By Jared Shalek & Matt Schwartz
Shalek had the idea in his head that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are the two greatest tennis players of all time. He wanted to explore that idea and try and prove it to be true as best he could, or at least debunk it properly. He called on the biggest tennis aficionado he knows, Matt Schwartz, to help him out. In a series of emails, they picked Shalek’s theory apart and figured out whether it held water. Here’s what transpired…
Hello Schwartz. Nice to have you contributing to “The Village Market.” It is truly becoming a sort of market with ideas from all different “villages” from around the country. I suppose our exchange will be a classic east coast-west coast showdown, as I write from my house in Los Angeles a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, and you write from your apartment in Manhattan less than a block from the East River.
You know I’m a pretty big tennis fan. I know the game more than the average person, I know the players, I have a sense of the history, and I enjoy the game. However, I can’t help but be overcome by a recency effect when it comes to the greatest players of all time. I know about Roy Emerson, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, and Big Bill Tilden. But I just can’t picture any of them being greater than Roger Federer. And because people can legitimately question if Federer is really greater than Rafael Nadal, I have trouble imagining that Tilden and Emerson would have had a shot at keeping up against Nadal. It goes without saying that athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger today than they were 40 years ago. And as much as that factors into the arguments, I’d like to try to factor in other aspects of the game, such as longevity, dominance over peers, and overall greatness.
Let me clearly state my bias, before we get into this: I’m a Federer guy. I don’t hate Rafa or disrespect him in any way. I just like Federer. He’s brilliant on the court and classy off it. He speaks four languages, and a few others conversationally. He wins with grace. He loses with heart. He’s one of the few internationally beloved athletes who’s seemingly a faithful husband and great father. Actually, I ran into a guy this past weekend wearing a gorgeous RF jacket and I complimented him, leading him to show me a picture he took with Fed during the U.S. Open. We ended up speaking for a few minutes, and it turns out he lives in Manhattan, works for MTV, and is friends with Jon Wertheim, the writer for Sports Illustrated. This guy told me Wertheim said that if there’s one guy who is loyal to his wife, who’s there for his kids, and doesn’t do drugs or have any other scandalous habits, it’s 100% Roger Federer. Wertheim also said that several writers often question whether or not Nadal is juicing, between his muscle fluctuation and abundance of nagging injuries. Now I’m not trying to drum up some anti-Nadal sentiment, because I’m here to argue that he’s the 2nd greatest player ever. But just know, I’m a Federer guy.
Now, I’ll put my argument simply, and we can get into it from here and see if it’s unique to their rivalry, or if the same can be said for, say, McEnroe-Borg or Sampras-Agassi. I think that Federer and Nadal are the two greatest players ever because if it weren’t for one, the other would probably have well over 20+ Grand Slam titles and be the clear cut greatest ever. A subsection of this argument is that Federer is the 2nd greatest clay player of all time, right behind Nadal and just in front of Borg, although the Borg fanatics will probably argue that one to the death. But take a quick look at Grand Slam results. Nadal won his 10th slam a week before his 25th birthday. Federer won his 10th slam several months after turning 25 years old. Strictly speaking on head to head matchups between the men, Roger has defeated Rafa twice in slam finals, ’06 and ’07 at Wimbledon. Rafa has defeated Roger a whopping five times in slam finals, including four French and a Wimbledon.
Do not let the head to head matchup fool you. Rafa is younger. He’s a machine on clay. There is no disputing that he is the preeminent clay player of his generation, and probably of all time. He’s supposed to beat Roger on clay. But my take is that if not for Rafa, Roger would have five French titles instead of one, and be mentioned right alongside Borg. Not to mention, with those five additional slams, Roger would be at 21, and way ahead of Sampras. And even though Rafa has only lost two finals to Roger, those two would give him 12 at the age of 25, which would put him well on his way to the record. We have to factor Novak Djokovic into the equation, as he is now beating both guys consistently and winning some slams, something he would have done more often in his career had it not been for Rafa and Roger. But for now, I’m sticking with Roger as the greatest. While Nadal is great on all surfaces and untouchable on clay, Roger is, or at least in his prime, was untouchable on most surfaces, and better than every single person in the entire world except for Nadal on clay. As a result, Roger has to be number one. At the very least, he’s excellent on every surface, and holds the record for the most slams. I put Rafa at number two because he’s on his way to challenging Roger’s record and has had success against Roger in the slams. However, he is prone to losing to people other than Roger. When Roger was Rafa’s age, the only time he lost when it mattered was on clay to Rafa, while holding a slight edge on other surfaces.
