Tied at Twenty: Will Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal be the First to Reach 21 Grand Slam Titles?

Federer

A period of dominance spanning 17 years, starting with Roger Federer’s maiden Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003 all the way to Rafael Nadal’s 13th Roland Garros crown last year, the two giants of the tennis world have sat atop of the rest for years. Each hold their own respective records setting them apart from their fiercest rival.

We could list the achievements of both men and we’d be here all day, but some key points stand out which define the play style and career of the stars. The Swiss Maestro has won a record eight Wimbledon titles, asserting his dominance on the grass. As well as this, he has won a record 71 hard court titles and is currently the only man to win the US Open five consecutive times. To top it all off, he holds the record for most weeks as the World No.1 (310 weeks), for now.

Tied at Twenty Grand Slam Titles:

Nadal’s dominance unsurprisingly comes from his ventures on clay courts. His record 13 titles at Roland Garros is unmatched by any player across any surface. This extends to a record 11 victories in Monte Carlo. He is currently the youngest player to achieve the “Career Grand Slam”–winning all four Majors between the ages of 19 and 24. Nadal also has the highest win percentage in tennis history with an outstanding .831. The two men are both considered legends of the game, but there’s one thing that cannot separate the two: both are currently tied at 20 Grand Slam titles apiece.

Roger Federer’s flurry of titles came in the early 2000s. He won 15 titles before the turn of the century, including his five consecutive titles in New York and six of his eight Wimbledon crowns. He went on to win a further three titles in Australia–back to back in 2017 and 2018–and two more at the All-England Club. His lone French Open title came the year Nadal was knocked out in the Fourth round in 2009 by Robin Soderling.

Rafael Nadal’s surge of titles started two years after Federer’s first with his maiden Roland Garros title in 2005. Following this was four consecutive titles ending in 2008, where he also secured his first of two Wimbledon victories. The following year saw him win only in Melbourne with his first and only Australian Open title. Since the turn of the decade he has won a Slam every year, adding to his six before 2010 with a further nine in Paris, four in New York, and a singular title at Wimbledon.

As the 2021 season kicks off, both players will be looking to pull ahead of the other and secure their 21st title. Nadal begins the season with a slight advantage as Federer remains sidelined and therefore misses the Australian Open. Despite this, we shall be looking at each of the four Slams and ranking the chances of a 21st slam.

Australian Open:

Federer: N/A

Federer is sadly ruled out of the Australian Open after suffering a knee injury at the same event a year prior. He reached the semifinal last year, falling short to eventual winner Novak Djokovic. Sadly the tournament comes too soon for the Swiss to recover.

Nadal: Semifinal

Nadal has had the least success at the Australian Open compared to the other three Slams–only winning it once, in 2009. Despite this, he has reached the final four times and the quarterfinals 11 times. He also boasts an 82% winning rate at the competition. His loss at the hands of Dominic Thiem last year will likely haunt the Spaniard, who will be hoping the Austrian will be seeded on the opposite side of the draw.

The one advantage Nadal has is his prospective route to the final will not feature World No.1 and favorite Novak Djokovic. The Serbian is the current champion after winning consecutive titles in 2019 and 2020. Nadal will look to regain some form on hard court after failing to make the final at both the Paris Masers and the ATP Nitto Finals. The World No.2 has a strong chance of winning the Australian Open should he have a favorable run to the final, and an increased chance if Djokovic falls short before the final. However, the Serbian will likely come out victorious in Australia and Nadal will have to wait for his 21st slam.

French Open:

Federer: Fourth Round

With a rumored return to action coming in Doha in March, Federer should be fit and firing come the French Open in May. His record at the French Open pales in comparison to the Spaniard’s with an 80% win rate–his lowest of all four Slams. However, Federer won the competition in 2009, his fourth consecutive final in Paris, making at least the quarterfinal 11 times. His most recent venture at Roland Garros was in 2019, losing in the semifinals to eventual winner Nadal in three sets. Should Federer decider to play the French Open, a competition he has missed four out of the last five years, he arrives in France seeded fifth or even lower. This leaves him the chance to be drawn on either Djokovic or Nadal’s side, having to play one of them before the final.

There is a possibility Federer could miss Roland Garros altogether, biding his time until the grass season or a first Olympic singles gold–the one achievement to allude him so far. Either way, the French Open is not the Slam Federer sees 21. However…

Nadal: Champion

Rafael Nadal’s chances of winning his 21st Grand Slam at the French Open are as good as any for the Spaniard. The “King of Clay” has reigned victorious in Paris a record 13 times. He holds an astounding record of 100 wins to two losses. These losses came at the hands of Robin Soderling in 2009 and Novak Djokovic in 2015, but hardly blemish Nadal’s dominance on clay. He’ll arrive in Paris after winning the title four consecutive times. He won in 2020 without dropping a single set and beat World No.1 Djokovic convincingly in the final, 6-0 6-2 7-5. This is the fourth time in his career Nadal has won the Slam without dropping a set, and he sealed the title with his 100th victory at the competition.

