It is an incredibly long-running debate: Is Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer better?
Included are those who wonder whether Federer is the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) and those who believe Nadal's success against Federer diminishes Federer's stature and makes Nadal, now No. 1 again, the better of the two.
In many circles, the debate is necessary, both as a defense of one of the players and for heartfelt reasons about tennis itself. Yet others tell us, with perhaps the best approach in criticism, just to enjoy the rivalry.
We cannot understand why and when such intense rivalry began. Perhaps in initial defense of Federer, after all his accomplishments. Perhaps because Nadal was clearly so good, especially when he won Wimbledon.
Yet it has become one of the most heated debates in all of sports, and of all time in any sport.
Over the past two years the debate has raged. Nadal or Federer? Greatest tennis players in history or just a great rivalry? Will Nadal best Federer's records?
Those who have weighed in include the following tennis greats, who have all favored Federer.
- Rod Laver, who some consider the greatest tennis player ever: "I've always thought that you're the best in your era. That, to me, is a pretty good compliment. It's hard for anyone, I think, to come out and say who's the best ever. It's like boxing. Who's the best ever in boxing?"
- John McEnroe: "He is the greatest player I've ever seen play the game."
- Cliff Drysdale, TV commentator, November 2009: "There’s always a dominant player in tennis, and that’s been Rog for a long time." Many others have weighed in as well.
When examining this issue from the perspectives of the two players, both recognize greatness in the other.
- Federer has said, "Rafa is a fantastic player who will be around longer than me, so I'm happy to win again before he takes them all."
- In 2007, Nadal said, "He has 11 Grand Slams and he is very close to 14 but whether he wins 14, 16, or even 13, his tennis level is the best in history." Nadal also said at that time, "I was playing against one of the best in history."
- In 2010, Nadal said. "Today if somebody says I am better than Roger, I think this person don't know nothing about tennis." In 2009, Nadal also said, "My uncle Toni [his coach] tells me Laver was the greatest of all time, but I never saw him until today. For me Roger is the greatest."
The problem with Nadal is the US Open. Finding ourselves in 2010 with Nadal seeking his first US Open and the career Grand Slam is no surprise. After all, Federer did not win his career Grand Slam until 2009.
Federer detractors claim that his win did not cement his legacy because he did not face Nadal. How a Nadal loss precludes Federer from being greater than Nadal is difficult to imagine, except that this rivalry extends beyond any other in any sport. There is more complexity to the game of tennis than even one clay surface. Some Nadal supporters even claim the clay was made faster last year for players like Federer.
Whatever the reasons, what is completely clear is that Nadal will not have a legacy that compares with Federer's and other tennis greats' legacies without a US Open win. Many question Nadal's ability to win on the fastest surfaces. Mary Carillo, TV commentator and former tennis player, says this of Nadal's play on the fastest surface in tennis: "Rafa's never played his best tennis in New York.... Those courts are too fast for him."
On the other hand, clay diminishes power and makes it easier for players to reach the ball, thereby rewarding greater strength and endurance. And some, like Pat Cash and Conchita Martinez, contend that Nadal is the best ever on clay.
In looking at this 2010 US Open, even New Yorkers are calling for Nadal to win. Thus, an article in The New York Observer includes the following quote:
"Nope, we've got little choice but to start rallying behind the guy who has never won here before: that brooding and brutal 24-year old Spaniard, Rafael Nadal. Rafa is coming in healthy; he's got both the Wimbledon and the French Open in the bag this year—which puts him at eight Grand Slam victories, three more than Federer had at the same point in his career—he has a compelling, counterpunching game; and he's the world's best right now. He seems due."
Sizing up this rivalry remains a hard thing to do, in large part because Nadal has not added the final jewel to his already gaudy crown. We can definitely say one thing: This perhaps greatest rivalry in tennis history has led to perhaps the greatest debate in sports history—namely, who is greater.
Unlike Larry Bird-Magic Johnson and many other rivalries in sport, which required a team effort and leadership under pressure, and boxing rivalries, where the same competitors meet in winner-take-all events, the 2010 US Open is once again between the two greats only if they both reach the finals. Nadal and Federer must go through a very tough field to meet each other in the finals, as they have so often in tournaments through the years. Perhaps the reason they do so so often, and will do so this year is in large part because of the incentive to meet each other once again to determine their fate in yet another Grand Slam.
What we do know is that this rivalry will spark more interest this year because of the questions involved in Federer's age and Nadal's health. What we do know, is that if one of them wins in the finals against any other player, we will all feel cheated.
What is almost certain, whoever wins, is that the 2010 US Open could turn out to the most watched tennis tournament in history because of these two great players.
Perhaps the best of this rivalry is something rarely written about the two. Unlike so many other rivalries, this one is between good friends. As Nadal said:
"There have always been rivalries between players over the years. There was Connors versus Borg, Sampras versus Agassi and now it's between the two of us. But nothing has changed in my life and we are good friends off the court."
And that is The Real Truth.