Beaten in four sets, Novak Djokovic did not ring up any excuses at being unable to stop Rafael Nadal from winning yet another French Open title last week. “I played at my best, but it wasn’t good enough," said the Serb, not otherwise known to be taciturn.
As far as the quality of tennis went, it was not a great contest. Djokovic started strongly, winning the first set 6-3. Nadal drew level with 7-5 in the second and from there onwards it was a rapid slide downhill for his opponent, who could manage only six points in the next two sets.
This was Nadal’s fifth consecutive French Open win, in itself a terrific achievement, but given even more dramatic heft by the fact that it was his ninth title overall at Roland Garros. Djokovic looked not just beaten but also boggled; perhaps he was acutely aware of how remarkable the statistics were.
Nobody in the history of men’s tennis has dominated on any surface to such an extent, which settled one argument forever: By common consensus, Nadal is king of clay. But another one, now the more pertinent, lingers: Is he also the GOAT?
For those still unused to the acronym, it stands for Greatest Of All Time. Headline writers are known to be a self-indulgent but also smart lot, and the issue of who should win the GOAT title has become the staple debate in every sport.
The debate in tennis is interesting, intense and prolonged. Nine French titles included, Nadal has 14 Grand Slam titles to his credit overall, with no surface spared. Currently, this puts him joint second with Pete Sampras. The only man ahead is Roger Federer with 17. This is where the battle for the title of GOAT becomes furious.
Over the past six-seven years, nothing has divided the tennis world like the Federer versus Nadal issue. Think Real Madrid versus Barcelona, and the effect on fans of the two clubs, and you have some idea of what this means. But only just, because in tennis, you move from the team to the individual, and the positions of fans get even more hardened.
The tennis world has verily been divided down the middle, in black and white, as it were. The contest between Federer and Nadal has been played out not just on courts across the world, but in drawing rooms, bars, newspaper columns and—perhaps most prolifically—on social media.
Former greats have also been sucked into this debate to give it a fillip and a whole new dimension. Sampras, for instance, has unequivocally plumped for Federer while Andre Agassi surprised everybody before the start of the French Open this year by saying that Nadal had surged ahead.
As in all such debates, statistics and titles form an important part of the assessment, but are not everything. Quality of play, economy of effort, style and temperament are essential ingredients in determining the greatness of a player.
Federer’s balletic footwork and sublime strokes have defined him as perhaps the most complete and extraordinary player in tennis history. His loyalists, allowing for hyperbole, see him as a divine exponent of the game. He plays with a flair and freedom that inspires awe.
Nadal, in contrast, relies on speed, power, resilience, mental toughness and deep ambition. He plays a hard and brutal game, not one of deft touch and graceful strokes. He will chase down anything and everything relentlessly, beating opponents often through sheer willpower.
To Nadal’s credit, he forced himself into contention just when it seemed that Federer had won everybody’s approval hands down. Beginning with the epic five-setter at Wimbledon in 2007 (which he lost), he started hounding the Swiss on every surface, then toppled him from the No.1 spot, and now has many in the tennis world—fans, aficionados and fellow players—rooting for him as the GOAT.
It’s a tough call to make, and you can do it only at your own peril. My own take is that GOAT or not (and let’s not discount players like Rod Laver, who won the Grand Slam twice), Federer and Nadal have enriched the sport like few others before them. They have made men’s tennis coveted just when it seemed that it was getting into a major slump.
That’s a heck of a lot to be grateful for.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.