Lately, after Nadal’s summer surge at the slams, pundits and fans alike have been openly discussing his standing as the best player of this era. Authorities no less than Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe have made the claim for him to be greater than Roger Federer.
While Federer’s records will forever be astounding, Nadal seems to be catching up really fast. He has already accumulated nine grand slams at the age of 24, completing the career slam and becoming the first man to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in the same year since Rod Laver in 1969.
What’s more impressive is that he won each on a unique surface, cementing his stake as one of the most versatile champions of the modern game.
Nadal’s stunning level of success has not just been at the slams, but he’s also proved to be dominant at the prestigious Masters events. While Sampras in his illustrious career won 11 Masters titles, and Agassi 17, Nadal has already passed them both with a record 18 Masters victories at his young age.
Granted, Masters events have become more prominent in the last five or 10 years, and Nadal and his contemporaries compete in these events more than the previous generation. But that is still a great achievement, especially when one considers that Federer has won 17 thus far. If Nadal continues at this pace, he will probably end up with 25 Masters Shields. And of course his grand slam resume only seems to be getting more impressive.
However, it is likely that Nadal’s longevity will not be as impressive as Sampras’, let alone Agassi. Chances are he won’t be competing for slams by the time he is 29. But for the next few years it appears that he has enough game to win four to six slams.
He is likely to win two or three more in Paris, and his ability to win on any surface makes him a threat to win two or three slams elsewhere as well. That means he could end up with 14-15 Slams. For a lot of fans, that will put a significant dent in Federer’s claim to be the greatest of this era let alone of all time seeing that Nadal has a 6-2 head-to-head record in slams against the Swiss.
Of course this is all speculation and things can change quickly in tennis. Consider that Federer won his ninth slam at the 2006 US Open. At that time he looked good for 20 slams. Four years on, many are writing him off. And it does seem that Federer might not have more than a slam or two left in him. But let’s say he stops at 17, and Nadal ends up with 15. Who will be the greater of the two?
It will be hard to say Federer is the greater if Nadal continues to dominate Federer at the big events. But in my opinion, if Federer can win next year’s Australian Open the Federer-Nadal debate will be nipped in the bud for good, regardless of whether Federer falls in the first round of every other event he ever plays.
A win in Australia would give him five titles Down Under making him the only tennis player in history to win five titles each at three different slams. That, combined with Federer’s five wins at the year end championships, would make him an unprecedented dominator of four of the sport’s five biggest titles. What would make his dominance even more astounding is that he would have achieved all of this within eight years.
It’s highly unlikely that Nadal will catch up to Federer’s record at the ATP World Tour Finals. Neither is he likely to dominate another slam like he has in Paris. I don’t see him winning many successive Australian Opens or US Opens to give him the dominant status at those events. He’s built up quite a record at Wimbledon though, but unless he wins the next three his dominance there would never be up to par with Federer’s.
And for me, that will end up defining the “Fedal” debate. We will remember Nadal as a thorn in Federer’s side, but history will show that while Federer dominated three slams, Nadal was only really the big Roland Garros maestro who could bully his way through any tournament but often fell short.