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Pebble in the Shoe 05/04/2009 - 4:37 PM

by Pete Bodo

At some point, the superlatives fail you, and just putting them down on paper makes you feel like a phony because they're not supposed to roll off your tongue (or fingertips) left and right. They're called "superlatives" for a reason - and dispensing them as if they were gummy bears seem, well, contrary to the whole notion of the superlative. So what am I going to say about Rafael Nadal, now that he's won his fourth Italian Open, and pulled ahead of all those other legendary players who once trod the golden clay of the Foro Italico?

Just this: Nadal might make us re-think how we view tennis history, and our collective baseline for greatness. That's what I found myself thinking this morning, trying to digest the full meaning of the news that Rafael Nadal had just won his third clay-court tournament in as many weeks, and bagged his 15th Masters Series title, moving ahead of Roger Federer - and just two titles shy of Andre Agassi's record 17 wins in those blue-chip events. All this, at age 22.

Rafa A few years ago, I wrote a post noting the odd (and counter-intuitive) way tennis in the Open era keeps churning out players who are are instantly hailed as unique talents of unprecedented dimensions, or once-in-a-lifetime grade champions. The claims hold water only if the "lifetime" in question is that of a dachshund. In my own career, I've seen half-a-dozen players singled out as potentially "the greatest," only to have someone come along in their own time to show the boast premature.

As I got my bearings in the game, I came to the realization that everybody can't be the greatest, ever. Some of this talk was just hype, some of it just an outpouring of enthusiasm. But there was also this uncomfortable disconnect at the bottom of it all: how could the game be that much "tougher," the standard so much higher, and the the players so much better when tennis keeps producing players who dominate, and accumulate major titles at a clip that puts many of their talented forebears to shame?

Pondering this, I came to one conclusion: the magic number that separates the top dogs from the not-quite-great is seven. If you've bagged seven or more majors, you're right there in the first rank with the best players ever, and whomever the GOAT is. Check out the theory; I'm pretty confident it's useful.

The other issue I resolved in my mind has to do with players of historic importance who did not get to play in the Open era. Our standard of judgment might be very different if, say, Pancho Gonzales had been able to play all the majors through the best years of his career. By refusing to allow professionals to compete at the Grand Slam (or other ITF sanctioned) events, the tennis establishment ensured that we would never have a truly accurate picture of the game's past, or establish a self-evident baseline for greatness. Hail, Pancho Gonzales, with his great grass-court game, might have won 20 or more majors (remember, he wa a force on the tour into his 40s) in that period with three of the four majors were on grass. How would we feel about Sampras, Laver, or Federer then? And how about Laver, the onlhy player ever to record two Grand Slams, one each in pre-history (the amateur era) and the Open era.

It's just something to think about. Anyway,Bjorn Borg had the entire world spellbound and lying on its back with four paws in the air until John McEnroe suddenly came along. Pete Sampras made us forget McEnroe (as well as McEnroe's own nemesis, Ivan Lendl), but then along came Roger Federer, piling up Grand Slam singles titles so fast that at one time, a fan could predict that Federer would wind up with 20 majors and not get laughed out of the room.

And then came Nadal, to perform one of the most visceral and graphic reputation demolitions we've ever seen. The Nadal vs. Roger Federer rivalry started as a charming pas de deux, danced out on clay (where Nadal led) and grass (where Federer led) with great discretion, politesse, and a ritual formality that did not challenge the status quo - that is, the notion that Federer was safely advancing toward GOAT-hood. Oh, Nadal might be remembered as the "go figure" guy - the exotic dude with the crazy strokes who just happened to present Federer with problems no other player could articulate. Sheesh, Roger lost that semifinal at Roland Garros to that kid Nadal, with the clamdiggers and ugly strokes. . .Go figure.

This theme was simple: Nadal was the pebble in Federer's shoe - more of an irritant than threat. And it was a good thing that Federer had some push-back from him, because you wouldn't want the prospective GOAT's journey to be too easy. So what if Nadal's  prowess on clay, even two, three years ago, made a powerful statement about Federer's mortality? Sampras never won the French either, and many pundits felt that his collection of 14 major singles titles wiped out whatever caveat his failings at Roland Garros suggested. So let's say Roger never wins Roland Garros, but ends up with 16, 18 majors. . . surely he has to be the GOAT, right?

Right. Or is it? Over the past year, the pebble in the shoe has become the boulder on the chest. Maybe it's just me, but everything Nadal has accomplished in the past 12 months has seemed just as relevant to, and a comment on, Federer's quest for Goathood. It all goes back to the perceptive line Mats Wilander dropped at the U.S. Open of 2007: How can a guy be considered the greatest player ever if there's a guy he can't beat in his own era?

Almost everything Nadal has done since I first published that remark (I paraphrased it here, but it's very close to the original) has underscored the oxymoron at the heart of this rivalry. Nadal's success couldn't be more damaging to Federer's case if the express purpose of Nadal's existence were to besmirch Federer. That realization has helped me understand why fans are so polarized when it comes to this rivalry, and it's made me question if this really is a "rivalry" at all. Rivalries usually involve two parties who are more or less equal; this rivalry has never quite conformed to that model, at any number of levels, including the head-to-head (in which Nadal has a disproportionate lead, 13-6).

Up to this point, I haven't thought of Federer vs.Nadal as a rivalry as much as a chase - the saga of the upstart Nadal trying to lift his game sufficiently to catch Federer. It only became a rivalry last summer, when Nadal proved that he could take the measure of Federer on a surface other than clay. Those last two majors in which the men met in the finals represented major no. 14 and 15 for Federer. Is there a more telling fact when it comes to the dynamics of this rivalry? I hope this isn't the case, but this rivalry might be less about two stars on a parallel track than two trajectories - one rising, one falling - that happen to coincide for a few brief and glorious Grand Slam moments.

Sometimes it doesn't seem like either man is eager to engage in a rivalry - for instance, can you imagine Federer and Nadal doing anything like those "guerrilla tennis" television commercials featuring Sampras and Agassi?  Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, they knew how to use their natural rivalry as a way to simultaneously exploit and enhance each other. Their rivalries took on a life of their own, and they added up to something that was far more than a sum of the parts.  I haven't sensed that kind of synergy coming from Roger and Rafa. To me, Roger has basically tried to pretend that Rafa doesn't exist, and Rafa has tried to pretend that he's just a humble, hard-working lad, trying to improve his game.

A few hours ago, I filed a post for ESPN on Federer and how he'd be best served if he looked ahead to the next few weeks as a time of opportunity (and no, I did not write the teaser caption on the tennis home page). I understand that Roger is holed up in Switzerland with the mysterious Monsieur Pierre Paganini, and not because they're collaborating on a violin concerto. Nadal hasn't officially dropped out of the Madrid Masters yet, and I'm very curious to see exactly what he's going to do. When you analyze how playing - or skipping - Madrid might affect Nadal, or Federer, you begin to see how shoehorning an event of Madrid's status into the ATP tournament schedule has far-reaching implications.

Because Madrid is a Master Series event, Nadal is automatically entered. Will he withdraw? It's like a game of chess, sometimes, and some guys take more time than others, and not just because they need to adjust an undergarment.

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Posted by Rosangel 05/05/2009 at 01:57 PM

After stepping away for a while, I started thinking about the nature of rivalries, and how prolific some of the early great rivalries were compared to what we see today, even in a series as we have with Federer and Nadal - not too many pairs of players on tour have quite such substantial rivalries in terms of numbers of matches played, because we don't have the same phenomenon that occurred them, when a promoter would book a group or pair of players for a tour when they would continually play each other.

I came up with the snippets that I'm linking below, on Rod Laver's rivalries with Ken Rosewall and others.

