With Rafael Nadal’s win at the last grand slam tournament of the year, the flame of the GOAT (greatest of all time) debate has been reignited. Both players reigned supreme all year and they don’t look like they’re done anytime soon.
Federer and Rafa are still chasing major titles and fighting out the No. 1 ranking. “Two things that we share: that is passion for tennis, and competition, and the spirit of improvement all the time,” Nadal said after his win in New York.
They stand at two grand slams a piece, with two Masters 1000 titles thrown in the mix. The grand slam tally between them is exactly where we began the year at, with the Spaniard trailing the Swiss by a hair’s breadth of three.
They also stand poised at No. 1 (Rafa) and No. 2 (Fed). The Swiss retains a higher winning percentage over the Spaniard for the year, 91% compared to Nadal’s 86.15%, according to Sportskeeda. Fed has also consistently put away Top 10 players better than anyone else all year long, according to the ATP.
But Rafa has a huge margin of 9,465 points, with Fed behind by about 1,960 points. An unsurmountable amount? Think again. The two stand at the same crossroads that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were at this time last year, with an even larger margin between them (3,695).
Murray surged ahead with a streak of wins at the Masters events that gave him the top spot by November of last year. There’s a chance that the Swiss could do the same, although I believe it will be more difficult. There are 4,500 points to be dealt out the rest of the year (4,000 for what Fed’s signed up for).
When Murray spiked ahead, Djokovic was beginning his decline. Nadal is anything but declining, as he demonstrated in New York. Nadal has a better record at Masters events, however, of the three titles he’s missing two are coming up in October, Shanghai and Paris Masters.
Federer has only won the Paris event once and Shanghai twice so his record here isn’t as formidable as it is elsewhere. Both players seem to take a dip in form this late in the tennis season, after a punishing grand slam push that leaves them beaten and worn, but the Swiss has always rallied to put on a good show at the end-of-year event in London, the ATP World Tour Finals, where Fed holds a record six titles and Rafa none.
The last quarter of the year favors the world No. 2, who thrives in the indoor hard-courts of the fall and winter. "At indoor hard-court tournaments, like Basel, Paris or the Nitto ATP Finals, Federer has the advantage," said Uncle Toni.
"But I think that Rafael's level is high enough to do well in those events.” There are still records to be caught. If the world No. 1 gets his hand on either Masters title, he will own the record for most Masters 1000 titles outright, surpassing Djokovic’s 30.
Federer still stands behind at 26. With so many points still up for grabs, any number of the four remaining tournaments could make this a topsy-turvy ride until the end of the year. There are up to 1000 points each for the Masters tourneys, 500 for ATP 500 competition, and a whopping 1,500 to work with at the ATP World Tour Finals.
Both Nadal and Federer have said they will stay committed to their current schedule. Federer will need to win most. The quest for No. 1 goes to Fed only if Nadal exits early in the events he’s committed to. A tall order, sure, but not impossible, as we saw with Murray last year.
“I hope I’m going to arrive really early in Shanghai to really get ready and make it a priority for me to win that tournament,” said Federer. Although Fed has the better record this time of year, Rafa is in better physical shape evidenced at the U.S.
Open. He’s also put down one more ATP 500 event, the China Open, than Fed, likely in the hopes of giving himself more breathing room to retain his rankings lead in case his rival breaks through the Masters series, like he’s done in the past.
It’s a smart play. Fed’s beaten Nadal four times in a row (including Basel, 2015) and Rafa’s coach, Carlos Moya, says facing him has been their biggest challenge this year, but has also made it clear that beating Federer is a top goal for the rest of the season.
“In Miami we tried to change a few things, but it didn’t work,” Moya said, but insists that if the two do meet, it might go differently. "Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately, I don't know – we haven't had the chance to play against Roger again since Miami, but we look forward to that.
Rafa is prepared.” Nadal’s former coach since he was three, Uncle Toni is even more confident of his chances to match Federer’s record. "We will get to Federer’s 19, yes,” said Uncle Toni.
"I think it will happen. It’s difficult, but there is some more Roland Garros and I am confident other titles will come." The possession of the world No. 1 ranking holds a great significance for both players.
Each can walk away with a new record. Nadal is not the oldest player to achieve the ranking, that record goes to Andre Agassi (33 years old), but if he manages to keep it until the end of the year, he will be the oldest end-of-year No.
1 (Lendl was 29). If Federer overtakes him, then he combines the record, and becomes both the oldest to achieve it and the oldest end-of-year No. 1 if he retains it. Federer has ended the year at the top five times, Nadal four.
Only Pete Sampras has done one better, made it six times. Don’t get me wrong, both players thrive on competition between each other and their motivation to outdo the other is still going strong, even after all this time.
With that kind of drive, is it any wonder the young players just can’t get a seat at the table? The quest for No. 1 will make the last quarter of the year an enthralling endeavor. It’s going to be a nail-biter all year long.
But in the meantime, we can sit back and enjoy the two players teaming up as doubles partners at the Laver Cup, utilizing their strengths to bolster each other for Team Europe. Nadal and Federer each have an Olympic gold medal in doubles with their respective partners.
It will be a thrill for tennis fans to watch them play together on the same team. I don’t mean to be rude, but seriously, do you really think the other guys have half a chance? .