Reopening the GOAT debate after 2020 French Open


Roger Federer‘s reaction on social media when Rafael Nadal secured his 20th Grand Slam singles title on Sunday at Roland Garros — equaling Federer’s all-time men’s record — was a memorable, heartfelt statement paying tribute to Nadal as both lifelong rival and friend.

“It is a true honor for me to congratulate him on his 20th Grand Slam victory,” Federer posted on Instagram. “It is especially amazing that he has now won Roland Garros an incredible 13 times, which is one of the greatest achievements in sport.”

For his part, Nadal downplayed his remarkable achievement, saying after his victory, “It is not the moment, honestly, to think about the 20 (majors). For me, today is just a Roland Garros story.”

In one fell swoop, the two icons accomplished something that nothing and nobody else managed for almost a decade and a half. They drained the long-running animosity out of fans lodged in either camp of the “Fedal” rivalry. The fierce partisans made nice with each other.

Realistically, though, this is as subject to change as any truce. Neither Federer nor Nadal has indicated that he wants to quit while he’s ahead, and neither of them is eager to see 17-time major champion Novak Djokovic — once the third wheel in their relationship, now an equal — catch up and perhaps even surpass them.

“I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us,” Federer wrote, signaling there’s a new phase coming in the trivalry.

Let’s look at the how the GOAT race shapes up for each of the men in order of age:

Roger Federer
Age: 39
Rank: No. 4
Most productive event: Wimbledon (8 titles in 21 appearances)

Nadal’s accomplishment is bound to trigger another jolt of ambition in Federer, less because of the Swiss stalwart’s proprietary feelings about the record than his love for the game and the challengers it represents. Remember what happened the last time Federer was in a comparable position, in 2017.

Federer was coming back from what appeared to be a career-threatening layoff due to a knee injury in 2016. After losing to Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon semifinals, Federer decided to cancel the rest of his year. Critics thought he might be finished, and with good reason: Federer had not won a title for the first time in 16 years. He was guaranteed to drop out of the top 10 during the hiatus. He had 17 major titles, but had gone four years without winning one.

In a blazing return. Federer won two, the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2017, and successfully defended the latter title in 2018. He described the gamble he took by leaving the game as one that recharged his career.

Federer referenced that 2017 comeback in a June tweet meant to reassure his fans.

“Thirty-nine ain’t what it used to be, that’s for sure,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert told me. “But if tennis gets going again, Roger will probably be unseeded for the Australian Open in ’21 because he played so little early this year. And that could mean trouble.”

During that 2016 break, Federer also further improved his already outstanding one-handed backhand. It’s difficult to imagine him making a comparably significant change during this break, but who knows? The inescapable detail is that it’s also four years later for a man who appears to have already had his late career surge.

Federer hasn’t won a major since that successful defense in Melbourne in 2018, but his performance in the 2019 Wimbledon final is unforgettable — and still fresh. He was beaten after holding match points by Djokovic in the first final decided by a fifth-set tiebreaker in the tournament’s history.

“We are in uncharted territory, the way guys are training and taking care of themselves,” Gilbert said. “(Federer) isn’t some normal 39-year old. The one thing I am confident is that when Federer comes back, he’s going to be competitive, he’s going to be decent.”

Federer’s best chance to add a major will be at Wimbledon, where he’ll still be capable of beating anyone due to his style of play, the shorter points and the forgiving nature of the grass courts.

Let’s forget Bovidae references and look to human ones: In the big picture, Federer may not end up being the king, but he may very well end up a kingmaker.

Rafael Nadal
Age: 34
Rank: No. 2
Most productive major: French Open (13 titles in 16 appearances)

Given Nadal’s proficiency at Roland Garros, the biggest threat to him locking down 21 or more titles is his injury history. He has skipped eight majors over his career due to injury, and that’s not counting two retirements and a walkover. His absentee rate far exceeds that of his rivals: Djokovic has missed just one major, Federer has missed only two because he was physically unable to compete.

On Sunday, Nadal told reporters, “I would love to finish my career being the player with more Grand Slams. No doubt about that.” But he reiterated that he refused to spend the late stages of his career looking enviously at the record of others, or over his shoulder at every major to see how his rivals are doing. The attitude has served him well, even when his body has not.

The great advantage Nadal has in the game’s great treasure hunt is his clay-court expertise. He’s 100-2 for his career at Roland Garros, a winner in all of his 13 finals. The lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic allowed him to rest and recover his full health, and his performance at Roland Garros showed it.

“The French final was huge,” Gilbert said. “That was really the chance for both guys to make a strong claim on current GOAT status. I never saw Rafa play a better match. He found another, higher gear with his forehand on the last day.”

For Nadal going forward, the US Open also looms with importance. His record there is somewhat overlooked. Gilbert believes that in a normal year, the American Slam is the toughest to win. Nadal, who passed on the opportunity to defend his title in the US Open bubble in this unusual year, has earned four titles at Flushing Meadows, leaving him one ahead of Djokovic and just one behind the only two men who have won five times in the Open era: Federer and Pete Sampras.

The closest thing to a sure thing in Grand Slam handicapping has been picking Nadal to win the French Open.

Novak Djokovic
Age: 33
Rank: No. 1
Most productive major: Australian Open (8 titles in 16 appearances)

He’s the youngest of the Big Three, if not by very much, and clearly the best all-around performer at the majors, but he also trails his rivals by three titles, and the two opportunities he missed in 2020 may cost him in the long run.

Djokovic was defaulted from the US when he struck a line judge in the throat with a ball he smacked in anger after losing a point. He seemed poised to torpedo Nadal at the French Open, but his Spanish rival bamboozled him in the final with startling ease. It’s back to the drawing board for Djokovic, but perhaps not for long.

“I don’t see this [loss at the French Open] setting Novak back,” Gilbert said. “If anything, it will only motivate him to keep on keeping on. He may be getting up there at 33, but it’s more like his legs are those of a 25-year old.”

Djokovic rejected the idea that his loss to Nadal at Roland Garros was a failure, telling reporters, “I don’t think it’s the biggest match that I have ever played in my life. I think there were some bigger ones,” he said, citing his first win (over Nadal) in a Wimbledon final.

With a talented crop of young players improving and pushing harder at the gates of major success, Djokovic isn’t exactly looking at clear sailing in his hunt to surpass his rivals. But his head-to-head stats against both Federer (27-23) and Nadal (29-27) are likely to improve as he meets them on surfaces other than clay and he has better chances at more majors than either of his peers.

Attitude plays a role in Djokovic’s hopes. In May, he told talk show host Graham Bensinger: “I believe I can win the most slams and break the record for longest No. 1. Those are definitely my clear goals.” He added later, “I don’t believe in limits. I think limits are only illusions of your ego or your mind.”

Be that as it may, Nadal’s forehand in the French Open was no illusion, and it prevented Djokovic from becoming the first Open era man to win each of the Grand Slam events twice. He may not see as good a chance to claim that record again, given the way the conditions appeared to fall in his favor because of the one-off postponement that pushed the French Open into October.

But with his consistency on all surfaces but clay, his determination to fulfill ambitions he’s not hesitant to proclaim, and those relatively fresh legs, Djokovic may be in the best position of all to win the Grand Slam singles title derby.

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