Suggested numbers here are 99-83 for Laver over Rosewall, and 35-19 over Pancho Gonzales - though I know the estimates always vary according to the source, as they do here:

Posted by CL 05/05/2009 at 01:57 PM

Oh Andrew - MUST you take the words right out of my brain!?! And heart.

"Federer is the player who has given me most pleasure, in terms of watching tennis, of any player I've ever seen. Federer is one of the best players to play the game of tennis. Whether he wins no more majors, two more majors, or eight more majors, there will be no answer to the GOAT question because it's unanswerable. I've thought that since the question was first posed, and I think that today."

The only thing I can add, is that whatever the future DOES bring, nothing and no one can ever diminish the pleasure that watching Roger Federer play tennis has already given me.

Posted by Sher 05/05/2009 at 02:13 PM

Andrew 1:47 great comment overall, and I particularly agree with the final paragraph.

Posted by suresh 05/05/2009 at 02:14 PM

NP, thanks for your 1:15. The following are my observations on that and the whole GOAT discussion:

1. To the extent these discussions remain fun and educational,they are wonderful. However, unfortunately, more often than not, they tend to become partisan, emotional, and argumentative because of the subjectivity as well as individual tastes on styles and personalities.

2. In my case, rather than discussing or arguing with you the superiority of Bach over Beethoven (or Federer over Sampras), I can learn much more, have a lot more fun, and would find it intellectually a lot more stimulating and enjoyable to discuss with you why I like Bach (Mozart, Federer, Nadal) and you like Beethoven (Laver, Borg, Vivaldi).

3. Just as we do not try to have a discussion of who is the GOAT among Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Vivaldi etc. but enjoy them according to our tastes, in my case, I am equally in awe of the achievements, skills, artistry, hard work and dedication of Laver, Borg, McEnroe, Edberg, Orantes, Samprass, Federer, Nadal and many more. I feel they all have achieved greatness in some way and i feel truly thankful for their artistry and achievements and the opportunities they have provided me to be able to watch them.

4. To me,to dis cuss how Rocket's BH topspin differs from Roger's or how artistic were Orantes's topspin lobs and drop shots or how Pete developed such an effective serve or Rafa his mental toughness and one-pointedness or the wonders of Mcenroe's and edberg's Volleys are a lot more interesting things to talk about rather than a GOAT discussion.

All this is, of course, very subjective.

Posted by 1963USCTennis 05/05/2009 at 02:15 PM

Dunlop Maxply

"However, that is only half the story. Starting, to me, in the 2008, Federer's serve has gone absolutely south. His serve was always a weapon, and like his other shots, he seemed to be able to come up with big or well placed serves when he needed them.
He did the same thing against Nadal in several big matches, some on clay, and Wimbledon 2008. "

This is just not true. During wimby 08 Federer had statistically his best ever "serving" wimbledon... until he met Rafa.

That just speaks as to how well Rafael Nadal plays (specifically his awesome return of serve) than poor ol roger having a bad serving day.... just wasn't so.

Roger is one of the most awesome grass players ever and for Nadal to "de-crown" him at his best torurnament/surface only speaks volumes of the very high stratosphere that R N has reached (paraphrasing a guy who played with the maxply in describing Nadal's recent play)

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 05/05/2009 at 02:38 PM

Its certainly possible that Federer is only serving badly in the matches I am randomly seeing, but I don't think he served badly in big games at one point.

Praise for Nadal's return of serve, of all things, seems an unlikely explaination to me. Nadal is certainly one who is hard to ace, and gets alot of balls back in play. But having watched Agassi return serve in his prime, I think Nadal's return is hardly impressive.

If I had a dollar for every big receiving point where Nadal hits a routine high topspin forehand exactly in the middle of the court on the return, I'd be at least a thousand-aire. He does it every single time.

I have never seen Nadal hit a forceful service return on a big point.

My point on Federer's serving vs. Nadal should be compared to other players with good serves vs. Nadal. Like, say Blake, or perhaps Roddick, or certainly Djokovic. They may well lose to Nadal, but their serves don't seem to completely desert them.

I think there may be something to the back injury problem.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 02:48 PM

No problem, suresh. I’ll address your first point and then the rest altogether.

1. The tendency of these discussions to turn ugly is, I’m afraid, unavoidable due to human nature. Reasonable Fed fans agree that Sampras’ competition, at least in the early years, was tougher, but if the not-so-reasonable fans can’t help blowing a gasket when someone brings up this debatable but valid point, there’s just little one can do about it.

2, 3 & 4. First of all, I’m not sure whether we really try not to debate who is the GOAT among Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. :) But seriously, I’d also attribute our tendency to rank GOATs to human nature, and like I said it is generally thru these debates that we discuss why Rocket’s BH topspin was so effective or how Pete was able to develop such a great serve. I don’t think there needs to be a distinction between the two.

Also the rankings serve a practical purpose. No one has enough time to watch, read, listen to, or basically consume everything out there, so when people whose judgment we respect say Bach is better than Vivaldi or Fed is better than Orantes we generally will try to find out more about Bach and Fed rather than the other two. And when they say that Beethoven’s symphonies are better than his piano trios or that Fed’s ’06 Rome final was the best match on clay he’s played, we know where to start our musical and tennis voyage. In this sense one could say our nature to rank everything actually serves us pretty well.

As always, you’re free to disagree.

Posted by Sam 05/05/2009 at 02:50 PM

suresh: Well said in your 2:14 post.

Regarding earlier comments about trends in the Federer-Nadal rivalry, I break it down into 3 main parts:

1) 2004 - RG 2006 Nadal leads 6-1 (2 matches went the distance)
2) Wimb 2006 - TMC 2007 Federer leads 5-2 (1 match went the distance)
3) 2008- Present Nadal leads 5-0 (3 matches went the distance)

(going the distance = 3 sets in a best of 3 match, 5 sets in a best of 5 match)

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 03:00 PM

Dunlop, you just articulated almost to the letter what I think about Nadal's return of serve: He certainly gets many balls back in play, but does little more than that. Now consider Murray's or even Fed's return of serve at its best, and the comparison isn't very flattering.

Posted by deeps 05/05/2009 at 03:01 PM

Dunlop Maxply,

But the back injury started only after the USO. Wimbledon 2008 was Fed's best serving in Wimbledon at least till he met Nadal.

These are Fed's serve stats for Wimby '08 final:
1st serve % = 66%
1st serve winning % = 73%

Sounds like pretty good stats to me.

About the return game, read Steve's post below. Agassi was the best returner in the game I have seen. Nadal uses his return like he uses his serve - its less about getting the first strike in and more about neutralising the opponent's shot/response and getting the rally to equal terms. The serve and return are the weakest shots in his game in terms of winning the point outright but its effective in giving the rest of his game a chance. And that is why he has one of the best overall return games today.

Posted by Tfactor 05/05/2009 at 03:06 PM

Deeps, I see we had the same thing in mind.
Since I am not as articulate and English is not my first language I am also taking the liberty of quoting Steve about Rafa's return of serve:

"And unlike, say, James Blake, you’ll almost never see Nadal go for an outright winner on his return. He knows that, with few players following their serves to the net, he can be just as offensive, and much safer, hitting a high topspin forehand into his opponent’s backhand side and working his way into the point from there"

Posted by suresh 05/05/2009 at 03:13 PM

Thanks, NP, for your 2:48. I agree with you that one can learn something from these discussions. I also agree that it is human nature to try to rank.

My only point is that, without some strict objective measures, the ranking discussions have a tendency to become rancorous rather than illuminating. Hence, imho, we may benefit more from focusing on discussing the variety of styles and creative geniuses of these artists or why we prefer a particular style over the other, or even how we can use some of these traits in our own games, rather than in trying to rank them without having an appropriate measure.

