Who is greater, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal?
Nothing else matters. No other number, no history, no context. Roger Federer has 19 Grand Slam singles titles, Rafael Nadal has 16. This is it. This is the race. This summary of greatness will decide it.
Even I’ve become so lazy, so simplistic, so keen to reduce compelling bodies of work to a single number.
As if the 75 other titles the Swiss won and the 59 others the Spaniard owns are just garnishing. As if only eight Grand Slam weeks count out of the 52 in a year. As if Nadal’s 81-match streak on clay and Federer’s 24-match streak against top 10 rivals is just afterthought stuff.
Both men are 185cm tall and Nadal is—if you go by the ATP book—a single pound heavier. Most similarities end there. Federer as an underwear model does not appear a good idea. Nadal at an Anna Wintour luncheon seems an uncomfortable fit. Federer makes you lean back and savour. Nadal makes you want to rise and run. Federer once told an umpire, “don’t fucking tell me the rules”, and Nadal gets coached from the sidelines. They’re rightie, leftie, 36, 31. Hello paintbrush, meet chainsaw.
We could keep going, but still this is what will decide who is greater.
(Or whatever the end numbers are).
Nadal has as many French Opens (10) as the legendary Four Musketeers put together and that’s counting titles even when that event was open only to the French. Federer’s five US Open titles are the equal-highest in the Open era (since 1968) and his eight titles at Wimbledon is a record.
Federer has been to 36 straight Grand Slam quarter-finals (Nadal 11) and 23 consecutive semi-finals (Nadal 5).
Nadal has a 91.7% win-loss on clay, 77.2% on grass and 77% on hard. Federer is 75.9% on clay, 87.2% on grass, 83.1% on hard.
Nadal has won at least five titles a year on eight occasions and Federer has done it 10 times. Federer has a 66.2% success rate in finals and Nadal’s is 67.6%. Nadal is 65.2% versus the top 10, Federer is 65.8%.
Federer is Dizzy Gillespie on the trumpet, Nadal is the working-class hero from a Springsteen song. Federer has more variety than Nadal ever will, but not enough to beat Nadal. The Spaniard leads 23-15 totally and 13-2 on clay. Federer leads 11-9 on hard court and 2-1 on grass.
Nadal won three Slams in a year once, Federer three times. The Spaniard has conquered the French-Wimbledon axis in the same year twice, the Basel boy only once. Federer’s body has been his ally, Nadal’s his burden. The Swiss played 65 Grand Slams in a row, Nadal is always making comebacks. Which might partially explain why Federer has been No.1 for 302 weeks and Nadal for 150.
These are geniuses with résumés a metre long and how do you tell between any two wonders of the world? The best way to do this is to imagine tennis without one of them.
No one can ignore 19:16 but we should remember this: It’s unfair. To everyone who wasn’t counting and thus wasn’t chasing.
Tennis was once played without chairs at changeovers and a journalist told me a lovely tale about a female player in the 1970s finishing a match and lighting a cigarette. You think they were counting Slams? Women players were trying to win equality and fend off chauvinists and held up signs asking people to come and watch. You think they were counting Slams? Björn Borg skipped the Australian Open seven years in a row and John McEnroe five of the six years of his prime (1979-84). You think they were counting Slams?
The Davis Cup mattered once, also doubles, and so now McEnroe’s five Davis Cup wins and nine doubles Grand Slam titles— which led his partner Peter Fleming to say the best doubles team was “Junior and anyone”—should be erased? And Martina Navratilova’s 31 Grand Slam doubles titles and 10 mixed doubles titles, all of which helped spread tennis, are meaningless and only her 18 singles Slams are relevant? And the fact that three of the four Slams were once held on grass is besides the point and the truth that Jimmy Connors won the US Open on three different surfaces isn’t worth a bonus point?
Then there’s Rod Laver (11 Slams) who deserves some basic math and a little imagining. Laver won all four Slams in 1962, turned professional, missed 21 consecutive Slams, then won five of the next seven Slams in 1968-69. So let’s say, at a very low estimate, he would have won at least six of the 21 Slams he missed in his prime. This would put him at 17. With two Grand Slams. The four-in-a-year thing which neither Nadal nor Federer has done.
We’re always going to count 19:16, it’s human nature, it’s now the fashion, but we should remember it’s a modern invention in a reductive world. And truly it doesn’t matter, neither do all those other numbers, some of which the ATP World Tour sent me, because Federer-Nadal fans are about as likely to switch sides as Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer devotees or Larry Bird-Magic Johnson followers.
Because eventually our relationships with athletes over time are not only to do with winning but also how they win, the way they move on court and how they wear defeat, the manner in which they speak of opponents and toss their hair, the art they offer and the resolve they exude, the little peculiarities they own and the adversity they encounter, the people we are when they come into our lives and the spaces they fill. For they are fulfilling something fundamental we crave, slaking some complicated, private demand we have of champions and sport.
In the end it’s not about the score, you see, but how they make us feel.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.