Lebron vs. MJ. Brady vs. Montana. Gretsky vs. Orr. Messi vs. Pele. Serena vs. Navratilova. The GOAT debate is a constant amongst all sports. Whether it’s an individual or team sport, people have debated for ages about who was the best. And more often than not, the debates rage on because they could never be solved on the field, or on the pitch, or on the court. Fans of different generations argue, often picking the athlete they grew up with, as the greatest of all time. Men’s tennis is different. That debate could be settled this Sunday, when Rafael Nadal takes on Novak Djokovic for the French Open Championship at Roland Garros.
The three greatest players of all time are all active. Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer. While debates and video simulations are the only thing available to pick a GOAT in most sports, in men’s tennis the GOAT debate is settled and often re-settled on the court, in real-time.
Like most sports, titles are the be-all and end-all in terms of what makes a GOAT. The four Grand Slams; the Australian Open, the aforementioned French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open have the most coveted trophies in the sport.
The first and foremost criteria of who’s the most historically great tennis player is who has the most slams. Other factors, like weeks at world number 1 and head-to-head come into play. But fans and players alike will point to the Grand Slam leaderboard to decide things.
Currently Federer leads the pack with 20. Nadal follows closely behind with 19. Djokovic is third with 17. The next closest is Pete Sampras, who retired in 2002, with 14.
Federer, who recently turned 39, is the oldest of the trio. Nadal and Djokovic are a year apart, 34 and 33 respectively. Like Tom Brady and Lebron James, all three men have changed what it means to be old in their sport. Due to its grueling nature, tennis was believed to be best played in one’s twenties, with 30 being the end of the line for most players. Nadal, who has had tough luck with injuries throughout his career due to his punishing style of play, was told he probably wouldn’t even make it that far. However, the three GOATs have bucked the trend, winning 13 of the last 14 slams among them, all over the age of 30.
Nevertheless, time is running out. Therefore, each title opportunity becomes more and more important. At 39, Federer is coming off two knee surgeries this year. He is holding off the other two more than he is adding onto his total. The last time he took this much time off due to injury was 2016. He won 3 of the next 4 Slams he participated in after going nearly 5 years without one. So, while there is still hope, the clock is ticking on the man who currently holds the GOAT title.
Nadal will have the chance to match Federer’s slam total this Sunday. Djokovic, however, hopes to bring the deficit between him and Federer to 2. The totals have never been this close. The oldest of the three, Federer won four before Nadal got his first, and had 12 before Djokovic raised a Grand Slam trophy for the first time.
The decade of the 2010s belonged to Nadal and Djokovic however. Djokovic won 15 of his slams during that time, with Nadal winning 13. Djokovic won the first Grand Slam of 2020 and one of the two will win the last one of the year. Federer, meanwhile, has only won 5 Grand Slams since he first broke Sampras’s record in 2009. So this Sunday will go a long way in determining who ends up with the most titles when the three hang up their rackets.
Djokovic is the number one ranked player in the world right now. He’s been so,with a 13-weeks exception, has been so since November of 2018. He has an overall head-to-head advantage of 29-26 against Nadal, and has won 25 of his last 37 matches with the Spaniard.
But Nadal will be the favorite this Sunday, because frankly, he always is the favorite at the French Open.
The French Open is the only Slam played on clay, and Nadal has long since been the King of Clay. With an unfathomable 12 French Open titles already, Nadal has lapped the field. Federer and Djokovic only have 1 apiece. With a win Sunday, Nadal would get number 13, more than double the man who’s second in total titles there. He would also bring his record to 100-2 in total matches at Roland Garros. His most recent loss came at the hands of Djokovic in 2015. But in total, Nadal is 6-1 against Djokovic, and 2-0 in finals.
Nadal fans will be rooting hard for their guy on Sunday, knowing every chance on Court Philippe Chatrier can’t be wasted. Djokovic fans will be rooting hard for their guy, hoping he inches closer to his competitors by winning his second slam of the year and being the only one of the three to win each Grand Slam at least twice. Federer fans…well that remains to be seen.
Perhaps they have the utmost confidence in Federer and are all right with Nadal winning, as long as the more well-rounded Djokovic stays three titles behind. Most assuredly they want to hold onto the record as long as possible. A share of the record with Nadal, who leads 24-16 in head-to-head matches with Federer, would be the first real case to call Nadal the real-time GOAT.
No matter who wins in the best-of-five match this Sunday, the GOAT pendulum will swing as much as it possibly can, with only a few years left to play for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. So, if you’ve never watched a tennis match in your life, know that going in, it isn’t just a match between the two undisputed best players in the world right now. It isn’t just a match for one of the four major championships of the world. It’s a match that will do a lot in helping decide who truly will end of being the Greatest Of All Time.