It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve been covered by ESPN and FS1. Who’s better Lebron James or Michael Jordan? Has Tom Brady finally surpassed Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback of all time? With his Copa America win, has Lionel Messi officially had a more decorated career than Pelé? Is Simone Biles the greatest gymnast of all time? Who sits atop the MMA mountain between Jon Jones, Georges St. Pierre, Fedor Emelianenko, and Khabib Nurmagomedov (throw in Demetrios Johnson and Amanda Nunes if you want)?
All of these debates, as compelling as they are, pale in comparison to the most intense, emotional, and by far the most thrilling greatest of all-time race in sports. Men’s singles tennis. Before I get more into this debate, I just want to say, it is perfectly ok that you do not consider either Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, or Rafael Nadal to be the greatest men’s singles tennis player of all time.
There are suitable alternatives for the Big Three such as Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, or even Pete Sampras. You could even make the very justifiable arguments that the racket technology and court conditions have changed to favor certain styles of play (baseline-oriented players with western grips) which has made it easier for elite players to dominate on all surfaces. In addition, Borg actually has a higher grand slam win percentage than all of the Big Three.
But still, we’re talking about a six grand slam or more disparity between the Big Three and the rest of the field and it seemed perfectly acceptable to label Roger Federer as the GOAT when he passed Pete Sampras for majors in 2009. And even so, debating who’s the best of their generation amongst these three legends stands above the rest of the greatest of all-time sports debates out there.
Specifically for the fact that this is an individual sport, the three have played each other for much of their lengthy primes (in Federer’s case, less than the other two), and there are definitive metrics in this individual sport that we can use to separate the three and make a compelling argument for each of them. Even though they’ve made it hard with how compatible they are in so many categories.
To list a few stats that show how close this race is, Djokovic and Nadal are only separated by two wins in their head-to-head matchups, while the three are separated by less than 1.5% in overall win percentage throughout their careers. While Federer lags behind Djokovic and Nadal in head-to-head matchups, with losing records against both his greatest rivals, the Swiss maestro has faced the two well past his prime for years. In addition, Federer leads the pack in overall titles, ATP finals victories, and consecutive weeks at no. 1. Nadal, on the other hand, is the only one of the three to have an Olympic singles’ gold, making him the only one to have achieved the Golden Slam.
And the Spaniard has additionally taken the lead in the most important metric of note, slam count, with his recent victory at the Australian Open, standing alongside Djokovic as the only man to win every major twice. Nadal also has played the fewest majors of the three and has a winning record against Djokovic and Federer in grand slam tournaments.
Yet, despite all of these countless metrics that favor both Federer and Nadal, we were so close….SO CLOSE to having this debate finally come to a peaceful end. You could even say we were two shots away (with the word shot taking on a very different meaning in each context). Or one match away from coming to the definitive conclusion that a man from Serbia, who never was supposed to be as great as his two legendary rivals and has never been nearly as beloved, had finally taken the reigns.
It was, for the most part, over, especially after what had happened last year. Novak Djokovic had climbed the mountaintop for the second time, beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open. Nadal was out injured for the year and hadn’t beaten his most formidable rival in a grand slam outside of the French Open since 2013. In addition, Roger Federer missed the rest of the year after competing at Wimbledon in 2021 and hadn’t beaten the Djoker in a major since 2012.
And in spite of Novak’s loss in the 2021 US Open final, going into the 2022 Australian Open, the current world no. 1 was tied with both Federer and Nadal in slams, led the two in head-to-head records, had recently eclipsed Federer with the most weeks at no. 1 ever, was the only man to win every Master’s 1000 tournament once (which, by the way, he’s done twice) and every slam twice, and became the all-time leader in Master’s 1000 tournaments with his recent win in Paris.
So, while Nadal is clearly the favorite at Roland Garros for the next century or so, the optics pointed toward Novak not only widening his lead in all of these statistics that he already leads in but also pulling away in the most important one of all, grand slams. While quality players like Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Alexander Zverev were always threats to that path for the world no. 1, aside from a slip-up at the US Open, it was still reasonable to assume that Novak held a clear mental and physical edge over these young talents.
Especially on grass, where the top 5 trio as well as many of the other younger players have struggled to find consistent success. But now everything has changed. Rafael Nadal has just won a tournament that he hasn’t won in over a decade, becoming now the second man to win every grand slam twice and taking over the lead in major victories. And he goes into Roland Garros as an always heavy favorite to take a two-slam lead on his contemporaries, with more majors there for the taking going forward.
The path could be cleared even wider for Nadal in Paris with French authorities tightening their COVID-19 restrictions, which would disallow entrance for the defending champion should he not be vaccinated. There’s also speculation that similar measures could follow suit at both Wimbledon and the US Open Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with those stances, it is a shame that the great chase for most slams and possibly the consensus GOAT status in tennis may come down to this.
Because should Djokovic be allowed entry into these tournaments or get vaccinated, it makes this race all the more exhilarating now that Nadal has injected some new life into it. It’s not even far-fetched to believe that Federer could make a run at Wimbledon with many of the young contenders struggling on this surface and a very out-of-form Swiss legend making the quarterfinals last year. So many questions, so few answers as of now. Hopefully, the Netflix docuseries shows some of the chaos that has happened over these weeks and will in the future.
But we were so close to a seemingly definitive end to this storyline of the three kings of tennis. However, a new chapter was written with Rafael Nadal’s win in Melbourne. And now what seemed like an inevitable separation of the pack for the Djoker, now feels like a distant memory as Nadal has a chance in Paris to gain a two-slam lead on his two greatest rivals. A slam that Djokovic might not give himself the chance to compete at. Savor them while they’re still playing. We’ll never see anything quite like this in sports ever again.
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