Posted by CL 05/05/2009 at 03:21 PM

Fed's problem's at Wimby 08 had less to do with HIS serve, (though I would be curious to see how that serve % was set by set), than with his inability to return Rafa's serve effectively. This is partly because Rafa has improved his serve overall, eps. placement, partly because Rafa's serve just matches up worse for Fed than vice versa, and partly because Fed is inexplicably dense about attacking Rafa's second serve. One of the things that seems MOST obvious about the inner workings of Rafa/Fed matches is that Fed has allowed himself to be trapped in the mindset that if he just gets Rafa's second serve back in play, he is starting the point at neutral or better. When he is playing well this is true against virtually everyone he plays EXCEPT Rafa and especially on clay. Believe me, I know I am not the first to make this point...more like the 1000th...but it does not seem to have fully penetrated a certain Swiss noggin. I remember at the AO there was a point fairly early on where Fed stepped around his BH and just drilled a FH return winner and I thought, "Finally! The penny dropped." Alas it was just an aberration and he went right back to just rolling his returns in perfectly placed to let Rafa take over the point. He'll never hit clean return winners every time he tries to be aggressive...not by a long shot, but he WILL cast SOME doubt in Rafa's mind. At the moment when Rafa serves to Fed, he can be on near auto pilot because Fed is si predictable in his returns.

Posted by Pspace 05/05/2009 at 03:22 PM

Regarding the Federer serve, I don't think it's a Nadal specific problem, but rather that he's gotten into some bad habits in the early rounds. If Fed can handle a player from the baseline, he just tries to place his first serve, get good position on the second shot, and take it from there. Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray have good enough defensive skills to make him work harder for points where he has a small positional advantage. So, Fed tries to add heat to his serve, and these days he's not able to those kinds of first serves anywhere near the box. Then the whole thing just cascades.

As an example, if we look at the match against Djokovic this past weekend. The first set and a half involved aggressive tennis from both guys, and suited Federer just fine. Then, Djokovic started making him play four or five shots for every service point, and Federer then starts to go for broke on his first serve. It's quite bizarre to see a great player repeatedly implode in this fashion. I mean, what's the point in going for broke if your percentages are so low? I repeat, it just doesn't make the slightest bit of sense.

Posted by Tfactor 05/05/2009 at 03:29 PM

And to complement what Steve said, here is a portion from the ATP site regarding Rafa’s return of serve in 2008:


World No. 1 Rafael Nadal proved to be the most dangerous player to serve against in 2008, topping three of the four returning categories in the year-end Ricoh ATP MatchFacts.
The 22-year-old Spaniard, who compiled a circuit-best 82-11 record and eight titles, led the circuit in points won returning first serve, points won returning second serve and return games won "

Posted by j6_strings 05/05/2009 at 03:30 PM

With all the talk of eras and h2h, and what not, I would draw one comparison if you will allow me, it's one that I have made before, but I think it bears repeating.

If we think about a player dominating a game, we can look at his/her overall win-loss record for a period of time. In what many consider to be one of the greatest years anyone has ever had in the history of tennis (forgive the hyperbole, but it seems that some do view it this way), but here are some numbers:

Nadal '08: 82-11, 3 GS, 1 Olympic Gold (his best year)

Federer '04: 70-5, 3 GS
Federer '05: 80-4, 2 GS
Federer '06: 90-5, 3 GS
Federer '07: 67-9, 3 GS

Even Fed's '08 wasn't that incredibly far off from Nadal (63-14, 1 GS, 1 Olympic Doubles Gold) - only three more losses than Nadal, and I am not overlooking the 19 fewer wins.

Four straight years with single-digit losses, and 3 GS titles, except for the 2 in '05.

It is worth mentioning that Nadal does have a slightly higher overall winning percentage than does Roger, but considering Nadal's dominance over all challengers on clay, that number is slightly skewed. I don't say this to diminish Rafa, but to point out that he has some work to do to become as dominant as Roger was for four that four year perion from '04-'07.

Who is the GOAT? Who knows?

Posted by Tfactor 05/05/2009 at 03:31 PM

Meant to include the source of that last quote.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 03:32 PM

NP again, suresh. As to your last point, I still must say it's all but impossible to talk about the particular styles without ranking them in a way. Just look at Dunlop Maxply's latest post. He just said that Rafa's ability to return serve seems an unlikely explanation for Fed's subpar serving, basically that Rafa's return of serve is not so good. So how did he argue his point? By comparing Rafa's return to Agassi's--IOW, ranking both. And I simply said the Fed-Rafa H2H is misleading 'cause there are no MS events held on grass, where many people agreed with me that Fed would've had the advantage over Rafa, at least in their early years. And what happened? Some geniuses attack me as if I were downgrading Rafa's achievements on clay! And note that I wasn't necessarily ranking Fed over Rafa.

I just don't see how we can avoid such rancor in any kind of debate, or how ranking can be totally absent from it. Maybe you can convince me otherwise.

Posted by Sam 05/05/2009 at 03:34 PM

j6_strings: Nadal had 2GS titles in 2008 (FO, W).

Posted by CL 05/05/2009 at 03:38 PM

Pspace - that's a fair analysis, but, up until quite recently, OTH, Fed always HAS been able to rely on his serve - both placement AND pop to get him several free points in a set and/or get him out of trouble. In the past, how many times have we seen that serve come to the rescue when he was at deuce or down BP. It wasn't ever as stupendously reliable as Sampras' - who you could really put money on to come up with huge and accurate 1st and second serves, but still all through, say 2006 - to the end of 2008, that ability - to save big points at big moments with his serve - was pretty amazing. In fact in 2008, often it was the only thing keep him in some matches...think Tipsy at the 08 AO. So after the back injury he had to rethink his serve and clearly it wasn't 'serving' him nearly as well. Now, IF his back is truly better, then he has to unthink the re-think and try and go back to his earlier serving success. Tricky, no?

But yes, in the meantime it would be helpful if he could become more patient over all.

Posted by imjimmy 05/05/2009 at 03:39 PM

Frances: Thanks for your post@ 11:01 AM. Good morning (or afternoon now) to you too! Hope you're doing well. I basically agree with almost everything you said in your post. The H2h is definitely indicative. And the very fact that the hc h2h is neutral just goes to show what a bad matchup Nadal is for Federer. He managed to beat Fed on hcs, even when he clearly wasn't among the top players on that surface( pre-2008).

""does that imply that he reached his peak too late in his career? ""

I usually don't get into discussions of the possibility of Rafa achieving double digit slams or being a potential GOAT candidate in the future. I think Nadal's career trajectory and his physical style is very unusual. (I hope to be wrong, but I can't imagine him being on the top after say a couple of years.) Loosely put: It could be the case of finally getting rich, but being too old to enjoy it as much. So your comment does make sense (to me at least).

That said, he's surprised us all before, so...

Posted by Rosangel 05/05/2009 at 03:40 PM

Dunlop/Hank: On "I have never seen Nadal hit a forceful service return on a big point" - by complete coincidence (I'm working through watching back those matches that I photographed in person last year, and video-ed but didn't have time to watch at the time), I've just been watching back the Nadal-Karlovic encounter from Queen's Club last year, on fast-ish grass that Nadal eventually won 6-7, 7-6, 7-6. The tiny margin of difference between the two players in the end appeared to be that in the crucial second and third-set tiebreaks, Nadal (after doing the same thing at earlier stages in the match and winning points, but not games that way) guessed correctly where Karlovic would serve and drilled back a big forehand that Karlovic couldn't deal with, close to the lines. Karlovic served something like 35 aces in the match, with a very high first-serve percentage, and Nadal only got two break points throughout, so Nadal's chances basically came down to his making a good return or two in those tiebreaks. He lost the first-set tiebreak after losing one mini-break because he served a double fault.

Posted by j6_strings 05/05/2009 at 03:42 PM

Sam, thanks for the correction, I was making the mistake of lumping the '09 AO in with '08. And you help me make my point even more strongly.

