Who is the greatest of all time ? It’s a question that gets posed in every sport from soccer to tennis. Because believe it or not, the only thing fans and the media are interested in, is debates and lists. Tennis is no exception; the world’s best have been competing in the Open Era since 1968. Hence, the list of potential candidates for the GOAT( Greatest of All Time) has only gotten longer. I’ll be talking about the men’s side of the debate in this article cause the women’s side deserves a separate article on it too!
When the first decade of the 21st century loomed, no one could have foreseen that three players would dominate men’s tennis for more than two decades ! For most tennis fans, the GOAT debate revolves around three players which are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But have they really done enough to place themselves in a league of their own, head and shoulders above legends such as Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, John McEnroe and others ? Well, that’s a tricky question as advances in sport science, technology and nutrition have made it a bit easier for the players of this generation to sustain their longevity in the sport. Let’s have a look at some stats.
At the time of writing this article, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal lead the pack with 20 grand slams each with Novak Djokovic closing in on 18. They have won 58 of the last 70 grand slams. Most people believe that grand slams are the deciding factor to decide which player is the GOAT, the player with most grand slams wins the race, as simple as that. But for fans who have been following tennis, it’s a different and complicated story. Let’s have a look at our three major contenders and why each of them should be the GOAT.
Starting with Roger Federer, the Swiss is the oldest of the pack turning 40 in 2021. He also holds the record with Rafael Nadal for most slams. But he has some significant other achievements which seem almost impossible to ever break. He holds the record for most weeks at number one in the world with 310 weeks at the top of the sport. He was also at the top for 237 weeks consecutively which makes it even more impressive ! He’s also the only player to win 2 grand slams 5 times each, he was the champion at Wimbledon from 2003-07 and ruled the US open from 2004-08. Federer has won a record 8 slams at Wimbledon, 6 at the Australian Open, 5 at the US open and a solitary slam at the French Open which he won in 2009. Federer has also reached 31 grand slam finals with 10 consecutive, both being all time records. He also has 46 semi-final and 57 quarter final appearances to his name, the most in the open era.
Federer also has other records such as a record of 71 hard court titles, a 56-match winning streak on hard courts. Federer’s most successful surface is grass where he has won a record 19 titles including an all-time 10 titles at Halle and 8 at Wimbledon. Federer also has the longest grass court winning streak as he won 65 consecutive matches on grass from 2003-08. Due to his success on grass courts, Federer is considered by many as the greatest grass court player of all time. Federer is the only player to register at least 10 titles on clay, grass and hard courts. At the prestigious ATP World Tour finals, Federer has a record of 6 titles and 10 final appearances.
Federer was selected by fellow players as winner of the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship award 13 times ( 2004-09, 2011-2017). Fans voted for him in 2020 to receive the ATP Fans Favourite Award for a 18th straight year ( since 2003). Since his grand slam winning debut at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer has won a record total of 39 ATP World Tour Awards. Federer is by far the most elegant, classy and technically superior player of all time. He has wowed tennis fans for over two decades and is still going strong. Fans and experts alike have called him as one of the best ambassadors of not only tennis but sport in general. Thus, Roger Federer is a clear fan favourite and will always remain number one in the minds and hearts of most tennis fans worldwide.
Talking about Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard from the island of Mallorca has won a record 20 Grand Slam singles titles which ties him with Roger Federer. Nadal completed the Career Grand Slam and the Career Golden Slam, becoming the youngest player in the Open Era to achieve this feat, having won all four majors and the Olympic title by the age of 24 years, 3 months and 10 days. Known as the “King of Clay”, Nadal won the French Open 9 times in his first 10 attempts, with a match record of 66-1 (98.5%-win rate) and is viewed by many analysts as one of the greatest feats in the Open Era. Nadal won the French Open on his first attempt as a 19-year-old in 2005 and went on to make three consecutive title defences from 2005 to 2008; he defeated then world No. 1 Roger Federer in three consecutive finals from 2006 to 2008 (he also defeated Federer in the 2005 semi-finals) and again in the 2011 final (Nadal is the only player to defeat Federer in four finals at the same major.
Nadal is also the only player to beat Federer in the finals of 3 different grand slams, the French Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon). His sole loss at the French Open during this period came at the hands of Sweden’s Robin Söderling in 2009 in the round of 16. Nadal then went on to avenge his loss to Söderling by defeating him in the 2010 French Open final, and then notched four consecutive title defences from 2011 to 2014 (an Open Era record). Rafa furthered his legend in history when he won “La Decima”, a 10th title in Paris in 2017, where he didn’t drop a set and lost only 35 games, only three shy of Borg’s record of 32 games lost. He holds a match record of 100–2 at the French Open (never taken to five sets in the final) from 2005 to 2020 achieving a win percentage of 98.0% and is the only player to achieve this type of dominance at any single Grand Slam tournament. Nadal won the French Open an all-time record of 13 times and is the first, and only, player in history, male or female, to win 13 grand slams at a single major (no other male player has won more than 8 titles at a single major in the Open Era).
Additionally, Nadal is 25-0 in best of 5 matches on clay at other events, bringing his total match record in best of 5 on clay to 125-2, a win percentage of 98.4%. Nadal didn’t lose a single semi-final on clay courts for 12 years (52-0) from the 2003 Croatia Open (lost to Carlos Moya) to the 2015 Rio Open (lost to Fabio Fognini). He has won 25 Masters 1000 titles, 13 Grand Slam titles, and an Open Era record 60 titles on clay. He won at least 1 Masters 1000 title for ten consecutive years from 2005 to 2014 and is the only player to achieve this type of consistency in the Open Era. He owns the Open era records of most consecutive years of winning 1+ ATP singles titles (17 years from 2004-2020) and most consecutive years of winning 2+ ATP singles titles (16 years from 2005-2020).
