As Rafael Nadal starts picking up more and more Slams, one statistic gains importance; his head-to-head with the proclaimed Greatest Of All Time, Roger Federer.
Ten months ago, Rafa's Grand Slam tally was six, whereas Roger had 16.
With Rafa's knees in an uncertain state, the most likely outcome of the 2010 season seemed that each would win a Slam; perhaps one of them winning two. Instead, Rafa took three and secured his Grand Slam.
With a positive H2H, nine Slams, 18 Masters titles—both still counting—Rafa has reopened the GOAT debate that seemed so settled.
It's time to take a look at the H2H to see what it means—and what it doesn't.
Before embarking on that, one word of where I'm coming from. All writers want—and try—to be objective. But, we all have our favourites that influence our interpretations.
Me? I'm a Federer fan who highly admires Rafael Nadal and his ability to continue changing and improving his game.
Now to the head-to-head. I've chosen to put the H2H in three phases so we get our facts straight and marvel over the order of domination being Rafa-Roger-Rafa.
Phase 1, 2004-2006—A young Rafa dominating Roger six to one.
In this phase, the two of them met seven times (four on clay and three on hard court). The result? Six victories to the young prodigy and one loss.
At the Miami Masters, Roger fought back from two sets down and won the third set tiebreaker before dominating the latter two sets.
It must be added that Roger was ill in their very first encounter in 2004, where he lost in straights.
Phase 2, 2006-2007—Roger dominating a maturing Rafa five to two.
Also seven matches (three clay, two hard, two grass). This time Roger had the edge with a 5-2 lead—losing Monte Carlo and French Open.
The H2H is now 8-6 in Rafa's favor, six of the wins coming on clay.
Phase 3, 2008-2010—A matured Rafa dominating Roger six to one.
Rafa enjoyed his most important victories over Roger, including Wimbledon 2008 and the Australian Open 2009. Again, seven matches (five clay, one hard, one grass).
Rafa won all, except for Madrid prior to the 2009 French Open. Many Rafa fans, and some pundits, have since attributed the loss to the nagging knee injuries.
Likewise, many Fed fans, and some pundits, have attributed some of Fed's losses, especially in 2008, to his mono.
H2H stats in sum
14-7 in Rafa's favor,
Hard Court: 3-3
What does it all mean?
There is no doubt that Rafa holds the edge over Roger, but dividing it into phases brings an anomaly to the surface: the young Rafa dominating the in-prime Federer. How did he manage to dominate the world's best player?
I offer three explanations:
1) Rafa was a prodigy, and damn good on clay, earning him four of his six victories over Fed. Although another victory came when Fed was ill, Rafa remained more than competitive in the additional two HC matches, where he won one and almost the other.
Clay is Rafa's favored surface, and yet, Fed doesn't hold a significant advantage on the other surfaces (5-4) where he should be favored.
So we're left with Nadal equaling Fed despite Fed handling the rest of the field better.
2) The mental aspect. Against every other player, Fed seems to have had the mental advantage. But not against Rafa.
Federer knows his difficulties against Rafa. He knows he needs to keep his unforced errors in check, yet still hit winners to shorten the points and avoid battling with Rafa from the baseline.
A damn hard prospect with little room for error.
3) Rafa is simply a bad match-up for Federer. Watching their early matches, I always felt that Rafa didn't win the match, but Fed lost it due to his errors. Later, I thought that Rafa may be the cause of these errors as he always forced Fed to have abhorrent break-point stats as he searched for holes in Rafa's armour.
Tim Ruffin has expressed this as Federer feeling the pressure of an ever-shrinking court and having nowhere to go with his winners.
Another example of Rafa causing the errors is his forehand to the one-handed Federer backhand. With a two-handed backhand, Federer might have gained more point control. But then, he wouldn't have been our Fed.
Does this bad match-up take anything away from Rafa? Not too much. After all, at 12 years old he created the lefty advantage with Uncle Tony.
But it does explain some of the difference and, in my opinion, it explains enough to leave Fed as the main candidate for GOAT.
The moment Rafa comes close to Fed's numbers and/or adding new records—and I believe he will—the H2H will be even more important in deciding who is the better player.