Posted by CherryNYC 05/05/2009 at 03:44 PM

Just saying hi -- busy day of actually working. I like these GOAT conversations, because one thing everybody agrees on is that it's pretty much impossible, but still people get offended. Just enjoy these guys for as long as we can.

I'm pretty good with fed's entourage, but is this Paganini guy the same trainer he's always had? what the hail could he possibly be doing any differently with Fed? Perhaps his next trainer should be named Toscanini....

I'm intrigued by Madrid -- isn't Basel well above sea level, too? I should go look that up....

Posted by CherryNYC 05/05/2009 at 03:49 PM

Basel altitude -- 833 feet, 253 meters
Madrid altitude -- 2,188 feet, 667 meters.

Well, total cluelessness on my part.

Posted by Rosangel 05/05/2009 at 03:51 PM

j6_strings: with respect, you can't seriously include Federer's Olypmpic doubles gold in his 2008 performance vs. Rafa or anybody else. Even if we weren't talking about singles, the Olympic singles gold was a far more notable achievement.

Also, when you say "considering Nadal's dominance over all challengers on clay, that number is slightly skewed".

Well guess what - 60% of the available points come on hardcourts, so a) it's not all that skewed and b) Federer has been pretty damned successful on hardcourts in his dominant years - you could just as well say that his career winning percentage is skewed for that reason.

Posted by suresh 05/05/2009 at 03:55 PM

NP, I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions by all concerned on Fed's and Rafa's respective serves and returns. That is precisely the type of discussions I feel we should have more of. It does not have anything to do with their rankings or GOAT discussion.

In this connection, it would also be nice to discuss how and why Rafa manages to win or dominate so often without a spectacular serve like Fed's or Pete's or a great return like Andre's or Hewitt's. Another discussion could be on trying to compare and contrast two of the most beautiful and effective serves of all time: Pete's and Fed's when they were at their best. I am sure many people can come up with a variety of such topics which could be so much fun, educational, and enjoyable.

Posted by Rosangel 05/05/2009 at 03:55 PM

And BTW, if we were having a discussion of GOATs based on their combined singles and doubles records, quite obviously John McEnroe would be very high in that particular pantheon, having been ranked number one for 257 weeks, with five Wimbledon titles and four US Open titles in men's doubles, plus a mixed doubles title at Roland Garros.

Posted by CL 05/05/2009 at 03:55 PM

CherryNYC - lol... well there are a lot of ups AND downs in Switzerland. Sort of like a certain tennis player form there.

Posted by Sher 05/05/2009 at 03:57 PM

Sam, well said @ 2:50 PM

Posted by 1963USCTennis 05/05/2009 at 03:59 PM

If the standard is to compare a player's return of serve with that of Andre Agassi then I suppose even Borg and Mcenroe had sub par service returns...

I suggest to those who do not think so to re-watch the 08 Wimbledon final and realize the average depth of the Nadal's returns and also couple that with the amount of spin AND the baseline-to-baseline velocity of the ball.

If that is not an awesome return of serve, then I do not know what is....

(ps ask Mr Agassi how easy it was to deal with that return of serve, he could not handle it either time, Montreal and Wimby exit)

Posted by CL 05/05/2009 at 04:00 PM

Rosangel- quite true about JMac. And it is strange how we don't 'count' doubles toward goathood. I guess the 'partnering' aspect diminishes it in someway when we think about goats and boats. Also, I think the fact that doubles has recently suffered a real dip in popularity compared to singles means that, at the moment at least, it is given less - if any- weight.

Posted by j6_strings 05/05/2009 at 04:02 PM

Rosangel, with respect to Federer's '08 season, I was merely making mention of it as not having been the disasterous failure it was made out to be. Obviously there are unreasonable standards that Fed set for himself with his previous results, but nonetheless, we can at least pretend to put things into some perspective.

As to the idea of records being skewed or not, I maintain that if a player basically never loses on one surface, and does not enjoy at least a similar degree of success on other surfaces, that player can pad the numbers. Obviously, Nadal has proven adept on surfaces other than clay, but earlier on in his career he was not as regular a semifinalist and finalist on other surfaces even while he was winning just about every tournament on clay.

Roger was pretty much in the semis of most every tournament he entered, regardless of the surface. That's the only way you get to a record of 90-5, or 80-4.

Though it may seem so on the surface, I am not really bashing anyone, I am just trying to add some perspective to this unresolvable debate. I have no issue with Nadal. I repeat, I have no issue with Nadal. However, when people try to put a season in which a person goes 82-11, with 2 GS titles and an Olympic Gold in the same category of a stretch of 4 years with single-digit losses and 11 GS titles, the argument loses that very perspective.

Posted by CL 05/05/2009 at 04:08 PM

1963USCTennis- good points, but to be fair, Andre did break Rafa in the second set in Montreal...went on to win the set. But in the end, he got broken more than he broke so Rafa prevailed.

Posted by Sam 05/05/2009 at 04:08 PM

j6_strings: No problem - at first glance, I also lumped in the 2009 AO with 2008. ;-)

Ros: Agree about Mac. On 4 occasions, he won the singles and doubles titles at a Slam (Wimbledon 1981 and 1983, US Open 1979 and 1981)

Thanks Sher.

Posted by Pspace 05/05/2009 at 04:10 PM

CL, in my limited ability to play tennis, the serve is the most random shot in terms of day to day variance. So, yeah, I'd agree that it might be tricky to recover. OTOH, this is Federer we're talking of the greatest shotmaking geniuses of all time. He might see things a little differently, i.e., what is art for Joe Schmo, might be a pretty exact science for him.

Posted by CL 05/05/2009 at 04:10 PM

j6_strings... well put.

Posted by Rosangel 05/05/2009 at 04:11 PM

Suresh: for what it's worth, Andy Murray has had a few things to say about receiving that Nadal serve, one of which is that because of the spins involved it often behaves unpredictably on the bounce, even (or perhaps especially) on the second serve, which means that timing and minute adjustments are crucial in getting a clean hit on it. Given Murray's reputation as a great returner, I thought his observations were interesting. Obviously Nadal has had to compensate for lack of absolute power to some extent with his placement, which he varies well in terms of angle and length within the service box, including some unpleasant body serves. He also has a nasty habit of suddenly varying his serve placement on big points - seemed to catch out Djokovic at least once on Sunday. In the end, often the Nadal serve appears to be about gaining the initiative in the rally rather than scoring with the serve alone on the first ball. He most certainly isn't the game's best server as far as power is concerned, but he uses it intelligently - perhaps he's currently the best at backing up his serve when he gets an unspectacular return?

Posted by Sher 05/05/2009 at 04:11 PM

Personally I think Mac's achievements don't get enough credit: the singles/doubles titles and the winning percentage thing.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 04:13 PM

suresh, of course all those examples have no explicit connection with any rankings. My point was that the ranking is IMPLICIT in any of these discussions. Here's what I mean. When we discuss how Rafa can manage to win without a great return like Agassi's we've already compared both players' respective returns and decided that one is greater than the other--that is, we've ranked them without explicitly saying one is better than the other. And when we say Sampras' and Fed's serves are two of the most beautiful and effective of all time, how do we know this? That's right: We've already compared their serves to those of other less impressive servers of the past and the present. Again we've done the ranking without realizing it.

If you're saying we should avoid making such implicit rankings explicit lest our discussion turn rancorous I can actually support that. But eventually these rankings become topics of the discussions themselves, and I don't see why these discussions should be any less enjoyable than the kind you just mentioned. Like you said this is a subjective matter, or a matter of taste.

Posted by CL 05/05/2009 at 04:14 PM

Pspace - I don't know if art or science is the scarier tack for Fed to try and regain his serve. I really hope he can. I was thinking about the last match with Djoker and trying to figure what just 3 more aces or unreturnables per set would have brought him. Just 3. A not out of the question number back before the back...

