Let’s try to do this peacefully, please.

“… the Mallorcan ceased being a clay court specialist very early in his career.”

- Agreed – he has been GREAT off clay for a while and there are some Fed fans who still bizarrely ignore this point. Having said that, clay still accounts for a large part of his success and pointing that out is not a comment to disparage clay, which is as important as the other surfaces, but a comment to point out that clay is only 1 of the 4 different surfaces out there, the 4 being clay, grass, outdoor hard and indoor hard (outdoor hard and indoor hard being very different as evidenced perhaps best by the Fed-Nadal rivalry itself, where the results are significantly different).

“… and he amassed 12 Masters titles with Federer winning six.”

- Agreed - Rafa’s success at the Masters must be given its due credit. But, first, Fed won 7 Masters in the subject 4 year period, not 6. And secondly, of Rafa’s 12 titles, 10 were on clay. Again, this is not to disparage clay. But it should be noted that in the subject 4 year period, a post-real-main-prime Fed outperformed a real-main-prime Rafa 5-2 on hard court Masters. Having said that, the next year Rafa did AMAZINGLY well on hard winning 3 Masters and the USO. But even if we include 2013, the Masters picture does point out again that Rafa’s amazing performance on clay, 1 surface, is a big part of any overall stat that is given about Rafa's performance. This is in contrast to Fed, for whom yes, hard court success is a big part of any overall stat, but at the same time so is grass court success and so is indoor hard court success.

“Few believe he would ever have won the French Open had he had to contend with a fit Nadal.”

- Agreed - but too often this point is used to unfairly disparage Fed. You can only play who is in front of you. For Fed, 4 times prior to 2009 (and 1 after) he got to either a final (or in 2005, a de-facto final), and got beaten by a superior clay court player, who may well be the greatest player on clay ever (him or Borg). Fed performed very well on clay for 4 years prior to 2009. He deserves credit for that, and for sticking around to cease an opportunity in 2009 when Rafa went down. I don’t mind people making a statement like above, but Fed’s ability to stick around and give himself a chance for his well-deserved 2009 title is the overriding point about that title.

“When one sees the names of Mark Philippoussis, Marco Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez also on the list of Federer’s victims in Grand Slam finals, it suggests that this was not exactly a golden age in men's tennis.”

- Agreed – the “weak(er) era theory” is crucial to this discussion. But too often it's used to write off Fed from GOAT eligibility without asking obvious questions such as, i) just how weak(er) was it, ii)wasn’t there a strong clay era mixed in there for Fed, iii) shouldn’t Fed get credit for hardly losing in that 2004-2007 period regardless of the “weak(er)” era – no losses to guys like Rosol, etc. then, iv) maybe most importantly, in the “strong(er) era,” Fed is even with Rafa on grass, not far off on outdoor hard, and on indoor hard has continued to surpass Rafa (beating him on the way to YEC titles in 2010/2011). In fact, even today, the more recent winner at 2 of the 4 Majors is Roger Federer.

David Friedman said...


Of course Federer is one of a very few players who are "eligible" but he is the only such player who has been beaten like a drum by a contemporary. We will never know what would have happened if Borg played Nadal at the French Open or if Borg played Federer at Wimbledon but we do know that when Nadal and Federer play Nadal generally wins. We know that, while playing in the same era, Nadal's Grand Slam winning percentages are higher.

I don't understand the idea that because Nadal dominates clay more than Federer dominates anything this should somehow be held against Nadal. Nadal owns clay and he is more than competitive everywhere else. Federer cannot touch Nadal on clay but Federer is hardly dominating Nadal on the other surfaces, either in head to head or in comparison to their mutual rivals.

Andy said...

David - This will be about a Gibson comment and part of your post above. There are other points I want to address, but I’ll do so another time. I’ll first say that I think Rafa has a good case now. I would probably still rank him a bit below Fed, but I have no problem with someone calling him greater than Fed now. For me, 1 more non-clay title and a YEC would probably be enough anyway. He does not need to get to 17 like many say. I think we agree on that point, so we have some common ground there.

Actually I acknowledge most of your points. Fed, if he is the GOAT, is a flawed GOAT. But to certain degrees, so are Rafa and Borg. In fact, one of the interesting things about this discussion is that the guy who may be the most flawed may also have the most things on his resume that outdo the other guys. We can’t really discuss Laver, so I agree we should really be saying Greatest of the Open era (“GOOE”). But one can call Rafa the GOOE and still find problems with some of Gibson’s points. He says,

“if we assume that these two entered their peak years around the age of 22--the time Federer won his first Grand Slam title … and both will compete somewhere around this level until their 30th birthday, that gives each an eight-year period at the top of their game. It also allows that both men faced each other in their simultaneous primes from the summer of 2008 until the summer of 2012.” ----* Notes - I think he meant 31st birthday (4 years from 2008 would be Fed’s 31st) - I get the 6 Masters for Fed now (2012 Cincy excluded as it came after his 31st birthday)

