The Roger vs. Rafa Debate Relooked: Is Nadal More a G.O.A.T. Than Federer?

Marcus ChinCorrespondent ISeptember 23, 2010

NEW YORK - AUGUST 25:  Roger Federe and Rafael Nadal appear at a press conference following The Nike Primetime Knockout Tennis Event at Pier 54 on August 25, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo By Al Bello/Getty Images for Nike)
Al Bello/Getty Images

This is a topical issue. The battle has been arrayed and shots fired by either side – the Federerians trying to stand firm against the onslaught of the Rafaristers, both trying raising arguments hither and thither in the hope of gaining some slight advantage. In the wake of Nadal’s astonishing run at Flushing Meadows, however, it would seem the Vamos Brigade, have, for the moment, the upper hand.

But if there is anything that all tennis fans should keep in mind, they are the hallowed words of Kipling at Wimbledon, that it is best to treat with victory or (and?) defeat as but two sides to the same impostor. Most of all, Nadal knows this - perhaps unassuming as he is in his veneer of principled humility, and yet harbouring historic ambitions, he is right to emphasise his deference to Federer. Naturally the reader may here detect some Federerian consolation in Nadal’s attempt at least to place the so-far widely regarded GOAT before him (soon after having played perhaps one of this most devastating matches ever on hard court), but there are, in fact, I will suggest, valid reasons for doing so, above mere sentiment.

Admittedly, players and fans alike must maintain a stoic composure of the passions and emotions, as it were, and tread a middle way in their dealings with this treacherous sport. But still there is historical trend intertwined in the careers of Federer-Nadal which deserves not to be ignored.

It would probably have been noticed by the astute pundits of this game that the destinies of these two giants in tennis were remarkably alike in the past 24 months. The cosmic cycle had been broken at Wimbledon 2008, and if that heralded anything else massive it was that the three year pattern of Federer-Wimbledon and Nadal-Roland Garros was brought to an end; no longer was anything certain in the world of tennis. Federer the king suffered here the biggest challenge and threat to his dominion.

Soon, of course, Nadal established himself at the pinnacle of tennis and went on to win the Australian in 2009, consolidating his hold over Federer with a win in five sets in that final. The calendar slam seemed in the works, and Federer a broken man.

As we all know, however, 2009 turned out to be the dream season all Federerians had been hoping for, and in another cosmic twist of fate Federer managed to emulate the feat achieved the year before by Nadal, at a point in his career when he seemed all but done for, culminating in a dramatic five set win over Roddick at Wimbledon to engrave his name in history by his slam count to 15. Order was restored, it seemed, almost in a cosmic balancing act in reprieve for the woes of the year before.

A victory in Australia confirmed our suspicions, allaying fears raised in his five-set loss at the Open in 2009. Remarkably, he had managed to almost mirror the grand slam year of Nadal in 2008-9. As we have seen, however, Nadal would go on to win the next three slams of this season - perhaps his best ever. Who could have imagined the difference a Monte Carlo made? Since winning his sixth straight tournament there he has only suffered three losses, and collected, in this incredible run from Roland Garros to the US Open, 6 tournament wins. We had all wondered last year whether Nadal’s 2008 had been too great, that at that point the exertions of his young career had finally gotten the better of him, and Rafaristers all over were worried whether soon his legendary desire too would finally abate. Fears could only have been heightened by miserable losses to Roddick and Ljubicic early this year.

But in retrieving himself from accusations of 'decline', Nadal has manifested that bit of Federer in him. But is it but a part of a whole altogether greater than the Swiss maestro? Is Rafa really better than Roger?, people now ask. Most of all, it is not only the career slam that they look to - the assaults raised against Federer now stand at 1) Nadal’s commanding 14-7 record against Roger, 2) Nadal’s age as compared to Federer’s, upon the completion of the career slam,and naturally 3) whether such a young age (24), as opposed to Federer’s current age (29) would mean that he in fact has five more years than Roger to win grand slams, and finally 4) that he will thus win more grand slams than Federer, and surpass the Swiss' current record of 16. The US Open, of course, is Nadal’s 9th slam title.

