Monday, September 9, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

While Borg-Nadal is difficult to call, it is very hard to understand how anyone who supported Federer's greatest player of all-time candidacy circa 2006 would not be even more strongly in favor of Nadal now: Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than Federer did, Nadal has a much better Grand Slam winning percentage, Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head and Nadal does not have a problematic individual matchup or surface. The only advantage that Federer has ever held over Nadal is that Federer has been healthier/more durable, which will make it even more remarkable if Nadal wins four more Grand Slams to tie Federer's mark.
Mary Carillo offered a very insightful and objective take on the Federer-Nadal rivalry:
I have said and argued with John McEnroe and Ted Robinson during our French Open telecasts for many years that you cannot anoint Roger Federer the greatest of all time if he isn't the greatest of his own time. And it's not just on red clay. Nadal has the edge on hard courts as well. Like in boxing, it's all about the matchup. When Roger is playing at his luminous best he has no need to worry about the other side of the net. But if he is playing Nadal, even his best is often not enough.

People conflate [Federer's] beauty with supremacy and blur the line between high art and [Nadal's] impossible-to-ignore domination. I think Roger Federer is the most stylish, elegant and gifted tennis player I've ever seen. Roger is all that is right in this tennis world. Rafa Nadal is his perfect rival--powerful, explosive, gritty and gutsy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the larger perspective. I agree with you that Borg is still the GOAT re: the Open Era. I think that another Sandy Koufax like tennis career was John McEnroe's. I wish that he and Borg had met in more Wimbledon (and U.S. Open) finals. What do you think about racket technology, how today's players need not the touch and finesse that a Borg or McEnroe had to have back in the day?

If we factor in racket technology, it seems clearer to me that Borg is the GOAT, and that re: Wimbledon grass, McEnroe may be the best that ever played on the surface. Something happened to McEnroe after 1984, he lost his magic, but he was so close to the French Open/Wimbledon double victory in 1984. Up two sets to love over Lendl, he was undone by his nemesis, uncontrolled fury.

David Friedman said...


You're welcome.

McEnroe's reign at the absolute top--at least in terms of winning Grand Slams, and not the quirky ATP rating system--was shorter than Borg's. Borg won at least one Slam per year each year from 1974-81, which was the record for many years. If Borg had not left Grand Slam competition abruptly in 1981 he likely could have extended that streak at least two more years just by continuing his French Open dominance, and the possibility that he would have won more Wimbledons--or even finally broken through at the U.S. Open--cannot be discounted.

I don't consider myself an authority on the evolution of racket technology, but I agree with the general premise that players like Borg and McEnroe had more finesse/touch than the great players who came after them who heavily relied on power.

Anonymous said...


Have you read Andre Agassi's magnificent (ghostwritten) memoir "Open"?

I'm asking because the story the other night about Lebron losing his hair in the middle of a game reminded me of one of my all-time favorite tennis stories, from "Open." Agassi recalls how his 20-year-old hot-shot self lost the 1990 French Open final against 30-year-old Ecuadorian journeyman Andres Gomez because of vanity. That is, Agassi was so worried about his clipped-on big hair falling out during the match that by the time he lost in four sets, he felt relief rather than disappointment. His hair, which had declipped the night before, stayed intact during the match. And so he avoided the public embarrassment of his hair falling out on international TV. "Open" is a coming-of-age story depicting how genius talent was wasted on a youthful loser, who yet matured into a great champion and a defining sportsman of his generation.

How old is Lebron again?

(this is the same Anonymous that just asked about racket technology)

David Friedman said...

Hello Anonymous:

I believe that I read an excerpt, or perhaps even substantial portions of, "Open" many years ago, but I have not read the book from cover to cover. I do recall the "hair" story, and I know that Agassi matured greatly over the years after squandering a lot of his talent during the first portion of his career, when he fell to performing in satellite tournaments after previously winning Grand Slam titles.

