With 52 major titles between the three of them, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal have cemented their places in tennis history while creating one of the most exciting sets of rivalries in sports. But, only one can be the greatest of all time.
Rafael Nadal: More than just the ‘King of Clay’
When debating the tennis greatest-of-all-time, many overlook Rafael Nadal. His dominance spans back to 2005, when he won his first Grand Slam at the French Open. Since then, Nadal has added 16 additional major titles to his trophy cabinet. It’s obvious why Nadal is so distinguished: His speed, power, and athleticism pair perfectly with his impeccable technique, perhaps most evident in his deadly backhand.
In the G.O.A.T. discussion, many will be quick to point out that Nadal is second to Roger Federer in number of Grand Slam titles. However, using Grand Slams as the sole measure for greatness is a shortsighted argument because it does not consider other important factors. Nadal trails in the Grand Slam race due to the way that the tournaments are set up: Both the Australian and US Opens are played on hard court, Wimbledon is played on grass, and only the French Open is on clay. Nadal plays best on clay, going 11-0 in French Open championship matches. Federer and Djokovic, on the other hand, dominate the hard court. Eleven of Federer’s 20 Grand Slams are hard court victories, as are 10 of Djokovic’s 15 Grand Slams. Because Federer and Djokovic get to play twice as many tournaments on their best surface as Nadal, they have an undeniable advantage in the Grand Slam race.
Given the unfair advantage granted to Federer and Djokovic, tennis fans merely bestow Nadal with the title of ‘King of Clay.’ To adequately measure dominance, one must consider their head-to-head matches: In the 38 times Federer and Nadal have faced each other, the Spaniard has won 23 matches, while Federer has won only 15. In the big picture, it becomes clearer: Nadal is the greatest tennis player of all time.
Roger Federer: 21 years of incredible influence
Roger Federer may only be sixth in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings right now, while Djokovic and Nadal are first and second, respectively; however, the Swiss player’s case for being the greatest tennis player is simple. Federer is a beacon of longevity: In 1998, at just 16 years old, he became a professional tennis player, and now—21 years later—RF has won 99 titles and counting.
Federer holds nearly every possible record in the sport. His 310 total weeks spent at the top of the ATP rankings, 237 of which were consecutive, supersede any other player’s accomplishments. He is also one of just eight men’s tennis players that can boast a Career Grand Slam in his trophy case. He broke Pete Sampras’ record of 14 major titles with his 2009 Wimbledon win, which many fans thought of as unbreakable. With 20 major titles, three more than Nadal and five more than Djokovic, Federer is the most-decorated player in men’s tennis.
Finally, the biggest contrast between Federer and his competition is their playing style. Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal are incredible athletes, and their rivalry has marked men’s tennis forever. Federer, however, rises above his adversaries. His playing style is stunning to watch: His signature one-handed backhand, one of the most difficult moves to master in tennis, causes as much strife in his opponents as it does admiration from fans. He is a model of class on the court, and his incredibly refined technique inspires young tennis players all around the world.
The rivalry between Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic is one of the greatest in the history of tennis, and the winner will emerge as the greatest player of all time: In terms of both palmares and playing style, it is the Swiss star who edges out the others to claim this honour.
Novak Djokovic: A virtuoso performer
On the first night of the 2016 US Open, Phil Collins performed the opening concert just before Novak Djokovic’s four-set victory over Jerzy Janowicz.
“It was hard to put up a show after Phil Collins, but he’s a legend,” Novak Djokovic said in a post-game interview.
Djokovic smiled and broke into Collins’ song ‘I Can’t Dance.’ With pure confidence, and, in spite of the name of the song, he added a dance move, too. Two-and-a-half years later, Djokovic is a legend, now, too.
As the current world number one, he took just over two hours to defeat Rafael Nadal in straight sets. With this victory, Djokovic extended his head-to-head lead over Nadal to three and claimed a record seventh Australian Open. Now totalling 15 Grand Slam Championships, Djokovic trails Nadal by two, and Federer by five. He also leads in the head-to-head matchup with Federer and is the first tennis player to win all nine ATP 1000 tournaments. He owns the record for most points accrued in a single ATP season and holds the longest winning streak of the trio at 43 consecutive matches. And as the youngest of the three tennis superstars, with a dogged mentality and clean mechanics, Djokovic is nowhere near finished.
‘The Joker’ may not have one signature skill but he also shows no clear weaknesses. Although it was once easy to overlook his all-around talent, it is now time to include him in the greatest-of-all-time conversation.
Tennis fans reopen the greatest-of-all-time debate each time a major championship finishes, boosting the profile of the latest winner. Novak Djokovic may not be able to dance, but his tennis ability more than makes up for it. The Serbian sensation is the artist behind some of tennis’ best matches and has the records to back it up, and it looks like he’s not going to stop anytime soon.
Roger Federer has dominated the tennis circuit for years. Nadal and Djokovic have been worthy competitors, but, in his lengthy career, the Swiss superstar has proved he is the best of the three players. He has earned more trophies than any other player, broken impressive records, and rightfully earned the respect of tennis players and fans around the world for his incredible play and class.
A previous version of this article stated that Rafael Nadal won his first Grand Slam at the Australia Open. In fact, it was at the French Open. The Tribune regrets this error.