Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Two of the greatest athletes of all time.
Perhaps the two greatest tennis players of all time. The debate over who is the greatest will be an endless battle and with every twist and turn in their journey, their supporters will continue to throw fuel in the raging flame. Yet with every passing year in their careers, the answer to that question seems to become a little clearer.
Or maybe not.
This is why the 2017 season illuminates who will be the greatest player of all time after the flames subside and the fog clears.
2017 Was Unpredictable, To Say The Least
The 2017 ATP season has been an unprecedented season in more ways than one. Starting the year off with the likes of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic ranked numbers one and two in the world respectively, it was expected that both men would continue their rivalry, produce more epic clashes and firmly establish their places at the top of the rankings for years to come. The comebacks of a 35-year-old Roger Federer and a 30-year-old Rafael Nadal ranked No. 17 and No. 9 in the world respectively were both highly anticipated but even the most vehement supporters knew that their best was likely well in the past. With Murray and Djokovic dominating the game, young gunners like Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and Denis Shapovalov just to name a few improving every day. Also, the danger of Stan Wawrinka or Marin Cilic to crash a Grand Slam final seemed like insurmountable barriers for Federer and Nadal to overcome.
Yet here they stand, one week before the Nitto ATP World Tour Finals ranked No.1 and No.2 in the world. Federer and Nadal. The icons and legends of the sport are miles ahead of the rest of the pack with Djokovic, Murray, and Wawrinka nursing their own season-ending injuries. This is what these two men have accomplished leading up to the World Tour Finals in this remarkable renaissance of a year in 2017:
Federer: 2 Grand Slams (Australian Open, Wimbledon), 3 Masters 1000 titles, 2 500 series titles; 7 titles total
Nadal: 2 Grand Slams (French Open, US Open), 2 Masters 1000 titles, 2 500 series titles; 6 titles total
With Rafael Nadal pulling out of the final Masters 1000 event in Paris at the quarterfinal stage due to a knee injury and his attendance at the World Tour Finals in question, the ATP player of the year should go to Roger Federer with his 7 titles right?
Well, no it will go to Rafael Nadal and deservedly so. The player of the year award is always given to the year-end No.1, which is Rafael Nadal. While Roger Federer may have more titles and a flawless 4-0 record against Nadal this year, including a 3-0 record in finals, Nadal has performed more consistently throughout the season. He has 67 wins to Federer’s 49 wins and has played his way to 10 finals versus Federer’s 8 finals as well as making it to the quarterfinals in four other tournaments.
2017 By The Numbers
But let us take a closer look at their tournament wins starting with Nadal:
Monte-Carlo Masters: 2 ranked 11-20 wins, no grand slam winners
Barcelona: 1 Top 10 win, next highest ranked player he beat was ranked 66, no grand slam winners
Madrid: 3 Top 10 wins including first win over Djokovic in his last 8 attempts, 1 grand slam winner
French Open: 2 Top 10 wins, 1 ranked 11-20 win, 1 grand slam winner
US Open: 0 Top 25 wins, highest ranked player he defeated was ranked 28, 1 grand slam winner
China Open: 1 Top 10 win, 2 ranked 11-20 wins, no grand slam winners
Clearly, Nadal has had an impressive 2017 winning 6 titles and showing why he is considered a bull on the tennis courts by showcasing his unrelenting fire and fighting for every point like it’s a match point. But something that is glaringly obvious to anyone who pays attention to the details can see that Nadal waltzed through some of his tournaments facing very little opposition with two of his tournament wins coming with no top 10 opposition including the US Open where he did not face a single opponent ranked inside the top 25, the first time in history this has happened at a grand slam.
Now let us take a look at Federer’s tournament wins:
Australian Open: 4 Top 10 wins, 2 grand slam winners
Indian Wells Masters: 2 Top 10 wins, 2 ranked 11-20 wins, 2 grand slam winners
Miami Open: 1 Top 10 win, 3 ranked 11-20 wins, 2 grand slam winners
Halle Open: 1 Top 20 win, 0 grand slam winners
Wimbledon: 2 Top 10 wins, 2 ranked 11-20 wins, 1 grand slam winner
Shanghai Masters: 1 Top 10 win, 2 grand slam winners
Swiss Indoors: 1 Top 10 win, 1 ranked 11-20 win, 1 grand slam winner
Federer has also had an impressive 2017 winning 7 titles and continuing to defy father time. But it is important to note that Federer has had to face at least one top 10 opponent as well as at least one grand slam winner in every tournament he has won this year except Halle including beating four top 10 opponents at the Australian Open. However, most importantly he defeated Nadal in all four matchups this year thus far including winning three finals against him. Clearly, Federer has had the tougher path to his titles this year and has gotten the better of his great rival.
2017 As It Relates to the GOAT Debate
But in the end so what? Nadal will go down in history as the 2017 ATP player of the year as the year-end No.1 winning 2 grand slams and that is how his 2017 will be remembered in the history books. There will be no asterisk next to it saying he had an easier path to his titles or that he had a 0-4 record against Federer.
Similarly, this can be applied to the ongoing Federer-Nadal GOAT debate. The two most common arguments against Federer for Nadal are that he achieved most of his accomplishments in a so-called “weak era” without any real competition and he has a losing 15-23 head to head record against Nadal.
But answer this question. If these features define Federer’s legacy against Nadal’s legacy then why wasn’t Federer the ATP player of the year in 2017?
Federer clearly had more competition this year and has a flawless 4-0 record against Nadal. So Federer should be the ATP player of the year right? More competition, better head to head record means superiority, right?
Tennis is not about a single rivalry. It’s not about the competition from a single tournament or even multiple tournaments. Just like the ATP player of the year goes to who has performed the best over the course of the year, the GOAT goes to who has performed the best over the course of a career. We can put mental asterisks about Nadal’s 2017 season regarding weaker competition and a losing record against Federer just as we can put mental asterisks about Federer’s career about a “weak era” and a losing record against Nadal, but in the history books, there will be no asterisks.
Nadal’s 2017 season will be remembered by his deservedly earned year-end number one ranking attached with his ATP player of the year award just like how Federer’s career will be remembered by his deservedly earned overall achievements attached with the greatest of all time title.
If you believe Federer deserves ATP player of the year then you should also believe Nadal has the more compelling argument to be the GOAT. If you believe Nadal deserves the ATP player of the year then you should also believe Federer has the more compelling argument to be the GOAT.
Regardless of who deserves the ATP player of the year award and who deserves to be the GOAT; it is not all-encompassing. Just appreciate the fact that we live in a time where we get to sit back and enjoy the two greatest players of all time continue to duel back and forth, rewriting history with each step they take.
* Andrew is from Rockville, Maryland. He goes to the University of Michigan. He loves tennis and follows the tour closely.