Schwartz, those are my thoughts. I know you’re a Fed guy too, but let’s try and explore each of my points as objectively as we can. Who cares if it’s corny, I’m gonna say it anyways…you’re turn to return serve.
Thanks for such a gracious welcome to The Village Market, and what better way to jump right into it than with a Roger-Rafa argument?
You said it before, and I’ll say it again – I am a Fed guy. If not for Derek Jeter, Fed’s my favorite athlete of all time. He’s regal on the court, and from all accounts, off of it as well. As such I find it extremely difficult to root for Rafa…ever. As a matter of fact, I find myself rooting against him nearly every time out. But I won’t let this bias taint my judgment. Here, it’s just the facts, and a bit of reasonable opinion.
But at least we have this point straight – Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. He is the GOAT. Bar none. Hands down. No need to belabor that point. But is Rafa then the second best ever? I do not think so.
You mention a couple of times (and for good reason) his clay court dominance. Not just his six Roland Garros titles, but also the 18 Masters titles on clay in Rome, Madrid, and Barcelona. The man is an absolute machine on clay, and it’d be hard to argue that he isn’t the best ever on that surface (I will, however, argue that Borg, not Fed, is the 2nd best – but that’s for another day). But take away the French Open, and that leaves you with an impressive but hardly glorious resume. To wit – besides the French, Nadal has won only four other total Slams (an Aussie, a U.S., and two Wimbies). This is no doubt a career achievement that 99.9% of players on tour envy, but not the cornerstone of a career that could be dubbed “2nd Best Ever”, especially when you have guys like Sampras (14 Slams), Emerson (12), Laver and Borg (both 11) still in the discussion.
But wouldn’t Rafa have surpassed those other greats in Slam titles if Fed wasn’t around? Let me say that I’m not a fan of the “if X, then Y” sports argument. Though Nadal probably could have collected another Slam or two if not for Fed’s existence, I don’t think it would be substantial enough to lift him above Pistol Pete, or even Borg/Laver. Besides, it’s almost impossible to prove.
Nadal truly hit stride in 2008, defeating Fed in what many believe is the greatest match of all time (GMOAT?) at Wimbledon. After an injury-riddled and lackluster 2009, he completed an epic year by winning the final three Slams of the season in 2010. I can’t see Rafa beating Fed in a Slam final other than the French any time before he hit his true prime in 2008. I just can’t. He finally got to that level in 2008, and hasn’t had trouble beating him since then. Since 2008, he has beaten Fed almost every chance he’s gotten. But his inability to win more non-French Slams since 2005 is due more to his present decline (which I’ll get to in a second) and overall shoddy Slam play than to Federer. A stat to drive that point home – since 2005 (the year of Rafa’s first Slam win and the beginning of his ascendance), he has fallen to Fed in a Slam only TWICE, both times in the finals at Wimbledon. He’s also lost to relative middle-of-the-roaders like David Ferrer, Mikhail Youzhny and Robin Soderling, not to mention the new king of men’s tennis (Novak Djokovic) and the so-called “best to never win a Slam” Andy Murray. With that said, his inability to win more Grannies has very little to do with Federer. He hasn’t been able to get past those below him, and that’s his own fault.
I just mentioned Nadal’s decline, and call me crazy, but I think it’s arrived. I’m not willing to bet on it (bad habit), but I can say with some confidence that Nadal will not win another non-French Slam. He has had absolutely abysmal results (for a “2nd GOAT”) since his 2010 U.S. Open triumph. Some highlights – a straight set loss to countryman David Ferrer in the 2011 Aussie quarters, SIX STRAIGHT losses to Djokovic in 2011 finals (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Wimbledon, US Open), and two straight early exits from the Shanghai Masters (Jurgen Melzer in the 2010 round of 16 and Florian Mayer in this week’s third round). Djokovic has established himself as the next big thing in men’s tennis, and has handled Rafa in convincing fashion all year. The Djoker’s dominance, coupled with injuries and a lower level of play, lead me to believe that Nadal’s heyday is passed. He might win 20 more clay court tournaments before all is said and done, but Guga Kuerten was also a master on clay, and I haven’t heard his name in a “best ever” conversation.
