On the sidelines of the ATP Chennai Open 10 years ago, Rafael Nadal had said that he loved being world No.2. Asked to clarify, he grinned and said it gave him “something to chase".
Roger Federer had won nine Grand Slams at the time to Nadal’s two wins at Roland-Garros, and there was little indication that their rivalry would scale the heights it did over the next few years. Until Nadal came on the scene, Federer had looked invincible, but the Spaniard chased him down like he did every seemingly irretrievable shot on the court.
Then, five or six years ago, it seemed like they were done. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray—younger, fitter, stronger—seemed to have snatched the baton from them. Between 2011 and 2016, the two giants won only four out of 24 Slams. Compare this to the preceding six years, when the duo had claimed 21 of 24 titles.
Set against that backdrop, this year has been remarkable. With Djokovic and Murray both battling injuries, Federer and Nadal reignited their rivalry—the Swiss champion winning the Australian Open and at Wimbledon, and the Spanish fighter taking home the French and US Open titles.
All of which means that this is as good a time as any to reignite the GOAT (greatest of all time) debate.
To start with, let’s be clear about one thing: while both of them are greats, there can only be one GOAT per sport. Also, there will be many fans who will insist there’s no point comparing the two. Chances are that they are Federer fans, worried Nadal will come out on top.
So where do we start? If they were to be judged on style and elegance, Federer would win. If they were to be judged on steel and grit, Nadal would top.
Nadal is clearly the better player on clay, having won 10 French Open titles to Federer’s one.
Federer is arguably the better player on grass, with eight Wimbledon titles to Nadal’s two. On the hard courts of Melbourne and New York, Federer leads with 10 titles to Nadal’s four.
This suggests that Federer has the edge overall.
Their head-to-head record, however, swings things Nadal’s way, with the Spaniard leading 23-14 overall and 9-3 at Grand Slams. Federer’s win over Nadal at the 2017 Australian Open final was his first in a Grand Slam since 2007. At the end of that emotional contest, most tennis critics labelled Federer as the greatest ever, perhaps prematurely.
Chances are that at the end of their careers, this debate will be settled by who finishes with more Grand Slam titles.
Nadal is 31, Federer, 36. Federer has 19 Slams to Nadal’s 16. How many more titles does Federer have in him? How many injury-free years does Nadal have in him? A rivalry that seemed dead has suddenly turned into a nail-biter again.
Speaking after his US Open win, Nadal said that he wasn’t looking at Federer’s 19 right now. “I really never thought much about that. I just do it my way. He does it his way. Let’s see when we finish."
As he said in 2007 though, he loves having something to chase—whether that’s a seemingly irretrievable forehand, a supposedly unbeatable record, or the title of Greatest Of All Time.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.