There is a tennis Grand Slam tournament starting tomorrow and you all know what that means: reams of sycophantic articles in praise of the tennis doyen’s tennis doyen, Sir Roger Federer. The Sir prefix is pure facetiousness on my part but it would not actually surprise me if a SW19 pressure group are currently lobbying furiously behind the scenes for Britain to invade and conquer Switzerland, incorporate it within the realm of the Commonwealth, and open the door for Roger to be knighted.
At 33 years of age, he is now well into the twilight of his career of course. He last won a big one when he was 30 and that Major triumph arrived after a two and a half year wait. You would have thought that with just one Grand Slam title in five years, the Swiss maestro would have already been consigned to yesterday’s news in the fast-paced, unforgiving, winning-is-everything world of 21st century professional sports. But in fact, much like his old shaving buddy Tiger Woods, Federer continues to captivate his sport’s principle scribes and dominate the tennis press pages to this day. Why? Simple, he’s the greatest player ever to pick up a racquet. Isn’t he?
I’m not so sure. Not long after the red dust had settled on Roland Garros at the end of the 2011 French Open, Roger Federer said of his rivalry with Rafael Nadal, “If I play well, I will most likely win in the score or beat him; if I’m not playing so well, that’s when he wins.” He had just lost the final to the Spaniard in four sets, presumably not playing so well for the 17th time in 25 meetings between the pair. Perhaps moved by the distinct lack of logic, not to mention grace, in Federer’s comment, it got me to thinking about the Swiss player’s assumed place in the history books as the greatest to ever play the game. I felt it a premature coronation back then and nothing has changed since to alter my view.
Attempting to compare and contrast individual sportspeople is a largely thankless task, fraught with various pitfalls and insurmountable difficulties. Generational divides regularly render even the most informed debate pure conjecture as direct match-ups must take place within the realms fantasy. No discussion on the merits of the greatest heavyweight prize fighters in history is complete without someone pondering aloud, “Could Tyson in his prime have lived with Ali at his best”? This particular conundrum is made all the more unsolvable by the fact that in all likelihood, no one actually witnessed Ali fight at his peak – a three and a half year suspension for refusing induction into the US armed forces denied the world this pleasure.
The majority of high profile sports being team events further muddy the waters. Did Lionel Messi only appear better than Cristiano Ronaldo a few years back because he was surrounded at FC Barça by superior players to Ronaldo’s then Real Madrid teammates? Or conversely, does Diego Maradona winning the 1986 World Cup alongside ten largely unremarkable compañeros give him the edge over Brazil’s Pele who triumphed in the competition three times but each with the help of more illustrious colleagues? In addition you must factor in the vastly different roles within a sports team. Who was greater, Bobby Moore or Bobby Charlton? Or in a different type of football, Joe Montana or Jerry Rice?
A sport’s evolution, either naturally or through the onset of professionalism, also hinders a balanced evaluation of greatness as certain games can develop almost beyond all recognition. As rugby players in every position appear to have doubled in size in the last three decades, asking which of Ireland’s two outstanding centres, Mike Gibson from the 60s and 70s or 21st century Brian O´Driscoll, is the greatest is akin to comparing apples and pears.
Technological advancement in sports equipment is yet another obstacle to ranking greatness. Would Tiger Woods, standing on the tee gripping a steel shafted driver with a persimmon wood head a fraction the size of today’s clubs, have been able to match Jack Nicklaus around a golf course? The javelin has ironically moved in the opposite direction. In 1984 Uwe Hohn’s spear flew for over 104 metres. Following adjustments to the design specifications two years later, no one has come within five metres of his mark since. How far Jan Zelezny could have hurled Hohn’s javelin we will never know.
And in the sport of road bicycle racing, the development of a slightly different type of gear demands a pharmaceutical analysis to help settle who would prevail in a battle between Eddie Merckx and Lance Armstrong and wear the yellow jersey for eternity.
Federer v Nadal
The question of who is the greatest tennis player to have played the game encounters all of the above issues bar the team sport dilemma (few would argue that any of the great doubles specialists throughout the ages could make a genuine claim to the honour) and this article therefore makes no attempt to answer it. Laver and Borg fans can relax. The question of who is the greatest tennis player out of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, however, encounters none of the above issues. This piece therefore aims to compare and contrast these two players alone. It intends to posit that the Swiss is not even as great as the Spaniard and can therefore not possibly be lauded as the greatest of all time.
Federer’s position at the head of the pantheon of greats appeared cemented in place when he became the most prolific winner of tennis Grand Slams in the history of the sport. To the majority of observers, this is the most significant statistic in tennis and the record book reads that Federer currently has 17 to his name, three more than his nearest challengers, Pete Sampras and Nadal. But as the great 19th century American Statesman Henry Clay once said, “statistics are no substitute for judgement”. The same record book also reads that as well as being 23 – 10 down to Nadal in head to heads, Federer does not have a winning record against Andy Murray after 22 matches between the two. Even so, I doubt even the most patriotic Scotsman would argue that Murray is the greater player. It is therefore necessary to look beyond the magic number 17.
Although I have stated that a comparative study of the pair is not hampered by a difference in playing era, it must be addressed that, due to Federer being almost five years older, their playing peaks have not been exactly identical. Federer was winning titles while Nadal was still learning the game and it is likely that the Spaniard will keep triumphing in tournaments for several years after his great rival has hung up his racquet. Every tennis player is different, but if we assume that these two entered their peak years around the age of 22 (the time Federer won his first Grand Slam title – Nadal had already won three French Opens before he turned 22) and both will compete somewhere around this level until their 30th birthday, that gives each an eight year period at the top of their game. It also allows that both men faced each other in their simultaneous primes from the summer of 2008 until the summer of 2012.
