Rafael Nadal is not only the King of Clay, he’s the GOAT

Tennis


Earlier this year, ESPN put together their list of The Dominant 20 athletes of the past two decades to celebrate the 20th anniversary of ESPN The Magazine. Roger Federer ranked fifth and Novak Djokovic 15th, but Rafael Nadal wasn’t even on the list.

Meanwhile, last month, Maria Sharapova ignited a bit of controversy with her “hot take” that Rafael Nadal is the tennis GOAT.

The question for today is: Who was right? Was Nadal the third best player of his generation, or the Greatest of All Time?

Nadal won his unprecedented 11th French Open, and 17th major championship overall this weekend.

On Twitter today, SportsCenter tweeted out congratulations to the “King of Clay”:

Meanwhile, Wimbledon posted a congratulatory tweet for Nadal’s victory that calls him simply, “The King”:

Again, which is right?

By the numbers, Nadal has as strong of a case to be the GOAT as any male tennis player who ever lived, including Federer. Nadal’s 17 major championship victories rank second on the all-time list, and he’s first all-time with 32 career Master’s 1000 victories. Nadal also has an Olympic gold medal. His credentials are sterling.

However, there are those who feel that Nadal is too much of a specialist to be the overall GOAT. He is lavished with nicknames such as “the King of Clay”, but to many this moniker limits him to one surface while the “real” GOATs vie for supremacy across every surface.

Let’s examine this. Is Rafa just the King of Clay? Or does he have an argument as simply the King?

Too dependent on one tournament?

Someone recently asked me this question: “If you take away the 11 wins at the French Open, then what is Nadal?” The answer to that question is not what you would expect from someone who is “only” the King of Clay.

Nadal, outside of clay

• Six major titles (three US Open, two Wimbledon, one Australian Open)

• Completed career Grand Slam

• Seven other major final appearances (three Wimbledon, three Australian Open, one US Open)

• One Olympic individual Gold medal (hard court)

• Eight Masters 1000 titles (hard court)

Let’s check out how Nadal’s non-French Open majors credentials compare with the rest of the top-10 major winners of the Open era with their best tournament excluded:

Roger Federer: 12 wins, 7 additional finals, career Slam
Rafael Nadal: 6 wins, 7 additional finals, career Slam
Pete Sampras: 7 wins, 4 additional finals, no career Slam
Novak Djokovic: 6 wins, 9 additional finals, career Slam
Bjorn Borg: 5 wins, 5 additional finals, no career Slam
Jimmy Connors: 3 wins, 5 additional finals, no career Slam
Ivan Lendl: 5 wins, 6 additional finals, no career Slam
Andre Agassi: 4 wins, 7 additional finals, career Slam
John McEnroe: 3 wins, 3 additional finals, no career Slam
Mats Wilander: 4 wins, 2 additional finals, no career Slam

Federer clearly has the most impressive totals outside of his dominant tournament, Wimbledon, in this type of analysis. However, it should be noted that his major wins are almost universally on two surfaces, as he’s won 11 hard-court majors (six Australian Opens, five US Opens) in addition to his eight Wimbledon champions on grass. On clay, he only has one major title, the 2009 French Open in which Nadal was upset by Robin Soderling before the Spaniard sat the next three months with knee tendonitis.

Outside of Federer, who we’ll discuss more below, Nadal compares incredibly favorably with the rest of the best players of the Open era in this situation, both by the numbers and in overall versatility as one of only four on this list with the career Slam. Unlike the other three, Nadal has won at least two majors on every surface (four on hard courts, two on grass). In fact, Nadal has been the defending champ at three different majors on three different surfaces, simultaneously, on two different occasions.

All told, the “King of Clay” actually measures out as having perhaps the most robust and versatile game from among his peers, with Federer as the one notable exception. So let’s take a closer look at how Nadal measures up with Federer overall.

Case against Federer?

Federer owns a record 20 major singles championships and has 10 other major finals appearances under his belt. However, it should be noted that Federer (age 36) is almost five years older than Nadal (just turned 32), and has thus just been playing longer. Longevity is to be respected, obviously, but consider that Nadal has 17 major wins at age 32, at which point Federer had the exact same number. In addition, over their entire careers to date:

• Nadal has 903 wins and 187 losses overall (82.8 win percentage) while Federer is 1,149-252 (82.0 win percentage)

• Nadal has 32 Masters 1000 wins (24 clay, 8 hard) while Federer has 27 (21 hard, 6 clay)

• Nadal has 1 Olympic gold medal in singles (2008), Federer has zero (best result silver, 2012)

And then there’s this:

When considered in the context of longevity, Nadal actually has a very strong quantitative argument against Federer. It’s a very close matchup, but generally Nadal’s career numbers are just as good or slightly better than Federer’s at every turn in terms of overall results. But because their careers have overlapped so significantly, there is another way that we can compare Nadal and Federer: head to head.

Federer and Nadal have faced each other 38 times, including 12 times in Grand Slams. Nadal has won 23 of those meetings, against Federer’s 15. Nadal has won 13 of their 15 matchups on clay, while Federer has won 13 of the 23 matchups on grass and hard courts. However, in majors, Nadal has won all five of their matchups on clay and three of their four hard-court matchups, with Federer’s two wins in three Wimbledons as his only surface advantage.

When you put together Nadal’s comparable career resume and head-to-head advantage, it makes a strong argument that Nadal should already be ahead of Federer on any GOAT list.

Bottom Line

No GOAT candidate has ever been as dominant on any surface as Nadal is on clay. However, Nadal also has been successful enough on the other surfaces that he has a strong case as the best tennis player of all time. His success at majors outside of the French Open compares very favorably with anyone in the Open era — including Federer. Nadal is the unquestioned King of Clay, but taken as a whole, he is very likely the King of tennis as a whole. Long live the King.





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