Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport
Even in this most recent of eras, which spans two decades, it remains a debate as to who is the greatest men’s tennis player.
I am not a believer in Greatest of All Times’ judgements, as different eras brought different challenges and challengers, and the number of quality of players in different eras dramatically influenced statistics.
Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Guillermo Vilas rocked in the 1970s and early 1980s, then followed Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and most recently Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Federer turns 40 this year, Nadal will be 35 and Djokovic will be 34. The terrific trio have owned the Grand Slam centre court and should Djokovic triumph in Sunday’s Australian Open final for a 18th overall Slam, the trio combined would have 58 Grand Slam singles titles from 88 final appearances.
All three have won on grass, clay and the hardcourts of the Australian and United States Open.
Federer, with 20 Grand Slams, is generally described as the best. The iconic Rod Laver only this week said that for him it was Federer and then the rest. Djokovic, capable of playing for another three to five years, should surpass Federer’s 20 Grand Slam victories and has a huge support base for being considered the best.
But I have always been mystified of the fight it has always been for Nadal to be spoken of with the same reverence as Federer and Djokovic.
Everything about Nadal’s career speaks to him being able to claim the ‘best of his generation’ title.
And everything about his attitude, his humility, his grace, his refusal to quit and his skill, speaks to greatness.
Nadal has won 20 Grand Slam titles and all his numbers echo those returns of Federer and Djokovic.
The anti-Nadal brigade, and yes if you can believe it there are those who dismiss any argument that lists Nadal as the best of his era, argue Nadal’s numbers are based on him being a clay-court specialist and never as big a presence on grass or hardcourts.
Federer and Djokovic are often described as poets, whereas there has never been anything subtle or seemingly beautiful about Nadal’s predatory instincts. If the former two are symphonies, then Nadal has always been heavy metal.
The argument that Nadal is a one-trick pony, in that it has all been done on clay is inaccurate. What isn’t, is that he is the best of his era to play on clay and, for many, the best exponent of clay the game has seen.
Nadal has won a remarkable 13 French Opens, five on the hard courts of New York and Melbourne and two on Wimbledon’s grass, with his 2008 five set victory against Federer his finest triumph. Grass was his least favourite surface and grass was Federer’s favourite. Federer was the master at Wimbledon and Nadal beat him 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7.
Nadal has won 20 of his 28 Grand Slam final appearances, and in Paris on occasions demolished Federer and Djokovic, but he has never as easily been battered in a final on hard courts or on grass by either or two.
Nadal, in the head-to-head, leads Federer 24-16 and trails Djokovic 27-29, who leads Federer 27-23.
Nadal, in his entire career has an 83.2 percent win average, with 92 percent on clay, 78 percent on grass and 78 percent on hard courts. Federer’s career is 82% overall, with 87.4 percent on grass, 83.3 percent on hard courts and 76.1 percent on clay. Djokovic’s overall is 83.1 percent, with 84.3 percent on hard cards, 84.1 percent on grass and 80.1 percent on clay.
Federer has won 20 from 31 Grand Slam final appearances and Djokovic (excluding today’s Australian Open final) has won 17 from 28.
Statistically, 1.2 percent separates the trio’s career winning record and even less separates them in the debate of who is the best of their era. For me, to rank them one two and three would be an injustice to the magnificence of their respective careers.
Men’s tennis in the past 20 years has been about this holy trinity and not about a duo that excludes one in favour of two others.