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Only slams matter for GOAT status: Part 2

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19th October, 2021

In my first article on this topic, I argued that slams won and performance in slams are the key criteria for being the modern-era tennis GOAT.

In this article, I thought I would have an initial look at performance within slams to see if it helped to separate the big three, given they are all currently stuck on 20 slams won apiece.

While most commentators tend to focus on overall head-to-head records (which is a virtual tie between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal), head-to-head matches at slams give Nadal the clear lead and appear to further count, in particular, against Roger Federer’s claim to GOAT status.

Rafael Nadal

(Fred Lee/Getty Images)

In matches played in slams against the other two members of the big three, Federer has won only 32 per cent of his matches, Djokovic has won 52 per cent of his matches, and Nadal has won 65 per cent of the time.

Nadal has a 10-6 record against Djokovic and a 10-4 record against Federer. Djokovic has an 11-6 record against Federer.

Some commentators argue, however, that Federer fares poorly on this measure because he is five-plus years older than Nadal and Djokovic, and reached his peak before Djokovic in particular, who started to win most of his slams when Federer was 30-plus years of age.

To debunk Nadal as GOAT, some commentators have focused on where each of the big three have won their slams, with Nadal winning 65 per cent of his slams at the French Open, whereas Djokovic (nine US Opens, six Wimbledons, three Australian Opens, two French Opens) and Federer (eight Wimbledons, six Australian Opens, five US Opens, one French Open) have more balanced records.

Roger Federer prepares to serve

(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)


However, it should be noted that if Nadal never won a French Open, but only won seven other slams, he would still likely be considered an all-time great such as John McEnroe.

Another criterion might be progress in slams, which further counts against Nadal, as he has the least impressive record of the big three in terms of reaching the finals, semi-finals and quarter-finals of a slam. Federer’s record is 31/46/58, Djokovic’s record is 31/42/51, and Nadal’s record is 28/35/44.

Other commentators have focused on peak value, which would probably install Federer as the GOAT. Federer had an outstanding six years from 2004 to 2009, in which he won 14 slams, was runner-up six times, and only missed making the semi-finals once in 24 slams.

Djokovic has clearly been the most dominant over the last 11 years, winning 19 of his slams during that time. Nadal has tended to win his slams steadily over time.

Despite Djokovic appearing to fall behind Nadal and Federer in the performance in slams categories described above, many commentators nonetheless view Djokovic as the GOAT.

They value Djokovic’s unique modern-era slam achievements of winning all four slams at least twice and being the only player since Rod Laver in 1969 to be the concurrent holder of all four slams. They also value that Djokovic is one of only two players (like Federer) to win three slams in three different calendar years.

Novak Djokovic with the 2019 Wimbledon trophy.

(Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Relative to Federer and Nadal, they also value Djokovic’s non-slam performance, for instance, his record time at number one, superior ATP Finals and Masters event wins, and his slight overall head-to-head record.


Of course, as outlined in Part 1 of this series of articles, this falls outside of my personal criteria for differentiating the big three.

Lastly, and probably not unexpectedly, given their dominance of the sport, the big three’s overall winning percentage at slams is almost identical (Federer 86 per cent, Nadal 87 per cent, Djokovic 88 per cent).

To sum up, trying to differentiate the modern-era GOAT by looking at the big three’s performance in slams does not appear to be helpful. However, there may be more in-depth analyses of slam performance such as strength of opposition that might shed further light.

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So, if you agree, as I outlined in Part 1 of this series, that performance in slams is really what reflects a tennis player’s legacy, it seems that, at least for the big three, the number of slams won is really the only clear criterion that might differentiate between them.

So, it is a three-way GOAT tie, for now, between Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

We can re-consider who is the modern-era GOAT based on slams won once the big three have retired.

However, it may be more fitting to just view the big three as the modern-era GOAT and leave it at that, given all their accomplishments, unless one of Djokovic or Nadal ends up with a decent lead in slams won.

Sadly, since I am not that much of a fan, it looks like Djokovic is the best bet to end up as the modern-era GOAT, given Federer’s age and Nadal’s recent absence at slams.