Just as Roger Federer has feet of clay when it comes to playing Rafael Nadal on the red clay of Paris, similarly Nadal has some serious questions to answer on surfaces other than clay. I am only considering the Grand Slams for seeing relative performance as they, to me, signify the bigger and more important battles.
Allow me to take the same reference point that I took in my previous piece, the past 19 Grand Slam titles. There isn’t any special reason to pick the last 19, apart from the fact that at random I prefer to pick an odd number. I tend to agree with Samuel Johnson: “Round numbers are always false.”
The golden period of Nadal is closer to the immediate end of the spectrum as three of his six Grand Slam titles have come in 2008 and 2009, and he also reached the semifinal of the US Open and the Australian Open for the first time in 2008, then won the Australian in 2009 while again reaching the semis of the 2009 US Open. He also won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, and took over the No. 1 rank for some months.
This proximity to the end of the spectrum gives an exaggerated view, suggesting that Nadal has finally taken the mantle from Federer on all courts. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Nadal’s best season has given him two Grand Slam titles and two semi-final berths.
Roger Federer has won three Grand Slams in a year thrice and two in a year once. In his worst year, he has reached three finals losing two to Nadal, and winning one in New York.
Out of Nadal’s six titles, five have come by beating Federer in a Grand Slam final, and one by eliminating him in a semifinal. Out of seven Grand Slam finals that they have played, Nadal does have an imposing record of 5-2.
If I count from the 2008 French Open title, where Nadal totally dominated Federer and gave him his worst Slam final defeat til date, then Nadal has won three out of eight Slam finals, while Federer has won four out of eight Slam finals. Federer has made it to all eight finals in this period, while Nadal has just reached the three that he has won.
Why has Nadal reached just eight Grand Slam finals out of the last 19, while Federer has made it to 18? For Nadal: Four French Open finals, three Wimbledon finals, and one Australian. For Federer: Five Wimbledon, five US Open, four French Open, and four Australian Open finals. The chances of Federer reaching a Grand Slam final are 95 percent, according to the data of the last 19 Slams, while for Nadal it is 42 percent.
If I take the French Open out of the equation, then Federer has won 12 out of 15 matches—two of the three losses have come to Nadal. That is a win percentage of 80 percent on three surfaces other than clay. If I take the French Open to see Nadal’s performance in the corresponding period, then he has won three out of four finals and has a win percentage of 75 percent on his best surface.
I repeat, 18 Grand Slam final appearances and one semifinal appearance for Roger Federer; a very simple proof of great consistency. Now, the 19 previous Grand Slam tracker is quite complicated for Nadal as he has had one second round exit, one third round exit, two fourth round exits, two absences, three quarterfinals, three semifinals, two finals, and five slam victories. That adds up to 19.
Let us check their relative win percentage on different surfaces taking five previous appearances as the yardstick and a total of 20 as the grand number in disregard of my preference for even numbers.
At the Australian Open, Federer has reached the final 80 percent of the time with a win percentage of 60. Nadal has reached the final once and won it, hence his win percentage as well as the percentage of reaching the Melbourne final is 20 percent.
At the French, Nadal has won four times out of five appearances, and his win, as well as the final-reaching percentage, is 80 percent. For Federer, the win percentage at Roland Garros is 20, while the final reaching percentage is 80. Federer may have won just one French Open final, but he has reached the final on three more occasions and a semifinal in the fourth. Nadal has had one elimination in the fourth round.
At Wimbledon, Federer has a final-reaching percentage of 100 and a win percentage of 80. Nadal at Wimbledon has a win percentage of 20 and a final-reaching percentage of 60.
At the US Open, Federer has a final-reaching percentage of 100 and a win percentage of 80. Nadal has a zero for both win and final-reaching percentage at the US Open.
Overall, Federer has 12 wins out of 20 appearances and 18 finals out of 20—a win percentage of 60 on all surfaces and a final-reaching percentage of 90 on all surfaces.
Nadal has a win percentage of 30 in this period with six wins out of 20 and his final-reaching percentage is 40 with eight finals out of 20.
In Nadal’s recent words, those who consider him as a better player than Roger Federer do not understand tennis. Federer has some questions to answer especially his performance in finals against Nadal, but that does not mean that Nadal is the all-conquering ogre with no issues to settle.