Posted by Sam 05/05/2009 at 04:15 PM

I agree, Sher. I was looking at his losses in Slams singles finals - 3 out of the 4 were 5-setters, and all of the losses came to players that won 8 or more Slams (Borg, Lendl, Connors).

Posted by Rosangel 05/05/2009 at 04:16 PM

j6_strings: well of course Federer's 2008 season wasn't a disaster - with or without an Olympic doubles gold. Most of the ATP would have loved to have a season as "poor" as Federer's 2008.

I don't have an issue with comparing the year-by-year win-loss records of any players either, and I'm not one of those who claimed that Nadal's 2008 surpassed Federer's best year, Laver's Grand Slam or anything else. In the end all the stats can mean something, but not tell the full story.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 04:19 PM

Nadal's serve kinda remind me of Rafter's. Both aren't the fastest, but troubling and beguiling in placement and angles. Sampras says in his book that the serve to the body is the most underrated shot in tennis and that Rafter was a master of it. I wouldn't be surprised to see Pete say the same about Nadal. Plus both Pat and Rafa can run like rabbits.

Posted by calbearo 05/05/2009 at 04:20 PM

At this point in his career, Roger Federer had 3 GS titles and 19 titles overall (4 of the Masters Series variety and one Masters Cup). At this same point in time, Rafa of course has 6 GS titles in 8 Finals appearances. Rafa has 36 titles overall (15 of the Masters variety) and has by this point in his career, dominated clay court tennis moreso than anybody since Bjorn Borg, and in some respects with his record consecutive titles at MC,Barcelona, RG and overall at Rome as well as his clay winning streak, you could argue that he has dominated moreso than the imperious Swede.

Some here have tried to tease apart the H2H between these two players and suggest that somehow it doesn’t tell the true story. At this point in Roger’s career, the ATP top 10 was populated with the likes of an aging Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, JC Fererro, Carlos Moya, Guillermo Coria, Rainer Schleutter, David Nalbandian, Jiri Novak, Mark Philipousis, Sebastian Grosjean, Tim Henman and Gaston Gaudio. There were some good players in that group, but it was not in my opinion the pinnacle of talent in the men’s game. Roddick was his best counterpart in that group, but none had played close to the level that Rafa has in his career save Agassi, who by the 2004 USO had one GS final left in the tank and was a decade older than Roger. I believe the top 10 right now is much more competitive with Roger and a group of younger players that will likely present as capable GS challengers, most notably Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray who look to be players who will have multiple GS Finals in their futures.

The argument has been made that Roger didn’t have as many opportunities off clay to level the record because Rafa wasn’t good enough. That is in part true, if Rafa was as good off clay as he is on clay then we would have seen many more finals between them, but then we also would have seen even greater winnings by Rafa and we would probably not even be having a debate about the two at this point in their careers. Roger has had other opportunities to meet Rafa on hard courts, but he has not been able to make every final for every event that he entered. They did play a final in 2005 in Miami, which if it had been played as a best of 3 as it is today would have been a title for Rafa, but as it stands, Roger won. Since then, Rafa played in non-clay finals in Toronto x 2, IW x 2, Madrid, Miami and Paris. Roger has had opportunities, but they never met in those events. That is not entirely Rafa’s fault for not being good enough on hard courts.

To look closer at where they are at respectively in their present games, the age of 22 was really the coming out year for both players. Roger during that year, won the Masters Cup, AO, IW, Hamburg, Wimbledon and Canada. Rafa in that time period, has won RG, Wimbledon, Olympics, Canada, AO, IW, Monte Carlo, Rome and we still have Madrid upcoming.

At this age, Federer had his greatest tennis ahead of himself. I think the same is likely true for Rafa. In the following 3+ yrs, Federer had an epic run that included not failing to make a GS semis and winning 9 GS titles. I think it is hard to imagine anybody doing better than Federer did during that run, but at the same time, I think it is hard to imagine Rafa not winning probably 5 more GS titles in the next 3+ years from RG ’09 through RG ’12. One could conceivably see him winning 3-4 RG titles and over the next three years, he would most likely be able to win 2 more non-RG GS titles.

Posted by CL 05/05/2009 at 04:21 PM

Pspace -one last thought re Fed and serve. I think when his serve is on, he IS more patient...feels less pressured.. to go for outright winners sooner rather than letter. Obviously the exception is when he plays Rafa, but than Rafa is always the exception when it comes to Fed.

Posted by Rosangel 05/05/2009 at 04:22 PM

BTW, I've also seen stats somewhere - I think during the BBC coverage - that suggested that Nadal did gain some speed on his serve - maybe an average of about 5 mph - between 2007 and 2008 Wimbledons.

Posted by sally 05/05/2009 at 04:28 PM

roger's serve deserts him when he plays nadal because his brains desert him everytime he plays nadal.

Posted by Sam 05/05/2009 at 04:29 PM

LOL sally

Posted by j6_strings 05/05/2009 at 04:29 PM

calbearo - history just may show that today's top 10 will prove little more accomplished than the cast of characters you say Fed had to deal with. If they prove more accomplished, then Rafa might win fewer GS titles. It's not easy to compare players from one time to another in terms of the conmpetition they provide the top player. I think I would take many of those guys in their primes against the current crop of challengers.

Posted by suresh 05/05/2009 at 04:31 PM

Rosangel, thanks for providing Murray's comments and your observations on Nadal's serve. I fully agree with them based on my own watching also.

NP, we seem to imply different things when we say 'ranking'. I personally do not like a discussion on ranking in the GOAT sense. I see no problem in any one of us holding in high esteem different players' particular strokes (serves, volleys, returns, groundies etc.) and even comparing or implicitly or explicitly saying which ones we like and using them in discussions like this.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 04:34 PM

suresh, but the shots are what make the players, no? Then what's so wrong with ranking the players, too? BTW let me assure you that the mere shot comparisons also have a tendency to turn ugly. :)

Posted by Arun 05/05/2009 at 04:35 PM

Thnx for that masterful analysis, calbearo. It helped me understand a lot of things.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 04:36 PM

Hey Sam, 1st no long no talk. So who are you picking for this year's NBA championship? IC your Sixers are already out.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 04:37 PM

Just realized that this is a red-meat post. Sam, why don't we move over to today's YC, if you're inclined, I mean.

Posted by Pierre 05/05/2009 at 04:39 PM

Instead of "pebble in the shoe" I would think it is more of a case of "elephant in the room."

Posted by calbearo 05/05/2009 at 04:40 PM

j6, undoubtedly you are correct that we can't predict how those players in the top 10 will fair relative to those in '03-'04 when Roger made his ascendence. What is clear is that Roger did not have another player of his or Rafa's caliber to compete with at that time with the exception of Agassi who was as I mentioned about 10 yrs older than Roger. Rafa has to compete with Roger during this time period. We will see if Murray and Djokovic and any of these younger players live up to their potential. At this point in their respective careers though, Rafa is without a doubt head and shoulders above Fed.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 04:40 PM

Arun, so you agree that Fed already "had his greatest tennis ahead of himself"? Oh, no! Poor Feddy!

Posted by Arun 05/05/2009 at 04:45 PM

what if I say 'yes' (or 'no')?? haa - you will step up to settle the argument once for all!! No Thanks.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 04:46 PM

Is that a challenge?

Posted by Quadruple Bagel 05/05/2009 at 04:49 PM

Time to swing this the other way ...

Maybe Federer's not all that great!!?!?!?

Perhaps that's what the H2H is telling us.

The Fed side of the argument has often struck me as fundamentally contradictory: On the one hand, Federer is the GOAT, on the other, when it comes to his greatest rival, he's a victim of circumstance, namely that Nadal's H2H edge is the product of clay.