Closer analysis of this window of time is telling. They met 14 times in the period with Nadal emerging victorious on 10 occasions. Federer’s victories were won on the clay of Madrid in 2009 and on the hard courts of London and Indian Wells – neither were Grand Slam events. Amongst Nadal’s 10 wins, three were on hard courts, one on grass and the rest on clay. Notably, four of his victories were when it mattered most, in the final of a Grand Slam. They also occurred on three different surfaces – the Mallorcan ceased being a clay court specialist very early in his career.
In total Nadal won eight Grand Slams during these four years compared to the five Federer collected, and amassed 12 Masters titles with Federer winning six. Nadal also won the Olympic gold medal in 2008 and in 2010 became the only player in history to win three Grand Slams on three distinct surfaces in one season. He has already bypassed Federer on the all-time list of Masters triumphs – no one has more than Rafa’s 27 trophies in their cabinet.
It should also be noted that in 2009 Nadal, struggling with tendonitis in both knees, suffered the only defeat of his career at Roland Garros (in the fourth round to Robin Soderling) and was unable to defend his title at the Wimbledon Championships. In his absence Federer won both tournaments and in doing so completed the career grand slam of winning a Major on all four surfaces and broke Sampras’ record number of Grand Slam titles. Few believe he would ever have won the French Open had he had to contend with a fit Nadal.
Clearly, the majority of Federer’s achievements have come when Nadal is not around. Indeed, the Swiss already had twelve Grand Slam titles in the bag before Nadal entered his peak years. This is perhaps not surprising when a quick look at his major rivals pre-Rafa reveals a distinctly different calibre of opponent. Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin were all good players; but certainly no more than that. When one sees the names of Mark Philippoussis, Marco Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez also on the list of Federer’s victims in Grand Slam finals, it suggests that this was not exactly a golden age in men’s tennis.
Of course, none of this is Federer’s fault. As the old sporting adage goes, you can only beat what is put in front of you, and many will argue that the merits of Federer’s peers at this time should not be allowed to detract from his early achievements. Nevertheless, those that argue that Federer is the greatest cannot then deny that Nadal never had it so easy in his quest for titles. He has faced a potential meeting with Federer in every Grand Slam he has ever signed up for – indeed he has beaten his Swiss foe in nine of them and lost in only two. Then we have the current world number one Novak Djokovic. Already with seven Grand Slam titles to his name, the 27 year old Serb has more than the combined total Roddick, Hewitt and Safin managed in their entire careers and appears a safe bet to add to his tally before he retires.
So it is a fact that at this point in history, over the course of significantly less time, and with a clearly superior standard of opponent across the net, Nadal is already ahead of Federer in every relevant statistic you can think of – bar the big one. It begs the question, should Nadal go on to claim 18 Grand Slam titles and eclipse Federer’s record, will Federer advocates acknowledge that their man has been usurped?
The answer is probably not. The truth is that people do not like to admit they are wrong. Federer was hastily coronated in the midst of his domination because nobody foresaw the teenage clay-court sensation from Mallorca developing into the complete player. Roddick, Hewitt, Safin et al were happy to provide a tennis press, already enamoured with the multi-lingual Swiss (does anything impress a native English speaking sports journalist more than a sportsperson fielding questions in more than one language?), with monthly quotes extolling the greatness of the man that had seemingly effortlessly despatched them once again. It legitimised their own failings. It lessened their own sense of failure. Why simply say he was too good for me again today when you can wax lyrical about him being too good for anyone, anywhere, at any time?
The mainstream press soon followed suit and so long as Sir Roger kept gracing the lawns of SW19 with his white blazer, Rolex watch and deferential acceptance of the Wimbledon trophy each July, few in the public felt moved to question his position at the head of the table. To backtrack a few years later would make a lot of people look rather foolish.
Style v Substance
In an effort to head off the more lazy retorts that it is the way Federer wins that places him above Nadal in the all-time stakes, it is necessary to briefly consider the style dimension of this sporting greatness debate. It is often said that there are few things in the world of sport more aesthetically pleasing to look at than Roger Federer’s one handed backhand. If you ever wondered why striking a tennis ball is referred to as a stroke, then just watch him execute this shot. He isn’t hitting the ball, he is caressing it. It is a thing of beauty and, like almost everything Federer does on a tennis court, it is carried out with an effortless grace that belies the power and speed generated. Nadal on the other hand hits the ball. Relentlessly.
Federer continued his charm offensive in the press conference following his 2011 French Open defeat by disparagingly describing Nadal as being “content to do the one thing for the entire time” in a game. Leaving aside the fact that a one-dimensional tennis player could not possibly win 14 Majors, why on earth would Rafa change a winning style, regardless of what it is or how it looks? While his bludgeoning heavy top-spin blows may not be as easy on the eye, has there been a more devastatingly effective shot than his forehand in professional tennis over the past five or six years? It is hard to think of one. So should Federer’s perceived (beauty is in the eye of the holder remember) extra elegance swing the debate in his favour? I don’t think so.
Style may well constitute a factor to be considered, but only to the degree that other clichéd intangibles such as grit, determination, perseverance and will to win figure in the debate. They are all elements that make up or influence an individual player’s game. But success or failure is determined by the sum of all the parts. By the talent that each possess as a whole. It is not merely Nadal’s strength or passion that beats Federer any more than it is Federer’s flair or ballerina-like movement around the court that beats Nadal. Quite simply, over time, the greater tennis player will win more often than everyone else. For the current tennis generation, that player is undoubtedly Rafael Nadal.