I think the above assumption is a false one and has unfairness built into it. In the 4 year period, Fed is 27-30 while Rafa is 22-25. Big difference! Fed in the period is past what is thought to be a player’s real main prime. Rafa was in his. In a battle of tennis greats, the 22-25 year old should generally do better. Again, that raises a question. Even though Rafa did do better, why only clearly on one surface? He didn’t do better on grass (worse when considering his Rosol loss). He didn’t do better on outdoor hard (was outperformed in terms of outdoor hard Masters). He certainly didn’t do better on indoor hard (actually way worse). He did do MUCH better on clay, but that is only one surface.

This is a good lead-in to the point in your last post. You say, “I don't understand the idea that because Nadal dominates clay more than Federer dominates anything this should somehow be held against Nadal. Nadal owns clay and he is more than competitive everywhere else.” Here‘s the basic difference we have in my view David. You’re looking at off clay and saying, “He’s more than competitive” - i.e., he’s done enough. You appear to be saying so without much regard to “relative to Fed” in terms of overall performance. You focus more on the H2H. On the other hand, I’m looking at off clay and saying “He is close to having done enough I think, but still, relative to Fed, he has not done so well in terms of overall performance, and that’s looking at not one but three surfaces.” Yes he has done well H2H but against the field Fed holds big leads. More specifically, Fed is up at Majors by ratios of 3.5 to 1 (Wimby); 2.5 to 1 (USO); 4 to 1 (AO) and then 6 to 0 at the YEC). The Olympics is the only off-clay place where Fed is down in terms of performance against the field.

And you’re looking at clay and saying, “Don’t hold his phenomenal success there against him.” But I’m not. I'm just trying to stress that clay shouldn't be counted for him TOO MUCH in the overall analysis. Yes, he has done amazingly well at the FO and on clay in general, but, if he is the GOAT, he too has a significant flaw in that he has been outperformed in terms of titles (the thing that matters most) at 4 out of 6 places (FO/clay and Olympics being his two). If you don’t like absolute numbers, the same 4 out 6 point goes for winning percentages (title and/or match). And this applies to a certain extent even if we measure from 2008 to now (i.e., the “strong(er) era”).

David Friedman said...


I think head to head matters a lot when two great champions have played each other this many times in or near their respective primes and one guy so thoroughly dominates the other guy. Nadal's Grand Slam winning percentages overall are better than Federer's and I don't think that the surface issue matters that much; if Federer were truly better than Nadal then their head to head matchup would be closer and Federer would have a better overall Grand Slam winning percentage.

I cannot think of another sport or another comparison between champions in which one player so dominates a contemporary rival and yet there is still some debate that the guy who is being dominated is actually better. If all Nadal did was win on clay and he had no victories or titles anywhere else then of course there would be a case for Federer but Nadal has won everyhere and beaten Federer everywhere.

Andy said...


I absolutely agree that head to head matters. Of course I must if I'm willing to give Rafa the nod over Fed even if he comes up 2 short in the number of Major titles and, much more importantly, even if Fed has more than doubled, more than tripled, quadrupled, and deep-sixed Rafa at the USO, AO, Wimby and the YEC respectively.

Of course I recognize not only the H2H but other significant aspects of the Rafa story (H2H against others, great achievements off clay, phenomenal dominance on clay, etc.). Moreover, I recognize that there might be something to the weak(er) era / strong(er) era theory. That is precisely why I am willing to ignore the strange result that the possible GOAT, was outperformed at every Major outside of the FO as well as thoroughly dominated both in terms of titles and to some degree in terms of the H2H at the YEC by a contemporary, even to some extent after that contemporary was past his prime, and say, "you know, despite all that, Rafa, may STILL very well be the GOAT (GOOE if you like) now." Personally I think his case increases infinitely with another non-clay Major title and a YEC title, but a good argument can certainly be made now for him, particularly thanks to his magnificent 2013.

I just find some comments or approaches to this topic are unfair. For example, Gibson’s comment that “Clearly, the majority of Federer's achievements have come when Nadal is not around.” That is simply not true, but even if you put forth an argument that there is a grain of truth in it given Gibson’s reference to Nadal being pre-prime before 2008, it is still an unfair statement. Sure, Nadal was not in his prime yet but he was at the very least VERY “around” in 2006 and 2007, and then, in his prime, he was more than "around" in 2008, 2009 and 2010 (AO and YEC – over Rafa) and then 2011 (YEC – win over Rafa again), 2012 (Wimby) and 2014 (Wimby Final at near 33). There is a hell of a lot of Federer "achievement" in those years. Whether Rafa was injured at times is not the point. The comment is still simply unfair, and I think any objective person would acknowledge that (and I assume you are one).

