Will Rafa overtake Roger as the Greatest Ever?
When Roger Federer won his 20th grand slam in Melbourne in early 2018, he seemingly cemented his place as the greatest player in tennis history.
But Rafa Nadal, after winning his 12th French Open and 18th slam, now has a clear chance to catch Roger. Rafa should be the favorite going into The Championships at Wimbledon 2019. If he can stay healthy and continue to make a high percentage of first serves, he might have enough to push ahead of Federer or Novak Djokovic, the only one in his way last year in an epic five-set semi-final played in indoors to Novak’s advantage.
(photos copyright Tiziano Caffi for GrandSlam Magazine, all rights reserved)
Rafa, now 33, is five years younger than Roger, who will turn 38 in August. If Federer has reached his peak, and never wins another major, can Rafa catch him?
One scenario: Rafa wins major number 19 at Wimbledon or New York or Melbourne. Even if Rafa wins only one of those three events, he will be aiming for number 20 at Roland Garros in 2020, where he will turn 34 years of age.
Imagine the summer of 2020. Roger is turning 39 years old. He’s dealing with a bad back or knee, and he’s split between a desire to retire and his lifelong love for the game. His beloved friend Rafa, only 34, is only one slam away from equaling his record of 20, and he seemingly has many events left to do it. It will be difficult for Federer to take a vacation from the clay season, with Rafa threatening to match his record of 20 slams.
Based on his current dominance on clay and what he calls “right determination”, Rafa seems more likely to win at least two more slams than not, if he stays healthy. That’s a big if in the world of tennis. Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Raonic, NIshikori, Thiem, Goffin and others have been hampered by injuries. So has Rafa throughout his career. But Rafa is showing recently that his serve, backhand and volleying are better than ever, and he’s faster and apparently more fit than Djokovic, Federer or almost anybody else on tour.
Nobody can touch Rafa on clay. Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas or Alexander Zverev might overtake Rafa someday, but that day still seems far away. If Rafa, like Roger, is still playing at age 38, this means he has four more chances to win Roland Garros, plus five opportunities at each other major.
If Rafa ends up winning 21 slams to 20 by Roger, it will be hard for Federer fans to claim Roger is the greatest.
Many argue that the majestic Federer is a better player than Nadal, regardless of titles.
But the head-to-head speaks volumes. Though Roger has beaten Rafa five times in a row recently on hard courts, Rafa still leads 24-15, including 14-2 on clay after Rafa’s straight set semi-final victory at Roland Garros 2019. Unless Federer can continue his magical revival, Rafa will likely win future matches as Roger becomes 38 or 39 years old.
More than other surfaces, clay exposes flaws in games of players who can serve out of trouble on grass or hardcourt. Roger grew up playing on clay, but never beat Rafa at Roland Garros. Many Rafa fans believe that Roger decided to skip the entire clay seasons in 2017 and 2018 because he feared playing Rafa. That argument is persuasive. How can someone claim superiority over a player if they won’t enter tournaments on his favorite surface? Federer finally agreed to challenge Nadal on clay in 2019, and got blown away by Rafa and gale force winds.
Federer is only 11-9 over Nadal on hardcourt and 2-1 on grass. In the 2008 Wimbledon final, the greatest match of all time, the winner was Rafa, not Roger.
Federer won 8 of his slams at Wimbledon; Rafa has won only 2. Though the All-England club is the most hallowed ground in the sport, Wimbledon is only one of a handful of grass events in a sport normally played on clay (especially in Europe) or hardcourt (especially in America).
In other words, Nadal already has 16 slams to Roger’s 12 on the two surfaces hosting more than 90 percent of the world’s competitions.
Rafa also endured a more challenging road to his slam titles than Roger.
Pete Sampras, perhaps foreseeing the rise of Roger (who beat him at Wimbledon in 2001), retired at age 31 before Federer won his first slam in 2003. Early in his career, Federer at slams only had to beat Mark Philippoussis, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez. He had to beat Marin Cilic to win his 20th slam in Melbourne.
In most cases, Rafa had to beat three of the greatest ever players (Federer, Djokovic and Murray) to win his titles. He came onto the scene when Federer was already considered the greatest ever, and took titles away from Roger, Novak and Andy, not to mention Wawrinka, who has won the French Open as many times as Federer (once).
Rafa is the most likely candidate to take advantage of any weakening by Federer, Djokovic, Wawrinka or others of his era Rafa has already gone through down time due to injuries, and he now looks as healthy and determined as ever.
Tsitsipas, Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov and other next generation players might still be a few years away from consistently dominating the tour. We’ve been saying that for a few years now. Dominic Thiem might be the Prince of Clay, beating Rafa four times, but he still has never won a slam or even a Masters 1000 on clay. Cilic, Raonic, Nishikori and others have been riddled with injuries, and Grigor Dimitrov and Gael Monfils still haven’t gone beyond a semi in a slam.
All of this opens up the field for Rafa, and he appears ready to take it.
Will Rafa end his career as the greatest player of all time? Much depends on Roger and that other rival — Novak Djokovic.
(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media, all rights reserved)