If you believe, as Bodo suggests, that Federer is seen as possessing the greater ability of the two (plus 1), then the clay (minus-1), at best, evens the playing field. The surface is merely one factor. A large factor, but just one nonetheless. Thus Nadal shouldn't have that much of an advantage.

Conversely, Federer, on surfaces outside of clay, should be at a significantly greater advantage than Nadal on clay because he's more talented (plus-1) and the conditions (hard/grass) favor him and his game (plus-2).

Despite this, Nadal is 9-1 on clay and Federer is 5-4 on all other surfaces. Given our perceptions of them, I'd expect Federer to be not much worse than .500 on clay and to possess somewhere near Nadal's clay record on hard/grass with a loss or two. But a pair of simple conclusions can be drawn to explain this "quirk" ...

Conclusion 1: It ain't the clay.

Conclusion 2: Nadal's better than Federer.

Yeah, fine, Fed's got more slams. Sure. I'll say right here that Federer will end up with more slams.

But it appears to be a hollow distinction.

All many of us have been waiting for is to see how Federer would perform when he had to face another all-time great player in his prime as all the other great champions did in the past, because frankly, Fed didn't face that during his 2004-2007 run.

Now that he's here, in concert with Djokovic and Murray, we're starting to see that Federer's "dominance" might (might!) have been the product of catching the tour at the right time. But if he starts beating Nadal (which I don't see happening) perhaps this perception will change, if not, his standing will surely drop. I'm with Wilander, you can't be the best and have such a poor record against your main rival(s) and chalk it up to circumstance. That's just cowardly.

To me, Nadal's wins at Wimbledon and at the Aussie over Federer soundly ended the clay argument which I didn't believe beforehand (Matt Z can back me up on that), but many still persist. I just think there's just so much love and support for Federer that few people are just going to call it for what it is and continue to rationalize away what is so plainly clear.

After Nadal's two major wins outside of Paris, it's clear what Federer must do: Beat Nadal in Paris ... in the final. Nothing less will change their "rivalry".

Posted by Ross 05/05/2009 at 04:50 PM

Rosangel's link to the Laver/Rosewall and Laver/Gonzales rivalries ties in nicely with the earlier comments about the Roger/Rafa age differential. The narrow career differential between Ken and Rod is impressive considering that their age differential (4 years) is close to Roger and Rafa's. And then there was Pancho--6 years older than Ken and 10 years older than Rod!

Posted by sally 05/05/2009 at 04:56 PM

if federer ain't that great, then how great is nadal?

Posted by Sher 05/05/2009 at 05:09 PM

lol @ 4:28, sally
as for 4:56, especially in light of the facts over in Ed's statistical article that Federer has had the most success against Nadal on all surfaces, he's essentially keeping the 'weak era' argument at bay the other way around. lol

Posted by imjimmy 05/05/2009 at 05:10 PM

Quadruple Bagel: Assuming( as you say) Nadal is better than Federer, then by the time Rafa's 27, he should have close to 13 (or more) slams. Since that is unlikely to happen, does that mean that Federer got lucky and Murray, Nole (or any other players who prevent Rafa from getting many slams) are much better than the pros that Fed had to contend with in his peak? There would never be a clear answer to that question. So the simple method, just see the slams at the end your career and the no of yrs you were #1 for GOAT status. Those are hard-facts and never lie. On that count Sampras and Federer(already) are in the GOAT discussion.

The truth of the matter is that Rafa's a very bad match up for Fed. Rafa's game hurts Federer more, than it does to any other player. It's like having a kryptonite when you're a Superman. But you're still Superman..right? If Rafa is better than Fed, he should have had a record against other players, similar to what he has against Federer. So just because Fed looses to Rafa does not mean that he cannot be considered the GOAT.

Posted by tennisforthebest 05/05/2009 at 05:14 PM

"Worship the rising sun" is the mantra of all journalists. Two years back they were running out of adjectives for Fed now they can't find enough superlatives for Nadal.
Extremely athletic games like tennis and sqaush (if some of the readers aware of) are really tough on the bodies of athletes, even a 3 year age difference means a lot. Now Rog and Rafa are easily 6 years apart, this difference was not obvious when Roger was 24 and Rafa was 18 but it will become more and more obvious when Rafa gets to 25 and Roger 31.
Their rivalry is very similar to two great squash players Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan (I don't know how many of the readers here have any interest in squash) both from Pakistan. Jahangir was Federer of his time and Jansher more like Nadal. Jahangir was unbeatable for 5 years or more, he didn't even loose an exhibition match and then Jansher arrived who was exactly 6 years younger than Jahangir and at that time Jansher's only recognition was being a "Great Retriever" that he can track the ball down from any corner of the squash court and bring it back into play, but with passage of time he improved his skills like Nadal and started giving tough time to Jahangir. In squash all courts are alike so there is no such thing as clay or hard, but they kept facing each other in all majors and Jahangir used to run out of steam due to the age factor and Jansher would usually win the game in the fifth set. People said the same things about Jansher as they now say about Nadal but once Jahangir retired Jansher didn't had any appetite left and due to his playing style he had to go through knee surgery and was pretty much done after that. Their career head-to-head was 19-18 Jansher and they both won enough majors to be regarded as the best ever but people would still call Jahangir the best because of his stlye (beauty like Fed) but at the same time they would praise Jansher for his resilience (like Nadal). Jansher even beat Jahangir eight times in a row but Jahangir did win the majors (British open) where it mattered.
The whole purpose of this analogy is to wait and see rather than burning your fingers on the key board.

Posted by calbearo 05/05/2009 at 05:20 PM

imjimmy wrote - "If Rafa is better than Fed, he should have had a record against other players, similar to what he has against Federer." @ 5:10

Please refer to the front page article on Rafa's stats. Rafa does indeed have a winning record against every single player in the top 20 except for James Blake and David Nalbandian who have played him a total of 5 and 3 times and have a one game edge in both cases. Federer meanwhile is 2-6 vs. Murray though he does hold a 7-4 edge over Djokovic.

Posted by Rosangel 05/05/2009 at 05:21 PM

imjimmy: but step back for a moment - Rafa is 13-4 against Djokovic, the number three for most of the past two years. That's not dissimilar to what he has against Federer.

There isn't a single current player with as many wins against Rafa as Federer has. A few have decent records (Blake, Hewitt), but who would bet against Rafa in those H2Hs in the future? Not me. Andy Murray is interesting competition, but he has a way to go yet.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 05:24 PM

tennisforthebest just repeated a point that I implicitly made a while ago, our differing conclusions notwithstanding. Yes, it's true that age gaps matter, but as thebest noted, they don't matter much when the players are both in their late 10s or 20s. Like I said most GOATs continue to win Slams at 28, 29 or even 30 years of age, and it's really after they enter their 30s that they're at a significant physical disadvantage. So I don't put as much stock in Fedal's age difference as thebest, even though we basically made the same observation.

Posted by BlueDog 05/05/2009 at 05:27 PM

Great post, tennisforthebest!

Posted by ladyjulia 05/05/2009 at 05:35 PM


That was interesting.

"For every offsensive dominating player, a defensive player is sure to make a rivarly"

Sounds logical, no?

Posted by imjimmy 05/05/2009 at 05:38 PM

Rosangel: As you correctly pointed out "similar" was the keyword in my h2h argument. And yes, you're right that Nadal has a similar h2h with Djokovic as he does against Federer.
But again isn't that in large part because of the clay prowess (0-8 Nole and 1-9 Fed).
Of course, I am not taking anything away from Rafa. Clay tennis is as much tennis as hc tennis is. Unforuntately there's only 1 slam on clay and only so many ATP masters. So to be a potential GOAT, Nadal will have to chalk up winning numbers on hardcourts h2h too ( which he seems to be doing recently), as there are 2 slams and more master events there.

