Two Princes: An In-Depth Look at the Debate Over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal

Guga MuthuContributor IOctober 20, 2009

MALLORCA, SPAIN - MAY 2: Rafael Nadal of Spain and  Roger Federer of Switzerland share a joke after  the The Battle of the Surfaces between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at The Palma Arena on May 2, 2007 in Mallorca, Spain. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Hello to all tennis fans,

Let me introduce myself. I am Guga, a simple tennis fan. I started watching tennis when Sampras and Agassi came up and when Lendl, Edberg, and Becker were still playing great tennis. I started to like both Sampras and Agassi, but more Sampras.

Then came Roger and Rafa. I really like them both, but more Roger. I started to like him more and more in 2008, when he looked more human by losing matches. When people found fault at everything Roger did, it pushed me more towards him.

Let me try to discuss with various topics.

Dominance Over the Years

Below is their winning percentages over the years. I only considered from the year when both gentlemen won their first slams, so that we can say after that they put their games together, after initial years of struggle in the tour.

Year    '03      '04      '05       '06       '07       '08      '09

Rafa     DC      DC      89%     83%     82%     88%    86%

Roger   82%    93%    95%     95%     88%     81%    87%

*DC - Didn't consider

Obviously, the above statistics show that only in '08 Rafa did better than Roger, which was obviously a bad year for Roger and the best year for Rafa. So who dominated more, Rafa or Roger? For sure, it’s Roger, to me.

Consistency on Grand Slams and ATP World Tour Finals

I believe that ATP World Finals are less significant than slams, but for sure more significant than ATP 1000.

Below is Rafa's performance on Grand Slam and ATP World Tour Finals from '03 to '09.

Grand Slam     '03       '04       '05      '06       '07       '08       '09        SR       W-L     Win%

Aus. Open       A         3R       4R       A         QF       SF        W       1 / 5     21–4    84.00

French Open    A         A         W       W        W        W        4R       4 / 5     31–1     96.88

Wimbledon      3R        A         2R       F          F        W        A        1 / 5     22–4     84.62

US Open         2R       2R        3R       QF       4R       SF        SF      0 / 7     21–7    75.00

ATPF              A         A         A        SF        SF       A        N/A      0 / 2     4–4      50.00

Overall          3–2      3–2     13–3    17–2     20–3    24–2     15–2      N/A    99–20   83.19  

Below is Roger's performance on Grand Slam and ATP World Tour Finals from '99 to '09 (wow, it's 11 years).

Grand Slam    '99    '00    '01    '02    '03    '04     '05    '06    '07    '08    '09       S/R      W-L%
Aus. Open      LQ    3R     3R    4R     4R     W      SF    W      W    SF      F       47–7   87.04
French Open   1R    4R     QF    1R     1R    3R      SF     F      F      F      W      39–10  79.59
Wimbledon      1R    1R     QF    1R     W     W      W     W      W     F      W       51–5   91.07
US Open        LQ    3R     4R     4R     4R    W      W     W      W     W      F       51–5   91.07
ATP WTF        A      A      A      SF     W    W       F      W     W     RR    N/A     27–5  84.38
Overall          0/2  7–4   13–4   6–4  13–3  22–1  24–2  27–1  26–1  24–3  26–2 215–32 


A—-Did not participate in the tournament

LQ—Lost in qualifying draw

RR—Round robin

Can we say Rafa was not consistent enough (from 2005 to 2009) in all grand slams compared to Roger (from 2003 to 2009) despite injuries and loss of form (to both players)?

Titles vs. Surfaces

Roger has 61 titles in total and Rafa has 36; compared to their span of careers, both sound good. But if we break up those titles based on surfaces, then it looks like this:

            Carpet    Clay     Grass     Hard

Rafa          0         25         2          9

Roger        2          9         11         39

So this says again Rafa is more dominant only on clay, whereas Roger fared better in almost all and was only second best to Rafa on clay. But Rafa was not that close on other surfaces. We can't say Roger was only dominant on hard-court, given that the number of tournaments played in hard-courts are twice or more than all other surfaces.

