Rafa versus Roger

Guest Authored by Michael Emmett, October 15, 2017

With Roger Federer’s win over Rafael Nadal in Shanghai on October 15, 2017, I figured it was time to bring up the never ending debate of the greatest of all time (GOAT) in the giant world of tennis.  This topic never seems to go away especially when these two icons go head-to-head in the final of a Major or a Masters Series event.

Usually, when this topic is being discussed it comes down to one factor – who has more major titles, and at that moment, that is Roger convincingly 19 to 16.

So, is that the end of the story?  Is Roger the GOAT simply because he has more Grand Slams than Nadal?  In my opinion, there is a lot more that needs to go into the equation in order to clearly define this important conclusion.

Back in 2014, the last time Rafa beat Roger, in the semis of the Australian Open, the Head-to-Head was 23-10 in favour of Nadal.  That’s a win percentage of nearly 70% and that’s very significant in my estimation when talking about the GOAT.  Assuming the Grand Slam totals would be relatively close (Nadal within one or two of Federer at the end of their respective careers) – the most important aspect of this question is Nadal’s one sided demolition of the supposed greatest player of all time.

How can you be the GOAT (Federer) when you have a losing record against your most significant contemporary?  It’s something that the media (and whoever else debates this topic) continue to overlook.  Nadal had been dominant and the needle for the GOAT must swing in the direction of Nadal with a 70 pct. win percentage and a 9-3 record in Grand Slam events.

Not so fast!

Federer has a new deck of cards and you can throw out all of those stats – everything has changed in this calendar year.  We are witnessing a massive shift that rarely happens in the sport of tennis especially considering both players are north of 30 – the age when a tennis player used to STOP winning.

Federer has now beaten Nadal 5 straight times, including 4 times in 2017.  Fed beat Rafa in a thrilling 5-setter in the year’s first major in Melbourne battling back from 3-1 down in the 5th set to win his first major since 2012.  And then he destroyed Nadal in Indian Wells, Miami & Shanghai – winning in straight sets in all three encounters without letting Nadal reach 5 games in any of the 6 sets played. Federer has held serve 31 straight times vs. Nadal – the last time he lost his serve to the Spaniard was in the 5th set in Australia way back in January.  As great as Nadal returns serve, this statistic is nearly unbelievable! This is a perfect illustration of how the complexion of this rivalry has changed 180 degrees.

Federer now ‘owns’ Nadal and it has changed my opinion drastically of the GOAT.  The Head-to-Head totals now look a lot more respectable at 23-15.  The last 4 Federer wins over Nadal have been in important events (Majors or Masters Series) and this is the first time in the rivalry where Nadal looks outclassed and over matched.  Will it continue? Who knows?

And something that can’t be forgotten is Nadal’s supremacy on clay.  If you take clay out of the quotient – it goes without saying that Rafa is the best of all time by a country mile on the dirt at Roland Garros or any other clay court for that matter– the Head-to-Head record would have Roger on top at 13-10 (Nadal has won 13 of the 15 matches played on red clay).

Not that clay can be removed from the argument, however, when one player is so lethal on a specific surface and 15 of their 38 matches (almost 40 percent of their head-to-head matchups) have been played in Europe on the clay it creates an interesting scenario to remove those matches and check the records on the other 3 surfaces.  And what we see is a much more even total – I think most would be surprised to hear that Roger leads the Head-to-Head when clay matches are removed from the tally.

Roger has made some technical changes to his game and now has a much improved backhand as a result.  Roger also altered his tactics against the Spaniard and we are witnessing pure magic when his first serve is cooking like it was today in Shanghai.  Roger lost 8 pts total on his serve in the best-of-3-set match. Nadal had 0 break opportunities in the one hour and 11 minute match – this, for me, is the most incredible statistic because Nadal ALWAYS has break points against his opponents – especially Roger! It’s the first time in any of their matches where Federer has played an entire match against Nadal without facing a break point.

So the ball is in Rafa’s court now.  He must make the adjustments to turn this rivalry around.  If he doesn’t figure out the ‘new’ Roger; this Head-to-Head number will continue to shrink and then the discussion about the GOAT won’t even be a debate anymore.

For now, Roger is the best player in the world, having lost only 4 times in 2017, with a ridiculous record of 44-4 in the most dramatic comeback year of all time. He has 6 titles (including 2 Grand Slams) and MUST be the player of the year on the ATP tour mostly because of his 4-0 record against Nadal.

Yes, Nadal is #1 in the world (he has played more events and has 10 losses on the season) but his win % is much lower (86% compared to Roger’s 92%) and this is a major factor when determining who has had the better year.  For me, Roger is the GOAT, the player of the year in 2017 & the greatest story on the planet in 2017 regardless of the sport or the athlete.  And there is still more to come!