Posted by ladyjulia 05/05/2009 at 05:38 PM


Fed ain't at his peak. Nadal is.

Once Nadal starts losing, he will make front page headlines and skew off his excellent H2Hs against top players just like Federer is doing.

Can you imagine Nadal at 28 running against a 20 year old version of Murray? Who will be more likely to win?

And then, the younger players always come out stronger than the previous generation..since they learn from the previous generation.

Posted by Quadruple Bagel 05/05/2009 at 05:40 PM


If Nadal finsihes with a huge H2H over Federer and Nadal gets to 9 or 10 slams and Fed finishes with 13, I don't see how you can argue for Federer. And if he doesn't regain the No. 1 ranking again, he'll have fallen short of what other champions have done in the past when pushed.

Is there anybody out there who feels Roddick, Safin and Hewitt are better than Nadal, Murray and Djokovic? Murray and Djokovic aren't in their primes quite yet and it's clear they're more well-rounded as players. Not to mention they all beat Federer before they hit their primes from '04-'07, while Roddick and Hewitt from '04-'07 never did and Safin only did it once at the Aussie.

Just look at '08 and '09, and it's pretty clear Federer's immediate generation of players (those within three years of him both above and below) aren't significant factors on tour anymore, while Federer still is. That illustrates the advantage he always enjoyed while he was in his prime.

As an example ...

Look at the Masters and Slams in '08 and '09 ... the only players of Fed's generation to win to were Fed ('08 Open) and Davydenko ('08 KB). Everything else has been won by the younger players of Nadal's immediate generation.

Can't underline it anymore than that.

If Nadal can pull a few more slams off against this crowd, I think he'll be considered better than Federer because people will look at the competition and consider it better than what Fed faced in his prime.

Posted by calbearo 05/05/2009 at 05:42 PM

I think Rafa will probably retire around 28YO. As I said before, expect the best from Rafa over the next three years 23-25 (he'll turn 26 at RG in 2012). That is peak time for most great players and Rafa's career trajectory actually suggests that he will have such an arc. I don't imagine he would do as well at 28YO as he would now. Federer is not yet 28 himself though.

Posted by ladyjulia 05/05/2009 at 05:46 PM

Quadraple Bagel,

Why are Murray, Djokovic and Nadal such all round players? They groomed themselves for the competition...of which the standard was Federer for four years.

Let's give Federer the proper respect for changing the face of the game...he showed what dominance is with all those 4 year stats that j6_strings put out earlier.

Nadal can be all dominating as a No.1, but Federer made sure that Nadal wins 2 GS and an olympic gold for him to even get there (and it took Nadal all of three years of chasing).

Posted by Quadruple Bagel 05/05/2009 at 05:52 PM


I'd argue that all-around players have always existed in tennis and that Federer deserves some, but not all, of the credit for that. Federer's numbers are impressive and you have to be great in order to produce what he did. That said, I think his dominance is going to come under fire if he can't handle this bunch.

Posted by imjimmy 05/05/2009 at 06:00 PM

Quadruple Bagel @ 5:40 PM: Good observations. Your point about competition would be even more convincing if someone like Murray (or maybe even Nole) were to get something like 5+ career slams (ideally 6-8 or more) . In that case we could argue that Nadal was unlucky to have another great player in his peak era. And that is why he could not reach/surpass Fed's slams. But Rafa still has to maintain a winning h2h against that player(along with 9-10 slams) to be in the GOAT discussion.

This is probably what makes Sampras' achievement even more impressive. He had Agassi, who won 8 slams in his carrier, in his own era. He still won 14 slams and dominated the h2h.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 06:02 PM

Quadruple Bagel's point re Fed's competition isn't without merit. Of the older generation Safin did have the talent, but unfortunately injuries and an almost preternatural tendency to self-destruct have been dogging him since '05.

Having said that, I explained why a player isn't as good as his competition a week or two ago. Here's what I said:

"Now this is where both the Sampras & Fed KADs make a mistake: Just the fact that Fed dominated in a less competitive era doesn’t preclude him from the GOAT status. A player is NOT only as good as his competition. Lemme explain it this way. Let’s say TMF played at a certain level (say, 1000) from ’04 to ’07, and his top opponents at a significantly lower level (800-850). (For the sake of argument let’s ignore the issues of matchups, bodily conditions, etc.) Let’s also say Pete’s top opponents from the ‘90s played at a higher level than Fed’s (around 900) but not TMF himself. So Fed played in a 'weak' era, but he still would’ve dominated in the ‘90s! In fact, I’m sure he would have (sans Sampras, of course), just not so sure that he would’ve snatched up 12 GS titles and made 3 consecutive FO finals with the likes of Courier, Bruguera, Muster, Kafelnikov, Moya & Kuerten around. Others are free to disagree. And of course they can take comfort in the likelihood that Fed’s Blue Period (’08-retirement) will feature tougher competition than Pete’s."

As always, your call.

Posted by BlueDog 05/05/2009 at 06:02 PM

QBagel- So only future wins count? I seem to recall a USO less than a year ago, where Fed "handled" Nole and Murray (the guy who "handled" Rafa). This of course during Fed's waning year.It happened, it counts. How many times does he have to do it?

Posted by ladyjulia 05/05/2009 at 06:04 PM


I actually wouldn't even be surprised if Nadal won more GS than Federer in the end. He already has won more MS than Federer and he is only 22.

But, that dosen't diminish the role Federer has played in shaping tennis history. The emergence of Nadal is very tightly linked to Federer. The rise of Nadal is ultimately linked to a dip in form in Federer. Whether Nadal caused the dip is also a big factor.

I wish they had peaked at the same time, same age whatever. Would have made it easier on us,no?

Can we have GOATs in tennis categories? Like the Academy awards?

GOAT for beauty of game
GOAT for mental toughness
GOAT for quirks
GOAT for technical excellence
GOAT for dominance
and the Most Lovable Tennis Player Ever

Nominations open!

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 06:07 PM

imjimmy, I'm not sure I'd agree that a potential GOAT must maintain a winning H2H against his main rivals to be in the discussion. As you know Sampras did have a few losing H2Hs against some of his rivals--Stich and Krajicek, to name 2--but no one says Pete shouldn't be in the GOAT debate because of this. Of course Pete's records against the two were close, but I've already explained why Fed's H2H against Rafa doesn't tell the whole story.

Posted by Rosangel 05/05/2009 at 06:09 PM

imjimmy:it's not directed at you in particular - however, few people ever seem to argue against any kind of dominance other than Rafa's on clay. Yet Federer won five Slams on grass, an even less common surface, though one on which some other players including Rafa have proven their worth.

Heck, so what's the big problem if we have three great excellent claycourters and they happen to have met more often on clay? It's not an inferior surface in any way, and all three of them are pretty damned good on other surfaces too (Nole on grass maybe being the weakest claim among them, but his record there is nothing to sniff at).

I think too much is made of Nadal's "dominance on clay" in these discussions. So clay is where the the foundations of his game lie - but in fact he's pretty much always had credentials on other surfaces, and has reached and won HC finals. While it's clear that his clay game was the foundation, I'm not sure that there are many matches in his career that anyone could point to where he could have been described as a non-contender to win. If you look at his results rather than following blind prejudice as some observers still do (bless them) the idea that he was a claycourt specialist until around 2006 is complete and utter rubbish.

In fact - as far as non-contending is concerned - the closest I can come is the match vs. Youzhny in Chennai last year, after the massive marathon against Moya. A confluence of events and Youzhny more than anything to do with the surface.

Posted by ladyjulia 05/05/2009 at 06:14 PM


"That said, I think his dominance is going to come under fire if he can't handle this bunch."

That is true..I remember Pete wrote a sentence years ago..maybe end of 2004, about Federer's tennis being like conjuring a rabbit from a hat ..."One day, the magician will put his hand in the hat...and that same rabbit will bite him".