Any talk of the Spaniard slowing down at the French Open were quickly diminished last year. I believe any doubts over his effectiveness at the competition will again be quickly squashed. Nadal is the hands-down favorite to win in Paris and secure his 14th title. He’ll overtake Roger Federer with 21 titles, but maybe not for long.

Wimbledon:

Federer: Champion

The All-England Club sadly could not host Wimbledon in 2020, leaving the lasting memory of Roger Federer’s defeat at the hands of Novak Djokovic fresh in the minds of fans. The eight time champion squandered two championship points at 8-7 in the final set to fall short of winning the title for a ninth time. 2019 marked Federer’s record 12th final after besting Nadal in the semifinal in four sets to avenge his loss at Roland Garros prior. Federer’s strongest surface is undoubtably grass. He boasts an 89% win rate at Wimbledon, reaching the quarterfinals or further 17 times.

From 2003 to 2007, Federer won five of his titles, yet still has the ability to reach the latter stages of the competition late into his career. Despite Djokovic winning Wimbledon in 2018 and 2019, besting Federer in the process, the Swiss will be determined to avenge the heartbreaking loss. His best chance at a 21st Slam will come in England. I believe this will come in 2021–even if he has to postpone his comeback until the grass season to do so.

Nadal: Quarterfinal

Nadal has won Wimbledon twice in his illustrious career, beating Federer in the 2008 final in an instant classic. His maiden title in 2008 is often regarded as the best match in tennis history as he bested the Swiss Maestro in a five-set thriller. His second victory in 2010 is complemented by a further three final appearances. Nadal also has two consecutive semifinal losses in the last two iterations of the tournament. He fell short to both other members of the “Big Three”–Djokovic in 2018 and Federer in 2019.

Nadal will enter this year’s Championships with a win rate of 82%, tied with the Australian Open as his lowest. Despite his predicted second seed, the grass season is his weakest in the calendar. Should Federer not win at Wimbledon this year, current World No.1 Djokovic is favorite to win a third successive title.

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US Open:

Federer: Quarterfinal

Once Federer’s stomping ground, the Swiss has not seen the same success at the US Open since his last title in 2008. His five successive titles from 2004 to 2008 is a record at the competition. He also boasts the longest win streak on hard courts, at 56 matches. His recent run at the competition leaves the US Open his least successful tournament since 2016, failing to reach further than the quarterfinals. His most recent stint in 2019 saw him lose in five sets to unseeded Grigor Dimitrov.

However, his 86% win rate in New York is greater than Rafael Nadal’s and matched by three-time winner Novak Djokovic. Federer’s domination at the tournament peaked in his early years, and despite an admirable record at the competition, will be further down the pecking order than the likes of Nadal and Djokovic, perhaps even below last year’s finalists Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev.

Nadal: Semifinal

Nadal omission from the 2020 edition of the US Open means his last match in the competition saw him lift the trophy in 2019. He bested Daniil Medvedev in a five-set thriller to claim his fourth title in New York. This took him one ahead of Djokovic in terms of titles at the US Open. Nadal has also reached the semifinals or further the last three times he’s played. His 85% win rate is only 1% behind the other two members of the “Big Three,” and it remains his second most successful Slam. However, Novak Djokovic and defending champion Dominic Thiem are favored ahead of Nadal to win in New York this year.

Djokovic was favorite for the 2020 title before his default loss to Pablo Carreno-Busta in the fourth round. Nadal will favor his chances to win perhaps a 22nd Grand Slam at the final Major of the year, potentially taking him one ahead of Federer. But a full calendar year after missing half of last season may take a toll on Nadal as a new wave of tennis stars will look to win the sport’s most unpredictable Grand slam.

Summary

Both Federer and Nadal will hope to stand out in 2021 for differing reasons. Nadal will look to build on his success at Roland Garros last year and recapture the World No.1 spot from Djokovic, who is quickly closing in on Federer’s record for consecutive weeks (310) at the top of the pedestal. Federer will be hoping to prove he can still tangle with the top stars as he approaches the age of 40 and just missed a whole year of tennis. Whatever the outcome of the year, we can all be glad to see two of the best back on the court vert soon.

Main Photo from Getty.


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