LeBron will turn 35 later this year. He certainly never squandered his talent to the extent that Agassi did for extended periods but LeBron--like Shaq--is an all-time great who could have achieved even more with a different mindset. Imagine a player with the physical gifts of Shaq or LeBron and the mindset of Jordan or Kobe!

Andy said...

Hi David. We’ve battled before. I too now have trouble calling Fed the GOAT. To me, this has more to do with what Rafa/Novak have accomplished than what Fed has not done.

As in our previous discussions, my problem is more with the fairness and/or accuracy of some of your comments than with your conclusion. Here are some examples:

1. You say, "The greatest player of all-time should be able to win on multiple surfaces and should not have a losing record against his main rival."

- The first part of this implies that Fed has not been able to win on multiple surfaces, but he has in fact clearly been able to do so. His results everywhere, including clay, no matter how critical one is about him not being able to beat Rafa at the FO, meets the criteria of “being able to win on multiple surfaces.” In fact, between them, it is Rafa who has failed to win the big prize on one surface (indoor hard) and has had limited success there overall
- As for the second part, why can’t the GOAT have a losing record to his main rival? If his overall body of work is greater, why not? Your response is always something like “when in sports history has this happened?” but again, so what? The Fed-Nadal story is unique in many ways so why can’t there be a unique result in this regard too. Let’s say, hypothetically, there were no Novak, Borg or other GOAT contenders and Rafa’s overall body of work did not measure up, BUT, as in reality, his performance against Fed was very good. Would you still say, “No, Fed can’t be the GOAT because he has a losing record to his main rival”? To me this would be illogical if Fed’s overall body of work were greater than everyone else’s. Fed’s problem is not the “losing record against his main rival,” but rather that others also have amazing overall bodies of work.

2. You say, "The second dubious aspect about declaring Federer to be the greatest player of all-time is that he has never established the simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open dominance displayed by Bjorn Borg.”

- Sure, but Fed has done fine with his Wimbledon/FO performance. Borg's feats at Wimbledon/French Open shouldn't mean that Fed has done nothing significant there (even without “dominance,” Fed’s Wimbledon/FO credentials are impressive).

3. You say, "Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than Federer did, Nadal has a much better Grand Slam winning percentage"

- But, if you break down tennis into Grass, Clay, Outdoor Hard and Indoor Hard, you find that on each surface other than clay, Rafa has not achieved more at a younger age, and if you break down the Majors, except for the FO, Rafa does not have a better Grand Slam winning percentage than Fed. Does that not matter? It seems that it doesn't to you. I don't get that David. If you are truly being objective, at the very least, even if you give Rafa the check mark on “out-greating" Fed overall, you have to acknowledge, by simply applying your own objective criteria to particular surfaces or Majors, the "greater" player (Rafa) was outperformed by a rival (Fed) in terms of results on Grass, Outdoor Hard and Indoor Hard, and at Wimbledon, the USO and the AO. Anyway, the first part of your statement is misleading (when the full context is given about the “achievement” on/at the various surfaces/Majors, the story seems very different) and the second part of your statement would be fairer if you inserted the word “overall.”

4. You say, "Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head…”

- What about the last 7 matches where Fed has won 6? What about at the end of 2007 when the H2H was at a reasonably close 6-8? That is consistent domination? Don't get me wrong. I get that Rafa has dominated on clay, and done well outside clay too. Even if you want to say that Fed has been “consistently dominated” on both clay and outdoor hard, he clearly has not been on grass and indoor hard. Your comment above is simply not accurate.
More to come

Andy said...

Three quick clarifications/corrections.

- I should have said that Fed’s PRIMARY problem is not the "losing record against his main rival," but rather that others also have amazing overall bodies of work. Of course, the Rafa H2H is a problem too for Fed, but my point is that it is the overall body of work of Rafa (and Novak/Bjorn) that might prevent Fed from being the GOAT, not the losing record(s). The fact that Fed has a losing record to Rafa (and Novak) in and of itself should not disqualify Fed from being the GOAT in my opinion (again, I am not saying Fed is the GOAT).

