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Tennis has been played since 1873, giving the sport almost 150 years to debate the identity of its greatest all-time player.
As with most sports, the arguments have become amplified significantly in recent times. Today tennis lives in an era featuring three of the greatest players ever to take the court, and all are at the top of the list of most grand slams won.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are the undisputed kings of modern tennis.
With this series of articles I’m going to detail the cases for and against each of them claiming the title of greatest of all time to allow the jury in the comments section decide who truly is the GOAT.
Today I’ll start with the player most already consider the GOAT: Roger Federer.
We are all born with God-given talent. Some don’t know what there’s is and sometimes the talent isn’t useful anyway, but there’s no doubt Federer was born to play tennis. He is easily the most graceful player to ever pick up a racquet and is far more pleasant to watch than any other player, and his abilities on the court are matched by his ability to speak multiple languages and his humility that gives great worldwide likeability.
Jimmy Connors once said, “You’re a clay-court specialist, a grass-court specialist or a hard-court specialist… or you’re Roger Federer”.
Federer is a living sporting legend whose popularity has drawn more fans to tennis, in turn increasing event revenue and prize money.
But what about his credentials as the GOAT?
Grand slam success
Very simply, Roger owns the grand slam records, having won 20 finals from 31 appearances. This ranks him just ahead of Nadal’s 19 victories and Djokovic’s 17 triumphs.
Grand slams are the pinnacle of tennis and to win the most is a great angle to this argument. Wimbledon is widely regarded as the most prestigious and important grand slam, so to win eight times – the most ever – is truly incredible. In addition, he’s tied with Djokovic for most hard court grand slams wins with 11. So he is the king of grass and tied king of hard courts.
Further, he’s tied with Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras with five – in Federer’s case, all in a row – US Opens, an all-time record, and is second in terms of most Australian Opens titles.
Federer has the most ATP titles, the most match wins and was the oldest champion. He has most Indian Wells and Cincinnati Masters wins, the most hard court titles and the longest grass court winning streak of all time. Put simply, he has won myriad matches, which points to his incredible consistency.
World No. 1 dominance
To be the world No. 1 for most weeks – 310 – simply means Federer has been best in the world longer then anyone else has. His record of 276 weeks over five years straight, also a record, speaks to his incredible consistency, and at 36 he became the oldest player to become No. 1 as well.
Federer is easily the biggest name the sport has ever produced – anyone who has knows anything about tennis knows who Federer is. Ask anyone on the street to name a tennis player and nine out of ten they will say Roger Federer. His ability to elevate the status of the sport and make it truly global is definitely a great achievement for his legacy.
He has been the inspiration of many young tennis players, many of whom credit him as the reason they play. He has won the Laureus sportsman of the year a record five times.
Record against his rivals
This is perhaps the biggest piece of damning evidence against the Fed Express: he has a losing record against his two main rivals, Nadal and Djokovic.
Federer is 16-24 against Nadal, with 16 of those 40 matches taking place on. He also trails 4-10 in grand slams matches and -6 in grand slam finals. Yes, this may be skewed by many games being played on clay given Nadal is the best clay court player ever, but he has also beaten Federer at Wimbledon, whereas Federer hasn’t beaten Nadal at the French Open.
His history against Novak Djokovic is a little happier. He leads the Serbian 27-23 – 21-10 since 2011 – and 13-6 in finals. However, Djokovic leads 11-6 in grand slam matches and 4-1 in grand slam finals – Federer’s only final win came in 2007. In fact Federer has not beaten Novak in a grand slam since 2014.
Federer, the king of grass, has lost three Wimbledon finals to Djokovic, including one match in which he had two championship points. He also had two match points against Djokovic in a US Open semi-final but still lost.
That the two biggest rivals of his era who happen to also be in contention for GOAT status have winning record over Federer in matches, grand slams and finals puts a huge dent in the case for the Swiss. To be fair, he has been out of his prime while Djokovic and Nadal have been at their best and lost a fair share against his rivals. However, he won a majority of his matches when both players, especially Djokovic, were yet to hit his prime.
Victories over weaker opponents
Furthermore, Federer’s 12 grand slams titles in 2003-07 came against Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Marcos Baghdatis, Mark Philippoussis and a very young Nadal who still hadn’t found his feet off the clay courts. He has only won five grand slam titles in the last decade, during which Djokovic and Nadal have reigned supreme. It is fair to question whether we would be looking at Federer in the same way if he had started his career five years later.
No singles Olympic gold may be a minor blip, but it’s the only major competition he hasn’t won. It may not be important in the grand scheme of his career, but it’s a title that rival Nadal has over both Djokovic and Federer.
So, jury, you have your evidence. Please decide whether this is enough to merit the title GOAT.