He owns the longest single surface win streak by a male having won 81 consecutive matches on clay courts from 2005 to 2007, 16 better than Federer’s record on grass, and 25 better than Federer’s record on hard courts. Nadal also won a record 8 consecutive Monte Carlo Masters 1000 titles from 2005 to 2012, and a record overall 11 titles including his three-peat from 2016 to 2018. Nadal has also won a record 9 Masters 1000 titles in Rome, and 11 titles at the ATP 500 Barcelona Open. In 2010, Nadal won the French Open plus all three-clay court Masters 1000 events (Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid) in the same calendar year, thus becoming the first, and only, player to complete the “Clay Slam”.
Nadal won at least one Grand Slam tournament for 10 consecutive years (2005 – 2014) having broken the previous men’s record of 8 consecutive years. He holds the record for most titles at 3 different ATP Tour levels: ATP 500 (Barcelona-11), Masters 1000 (Monte Carlo-11), and Grand Slams (French Open-13).
Nadal’s success does not hold strictly to the clay courts. Over the course of his career, he has won 400+ hard court matches as well as 400+ clay court matches. He is the only player, regardless of gender, to have recorded 400+ match wins on both hard and clay courts. He has won 13 French Open titles, 2 Wimbledon titles, 1 Australian Open title and 4 US Open titles. Nadal also owns the Open era record of most consecutive years qualifying for the year-end ATP Finals at 16 years in a row. Nadal has the Open Era record for best career winning percentage (for minimum 500 wins) at 83.25% (999-201 record). Nadal is the only player to be ranked ATP world number one in three different decades, in the 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s. Due to Nadal’s physicality, never die attitude, fighting spirit and jaw dropping athleticism, he’s loved by tennis fans all over the world.
Novak Djokovic :
Coming to our final candidate Novak Djokovic, the Serb is a seventeen-time Grand Slam Champion and six-time year-end World No.1. He is the only one in tennis history to hold all four Grand Slams on three different surfaces at once. Djokovic is also the only player to win all ATP tour Elite tournaments. Djokovic has won 36 titles in the ATP Masters tournaments, the most of any player. By 2018, he had won Masters titles across all 9 venues where Masters tournaments are held, becoming the first player to achieve the “Career Golden Masters”. Djokovic is widely viewed as one of the greatest hardcourt players of the Open Era, if not the greatest. He has the record of most hardcourt Majors and most masters titles.
Djokovic is one of two players (with Robin Soderling) to defeat Rafael Nadal at the French Open. He is also the only player to defeat Nadal in all three clay court Masters events. Djokovic is the player with the most clay-match wins over Nadal and the one who ended Nadal’s consecutive run of 8 Monte Carlo titles in the 2013 final. Djokovic is the only player to defeat Federer and Nadal in all four Grand Slams. He’s also the only one to beat both in multiple Grand Slam finals, multiple Master finals and in the final of Year-End Championship. He is the only player to defeat Federer in three Wimbledon finals (2014, 2015 and 2019) and the only player to defeat Nadal in four Grand Slam finals (Wimbledon 2011, US Open 2011 and Australian Open 2012, 2019).
Djokovic has won a record 9 Australian Open titles, 5 Wimbledon titles, 3 US Open titles and one French Open title. Djokovic leads the head to head against both Roger and Rafa and has dominated the past decade winning 16 slams. Djokovic is widely regarded as one of the best players in the world due to his versatility, ability to play unbelievably well in pressure situations and consistency.
But is the GOAT debate worth having in the first place ? Most tennis pundits believe that its disrespectful to pick a winner and choose between the big three, and we as tennis fans are doing disservice to the players and the sport. It’s true that we cannot pick the GOAT before each of them hangs up their rackets. Many people believe that the number of grand slams is not the most important stat and others such as most weeks at number one matters more. This validates a very important question too, which is the most important stat for determining the GOAT ? This depends on person to person and hence we see different answers to the GOAT debate from different people.
Most people would agree that we cannot compare players of different generations as we wouldn’t be able to see prime Federer vs prime Borg or prime Djokovic vs prime McEnroe, so it’s pointless to even say that the big 3 lead the GOAT race. Arguably, if legends such as Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and others enjoyed the superior use of technology that we use today, they might have been the ones at the top. There are a lot of other factors that also should be taken into consideration while determining the GOAT. Rivalries and charisma also play a big role in shaping tennis history. Battling social issues (especially in the 20th century) should also be taken into account.
Essentially, it all comes down to unquantifiers. No matter how many newspapers, websites or articles come up with formulas to determine the GOAT, it boils down to the individual feelings of the fans. Therefore, instead of debating and deliberating on who the GOAT is, let’s just enjoy the game of tennis cause we’re going to miss them when they retire. It’s important to respect all the legends of the sport as they have contributed massively to the game and are true ambassadors of the sport. To cap it up, the GOAT debate will most likely continue as long as the sport exists cause records are meant to be broken and the question of who truly is the GOAT will most likely end as one of the questions who no one knows the answer to.
- Cam Williams, President, Tennis Talk
- Tennis Paris Brothers