- I notice Rafa now has a very slight edge at the USO in winning percentage in terms of titles (4/15 = 26.66) versus (5/19 = 26.31). So technically I have to correct myself on that point. But still it certainly is not a "much better" percentage than Fed's (but Fed has a "much better" percentage than Rafa's at Wimbledon and the Australian Open).

- Even though in my comments I entertain the notion of Rafa having "consistently dominated" Fed on outdoor hard, of course it would actually be crazy to say that Rafa has "consistently dominated" Fed on outdoor hard with a record of 8-6 there. I guess I was thinking that you may point to the Majors since it is 3-1 there for Rafa (all at the AO). But even that is not "consistent domination" in my opinion (and if it is, we have to say that Fed has "consistently dominated" Rafa at Wimbledon).

David Friedman said...


1) You took the first quote out of context. My point about surfaces is that Nadal's head to head advantage over Federer should not be discounted because many of the matches happened on clay. If Federer is the greatest of all-time, then he should not be helpless on one surface against a particular opponent. If Nadal were merely a clay court specialist who beat Federer a few times on clay and had accomplished nothing else that would be one thing, but clearly Nadal is much more than just a clay court specialist. Further, Nadal beat Federer at Federer's favorite Slam--Wimbledon--while Federer has never beaten Nadal at Wimbledon.

Federer's career record is not markedly better overall than Nadal's. As I have repeatedly discussed, a good case can be made that Nadal's career record overall is more impressive. Therefore, head to head most assuredly matters here. I would submit that it almost always matters, unless the difference between the two competitors is very tilted in the other direction.

2) Borg's simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open dominance for half a decade is unprecedented. At the time, it was recognized as a major reason to consider Borg the greatest of all-time. As often happens, after time passes the media tends to forget history and glorify whoever is playing right now, but I don't succumb to that tendency.

3) I don't break tennis down in the artificial way that you do. Nadal has a decisive advantage on clay, 14-2. Federer leads 3-1 on grass, but Nadal beat Federer in the most important grass tournament while Federer has never beaten Nadal at the French Open. Hard court is 11-9 in Federer's favor, basically a wash (particularly since one of Federer's wins was a walkover, not even a match that was played). In Grand Slam head to head matches, Nadal leads 6-0 at the French and 3-1 at the Australian while trailing 3-1 at Wimbledon. Nadal and Wilander are the only players in the Open Era to win at least two Slams on each of the three surfaces (grass, hard, clay)--but, of course, Wilander does not have the overall resume to be in the conversation with Federer, while Nadal does.

4) I don't know your definition of "consistent domination," but a 24-16 record over 15 years seems dominant to me. That is roughly equivalent to being a 50 win NBA team or a 10 win NFL team. Yes, the rivalry has fluctuated at times but, honestly, a closer examination of those fluctuations does not favor Federer, at least in terms of playing strength. Nadal has been more injury-prone than Federer and Federer has been remarkably durable, but put those two on a big stage anywhere in equivalent health and my money is on Nadal winning more often.

The bottom line is what Mary Carillo noted years ago: we can't say with any conviction that Federer is the best of his time, so it is definitely premature to call Federer the best of all-time. I can't see Federer giving Borg any trouble at the French Open, and I think that prime Borg would have beaten Federer more often than not at Wimbledon as well.

Andy said...


I’ll respond with two posts, the first dealing with Numbers 1 and 2 and the second dealing with Numbers 3 and 4.

1. While being helpless on one surface against a particular opponent is a factor to consider in the GOAT discussion, it should not make someone ineligible to be the GOAT as you are suggesting.

