Updated: Jun 28, 2021
Roger Federer is not the GOAT. He wasn’t the Greatest Men’s player of all time before Rafael Nadal has tied him on 20 Grand Slams last year and he isn’t now. Nor has he been for a long time. I realise this opening will upset a lot of people who have already angrily closed down this link, but for the rest of you willing to stick around, I will explore in this blog why that is.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have been competing against each other for such a long time, and the race going on for so long, as the men either look to chase down or pull clear of each other that it can be easy to think it has always been like this and forget the time before Nadal won his first non-Roland Garros slam at Wimbledon in 2008, forget the time before Novak Djokovic won his first slam period earlier in the same year. A time in which Roger was playing and winning with huge regularity.
In fact, this time period was when Federer won the majority of his slams. Of his first 10 slams, 8 came against six opponents who won a combined 5 slams in their careers. Mark Philippoussis, Marcos Baghdatis, and Fernando González never lifted a slam and for the latter two, facing Federer was the only final they played. The other 2 of Roger’s first 10 came against 35-year old Andre Agassi, who would appear in just 2 more slams after this final, winning four more matches, and a just turned 20-year old Rafael Nadal, playing in his first non-RG final.
This era coincided with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi coming to the end of their glittering careers, Federer won his final 8 meetings with Agassi in the final years of his career and only faced Pete Sampras once in 2001, he retired the next year.
Left to challenge Federer in this era was Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and in another early final, Marat Safin. In these 4 finals, Roger dropped a total of 2 sets and bagelled Hewitt in 2 of their 3 sets. These men were slam winners so all fine players, but Federer boasts a career head to head record of 21-3 over Andy Roddick, 10-2 over Marat Safin, and 19-8 (8-0 in slams) over Lleyton Hewitt.
Federer won 12 of his first 14 slam finals, the only defeats coming to Nadal on the clay. He notched his 12th slam title at the 2007 Australian Open in teenager Novak Djokovic’s first slam final, and by the time Novak had won just his 2nd slam at the 2011 Australian Open, Roger was sitting on 16.
That 2nd slam win of Djokovic truly marked his arrival at the top table of men’s tennis and he was joined by the runner-up in that final, Andy Murray. These two players firmly establishing themselves in what had become the big 4 of men’s tennis would make for the hardest and most barren years of Roger’s slam career. Federer played 22 finals before Djokovic won his 2nd slam and has appeared in 9 since. After beating Murray in the 2010 Australian Open final, Federer would make 5 more finals by the end of 2016, winning 1. Andy would make 9 finals in that time period and win 3.
18 of Roger’s 31 slam finals came in a period between Wimbledon 2004 and the Australian Open 2010. His record in non-final slam matches in that period was 113-1. The sole loss coming against a 19-year old Djokovic, the match before he won his first-ever slam. Federer had won 69 of his last 71 slam matches going into that semi-final and won 52 of his next 56 after it. This highlights just how hard it was for Djokovic to win his first slam.
Between Wimbledon 2012 and the Australian Open 2017, there were 17 grand slams that Roger didn’t win, Novak won 7 of them. Roger finally ended his drought in the first slam final of 2017 against Nadal, who was playing in his first slam final since 2014. Due to injuries, Nadal had gone 2 years in a row without reaching a final, after 10 years in a row winning one. So if ever there was a good time to face Nadal in a slam final, this was as close to it as you could realistically get.
Since that win, Roger’s 19th and 20th slams came against Marin Cilic, a player who has only reached 5 semi-finals since his slam debut in 2007. After winning 12 of his first 14 slam finals, he is 8-9 in finals since. In that time he is 1-7 against the other members of the big 3, his only win coming against Rafa in Australia. His slam final record stands at 20 won 11 lost (64.5%), with 3 final wins against Rafa and 1 against Djokovic in his slam final debut. 6 of his final losses have come against Nadal and 4 against Djokovic.
7 of Nadal’s first 8 finals were against 5 years older, Roger Federer. Rafa won 5 of the 7, and 6 of his first 8 finals in total. Nadal won 6 slams before Djokovic won his 2nd and became a fellow contender for every slam. Since then Nadal is 14-6 in the finals. 11 slams without a win is the longest slam drought of his career. He boasts the joint-most slam wins with 20 and the fewest slam final defeats inside the big 3, with 8 (71% win rate in finals). He has the best final record against other members of the Big 3, leading Federer 6-3 and Djokovic 5-4.
