The Spanish bull Rafael Nadal just racked up his sixth French Open title and his 10th Grand Slam title overall. In the process, he beat his rival and friend Roger Federer for the fifth time in the French Open, skewing their head-to-head further in his own favor. The win has once again opened the G.O.A.T. debate among fans.
As John McEnroe said prior to the match, if Roger won, it would have been hard to argue against him as the greatest player of all time. Had Federer won, he would not only finally have beaten Rafa at the French Open. He would also have a double-career Grand Slam, the only man to do so in the Open era.
For the first three sets, the two men were equals, and it could be argued that Roger should have been the one leading two sets to one.
Instead, Rafa edged another step closer to Roger's records. Instead of leading Rafa 17-9 in the Grand Slam count, the difference is now "only" 16-10. Instead of a head-to-head reading 16-9, we now have Nadal leading 17-8. More importantly, instead of their Slam finals meetings being 5-3 in Rafa's favor, we now have a dominating 6-2, with an added semifinal victory at the 2005 French Open.
The argument is old, but it does carries some weight.
If one man beats another man half of the time, how can the latter man be the greatest of all time? Even more so, when Rafa leads 7-2 in their Slam encounters, how can Roger be the better player?
The Federer side will argue that Rafa is designed to be Federer's kryptonite with the high-bouncing forehand to Federer's one-handed backhand. Moreover, whereas clay only makes up for one-third of the tour, almost sixty percent of their meetings have come on clay.
While both of these arguments do carry some weight, Rafa does have other things going for him, too. After all, head-to-head can never stand alone, as Nikolay Davydenko would then be a better player than Rafa.
By winning the French Open, Nadal become the second-youngest man to reach 10 Grand Slam wins. Add the fact that he has won more Masters titles than anyone in history and you can see why his fans are ready to give him the crown.
Moreover, Nadal is equal with Borg in having the best winning percentage of all time. The two best clay courters to ever grace the game have both won an amazing 82.7 percent of the matches they've played (Borg would be even higher if it wasn't for numerous unsuccessful comebacks). Federer, on the other hand, as a later-bloomer has "only" won 81 percent of his.
Finally, Nadal has a career Slam going for him, something Roger does as well; but Nadal has an Olympic singles gold medal to go with it.
Why Nadal is not GOAT yet:
Nevertheless, it is premature to crown Rafa as the greatest of all time. Here's why.
First and foremost, while it is very likely that Rafa will win more Slams and Masters in the future, you do not get any points on potential to win, only on the actual wins. For all we know, Maureen Connolly might have been universally regarded as the best female player to play the game.
Still a teenager, she had amassed nine Grand Slam titles in 11 tries. In 1953, she won the calendar Slam losing a mere one set in all four tournaments. Two weeks after the 1954 Wimbledon victory, a truck crushed her right leg while she was horseback riding and ended her career prematurely.
In more recent times, Monica Seles was well on her way to being the best female player of all time, when a mad Steffi Graf fan stabbed Seles on court in February 1993, almost a year short of her 20th birthday. By that time, Seles had already dominated the game for a good two years, losing but one Slam match out of 56 from 1991 to the stabbing in 1993.
She did not play Wimbledon in 1991, but she won everything else that mattered and reached 33 finals out of 34 tournaments, winning 22 of them. She was never the same after the stabbing and only added one Slam to her resume, finishing with a total of nine.
While Connolly is somewhat forgotten, Seles isn't. Nevertheless, she's never mentioned at the top in the debate about who's the greatest female player of all time.
By citing these tragic examples, I'm not predicting or hoping that anything similar will happen to Rafa. But I'm saying that the future is essentially unknown and one cannot count the titles before they are won.
And that is really the crux of the argument. As impressive as Nadal's career has been so far, it has not yet been the best career ever.
While one can make the case that he has once and for all surpassed the likes of Ken Rosewall, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and perhaps even Björn Borg, it is difficult to make the case that he has surpassed the careers of Rod Laver, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer just yet.
I, for one, would also say that it is difficult to say that he's completely distanced himself from everyone in the former group. Just as it is hard to say with certainty that anyone, including Federer, has or will distance themselves from 11-time Grand Slam winner Laver, who lost five years when he turned pro in the amateur era.
That said, there's no question which direction Rafa's arrow is pointing.
In less than three weeks, he might add another title to his tally—or Federer might add one extra and extend his cushion.