You are misunderstanding me when I bring up overall body of work. I'm not saying Fed has the better one compared to Rafa. I'm saying IF he clearly did (e.g., imagine a“still great but not GOAT-like great” Rafa with half his actual FOs and about a third of his actual off clay Majors), the "losing record against his main rival" point would not be important in the Fed-Rafa discussion, and it would be meaningless in the general GOAT discussion IF Fed had a clearly better overall body of work than anyone out there. The head to head comes into play, as a secondary factor, only if the overall bodies of work between the players are close. Sure, in reality Rafa has managed to make a spectacular overall body of work that rivals that of Fed’s and thus the head to head is indeed a secondary factor to consider in a Fed-Rafa discussion (and it should be considered as a secondary factor vis-à-vis the other GOAT contenders), but Fed should not be ineligible for the GOAT discussion because he has a losing record to his main rival or because he (impressively) played his way into several FO finals and semis but was "helpless" against Rafa there.

So your comments on GOAT eligibility, such as "The greatest player of all-time should not have a losing record against his main rival" and " If Federer is the greatest of all-time, then he should not be helpless on one surface against a particular opponent" are not useful guidelines for how one should consider the GOAT topic.

You don't have to respond with comments on Rafa's actual overall body of work. I get all that. I agree with you that Fed does not clearly have a better overall body of work. My point is that Rafa (and Novak) have (in the last few years in particular) played themselves into GOAT contention through establishing amazing (GOAT-like) overall bodies of work. That is the PRIMARY problem for Fed, not the head to head problem with Rafa, which in a Fed-Rafa discussion really exists only now that the PRIMARY problem has been established. The head to head is not a GOAT eligibility problem as, for example, having virtually no significant success on clay is for Sampras (which makes his body of work grossly incomplete).

2. Yes, in a Borg versus Fed discussion, Borg's French Open performance would be a factor to consider in Borg's favor. I agree with you there. I am just saying that the fact that Fed "never established the simultaneous Wimbledon / French Open dominance displayed by Bjorn Borg" does not negate that Fed did extremely well AT THE FO while he was winning a bunch of Wimbledons.

If this is a "dubious" aspect to Fed's GOAT case, then there is no question at all that Borg's lack of a USO (despite even having opportunities to win on a clay har-tru surface) is a "dubious" aspect to Borg's GOAT case. Don’t get me wrong. Borg had terrific runs at the USO, but, well, he never established a period of half a decade dominance at the USO the way that Fed did. I know you will talk about the greater difficulty of winning the FO and Wimbledon and I acknowledge this point David, especially back in Borg’s era. But there are “dubious” aspects to Borg and other GOAT candidates as well (and unlike Borg in his quest for a USO where he had opportunities to win on a clay har-tru surface, Fed didn’t have the good fortune to have two opportunities to win the FO on a surface that would have been more suitable to him).

* having said the above, unlike many people out there who would dismiss Borg as even being eligible for the GOAT discussion due to the "no USO" thing, I happen to agree with you that he is a GOAT candidate, so we do have some common ground there David

Andy said...


3. Well, as someone who has played and followed tennis for 45 years or so, you absolutely should break down tennis by the surfaces when analyzing the results. There is nothing artificial about doing that. But anyway, Number 3 was not about the head to head topic that you deflected to but about titles. When considering your “accomplished more at a younger age” comment, it is of course far from irrelevant that one of Rafa's rivals had actually accomplished more in terms of titles at Rafa's current age than what Rafa has done on grass, outdoor hard and indoor hard. This is NOT to discount clay at all, but there are three other environments (grass, outdoor hard and indoor hard) where Rafa has been outperformed in terms of titles. Rafa may indeed be "greater" than Fed overall. I acknowledge that now that Rafa has significantly improved his resume (by getting to 4 USO in particular). But if I am explaining tennis to a ten year old kid I am not going to just say "So look at this Rafa guy Johnny, he's accomplished more at a younger age than Fed." I am going to add the explanation of how the game is played on different surfaces (in different environments) and the conditions of each are vastly different, and that actually this Fed guy, though perhaps not as great as Rafa overall, still managed to accomplish more than Rafa on all surfaces but clay when it comes to titles. I'll explain ALL your points about Rafa winning Wimbledon by beating Fed and Fed not beating Rafa at the FO too, as I agree with you that they are relevant points (by the way, you meant the FO obviously when you said "Federer has never beaten Nadal at Wimbledon"). But to simply say Rafa accomplished more at a younger age or Rafa has a far better Grand Slam winning percentage without the context mentioned above is just not right in my opinion.