4 of the first 7 slams Djokovic won were against Rafa and Roger and two others came against Andy Murray, who would prove what a top player he was by beating Novak in slam finals in 2012 and 2013 and reaching more finals between 2011 and 2016 than any other player bar Djokovic. Novak leads Federer 4-1 in finals and 8 tournaments is his longest drought without winning one since established at the top. He has won 17 of his 27 slam finals (63%).
Federer’s best slam in terms of most titles is Wimbledon where he has won 8, as well as losing 4 finals. He leads Nadal 3-1 at Wimbledon but trails Novak 3-1. His best slam for final wins is the Australian Open, where he has won 6 and lost 1. Of those 6 wins, only 1 was against another member of the big 3, Rafa Nadal, who his 1 defeat also came against. He trails Nadal 3-1 at the Australian and Djokovic 4-1. Fed’s best slam for match win % is Wimbledon where he boasts 101 wins for 13 defeats (89%). The slam where he has the most wins however is the Aussie Open where he has 102 wins for 15 defeats (87%). Federer’s worst slam is of course the French, the only slam he has won less than 5 times, winning just once against Robin Soderling in 2009. His record there stands at 70 wins and 17 losses (70%).
Nadal’s best slam might be the French where he is 13-0 in finals and 26-0 when he reaches the semis. He leads Federer 6-0 at RG and Djokovic 7-1. His record there is 100-2, a 98% win percentage, which is reasonably healthy. His worst slam is Wimbledon for the number of matches won. Despite winning one more title there than his 1 at the Aussie Open, Nadal has won 53 matches at Wimbledon for 12 defeats (82%) which are 4 fewer victories than fellow two-time Champion Andy Murray (57-10).
Some will argue that Nadal winning 13 of his 20 slams at RG makes him too reliant on one slam, one surface to be the GOAT. But he has made 15 finals off the clay, winning 7 and losing 8. No one argues that Djokovic is too reliant on the Australian Open for his legacy and his non-AO final record stands at 9-10.
Novak’s best slam is the Australian Open where he is 8-0 in finals and 16-0 from semis onwards. He leads Nadal 2-0 at the Australian and Federer 4-1. He has a 90% win rate there, with 75 wins for 8 losses. Djokovic is the most consistent player across all slams, given he boasts a very similar number of wins at all slams. He has 75 wins each at the Australian and the US and Wimbledon with 72 is his lowest for wins. For win % his worst slam is the French at 83% (74-15), despite reaching at least the semi-finals on 10 occasions. Novak is the only man to have held all four slams on all three surfaces.
Rafa Nadal has the highest win % at slams with 88%, winning 282 matches and losing 39. Djokovic is 2nd at 87% with 296 wins for 45 defeats and Roger is 3rd with 86%, 362 wins and 59 defeats. All 3 men hold the record for most slam wins at their respective best slam, though unlike the other two Roger does not have the all-time best final record at that slam also, that’s Pete Sampras who won 7 Wimbledon finals without defeat.
Head to Head
Nadal leads Federer 24-16 overall. He leads him 10-4 at slams, 14-10 in finals, and 14-2 on clay. Roger leads 3-1 on grass and 11-7 on hard court. Nadal beat Federer in the final at his best slam, Wimbledon in 2008, whereas Roger has never won more than 1 set in 4 Roland Garros finals against Rafa.
Djokovic leads Federer 27-23 overall. He leads 11-6 at slams, 13-6 in finals, 3-1 on grass, and 20-18 on hard court. They are tied 4-4 on clay. Djokovic leads 3-1 in the finals at Roger’s best slam.
Djokovic leads Nadal 29-27 overall. He leads 16-12 in finals and 20-7 on hard court. Nadal leads 10-6 at slams and 18-7 on clay.
Of his 20 slam wins, Nadal beat Federer 9 times and Djokovic 9 times on the path to the title. Of his 20 slam wins, Federer beat Nadal 3 times and Novak 4 times. Of his 17 slam wins, Djokovic beat Federer on the way 9 times and Nadal 5 times. On three occasions, Nadal beat both Federer and Nadal to win a slam, Djokovic had to beat the other two once to win a slam, and Federer never has.
