Sunday, September 19, 2010

The New Greatest Ever?...Not So Fast

by Conroy

On Monday Rafael Nadal emphatically won the U.S. Open to complete the career "grand slam." He became just the seventh man to attain this achievement and only the fourth to do it in the open era. Nadal's accomplishment is all the more noteworthy because he completed it at the relatively young (in tennis terms) age of 24. The last two men to complete a career grand slam, Andre Agassi in 1999 and Roger Federer in 2009, were 29 and 27, respectively, at the time.

Nadal's (or Rafa as he is affectionately known) career has been a case study in early promise, quick success, and continued accomplishment. He was a teenage phenom like Agassi and Bjorn Borg, and he has steadily improved his game to expand his undeniable skill on clay to a well-rounded and complete package capable of winning on any surface. He has modified his ground-strokes, serve, net play, and court positioning to expand his repertoire from the running and defense that has made him nearly unbeatable on the red dirt to an imposing presence on fast courts. His constitutional ultra-competitiveness and supreme fitness combined with new and improving skills promise continued success in the years ahead.

In fact, talk has already begun that Rafa may soon surpass Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player of his generation, and ultimately of all time, the proverbial GOAT. Here are a couple of opinions along those lines, (1) and (2).

The Federer-Nadal rivalry has been one of the great story lines of tennis since the Majorcan emerged as a force on the tour in 2005. They have played some of the greatest matches (watch perhaps the greatest ten minutes in tennis history here) and the underlying theme of Nadal getting the better of Federer has been the one peculiarity of the Swiss' career success (more on this below).

However, the argument that Nadal has usurped Federer's position I find unsupportable. Nadal's career achievements and 2010 performance are noteworthy without question, but they do not compare to the career achievements of Roger Federer. Grand Slam performance, overall record, and the number 1 ranking all fall decisively in Federer's favor. Consider the following 10 points:

Note all statistics from and

[Many of these points focus on grand slam performance. It is my opinion that  grand slams provide a far better indication of a player's physical strength, mental focus, and tennis skills than other tournaments. To win a grand slam a player must win seven, best-of-five-set matches over a two week period. A challenge far greater than the best-of-three-set, smaller field, one-week events that comprise the remainder of the tennis schedule. Moreover, the grand slam events are the titles most cherished and desired by players, considered when comparing players over time, and that attract the attention of the general sports world.]

10. Grand Slam Victories. Roger Federer has won a record 16 grand slam titles, including 6 Wimbledon titles, 5 U.S. Open titles, and 4 Australian Open titles (see collage to the right). No one has won three separate grand slams at least four times. By comparison, Nadal has won 9 grand slam titles, and only dominated the the French Open, winning five times on the terre battue, and four years consecutively (2005-08).

9. Grand Slam Consistency 1. Federer won Wimbledon (2003-07) and the U.S. Open (2004-08) for five consecutive years. He reached seven consecutive Wimbledon finals (2003-09) and six consecutive U.S. Open finals (2004-09). He also reached four consecutive French Open finals (2006-09), matching the streak of Nadal at Roland Garros (2005-08). Besides the French Open, Nadal can boast only three consecutive Wimbledon finals (2006-08).

8. Grand Slam Consistency 2. Roger Federer reached a record 23 consecutive grand slam semi-finals from the 2004 Wimbledon the 2010 Australian Open. A record unlikely ever to be approached and one that has been lauded as one of the most remarkable records in sports. The longest previous streak was by Ivan Lendl at 10 consecutive semi-finals from the 1985 U.S. Open to the 1988 Australian Open. By comparison, Nadal's longest semi-final streak is 5 from the 2008 Australian Open to the 2009 Australian Open.

7. Grand Slam Consistency 3. Nearly as remarkably, Roger Federer reached 10 consecutive grand slam finals from the 2005 Wimbledon to the 2007 U.S. Open, a record. He then followed that up with 8 consecutive finals from the 2008 French Open to the 2010 Australian Open, in total making 18 finals in a 19 slam span. In the Open Era the previous record was held by Rod Laver and Agassi at 4. Nadal's longest streak is 3 from the 2010 French Open to 2010 U.S. Open (still active).

6. Grand Slam Success. Since winning his first grand slam at the 2003 Wimbledon, Roger Federer has gone a remarkable 179-14 (0.927 winning percentage) at grand slams, winning 16 of 30 tournaments. Since winning his first grand slam at the 2005 French Open, Nadal has also performed amazingly at the grand slams, just not as amazingly as Federer, going 111-12 (0.902) and winning 9 of 23 grand slams tournaments.