Roger and Rafa have 16 and 15 ATP 1000 titles, respectively, and this shows that Rafa's numbers are more impressive than Roger's, given he earned those numbers in five years and it took Roger eight. But let us see the surface break ups.

           Clay      Hard

Rafa      10          5

Roger     5          11

In general, there are always nine ATP 1000 tournaments; out of that six are in hard court and three in clay.

Over the last five years (2005 to 2009 till date) Rafa won 10 clay titles out of 18 tournaments and five hard court titles out of 36 tournaments. So, it says that Rafa was very dominant on clay, but not even good enough on hard-courts.

Roger, over the last eight years (2002 to 2009), won five clay titles out of 24 (definitely better than Rafa's hard-court performance) and 11 hard court titles out of 48; which is very good, but not as good as Rafa's dominance on clay. But overall, Roger has a good winning percentage, not depending on any favorite surface.

Career Winning Percentage

Below is their winning percentage throughout their careers on different surfaces.


             Win-Loss        Percentage

Hard        184-58             76.03

Clay         179-16             91.79

Grass         31-7               81.58

Carpet         2-6               25.00

Overall      396-87             81.99

             Win-Loss        Percentage

Hard        393–84             82.39

Clay         141–42             77.05

Grass        88–12              88.00

Carpet      50–19              72.46

Overall     672–157            81.06

Rafa has a slight advantage on overall win-loss, but is it fair to say that he took great advantage of clay-court matches, whereas Roger performed perfectly on all other surfaces (carpet being an exception) and his clay percentage is better than Rafa's hard-court percentage. So again it proves that Roger was slightly better than Rafa overall.

Head to Head Debate

This is not new to anyone. Many experts have already discussed this before in detail, but as a rookie I would like to add my points, too.

I know that the history is that Rafa has the best of the head to head records with Roger. I also have an opinion about matchups:

  • Rafa's top spin forehand damaging Roger's ever stable backhand.
  • Rafa's never say die attitude tweaks Roger's perfection (since he needs to go for the one more shot and over tries it in a fear that Rafa might retrieve that, too).
  • Rafa’s strategy to serve and also hit almost all the balls towards Roger’s backhand, giving more problems to Roger.

I also believe that, at least in my opinion:

  • Roger and Rafa are equal in mental toughness and being humble both in victories and loses.
  • Roger is the slightly better player compared to Rafa in overall tennis and Rafa is the better player on clay.
  • When both of their careers are over- then we will see Roger improving his head to head with Rafa.
  • Roger is more beautiful to watch playing than Rafa is.
  • Rafa dominates Roger in clay and Roger dominates everyone in all grass and hard-courts better than Rafa. Excluding Rafa, Roger dominates every other person in all surfaces.
  • There will definitely be one or more tennis players who will be a bad matchup for Rafa. Del Potro is an example of that.
  • At that point in time, tennis analysts/writer will start to write about how Rafa is not a great player anymore and he needs to prove them by beating the bad matchups in Grand Slam finals
  • Also, in that time, Rafa’s humbleness will be tested thoroughly.

More Things (Questions) to Consider Head to Head:

I agree Roger's game doesn't match up with counter punches and Rafa's game doesn’t match up with flat and aggressive hitters. If Rafa turned the head to head positive between him and Berdych, Blake Gonzalez, and Youzhny, then is it fair to say Roger did the same to Hewit, Nalbandian, and Henman? Why can't we assume Roger will do the same to Murray and Simon in the future (I also believe that he will improve his head to head with Nadal).

Also, Rafa has dominated Del Potro until 2009 Indian Wells and since Miami, Del Potro has figured out Rafa’s game and started to win against a hurt Rafa, but will definitely win against a healthy Rafa in future. This is the same as what Rafa did to Berdych, Blake, Gonzalez, Youzhny and now what Del Potro is doing to Rafa.

If Nalbandian would've held his nerves for a couple of minutes in Indian Wells '09, would the head to head with Rafa be 3-0? Did Rafa beat Nalbandian in any Grand Slam finals (or in Grand Slam rounds) to prove that he is the greatest?