Nadal has recorded straight-sets wins at slams 3 times against Djokovic, and on another occasion was 2 games from the same until one of Djokovic’s many retirements in that time. He also has 3 straight sets wins over Federer. Federer has 3 straight sets wins over Djokovic but has never beaten Nadal in straight sets at a slam. Djokovic has beaten Nadal in straight sets twice and Federer 4 times.
Federer has gone 8 years without a slam win against Djokovic, he is 0-6 against him since beating him at Wimbledon 2012. He went 10 years without a slam win against Nadal from beating him in the 2007 Wimbledon final to the 2017 Australian Open final, where he also went 0-6.
Nadal has never lost 2 slam matches in a row against Federer, he has lost 3 slam matches in a row against Djokovic twice. Djokovic has lost 4 slam matches in a row against Nadal twice, including their first 4 slam meetings. He has lost 2 in a row against Federer, their first 2 slam meetings.
Federer’s ATP tour record stands at 1,242 wins against 271 defeats (82.1% win %), Nadal’s stands at 999 wins v 201 defeats (83.3%) and Djokovic’s stands at 930 wins v 189 losses (83.1%). Federer has won 103 tour titles and lost 54 finals, Nadal has won 86 finals and lost 37 and Novak has won 81 and lost 35.
Of Federer’s 103 titles, 28 are Masters 1000 titles (27%), where his final record stands at 28-22 (56%). 35 of Nadal’s 86 titles are Masters 1000 events (41%) and his final record is 35-16 (69%). 36 of Djokovic’s 81 titles are Masters 1000 events (44%) and his final record is 36-16 (69%). In 2018 Djokovic became the first player ever to win all 9 Masters 1000 tournaments and 2 years later he became the first to win them all twice which is a remarkable achievement given no one else has yet won them all once.
Federer has won 49 ATP Tour 500 or 250 events for the loss of just 16 finals. As the number suggests, these are usually easier to win than 1000 events. Djokovic has won 23 500 or 250 events with 7 final defeats and Nadal has won a combined 30 of them with 11 final losses.
Of the 49 Federer won, 25 were 250 events, which is 7 more than Novak and Rafa won combined, these 2 evidently deciding more often than Roger that 250 tournaments were not challenging enough to be worth their time.
Rafael Nadal has 1 Olympic Gold Medal in the singles, which neither of the other two have. He has never won the ATP Tour Finals, losing one time each in the final against Federer and Djokovic. Federer has won it 6 times, beating Agassi, Hewitt, James Blake, David Ferrer, Nadal, and Jo Tsonga in the finals. Djokovic has won 5 beating Federer 3 times (once in a walkover), Nikolay Davydenko, and Nadal.
Up to this year, all 3 men have been year-end number 1 5 times. This year Djokovic will make it 6. Federer’s 5 years ending on top came between 2004 and 2009, Nadal’s between 2008 and 2019, and Djokovic’s between 2011 and soon to be 2020. Federer’s 237 consecutive weeks at number 1 will never be matched, though it looks certain Djokovic will beat his record of 310 total weeks. Nadal sits behind these guys on a total of 209 weeks at number 1, so it’s fair to say he hasn’t dominated the tour in the same way the other 2 have and that could be used against him in the argument for GOAT.
I believe Roger Federer to be the most fawned over sportsperson of all time, the media treat him as more God than a man in my opinion. He regularly tops GOAT tennis lists and also regularly features near the top of lists for the greatest athletes ever, always above players such as Serena Williams, Rafa Nadal, Steffi Graff, and Novak Djokovic. I have put these facts forward to counter these media opinions and also because there’s no chance of knowing these facts just from following tennis in the media, as they love Roger too much. So I present facts here, so you don’t have to go to the trouble of searching yourself and of which I think to present a fair picture of their careers.
The purpose of this piece is not to hate on Roger or play down his career but fairly cover it. He’s been a fantastic player, undoubtedly one of the best careers and talents the sport has ever seen or will ever see. As a player, I like him a lot. But I think Nadal and Djokovic have been better and I believe the stats bear that out.
