Lets agree,for the moment,to swear off the greatest-of-all-time-debate even if Rod Lavers two true Grand Slams still seem quite a pair of trump cards.
Lets agree,for the moment,to let bygone world beaters remain bygone world beaters and not dredge up the amateur era and its idiosyncrasies or the golden age of the steamship when the Australian Championships,later to become the Australian Open,were literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many a tennis star and thus no proper place to pad ones Grand Slam statistics.
No,lets stay firmly in the 21st century for a change and agree that,with another mens season about to end at the ATP World Tour Finals in London,there is an increasingly great debate to be had about who the greatest mens player of this generation might be.
I really hate the best-of-all-time debate and hate going back through the generations and comparing them with all the problems inherent in that, said Darren Cahill,the Australian coach and former player who is now a leading analyst. But this one I think you can actually do it and have a pretty good argument about it. And you can certainly form an argument both ways at this stage.
Partisans of incumbent Roger Federer and challenger Rafael Nadal tend to get their backs up quickly on any Roger-Rafa rubbing point,but this subject seems particularly ripe for generating dismissive looks and acid tweets from Camp Federer.
Their still elegant man is,after all,the one who has won more Grand Slam singles titles (17) than any other,including Nadal with 13. Their still relevant man is the one who spent a record 302 weeks at No.1,set marks that may never be broken by reaching 23 Grand Slam semifinals in a row and 36 Grand Slam quarterfinals in a row and has also won a record-tying seven singles titles at the Grand Slam daddy of them all,Wimbledon.
But Nadal,that rare breed of self-depreciating alpha male,has increasingly robust arguments of his own (even if he wont make them himself) at this still prime time in his tennis life. He is,after all,just 27 although one does wonder how old his knees might be biologically at this stage.
Its a fun dinner conversation, said Jim Courier,a former No.1,of the Federer-Nadal debate. Im not sure you can convincingly say that one guy is the greatest right now.
Andre Agassi,a former No.1 and fellow American who played and lost to both Federer and Nadal,was on the same conference call with Courier last week.
I do think,without Rafa winning one more major,you could make the argument that hes the best of all time, said Agassi,who,like Nadal and Federer,belongs to the group of just seven men who have won all four Grand Slam singles titles during their careers.
Nadal has won a record eight French Opens on clay,a surface more widely used by tennis players – both professional and recreational – than the grass that has been so friendly to Federer. Nadal also has two important tennis box tops that the 32-year-old Federer is now unlikely to acquire: an Olympic gold medal in singles and a Davis Cup title.
Nadal,in fact,has played a leading or supporting role in four Davis Cup victories for Spain.
Davis Cup is not what it was and I dont really know how its viewed in Switzerland,but here in Spain its a big deal, said Manolo Santana,tournament director at the Madrid Masters 1000 who was the greatest Spanish player in history until Nadals emergence.
Head to head
But just as important a debating point is Nadals ability to crunch the best numbers in what remains the essence of tennis,a sport often referred to as boxing without the blood. In mano a mano tussles,Nadal has no equal. He holds a 21-10 record over Federer,the archrival who has gradually become something closer to cannon fodder on outdoor hard courts as well as clay. But then Nadal holds a winning record over every other Grand Slam singles champion who has crossed his path as a professional,except the former French Open winner Gastón Gaudio,with whom he split six matches before Gaudio retired.
Nadal,back at No.1 after a phenomenal comeback from knee problems,also holds a winning record over every member of the current top 30: from Novak Djokovic at No.2 to Dmitry Tursunov at No.30.
With Nadal in the mix,neither Federer nor anyone else can say the same.
Weve spoken for many years about the bad matchup Nadal is for Federer,but hes a bad matchup for everybody now, Cahill said. It wasnt that way early in his career,and thats where Nadal has been able to evolve his game and solve a lot of problems he had early in his career with certain types of players. Hes become a better all-around player. Weve seen that with him tinkering with his serve,with him moving to the net more efficiently,with creating a stronger backhand,to having a little more confidence in the big situations,to solving the Djokovic problem he had a couple years ago,to being prepared to take that forehand a little quicker down the line with more authority earlier in the point.
I dont think Ive ever seen another No.1 tinker with his game so much,and I think thats a credit to him and to his uncle and coach,Toni.
Nadal also has the best career winning percentage in tour history at 84 percent to Federers 81. Nadal also has the edge in Grand Slam winning percentage over Federer at 88 to 86 and in Masters 1000 winning percentage (84 to 77) as well as a better strike rate against top 10 opponents (69 to 65).
But there is one phase of the season where Nadal is simply no match for Federer,and that would be this phase,the largely indoor season that starts after the United States Open and concludes with the elite,eight-man World Tour Finals,formerly known as the Tennis Masters Cup,which begin Monday.
It is the only truly significant tennis title that Nadal has yet to win,and it is one that Federer has claimed a record six times,be it in Houston,Shanghai or London. That statistical mismatch also emphasizes another point in Federers favor. He has had to face Nadal on Nadals best surface a great deal more than Nadal has had to play him on grass or indoors.
Clay court dominance
They have played 15 times on clay with Nadal leading,13-2. They have played three times on grass,all at Wimbledon,with Federer winning twice,and have played four times on indoor hard courts with Federer sweeping the four,all of which were played at the World Tour Finals where the ball has traditionally bounced low and out of Nadals now-expanded comfort zone.
Theyve been playing each other for what,nine years? said Cahill. And theyve only played four times after the U.S. Open. Thats not much,and that would be something thats sort of in the Federer camp. Im sure hed like to get a crack at Rafa at a few of those tournaments and maybe now he will with his ranking slipping down a little bit because he doesnt have to wait for a final to play him. He might get him in a quarter or a semi.
That 21-10 record is not something Roger will want to look back on,and Im sure hed like to get a few more wins on the board before his career finishes.
But then Nadal,a man who has often explained that he likes the struggle for the trophy more than the trophy,would presumably like to get a few more on the board before his career finishes,too. Though Federer,with his still superior Grand Slam haul,much longer run at No.1 and epic durability,still seems worthy of the nod in this generational parlor game,Nadal knees and other body parts willing should have quite a while longer to keep struggling and producing trump cards of his own,including that first World Tour Finals title.
Believe me,for him its very,very important, Santana said. And I really think Rafa has a great chance this year, he said.