Your “thoroughly dominates” wording is perhaps not in and of itself totally unfair I guess (one can at least see the basis for that comment, unlike Gibson’s comment), but it would be a hell of a lot fairer if there were an acknowledgement fit in somehow about Fed leading the H2H at two out of four surfaces (grass and indoor hard, the latter decisively). I mean, if a player who leads at two surfaces is being “thoroughly dominated,” how would you describe what Gerulaitis had to endure with Borg? Clearly Fed has had an EXTREMELY tough go at it with Rafa in the H2H. It’s a bad problem that will forever cloud his legacy and of course affects his GOOE case. We basically agree on this point David.

But when you say,

“I cannot think of another sport or another comparison between champions in which one player so dominates a contemporary rival and yet there is still some debate that the guy who is being dominated is actually better,”

you are missing the flip side of the weird, bizarre and unprecedented coin that is Fed-Nadal, and that is the very same type of question put this way,

“I cannot think of another sport or another comparison between champions in which one player so dominates a contemporary rival at the majority of the most major venues they play at in terms of title performance (in this case, 4 out 6 - AO, USO, Wimby and YEC to Fed; FO and Olympics to Rafa) and yet there is still some debate that the guy who is being dominated is actually better.”

Andy said...


"at the USO, AO, Wimby and the YEC respectively"

should be

"at the USO, Wimby, AO and the YEC respectively"

Andy said...

Sorry again. AO 2010 was of course over Murray. Bad punctuation there by me.

David Friedman said...


At a certain point, these kinds of conversations can become circular. When I look at the matchup, I see Nadal accomplishing feats at a younger age than Federer, I see Nadal posting a higher Grand Slam winning percentage and I see Nadal dominating the head to head matchup. I see Federer only winning a French Open because Nadal was hurt. Federer is more durable than Nadal but in terms of talent and accomplishment, Nadal is ahead of Federer. I see no reason to parse the head to head matchup the way that you and other Federer supporters do. The greatest player of all-time should be able to beat all players on all surfaces. Nadal has no weak surface; he has one really great surface but no weakness. The fact that Nadal can dominate Federer on clay and hold his own everywhere else speaks volumes.

Andy said...


I agree that these conversations become circular, so this will be my final post on this article (regardless of your response, if any).

Actually, I have been trying to tell you that I too see most of those things that you see (except the FO one, which is unfair to Fed as Rafa being hurt can't be the ONLY reason a guy who managed to get to essentially 6 FO finals achieved his one title - other important factors must be attributed to that one title too - you know this I suspect).

The difference is David, I also “see” other things, including, among other things, the point about domination by a contemporary of Rafa's in terms of performance results (titles - what I think these guys play for more than anything else) on three out of the four surfaces the game of tennis is played on, as reflected by better title and match winning percentages on those 3 out of 4 surfaces (a point that, in a fair analysis, should always be at least mentioned after citing Rafa's amazing best-ever overall Major winning percentage). Raising that point, and breaking down the H2H, is fair, reasonable and very relevant in this discussion. So call it parsing if you want, but it's just "seeing" some more points other than the ones that you have apparently chosen to only see (or at least focus on in a huge way).

And by seeing those other points, it becomes clear that your comment "the greatest player of all-time should be able to beat all players on all surfaces" is just one of a few "the greatest player of all-time should ..." comments one could throw out there. This leads me to believe that "greatest player of all-time should ..." comments are not really meaningful, as the greatest player of all-time, no matter who he is, "should" have done something better.

And actually, regarding your "greatest player of all-time should" comment, in the case of Rafa, we have to ask, if he was indeed able to beat ALL players on ALL surfaces as well as it appears you think he has, how come he is so far behind one of his contemporaries in performance results on three out of four surfaces, and how come, even in the "strong(er) era," with that contemporary aging, the same thing can still be said to some extent.

That’s it.

Have a good weekend.

David Friedman said...


Nadal has dominated clay like no player other than possibly Borg. There is no surface that Federer has dominated in similar fashion. So, even if that were the only thing to Nadal's credit, Nadal's clay dominance combined with his head to head advantage versus Federer and his other accomplishments would be enough to push Nadal ahead of Federer in my book.

However, I think that the other stats you are citing are wrong or at least deceptively incomplete. By my count, Nadal not only has dominated Federer at the French Open (5-0 head to head) but also at the Australian Open (3-0 head to head). At Wimbledon--Federer's best Slam where he has won seven of his 17 Slam titles--Federer leads 2-1, with both wins coming during his absolute prime (2006-07) when Nadal was just starting out. After 2007, Nadal and Federer each won two Wimbledon titles.