Because they are not from the same era, with Roger being 5 & 6 years older respectively it is in some way difficult to fairly compare them. But it is those who cover tennis in the media who never acknowledge that much of what Roger has won at slams came before this big 3 era. And though it is not fair to expect a late 30s, Roger, to beat an early 30s Nadal or Djokovic in a slam (though he had a brilliant go against Novak in the 2019 Wimbledon Final) for much of their careers, Roger being 5 and 6 years has been more of an advantage or at least, certainly not a hindrance. And even then he has never dominated the pair, not even when he was in his mid-20s and they were just entering their 20s.
I believe currently that Rafael Nadal is the GOAT, and his victory on Sunday to put himself 3 clear of the man who I believe is in 2nd place on the men’s all-time great list, Novak Djokovic, was an extremely significant one. Had Djokovic closed the gap to just one behind Nadal by beating him on his best surface, becoming the first man to beat Nadal in either a final or a semi-final there, I believe the gap between them for GOAT would have been undoubtedly the smallest it’s ever been. But Nadal’s dominant victory gives him more breathing room for now.
The best slam years of Roger’s career were between 2006 and 2009, where he reached 15 finals and won 9. In that period, Nadal reached 7 finals and won 5. Novak reached 2 finals and won 1. The best slam years of Novak’s career were between 2011 and 2015. Identical to Roger’s best years, he reached 15 finals and won 9. Nadal reached 9 finals and won 5. Roger reached 5 and won 1. Nadal’s best years were 2010 to 2014 where he reached 12 finals and won 8. Novak at this time also reached 12 finals, winning 6. Roger reached 4 finals, winning 2. This highlights that Nadal is the only one of the big 3 to keep winning plenty of slams during his rival’s best years.
Nadal has also come closest to being the first man to win all 4 slams at least twice. He first had the opportunity to do it back in 2012, and he has twice been one set away from doing it. Since winning RG in 2009 and 2016 respectively, and needing one more to become the first man to win every slam twice, Roger and Novak have reached one final each and won one set between them. Though in fairness, Djokovic’s victory over Nadal in the 2019 Australian Open final shows it is only marginally more likely that Djokovic’s grip over it will slip before Nadal’s does at the French, it is still more likely all the same. If one of Rafa or Novak can become the first man to do that, they will strike a huge blow for themselves in the argument for Greatest of All Time.
Nadal has not won a set against Novak on hard court since beating him in the 2013 US Open final, Novak has won 19 consecutive sets and the 9 consecutive matches played between the pair on the surface since. This is a run that Nadal certainly could do with ending as soon as possible as the key slam in the race to retire on top could be the US Open. Rafa will always be the big favourite to win RG and the same for Djokovic at the Australian and at Wimbledon. Given Rafa’s current lead of 3, who is able to pick up more US Open’s in the future could be significant. Nadal has so far won 4 and Djokovic 3. Djokovic is 3-5 in the US Open finals, whilst being the only man to beat Nadal in the final there. They haven’t met at Flushing Meadows for 7 years with Nadal leading the H2H 2-1. Nadal won the title in 2017 and 2019, Djokovic was champion in the middle of that and runner-up in 2016. He was also the overwhelming favourite to take the 2020 title, due to winning all 29 of his matches that year until he was disqualified for whacking a line judge in the throat with the ball.
Instead, Dominic Thiem picked up the title and there was finally a new slam champion from the younger generation. As Nadal and Djokovic get older, there have been some signs that some younger players, in particular, Thiem might also be able to have some influence over the final number of these two phenomenal champions. At this years Australian Open, he dumped Nadal out in the Quarters and led Djokovic 2 sets to 1 in the final before succumbing. Thiem has won 4 of his last 6 matches against Djokovic and 4 of his last 9 v Nadal, and as a slam champion, he is certainly the man currently best placed to challenge them, though not the only one. Daniil Medvedev came from 2 sets down against Rafa in last years US Open final to lose in the 5th and Stefanos Tsitsipas did the same against Novak in the semis of this year’s French Open. As these younger players continue to improve, and Nadal and Djokovic move into their mid-30s, perhaps they will be able to go to that next step and win a slam semi or final against these guys, as it finally starts to become a little more conceivable that they could lose at that stage against someone from that younger generation.
As for Federer who turns 40 next year, it’s a big ask for him to reach 21 but to write him off completely from doing so would be premature, in his last 4 slams he has reached a Quarter, two semis and a final. At Wimbledon especially he still has a chance, there is only one name he needs to avoid there: Novak Djokovic. Aside from him, on the grass, Roger can still beat anyone.