Whose game is most spectacular to watch? I agree that everyone has different opinions and I sincerely respect all of them, but can we count on what the majority of people’s opinion is? I hope you agree even a president/prime minister in any country is being selected on the basis of majority votes/opinions.

Rafa didn't give enough chances for Roger to tally the count by meeting more times in hard-courts. I didn’t see those matches between Roger and Rafa on hard courts in 2004/06, but read many articles saying that Roger was tired or burned out before those matches.

I agree about AO '09, that Federer was healthy, but lost because of a bad matchup between their games, and that goes with Wimbledon '08, as well. Nadal was very tactical in both those matches.

I have never played tennis at the highest level and also have no idea about how a knee injury or abs as well as mono or back ailments could affect a tennis player. Didn’t you see Rafa being so dominant and moving as beautiful as he could prior to all matches on clay until he met Soderling?

I should also agree Roger didn't improve his game or tried any tactics to beat Nadal. But Rafa worked so hard to improve his game and used great tactics to beat Federer in grass and hard-courts. Roger tried only a few different things in Madrid this time and won.

Again, you can say that Nadal was tired because of the semi-final match against Nole and the surface is not really clay and altitude also helps the ball to travel fast. Then I can argue that the same tired Rafa beat Roger on AO (after the semi-final match with Verdosco) and the AO is not the type of hard-court that is being used in the US open.

AO hard-courts are slow and have more or less bounce, which is the characteristic of clay. So is it fair to say that between the two, whoever employs the tactics very well on a given day on any given surface will win (despite the bad matchup in their games)?

Most of us agree that Rafa usually doesn't play well at the end of the season (I also noted that Federer was tired or burnout against Nadal). But is this an excuse? How can a professional and great player be expected to play below his par at the end of season every year?

As a true professional, shouldn't they take care of their health throughout the season? What happens if all the clay tournaments were played at the end of the year, of course indoors in Europe or outdoors in any part of the globe where the weather permits?

Injury or Loss of Form


I have a few questions for fans who say that Rafa is better (overall) than Roger if both stayed healthy.

If you consider that healthy Rafa is still No. 1 in 2009, what do you consider about healthy Roger in 2008? If you say Roger was healthy in 2008, then don't you consider mono and back problems as health problems? If "yes" is your answer, then can you please explain how you consider knee and abdominal problems as health problems? Or do you think that Roger was lying about his injuries and covering up the fact that he lost his form?

Weak Field Discussion

From 2004 to 2007, Roger dominated the tennis world like no other in history and that is not because of weak field, as you always mention. It’s because Roger made the field to look weak with his beautiful game. If Rafa was not there, Roger would’ve got at least three more French Opens. The so-called weak field (by you) would’ve gotten at least eight Grand Slams if Roger wasn’t there.

How many Slams would Roger/Rafa have won playing against a younger and in-prime Agassi, Sampras, Becker, and Guga (not me but Gustavo Kurten) in the span of 12 years that is 48 slams? I would say Roger 10, Sampras nine, Rafa seven, Agassi six and the other great tennis players would've shared the remaining 16 slams. Again, it’s my own opinion, others might have different numbers to say, but for me the above statistics say this:

My Conclusion

I still believe Roger is a slightly better player overall than Rafa and that is truly my opinion. As I mentioned earlier, Rafa is the second best (there is very little between my first and second, like 9.5 for Roger and 9.2 for Rafa out of 10) for me and his head to head advantage over Roger is purely because of bad matchups between their playing style and most of the encounters happened in clay. Again, I want to state that this is only my opinion and anyone can debate over it.

Note 1:  I didn't mention or consider Olympics (only once in four years) and Davis Cup (team game) records because they represent the country and I am very much aware Rafa fared better than Roger in those two categories until now. Olympics depend on which year it comes and if it crosses paths with peak form and Davis Cup depends how other teammates fair in the matches.

If you guys disagree, we can add that to the list, as well. I will be more than happy if anyone wants to add that to the mix. Please let me know or feel free do it yourself. Both ways I am fine.

Note 2:  All these details are not new and it is right there in Wikipedia, I just tried to put them in a way that makes it easier to compare the legends of tennis.

Note 3:  I will be happy to have an honest and respectful debate with anyone in BR.


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