You would want Rafael Nadal to play for your life – but Novak Djokovic will go down as the greatest

As well as the stats, people also ask me who was the best when they were all at their absolute best. The answer is that it depends on the surface. On hard courts, on their best day, I think Novak beats Rafa and Roger. On grass, even though Novak’s record is phenomenal, you would take Roger all day. And there is only one king of clay. If tennis is still being played in a million years from now, I do not think that Rafa’s clay court records will come close to being touched.

It’s hard to define style. Federer is the best looking, shot-producing tennis player. He is the guy who doesn’t sweat and who makes it look easy. We would all like to look like Roger Federer, but I think that, ultimately, you have to go with the numbers.

To have had the three greatest at the same time has been like a perfect storm. They all wanted the same thing and they have inspired each other. Would Federer and Rafa have played as long without each other? Would Novak still be going for all these records without these guys pushing him, and having set the standard? They have improved every year and their tennis IQs are just out of sight. 

You are also beginning to get the feeling that this next generation is starting to believe they can beat them. Medvedev will learn from this experience. I like his swagger and how he is willing to be his own personality. He is in the same mould as Novak and is the real deal. It is a question of when, and not if, he becomes the world No 1. But the ‘big three’ do still have that magical aura. What they have collectively done over these last two decades is almost impossible. Phenomenal. Their records are insane.

The stats don’t lie: Who is the GOAT?

By Simon Briggs

Rafael Nadal’s surge to the Australian Open trophy has reopened the debate over the greatest male player of all time – otherwise known as the GOAT. 

There are three obvious candidates, but the answer to this question depends on when you ask it. Roger Federer moved clear of the pack in 2009, when he overcame Pete Sampras’ then record of 14 majors. Then Novak Djokovic became the player of the 2010s, winning an extraordinary 15 majors in that decade. Now it is Nadal’s turn to break new ground in the grand slam race, collecting his 21st major in Melbourne on Sunday night. 

But who should lay claim to the overall title? Telegraph Sport has analysed all three players in various categories, and awarded points for where they are ranked in each category – 1 for first, 2 for second and 3 for third. The lower the points, the higher you have ranked.

Grand slam titles

  • 1pt Nadal (21)
  • 2 Federer (20)
  • 2 Djokovic (20)

Thankfully, there’s no emotion in our first category. The grand slam race remains the most objective arbiter of greatness. Whoever finishes on top can deflect any whataboutery or scepticism by pointing at the data. Yes, there might be plenty more statistical measures coming up in our list. But nothing is more important than your standing at the slams. 

ATP Tour titles

  • 1pt Djokovic (86 titles inc. 37 Masters)
  • 1 Federer (103 titles  inc. 28 Masters)
  • 1 Nadal (90 titles  inc. 36 Masters)

Although the numbers vary slightly, the three players are impossible to split in this category. Federer is the only man to win more than 100 titles, mainly through sheer longevity. He stands a short head behind Jimmy Connors’s all-time record of 109. For Djokovic, meanwhile, the watchword is quality rather than quantity. He has dominated the Masters 1000 category, which comprises the nine most prestigious prizes outside the majors. Nadal sits between his two rivals on both measures. 

ATP match wins

  • 1pt Djokovic (989 at 83 per cent)
  • 1 Federer (1,251 at 82 per cent)
  • 1 Nadal (1038 at 83 per cent)

Another draw. Federer again benefits from his astonishing longevity – he played last summer’s Wimbledon only a few days before his 40th birthday – but comes out with a fractionally worse win rate than his rivals. Note how closely clustered those percentages are. It is another indication of the fine margins between these three legends. Since the ATP was formed in 1990, the next three highest scores belong to Sampras (79 per cent), Andre Agassi (77 per cent) and Andy Murray (76 per cent). 

Head-to-heads

  • 1pt Djokovic (27-23 v Federer; 30-28 v Nadal)
  • 2 Nadal (24-16 v Federer)
  • 3 Federer

A first win for Djokovic! Growing up in the shadow of the “Fedal” duopoly could have been a huge disadvantage. Djokovic turned it into a positive by learning from each early defeat and vowing to reverse the polarities one day. At the end of the noughties, he began to make good on that promise. As for Federer, his regular beastings at the hands of Nadal once led the outspoken pundit Mats Wilander to question his testicular fortitude. It is only in the last five years that Federer has redressed the balance a little by going after his topspin backhand. It took him a surprisingly long time to work out that Nadal eats slices for breakfast. 

Weeks at world No 1 

  • 1pt Djokovic (358)
  • 2 Federer (310)
  • 3 Nadal (209)

This measure reflects Djokovic’s ability to maintain a punishingly high level for month after month (with the exception of the two-year period between the summers of 2016 and 2018 when his elbow was bothering him). As for Nadal, his relatively short stay at world No1 is one of two big holes on his CV. Because of his chequered fitness record and reliance on clay, Nadal stands a long way back, behind not only his two main rivals but also Sampras, Lendl and Connors. 

Surface specialism

  • 1pt Djokovic (60% of his majors on hard; win %: 80 clay, 85 grass, 84 hard)
  • 2 Federer (55% on hard; win %: 78 clay, 87 grass, 83 hard)
  • 3 Nadal (62% on clay; win %: 92 on clay, 78 on grass, 78 on hard)

When the GOAT debates begin on social media, Nadal earns plenty of stick for being a clay-court killer whose knees turn to water as soon as he has to play on anything else. As he showed on Sunday, this is something of a misnomer. But he does genuinely have a problem with his knees, particularly on grass, where they struggle to deal with all the bending and crouching. As for Federer, his Achilles heel lies in “only” having won one French Open. He is now the only member of the group who hasn’t ticked off all four slams at least twice. But that is less to do with Federer himself than with Nadal – whose record at Roland Garros is the single most mind-boggling statistic in the sport. Out of the three men, Djokovic is unarguably the most versatile, with winning percentages of at least 80 on all three surfaces. 

Marks for style

  • 1pt Federer
  • 2 Nadal
  • 3 Djokovic

Time to leave the numbers behind and turn to our aesthetic judgement. Who moves like Rudolf Nureyev and routinely makes crowds gasp with the delicacy of his hand skills? It’s Federer, surely the most graceful player the game has ever seen. Who gets fans in a lather with his sweaty machismo? It’s Nadal, whose matches on clay are uniquely visceral experiences. And who shuts down opponents with his clinical, almost mechanical flawlessness? This is Djokovic. Even before the vaccination scandal in Australia, he was already the least popular of the three with fans. 

Totals 

  1. Djokovic 10pts
  2. Federer 12pts
  3. Nadal 13pts

It’s close, but Djokovic’s sheer statistical dominance earns him the GOAT label – at least for the moment. If we started introducing personal reputation into the mix, that might change things a little. But who says that a great tennis player has to be an all-round diamond of a bloke?


Which tennis player do you think is the greatest of all time? Tell us in the comments section below

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