In the overall head to head matchup, Nadal not only dominates Federer on clay (13-2) but he also has the advantage on hard courts (9-6). Federer is only ahead on grass and that includes just the three aforementioned Wimbledon matches.

Nadal has won 27 Masters 1000 titles compared to 23 such titles for Federer.

Nadal's overall Grand Slam winning percentage is better than Federer's, Nadal dominates Federer head to head and Nadal has bested Federer on two out of three surfaces head to head. Nadal has also beaten Federer in a Grand Slam on Federer's best surface (Wimbledon grass) but Federer has never conquered Nadal on Nadal's best surface (French Open clay).

When you look all of the numbers in context, it is just baffling that anyone would take Federer over Nadal. What would Nadal have to do to convince you or anyone else that he is better than Federer?

Andy said...

Well, since you asked me a question, I'll do one more post.

And the answer really does bring us full circle! What would Nadal have to do to convince me he deserves a higher ranking on a GOAT/GOOE list than Federer? Not that much actually. David, please read my posts! I have already said I see the argument for Rafa over Fed now. For me though, what he needs to do to really make his case stronger and thereby thoroughly convince me, is just a little more on the off clay front to at least get to about half of what Fed has done there (one more non-hard Major would not accomplish that actually, but still it may be enough for me). And I would also say a YEC would be very helpful for his case. Indoor hard and outdoor hard are significantly different (indoor being much faster, with a lower bouncing ball), and Fed has a big lead at the YEC at 6-0. One YEC would very much help Rafa's case for me.

So the answer to your question from me, as I said in my very first post here, is one more non-clay Major and one YEC. That's it. But even if he doesn't do this, I see the points in Rafa's favor and acknowledge he has a good case now.

What you are failing to "see" David is that it is possible to acknowledge many of your arguments and still point out some arguments in Fed's favor and some unfair arguments in Rafa's favor. There is no deception at all in what I am presenting when I say simply that Fed has a better performance record in terms of titles (and winning percentage) on grass, outdoor hard, and indoor hard (which should be separated from outdoor hard as they are very different, as proven by the Fed-Nadal H2H). I say that NOT to dismiss the H2H problem, but just to raise the other side of the coin.

And my point about the post 2008 "stronger era" is not that Fed has done so much better than Rafa off clay. I of course acknowledge that he hasn't. But in terms of performance results/titles, while aging into his 30s in a period where Rafa has had some prime years, Fed has more than held his own on grass and in fact very much outperformed Rafa on indoor hard (outdoor hard no, but he has not done badly and is not that far off considering the age/prime advantage in Rafa's favor).

David, I think our argument can be summarized by focusing on the AO. You think Nadal comes away from that tournament with an edge over Roger due to the 3 H2H wins. I think Roger comes away from that tournament with an edge over Rafa as he has 4 AO titles, Rafa 1. And that same story is true to differing extents at Wimby, the USO, and the YEC. That's not to say the H2H isn't important. I actually think those 3 AO are quite significant for Rafa in this discussion. But still, overall as far the AO goes, Roger has way outperformed Rafa in terms of what really counts, titles. It is baffling to me that you would not see that actually.

This isn't about deception David. I am being very fair and reasonable here. In fact, many of my fellow Fed fans probably strongly disagree with me on some points.

This is just about looking at both sides of a very unique situation in sports history, instead of almost exclusively focusing on one side as you are doing (unfairly in my opinion).

David Friedman said...


I think that the main argument in Federer's favor is durability. He has been remarkably healthy and that has enabled him to post better totals than Nadal, even though Nadal's winning percentage and head to head marks are superior.

I liken Federer to Emmitt Smith; Smith is the all-time NFL leader in total rushing yards but few people consider him the greatest running back of all-time because Jim Brown was much more dominant during his career. The analogy is not flawless; Federer ranks higher in the tennis pantheon than Smith does in the running back pantheon but I think that the general reasoning behind the analogy is valid. Brown's case versus Smith is of course strengthened by the fact that Brown never missed a game due to injury and Brown's career was short by choice, while Nadal's injuries have forced him to miss tournaments and lose opportunities to win titles.

fed vs sampras said...

i'd have to agree. fed over borg if they were to meet. in the other semifinals, tennis experts picked sampras over nadal. looks like it's a fed vs sampras final.

David Friedman said...

It is predictable that a contemporary article is going to favor Federer over Borg. It is also important to realize that the article took the odd premise of a match played on three different surfaces. In the real world, Borg would have dominated Federer on clay just like Nadal has. A Borg-Federer duel on grass would be fun to watch but Borg has more stamina and mental toughness than Federer. If they faced each other many times then Federer would not get blanked like he would on clay but I would give Borg the overall edge on grass.

I am comfortable giving Federer a narrow edge on hard courts. Overall, that adds up to Borg owning clay decisively, owning grass narrowly and losing on hard courts by a small margin.