To that point, I can’t help but hold the French Open is low esteem. It’s a little careless of me, maybe blasphemous, to write off the French as “just another tournament”, but I’m going to do it anyway. Forget the pomp and the history and the classic French charm (only two of those really exist). The tournament just doesn’t see the caliber of champion that the U.S. Open and Wimbledon do. Besides Nadal and Federer, here are your French Open champs since 1990: Andres Gomez, Jim Courier (2), Sergi Bruguera (2), Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Guga Kuerten (3), Carlos Moya, Andre Agassi, Albert Costa, JC Ferrero, Gaston Gaudio. Of that bunch, only Agassi has more than two non-French Slam titles. Besides Agassi, only Courier and Kafelnikov have even *one* Slam title at another event. Not the most overwhelming roster of champions. The French Open is, at best, a crap shoot and a tournament for Spanish and South American dirtballers. Who could forget the 2004 final between Gaudio and fellow Argentine Guillermo Coria? It was bar none the most bizarre tennis match of all time, with Coria squandering a two sets to none lead against a relative unknown. I tend to always use this match as evidence. Or what about the mighty Martin Verkerk, the 2003 finalist who went down meekly to Ferrero in straights and was never heard from again? Now that I think of it, I don’t think anyone had heard from him before May 2003 either. I could go on and on, but I’ll say this: when looking at each Slam’s champions over the past 20 years, it’s clear that the French is most often won by the dark horses and Cinderella stories. For this reason, I think a French Open win holds a liiiiitle less significance than a title in one of the other three slams. Call it a modern day Three-Fifths Clause, if you will – a French title is worth 3/5 of regular Slam title. I’m also not sure if that joke is socially acceptable, but we’re going with it.
So there you have my argument for why Rafa *isn’t* the second best ever. But who is? There are a number of guys you can’t discount:
· Pete Sampras – next in line behind Fed with 14 Slams. Never won the French, but absolutely dominated the US Open and Wimbledon
· Rod Laver – the only man ever to win the Grand Slam *twice* in a career
· Bjorn Borg – just as dominant as Nadal at the French; a menace at Wimbledon
Let’s also not count out guys like Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, who managed to rack up the Slams against some of the toughest competition of all time (see: McEnroe, John; Wilander, Mats; Becker, Boris; Edberg, Stefan).
That’s a lot to say, so let me sum it up this way. Nadal’s lack of non-French Slams, as evidenced below, is not due to Federer, but rather to his own inability to break through against the rest of the field. He is without a doubt a top-5 all-timer, but to put him ahead of Sampras, Borg and Laver primarily because of his French Open dominance is unfair. I could spend five more hours telling you why the past 20 French Opens are an embarrassment to tennis (that’s also for another time), but for now, let’s just agree to disagree.
Well, I can say pretty definitively…Schwartz just crushed me. I couldn’t help but have a smile as I read his response, because even though it completely debunked my theory that Rafa is #2 and would be #1 if not for Roger with some pretty solid facts and valid opinions, it was enlightening, humorous, and dead on. Okay, so maybe Rafa isn’t the 2nd GOAT, but at least Schwartz puts him top five along with Rog, Pete, Rod, and Bjorn (much more fun using their first names).
I will admit that I’m struck by a recency factor when theorizing about Roger and Rafa being numbers one and two all time. I think we agree pretty soundly on Roger being the greatest ever. But for Rafa, I guess I get hung up on the fact that I have, sadly, seen him beat Roger so many times. When I really started getting into tennis in high school and college, it was right when Rafa was coming on strong. I watched the bulk of my tennis from 2008-2010, when Rafa was peaking and Fed was slowly declining. I remember the early days of Federer dominance, like when he decisively beat Andre Agassi in the ’05 U.S Open final. That Federer was untouchable, as he had the best groundstrokes, best volley game, best serve, and most endurance. By the time I became a more serious tennis fan a few years later, it was Rafa who was in freakish physical shape, who had the most powerful game, covered the most ground, and was the guy you couldn’t give a lead to. I think it’s the fact that I can more readily recall Rafa at his absolute peak than Roger at his which makes me want to bump up Rafa on the all time charts.
If Rafa continues at his pace and makes it to 15+ slams, then the case for him being next to Federer becomes more compelling. And even though he’s at 10 slams, I have to agree that there is a bit of decline in his game. He’s always had nagging injuries, but he could usually overcome them to win the French and one other slam in a given year. But now with Djokovic as the king of the court, Rafa can’t even get his non-French slam, or at least he couldn’t in 2011. Does the 2008 Rafa beat the 2011 Djoker? Who knows. But from what we witnessed this past year in tennis, any future incarnation of Rafa is going to need to step up his game to compete with what we all think will be the future versions of Djokovic. In fact, it is possible that Nadal is the unluckiest, in terms of timing, of the three when discussing the “Holy Trinity” of Roger, Rafa, and Novak. Of course, Andy Murray is pretty unlucky, being a good player, but not great enough to ever win a slam over the others. If Murray had come around during the Sampras decline and pre-Federer ascension period, he would have won a few slams. But because his prime coincides with three wizards, he’s not even in the discussion. But back to Nadal. His ascension came during Roger’s untouchable phase, meaning Rafa had to wait until claiming Wimbledon, the Aussie, and the U.S. Open. He had to bust his ass to continue beating Roger and Djokovic during his peak from ’08-’10 because they were still great players capable of beating him on any given day. And now he has to deal with Djokovic, who’s a year younger and is putting it all together in brilliant form. If Djoker has even two, never mind three or four, more years like he just had, it will be him, not Nadal, who enters the discussion about who resides in the 2nd GOAT slot after Federer.