Rafael Nadal won three consecutive grand slam tournaments in 2010 (French Open - Wimbledon - U.S. Open). Roger Federer has twice won three consecutive grand slams titles (2005 Wimbledon - 2005 U.S. Open - 2006 Australian Open and 2006 Wimbledon - 2006 U.S. Open - 2007 Australian Open). In addition, Roger Federer has won three grand slams in a year three separate times (2004, 2006-07). Moreover, Roger Federer made the finals of all four grand slams in 2006, 2007, and 2009.  

5. Other Tournament Success. Roger Federer has won 63 career ATP titles, including 17 Masters-level tournaments (next step down from the grand slams) and 4 World Tour Finals/Masters Cup titles. Nadal has won 42 career titles, 18 Masters-level tournaments and no World Tour Finals/Masters Cup title.

4. Top 10 Competition. Roger Federer has compiled a career record versus top-10 ranked opponents of 126-63 (0.667) compared to Nadal's career record against the top-10 of 67-37 (0.644).

3. Single-Season Performance. Consider the yearly records, titles, and grand slam titles for Federer and Nadal since the year they each won their first grand slam:
                Federer                                          Nadal
2003         78-17 (0.821) / 7 / 1                          N/A
2004         74-6 (0.925) / 11 / 3                          N/A
2005         81-4 (0.953) / 11 / 2                          79-10 (0.888) / 11 / 1
2006         92-5 (0.948) / 12 / 3                          59-12 (0.831) / 5 / 1
2007         68-9 (0.883) / 8 / 3                            70-15 (0.824) / 6/ 1
2008         66-15 (0.815) / 4 / 1                          82-11 (0.882) / 8 / 2
2009         61-12 (0.836) / 4/ 2                           66-14 (0.825) / 5 / 1
2010         44-11 (0.800) / 2 / 1                          59-7 (0.894) / 6 / 3     

Nadal had a better year in 2008 and 2010, but Federer was clearly better in every other year. And Nadal's best season, 2010, is the only one that can rank with Federer's historic 2004-07 record. Federer's 0.953 winning percentage in 2005 was just behind John McEnroe's remarkable 1984 season.

2. Number 1 Ranking. Roger Federer was ranked number 1 for a record 237 consecutive weeks between February 2, 2004 and August 11, 2008. This shattered the previous record of 160 weeks held by Jimmy Connors. All told, Federer has been ranked number 1 for 285 weeks, one week shy of the career record held by Pete Sampras. Federer has been the year end number 1 on five occasions (2004-07, 2009). Nadal has been ranked number 1 for a total of 60 weeks and has finished the year ranked number 1 twice (2008, 2010 - already clinched).

1. Winning Matches. Between the 2004 U.S. Open and the final of the 2005 Masters Cup (not counting the final), Roger Federer played 100 matches, winning an astounding 97, including 14 titles. The best 100 match record that Nadal can boast is 92 (different occasions between 2005-06 and 2008-09). Between the 2006 U.S. Open and 2007 Dubai tournament, Federer won 41 consecutive matches (seven tournaments). He also won 35 consecutive matches between the 2005 Halle tournament and the finals of the 2005 Masters Cup. The longest Nadal winning streak is 32 matches from the 2008 Hamburg Masters to the semi-finals of the 2008 Cincinnati Masters.

Much ink has been spread discussing the head-to-head record of Federer and Nadal, which Nadal leads decisively 14 matches to 7. Two things to note. The breakdown of this head-to-head is 10-2 in Nadal's favor on clay and 5-4 in Federer's favor on all other surfaces. Nadal is a better clay court player than Federer (and maybe than anyone else in history) where as a left-hander he can use his strength, a powerful heavily-top-spinned forehand, to Federer's weakness, his high one-handed backhand. It follows that Nadal's game is perfectly suited to disrupt Federer's game, and hence the overall advantage to the Spaniard. That being conceded, head-to-head records are irrelevant when discussing the greatest of all time. Tennis is not contested in the "match play" format where challengers compete to play the defending champion (it was in the early days) like the America's Cup, but in a tournament format where players must play and win several rounds to win the title. A player's greatness is in his ability to navigate the day-by-day, match-by-match challenges presented by the other players competing in that tournament. For example, since the final of the 2009 Australian Open, Federer and Nadal have played just twice (the Hamburg finals in 2009 and 2010), each winning one match. However, together they have won six of the seven grand slams played during that span. Do we take anything away from any of the those six victories because they were never won against the other? Are either of their legacies tarnished? I think not.

Rafael Nadal's performance in 2010 has certainly raised his career achievements into the upper echelon of tennis players; he should be discussed as one of the 10 best players in history, but he has much work to do before he can reasonably be discussed alongside Roger Federer as the greatest of all time. As always, time will tell.

I'll tackle the questions of the greatest tennis player of all time more completely in a future post.

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