Its happened, isn't it?

Ofcourse, Nadal will come under the same fire if he will not be able to handle all the 20 year olds when he is 27!

Posted by imjimmy 05/05/2009 at 06:21 PM

NP: I did not mean winning h2h against every player. But winning h2h against the 2nd best player in your own era. How many slams did Stich and Krajicek win? After all if a player did not make it really big ( in his career), so what if he beat you?

Rosangel @6:09 PM: Those are very good points. Thank you, and I agree. Unfortunately, I never intended(in my post) to imply that Nadal is/was a clay court specialist or that his clay court record is something to be dissed at. But I suppose I should have been more circumspect with my words (so that the post wouldn't be misconstrued)

Posted by Quadruple Bagel 05/05/2009 at 06:25 PM


"Your point about competition would be even more convincing if someone like Murray (or maybe even Nole) were to get something like 5+ career slams (ideally 6-8 or more) . In that case we could argue that Nadal was unlucky to have another great player in his peak era. And that is why he could not reach/surpass Fed's slams. But Rafa still has to maintain a winning h2h against that player(along with 9-10 slams) to be in the GOAT discussion."

I think that's fair.

How's this one for you: Based on historical projections, Djokovic will be the No. 1 player in the world at some point in his career. Beyond that, I can't tell you how many slams he'll win, but I'll guarantee the first statement.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 06:25 PM

Guess I could've better phrased my last post. Yes, it's true that Sampras had a losing H2H against some of his rivals, but not so against his MAIN rivals. Here are a few of his H2Hs against former No. 1s whose peak coincided with Pete's:

- Andre Agassi (20–14)
- Boris Becker (12–7)
- Michael Chang (12–8)
- Jim Courier (16–4)
- Patrick Rafter (12–4)

Losing H2Hs against notable opponents:

- Marat Safin (3–4)
- Lleyton Hewitt (4–5)
- Richard Krajicek (4–6)
- Sergi Bruguera (2–3)
- Michael Stich (4–5)

Not too shabby, if you ask me.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 06:27 PM

imjimmy, I just addressed your last point. We actually agree. My bad.

Posted by Quadruple Bagel 05/05/2009 at 06:30 PM

"Let’s also say Pete’s top opponents from the ‘90s played at a higher level than Fed’s (around 900) but not TMF himself. So Fed played in a 'weak' era, but he still would’ve dominated in the ‘90s! In fact, I’m sure he would have (sans Sampras, of course), just not so sure that he would’ve snatched up 12 GS titles and made 3 consecutive FO finals with the likes of Courier, Bruguera, Muster, Kafelnikov, Moya & Kuerten around. Others are free to disagree. And of course they can take comfort in the likelihood that Fed’s Blue Period (’08-retirement) will feature tougher competition than Pete’s."

I'll agree on the possibilities of the "Blue Period"

As for the Federer in the '90s, I'll put this way:

He didn't do anything in the game until medium-paced hard courts became the "coin of realm" to quote Bodo.

Check the record book and the answers are all there.

Posted by Quadruple Bagel 05/05/2009 at 06:34 PM


I'm sure what you mean by future wins, but if I'm reading along correctly, he's got to do it another two times. (Hint! hint!) I think Roger got just the right amount of breaks to have that happen at the Open, and Roger was good enough to take advantage of them. You have to been both good and lucky.

That said, I'm not entirely sure he can do it again.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 06:34 PM

Quadruple Bagel, you mean Fed would've had a tough time in SW19 and even on the faster HCs?

Posted by ladyjulia 05/05/2009 at 06:36 PM

"How many slams did Stich and Krajicek win? After all if a player did not make it really big ( in his career), so what if he beat you?"

For the H2Hs,
We are forgetting here that Federer and Nadal are two very exceptional dominating players..if Federer dominated the yearly stats, Nadal has produced dominating stats for the clay season..and now will do on other surfaces as well.

In addition, they both seem to have the remarkable achievement of reaching GS finals ( 7 finals) and then playing each other. So, its one exceptional dominating player pitted against another exceptional dominating player. With all due respect to Sampras and Agassi, they did not play that many GS finals.

Neither of them produced the dominating stats that Federer and Nadal have ( 90-5 for Fed and 104 - 4 for Nadal). They just didn't have that demolishing the competition streak DNA.

Its like irrestible force meeting immovable object.

I, at least, refuse to compare their H2H to other players like Samprass' H2H with Agassi.

Federer and Nadal's H2H cannot be compared to other H2Hs (Sampras-Agassi, Borg - McEnroe)because of this mean streak in them!

Posted by Corrie (not Carrie or Cory) 05/05/2009 at 06:36 PM

What Andrew said way back really struck a chord with me. Rafa may well end up appearing the more dominant player than Roger, maybe the most dominant of all until someone even greater comes along, but really, it's just too early to tell. I know speculation is fun but it's just hot air until the end of both of their careers.

I want to repeat what Andrew said. Roger may not be the GOAT but I couldn't care less, he's given me huge pleasure in watching him. Only Edberg came as close and he's no GOAT. I have huge admiration and awe of Rafa and I'm glad he's winning plenty, but it's Roger's game that has given me most pleasure and the most "wow' moments. Nothing else counts as much - goats or donkeys, I don't care.

Posted by Quadruple Bagel 05/05/2009 at 06:39 PM


Yes ... because it's already in the record books.

Posted by ladyjulia 05/05/2009 at 06:40 PM

"Nothing else counts as much - goats or donkeys, I don't care."

LOL Corrie.

Posted by suresh 05/05/2009 at 06:40 PM

NP, I think there is a big difference between liking/disliking/ commenting on any player's strokes and ranking players from different era. It's like i may prefer Mozart's Piano Sonatas to your preference for, say, Bach's Violin Concertos. The problem arises when we both argue like crazy that one is superior to the other! To me, it is the same craziness if I were to say that Pete's serve is better than Fed's and you were to disagree. Let's amicably agree to disagree on it without having to convince each other that only our own choice (opinion, preference, taste) is superior.

In GOAT or Ranking discussions, because of different technologies, different top player population during a player's era, different surfaces, injuries, players not being allowed to play in certain tournaments, and many other reasons, there does not exist a universally accepted objective measure or statistic to crown someone as a GOAT.

I agree with the view that all we can say is that 'here is my list of 10 or 20 great players of all time' or that a particular player was dominant for a particular time period (say Federer 2005-2007, or Nadal 2008-2009). Even these are very subjective and people can disagree on their lists of 20 or choices of the best player over even a limited time period. Hence, personally I really don't see the point of it, other than people promoting or arguing their own choices to convince others. The strength of our own conviction in these matters should be enough for ourselves and we should not need the approval of anyone else!

Posted by Sam 05/05/2009 at 06:41 PM

"How many slams did Stich and Krajicek win"

One apiece. Stich also reached the US Open and French Open finals.

Posted by imjimmy 05/05/2009 at 06:41 PM

""Based on historical projections, Djokovic will be the No. 1 player in the world at some point in his career. Beyond that, I can't tell you how many slams he'll win, but I'll guarantee the first statement.""

Hopefully, that's true. But I am guessing Muzzah would beg to differ.

"" Nothing else counts as much - goats or donkeys, I don't care.""
LOL and word!

Posted by imjimmy 05/05/2009 at 06:43 PM

""One apiece. Stich also reached the US Open and French Open finals. ""

Sam: I know the numbers. My point was more to do with their dominance (or the lack of it) on the tour in that era.

Posted by NP 05/05/2009 at 06:43 PM

QB, I'm not sure how often you frequent this blog, but I'm prolly the biggest Sampras KAD around here, and even I have to say you're going a tad too far. Unless we have different ideas of having a tough time. How many Slams (outside of RG) do you think Fed would've won in the 90s?

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