Your stance on the French Open is interesting. It is a grand slam event. It is difficult to win. But as you pretty clearly pointed out, it is somewhat of a crapshoot. The list of winners is a who’s who of one-hit wonders who caught fire on a quirky surface in Paris for two weeks. It’s hard not to snicker a bit when talking about the recent champions before Rafa took over, because it is a pretty weak bunch. However, it is a grand slam event, and it’s sort of unspoken that we’re using grand slam victories as a major benchmark in our discussion as to who’s greater than who. Instead of debating whether or not the French deserves to be one of the four biggies (and I think you’d admit, it probably does), should we be discussing how these guys have fared in non-slam events as well? Rafa does have one more Masters title than Roger, but as you noted, the bulk of his Masters are on clay. But some players tend to sit out Masters tournaments in an effort to stay healthy and fresh for the slam events. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how much we should be factoring in non-slam performance to decide where we should be ranking these modern stars compared to their forebears.
We’re probably beating a dead horse at this point, but allow me to make a few quick points about Federer, and why he is, unequivocally, the GOAT. His record amount of grand slams is one reason. His record of 237 consecutive weeks at #1 is another reason. But it’s his unwavering consistency and pure dominance that puts him head and shoulders above everyone else. Until someone even sniffs the statistic I’m about to share, Fed is the undisputed greatest. He reached 10 consecutive slam finals, and won eight of them. He reached the final in 18 of 19 straight grand slams. He reached 23 straight grand slam semifinals. He’s reached 30 consecutive grand slam quarterfinals. Read those again, because they are mind boggling. For comparison’s sake, in those same categories, Nadal’s longest streaks are three straight finals, five straight semis, and nine straight quarters. None of those streaks are, numerically speaking, even 1/3 as impressive as any of Federer’s. Additionally, Rafa’s nine consecutive quarterfinal appearances is a current streak. That would be impressive…except Djokovic is currently working on a streak of ten straight quarterfinal appearances and six straight semifinal appearances. That is not to argue that Djoker is greater, at this moment, than Rafa, because he isn’t. But to show that in men’s tennis, there is Federer, and then there is everyone else. He avoids injury. He stays sharp. And he dominates.
Out of curiosity, I checked out the various streaks for Borg and Sampras. Those guys sometimes sat out Australian Opens, making it impossible to touch the Fed records. Sampras’s longest quarter streak is 10, his longest semi streak is three, and his longest final streak is three also. That’s mostly because Sampras was awful on clay, but it just shows how well rounded and brilliant Roger is. Borg has the 2nd most impressive quarters streak, as he made 19/20 (Aussie is excluded because he didn’t play it) at one point. He also made 14 of 16 finals, which is very impressive. But, it’s still not quite 18 of 19, giving Roger the upper hand.
It looks like we have most of this solved. Rog is the boss, even if he never wins another (I can’t see it happening, although I’m holding out hope). Borg, Sampras, and Laver follow, with Rafa a slam or two away from breaking up their triumvirate. And Djokovic has the potential to sneak in there as well, depending on how the next five years play out. I think I’ve exhausted everything I have in my arsenal, lest I go on and continue the Federer love fest. Any other thoughts from the east coast?
No arguments there. That pretty much sums it up. But I’m glad you made note of Fed’s ridiculous numbers when it comes to consecutive quarter-,semi-, and finals appearances. I don’t think anyone will come close to touching those marks for decades, if ever.
Twenty three straight semis is incomprehensible. One minor hiccup can knock you out of a Slam early, but it takes unrelenting and unwavering dominance to put together a streak like that. Hell, even 10 straight semis is impressive. What sets Fed apart from all others is that his prime is head and shoulders above the rest. From 2004 to 2007, he won three Slams in a year THREE times, and only failed to make it to a semi ONCE in that span (2004 French). From 2003 to 2010, he failed to win more than one Slam per year only three times – also astounding. That stretch from ’04 to ’07 is the best the game has ever seen. I can only hope that accomplishment is never surpassed.