The GOAT Debate: Who is the Greatest Male Player of the Open Era

Which of the Big Three will win the GOAT debate?

The great Roger Federer has announced his intention to retire after the Laver Cup and the tributes from all over the world have been fulsome to say the least. However, at this moment, many tennis fans are also pondering which of the Big Three – Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – is the GOAT, though the more important question probably remains whether it is possible to ascertain the greatest tennis player of all time at all.

The Big Three have undoubtedly elevated the game of tennis to another level and have spoiled the tennis fans all over the world by treating them to such sustained excellence. Throw in multiple Slam winners like Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka to the mix and one has a brilliant collection of players at the top that has never been seen in the history of the game and is unlikely to be ever seen again.

But it is very difficult for a tennis-lover to be objective in debating the GOAT, as they are bound to be inclined towards any one of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic and give his vote to his favorite player. However, one can try to be as objective and neutral as possible in discussing this topic.

Career achievements:

The casual tennis fan might not look beyond the Grand Slam count, which has Nadal at the top with 22, Djokovic following him with 21 and Federer calling it a day at 20. However, Nadal’s unreal level on clay has helped him win 14 titles at Roland Garros and also arguably inflated his overall Slam count. While Nadal’s dominance on clay is quite unprecedented and deserves utmost credit, it drags him back somewhat in the race for the GOAT.

Now, Nadal has won eight slams off clay and to put things in perspective, that tally is as many as Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors have won on all surfaces and one more than John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl have. This points out Nadal’s brilliance on hard courts quite well; the only thing is that it still fades in comparison to that of Federer and Djokovic.

While winning seven best-of-five matches is the ultimate test for a tennis player, the importance of Masters 1000 tournaments cannot be denied either. Djokovic leads the list with 38 Masters 1000 titles followed by Nadal with 36 and Federer with 28. Nadal’s clay-skew is evident again as he has won 26 of them on clay. Both Federer and Djokovic have been denied by Nadal on clay repeatedly, just as Nadal and Federer have been by Djokovic on hard.

Djokovic and Federer have won 12 and 11 Grand Slams on hard courts, respectively, but Djokovic is comfortably ahead in terms Masters titles won on the surface. Federer noses ahead in terms of Wimbledon counts (eight against seven*), but Djokovic might very catch up next year, given the apparent inability of the younger players to play on grass. Overall, Djokovic has the most accomplished resume of the three and is likely to add more as he is relatively injury-free and can play more tournaments on hard courts, his favourite surface.

Head-to-head records:

The Big Three have enjoyed great rivalries among themselves – ones those have enthralled spectators all over the world. Djokovic again manages to keep his nose in front, having a head-to-head record of 30-29 against Nadal and 27-23 against Federer. Nadal has in fact failed to win a single set against the Serb since 2013 on hard courts. While the Spaniard has comfortably dominated Djokovic on clay, his shortcomings against the Serb on hard courts have been there for all to see.

Federer has matched Djokovic more or less on hard courts and given him stiff competition on the surface, but his dubious record of losing three Wimbledon titles has hampered his chances of ending up as the GOAT. The greatest player of all time is not supposed to lose three finals against his closest competitor in his favourite Slam. The fact that he lost one of those finals conceding a couple of match points makes his case look even bleaker.

In addition to that, Federer’ inferior 16-24 record against Nadal has also to be taken into consideration. Bad match up or not, it cannot be denied that Federer has often been dominated by his two closest rivals and his record against Nadal might have looked even worse if not for his resurgence in the latter stages of his career.

Other factors:

While the big titles are the most important thing in tennis, the significance of the number of weeks spent as the world #1 cannot be denied either. Djokovic is again comfortably ahead in this regard and has spent more than 360 weeks as the #1, followed by Federer with 310 and Nadal well behind with 209. An argument in favour of Nadal in this context is that he has been denied a lot of weeks as the #1 by Djokovic, as their careers more or less coincided with each other, while Federer managed to squeeze in a lot of weeks when Nadal, Djokovic and Murray were in the nascent stages of their career.

Federer, who is six and five years older than Djokovic and Nadal, respectively, amassed 15 Grand Slam titles by the age of 28, but could only win five more in the last 13 years of his career. This goes on to show the dominance of Djokovic and Nadal that often reduced the Swiss maestro to being the third best. Federer inarguably has the most elegant playing style of the three, but cold, hard facts cannot be ignored when determining the GOAT.

However, the slowing down of the surfaces is something that cannot be overlooked either. For example, Djokovic might have found it difficult to win seven Wimbledon titles on the lightning fast grass of the 90s and he has also been helped by the use of plexicushion at the Australian Open. Still, it is not the Serb’s fault that surfaces were slowed down and it suited his playing style.

My humble take:

My humble take is that it is difficult to argue against Djokovic being the GOAT in terms of achievements, consistency and longevity. If he adds a Slam or two to his resume, he will put an end to this debate permanently. Even if he does not, it is hard to look beyond him, unless Nadal manages to win at least two more slams with at least one on hard. The Spaniard will have to be at least two-three Slams ahead of Djokovic in order to be considered as the GOAT.

In my opinion, Federer and Nadal are almost equal. Federer is comfortably ahead in terms of weeks spent as #1 and the number of Year End Championships, which underlines his inarguable superiority as an Indoor player. Nadal’s 14 Roland Garros titles have helped him get to the Slam record, but it should also be remembered in this context that Federer won eight Slams on grass, his favourite surface, too. Moreover, clay is the more prevalent surface than grass and it tilts the scale in favour of the Spaniard. Nadal’s Olympics Gold in singles also compensates somewhat for his lack of weeks at the top of the rankings tree.

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