The debate surrounding who is the greatest of all time in the men’s game has always been a controversial, if engaging conversation. But it has reached a fever pitch in recent years due to the unprecedented achievements of the Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. A strong case can be made for all three, and one or two others. So we here at LWOT are going to make their cases. First up in this series is the great Spaniard Nadal, the winner of 19 Major titles.
But impressive as his resume is, it is not perfect. After all, Federer has won one more Grand Slam, whilst Nadal has never won the ATP Finals, has a losing record against Djokovic and, perhaps worst of all, five men have spent more time ranked as the world’s best. So the greatest of all time? Surely not. However, things are not quite that simple. If a player is to be accounted the greatest of all time, raw numbers alone are not enough.
Instead, the most important question is: what are Nadal’s unique achievements that set him apart from his peers?
Nadal is only the second man to complete the Career Golden Slam
Djokovic may well have the most complete resume with every Major and Masters trophy in his cabinet, whilst Federer still leads in terms of Grand Slam titles won as well as weeks at #1. But neither has won an Olympic gold medal in singles. In fact, the only other man who can match Nadal’s achievement of completing the Career Golden Slam is Andre Agassi, but the American won 11 fewer Grand Slams and less than half as many Masters. In short, he is not breathing the same rarified air.
Nadal is the most successful player outside his favourite surface
Nadal’s claims to greatness have been countered throughout his career due to a perceived over-reliance on clay-court success. It has been argued, all too often, that whilst Nadal may be the greatest of all time on the clay, away from the terre battue, his achievements do not stack up. But that is too narrow a view of Nadal’s accomplishments, failing to recognise Nadal’s unrivalled ability to dominate on his preferred surface, something Federer and Djokovic have not replicated on the grass or asphalt.
To prove the point, let’s see how the Big Three perform across all three surfaces.
Here’s the majors’ count, by surface:
On Roland Garros’ red clay, Federer did win in 2009, but did so without beating his nemesis. In contrast, Nadal triumphed twice on the hallowed lawns at Wimbledon, even beating Federer once in the final. Not satisfied? Nadal has also beaten Federer multiple times on the hard courts at Melbourne Park. Djokovic’s record on the clay arguably shades Federer’s. The Serbian has also won just one title in Paris, but he did beat Nadal, albeit an out of sorts Nadal, there in 2015 in straight-sets.
However, whilst Nadal has never beaten Djokovic in his stronghold at the Australian Open, losing two finals to the Serbian down under, he has beaten Djokovic twice on the hard courts at the US Open, in the finals in 2010 and in 2013. Federer and Djokovic’s rivalry, meanwhile, is perhaps the closest. Both have beaten the other at least once at all four Majors although Djokovic enjoys the better record in the biggest of matches, having won four of the five Grand Slam finals they have contested.
Final head-to-head in majors:
Against Federer: Nadal is 6-0 (clay); 3-1 (hard); 1-3 (grass).
Against Djokovic: Nadal is 6-1 (clay); 2-3 (hard); 1-2 (grass).
As we can see then, whilst Nadal is nearly untouchable on the clay, his great rivals cannot claim the same degree of dominance on their favourite surfaces. Although that is in part due to the threat they pose each other, Nadal can and has dealt some stinging defeats to both Federer and Djokovic away from the clay, when he is theoretically at his most vulnerable. And could it not be said that making deep inroads against your adversaries in their favoured hunting grounds is the greatest challenge of all?
Nadal is the only one to have won multiple majors on all three different surfaces
Oddly enough, this unique achievement often fails to get the praise it surely deserves. Nadal is the only man ever to have won at least two Major titles on each of the three surfaces: clay, grass and hard. Laver did win multiple titles at all four Slams, but in Laver’s time the Australian and US Open were both played on grass. Moreover, Nadal had won multiple titles on each surface by the time he was 24. Federer and Djokovic, in contrast, did not complete the Career Grand Slam until they were 27 and 29 respectively.
Nonetheless, there are some facts we cannot hide from. Nadal has important flaws on his resume. But so do his competition for the title of greatest of all time. The question is how the uniqueness of his achievements weighs against those flaws. It is true that Nadal has spent far less time as world #1 than Federer and Djokovic. But he has ended as many years as the world #1 as the Swiss and the Serb, with all three having claimed five year-end #1’s.
It is also true that Nadal has a losing record against Djokovic (26-29), but it could also be argued that when it matters most – at the Grand Slams – Nadal leads the way (9-6). Nadal’s failure to win the ATP Finals is also a blemish on his resume, but arguably a less serious one than Federer and Djokovic’s lack of a singles’ gold medal. Is that enough to give Nadal a claim to being the greatest of all time? That is ultimately a matter of opinion.
But Nadal certainly does have a strong claim to being the most successful all-round player. And is that not precisely what is expected of the greatest of all time?
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