* By the way, you’re wrong about the walkover - look it up - it’s not counted in the overall 11-9 lead for Fed on all hard courts. Also, while confirming your error on this point, I was reminded that three of Rafa’s hard-court victories came in 2013 when Fed had a bad back --- I am only mentioning this because you raised Rafa’s injury-prone history, but there is a tendency to forget that Fed has at times had his own bad injuries and I think he was a bit unlucky to get Rafa on a hard court three times in 2013 instead of getting him there some other years.

4. My definition of "consistent domination" is closer to something like what Borg did to Gerulaitis or Fed did to Roddick. It most certainly is not a head to head where one of the players on average wins 2 out of every 5 matches and has stints where he wins 6 of 7 matches, and it without a shadow of doubt is not one where one of the players leads in a big way in one environment where the game is played (indoor hard) and 3-1 in another environment where the game is played (grass).

And okay, you think Rafa would win more often on a big stage anywhere if the two are in equivalent health (I am not aware of Rafa having any serious injuries in any of their Wimbledon matches by the way). Totally disagree, but okay, not a totally unreasonable opinion I guess (though bordering on it, especially considering Rafa couldn't even beat a near 38 year old Fed at Wimbledon this year and that the biggest stage outside the Majors is arguably the YEC and Fed has often dominated Rafa there). But anyway, what is, without a doubt, totally unreasonable, is to equate “more often” and “60-40” and "1-3 on grass" and "1-5 on indoor hard" with “consistent domination.”

David Friedman said...


1) I have already made it clear that head to head would not matter if the head to head leader did not also have a great body of work overall. Here, Nadal's overall body of work is at least as good as Federer's, if not better.

Even if Nadal's overall body of work were slightly worse, leading head to head 24-16 is important. It baffles me that anyone would even attempt to argue this. Chris Evert was rightly considered to be better than Martina Navratilova in the 1970s in no small part because Evert dominated head to head in the first part of their careers. Then, that switched, and Navratilova ended up ahead 43-37 in their rivalry. They each won 18 Grand Slam singles titles but I don't think that anyone would rank Evert ahead of Navratilova; the head to head category is very significant for their rivalry, as it should be in any rivalry between peers.

2) It is obvious that the main blemish on Borg's resume is that he never won the U.S. Open. There is also the unknown variable of how many more Slams he might have won had he kept playing. The one blemish and the unknown variable should not negatively impact Borg's status as much as the blemishes on the resumes of the other contenders for greatest of all-time status, as I have discussed in several articles.

3) I do break things down by surface. I just don't dismiss the importance of Nadal's dominance on one surface. Federer's fans like to pretend that clay doesn't matter and we should just look at the other surfaces, where the margin is closer or in Federer's favor, but the reality is that Nadal does better on Federer's preferred surfaces than Federer does on clay, so even this attempted manipulation of the record does not save Federer.

4) Federer must win eight straight matches versus Nadal just to make the record even, and that is after Federer has already enjoyed a bit of a good run with both players past their primes. Let's break it down further. Nadal led 8-6 from 2004-07, when Federer was at his absolute peak and Nadal was still improving. Nadal led 15-4 from 2008-14 when both players were at or near their peaks; during that time, Nadal led on all surfaces (Clay 7-1, Grass 1-0, Hard 7-3). Federer has made a late career run of 6-1, but still trails by 8! If you don't think that Nadal has dominated overall for a decade and a half--while also dominating the most significant years, when both players were in their primes--then I can't help you.