To some degree, all four points have considerable merit. There is no doubt that 1) is quite galling, and 2), 3) certainly have the potential to fulfill 4) Federerians, on the other hand, have naturally raised similar points, albeit arguably with some conceit - that Federer owns the semifinals streak record (23), was more dominant than anybody has ever been (from 2004-7), still has been number one for more weeks (2 ); all of which are perhaps unique to Federer, but Nadal likewise may raise statistics and career highlights of his own (his 81 match clay streak, winning the French and the US Open in the same year, etc.). In truth the debate is becoming a shouting match for the glories of both men, without seeking objective postulates in determining the more appropriate candidate for GOAThood.

Importantly, Federer and Nadal have both been winning slams for the last 6 and 8 years respectively. Despite the age difference, they are both arguably at similar stages in their tennis maturity. It took Federer 24 slams, since winning his first at Wimbledon in 2003, and Nadal 23, since his first at the French in 2005, to finally win the career slam. One may point out Federer’s disputably greater trials at the French, losing in three finals, but Nadal’s efforts at the Open, from 2005-9, too, were no less heroic.

Moreover, there is universal consent that Nadal is playing an unworldly brand of tennis - tennis that is comparable to Federer’s in the years of his domination. This not merely an immeasurable intangible; similar observations were made about Federer at the same time in his slam champion career, in the 2006 US Open (interestingly, also his 9th slam win). Casting our minds back, 2006 was to be the last of his truly dominant years; the Australian Open in 2007 being the last great proclamation of his domination of the tennis world, the moment at which something his tennis apotheosis could be entertained. We all know how things have gone since then.

This will have aroused the disturbing question, of whether Nadal will suffer a similar fate. This is only one potential historical parallel, while already there are so many other factors. Can Nadal, for instance really improve that much more? Over the years he has perfected his backhand, intensified his forehand, and made lethal his serve. Moreover, people argue, Nadal has a will like none other, and none before him. Does this really make him potentially greater than Federer? Perhaps this is not dissimilar to asking of Federer in February 2007, were one to know the results of the next three years, how soon he would break Sampras', maybe even Margaret Court's, slam record. It is likely, I would say, that Nadal has a very great chance of doing so - but that would simply be cyclical.

As things are, they are both equally great contenders for GOAT status, although it is their current state of tennis maturity, I would suggest, which should warrant great consideration. At this Olympian altitude tennis is governed not merely by technique, or even ability - much of it is governed by the mind. It is impossible to say if Nadal’s current dominance is greater than Federer’s era of dominance (referring specifically to his 2004-7 years), or his level of play more awe-inspiring or stupendous; that would, again, be a cyclical discussion.

What I venture to suggest, however, is that, considering the similar tennis maturity of both players, and the fact that at this juncture - the Australian Open 2011 will be Federer’s 30th, and Nadal’s 24th, grand slam tournament since their maiden championships - and the fact that Federer is at 16, and Nadal at 9, it would seem unlikely that Nadal should, in the long run, manage to overtake Federer’s slam record. Naturally, this would be to posit the slam record as the objective postulate for determining GOAThood, come the end of their careers. There is difficulty, however, in suggesting that it cannot be GOAThood, if it should ever come to exist in some concrete form (ie.. canonised in the International Tennis Hall of Fame), will always to some extent be governed by the number of slam titles. For that matter, Federer’s years of 2004-7, in winning 3 of the 4 majors for 3 of 4 years (comprising a great part of his legacy), something Nadal has only achieved this year, will perhaps forever be inimitable.

Nadal can and likely will continue to improve his serve, and all parts of his game. At the same time, victory and domination tends to cloud the mind with an illusion of invincibility and a sense of relentless progress. So it was for Federer in 2006-7. These days he may seem these days a spent force, the great exertions of his earlier years finally taking a toll on his tactical choices in tough moments; but we must never rule him out - his serve has meant much gold in the past, and should prove no different in his sharpest state of mind. At this highest level tennis matches are won by the serve, and by the mind - all glory and all loss but a matter of perception.

Surely, grand slam victories will always mean as much to these two titans of tennis, as any other player; but arguably they have attained to a sort of nirvana where victory and defeat are but two sides of the one coin, in an undulating passage towards tennis immortality. Federer saw the two match points he let slip as but part of a situation which 'could have gone either way'. Had he merely been a touch more aggressive on return on one of those points he could have played Nadal in the final - what a match that could have been, and how the scales might have tipped in his favour had he won. Surely, the battle has been lost for Federer, but the wider war is still much at hand; but come what may it will be, for him, and for Nadal, a matter of the mind. Indeed, at the end of the day we must ask ourselves: is GOATness, too, but a matter of the mind?


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