Since Rafael Nadal won the French Open in quite brilliant style last week, the world has been seemingly clamouring to declare the tennis GOAT race over.
In beating Novak Djokovic to win his 13th Roland Garros crown, Nadal drew level with Roger Federer with 20 Grand Slam titles. It is, by every measure, an incredible achievement.
What it is not, however, is definitive.
Flaws of the tennis GOAT debate
Just to set our stall out early: Tennisbuzz does not have a favourite ‘big three’ player. We admire each one of them in equal measure.
In fact, as far as we are concerned, the ‘tennis GOAT’ debate is flawed from the off. It’s not just a little flawed either. It’s irreparably broken on multiple levels.
Firstly, and most importantly, there is not, nor will there ever be, a consensus criterion for greatness. That’s not something that is restricted to tennis either. Greatness has always been a subjective concept, based entirely upon the individual assessing it.
If, for example, we were to discuss what the greatest movie was of all time, we wouldn’t simply boil the debate down to the statistics, and we’d definitely not all agree about it.
The Novak Djokovic raw deal
There surely can’t be three more compared individuals in the world than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, yet in many ways the Serbian gets a raw deal from the off.
Roger Federer turned pro in 1998, with Rafael Nadal doing the same three years later in 2001. That obviously wasn’t ideal for the young Nadal, who found a would-be all-time great in his way.
By the time Djokovic was ready to start contesting majors, he had two would-be all-time greats in his path. In fact, when Federer won his first Grand Slam title in 2003 at Wimbledon, Djokovic had not even played his first full ATP Tour level event yet.
In the summer of 2006, Nadal won his second Grand Slam and Federer had seven to his name, and he was about to add another two before the end of the year. That summer, Djokovic was still in is formative years outside the world's top 50.
So, right now, yes Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have more Grand Slams than Djokovic, but they have also had more opportunity and less competition.
With regard to Federer, that has started to come full circle now, and he has been past his peak for a while, which has helped both Djokovic and Nadal, but the fact they started at different times makes direct comparisons very difficult.
In simple terms, Federer and Nadal had a career head-start on Novak Djokovic – years when they were able to compete for the biggest titles without him in the picture. Until Djokovic has caught up and had a similar opportunity to compete without them, a direct comparison isn’t fair on him.
If we are, however, determined to compare the statistics of tennis’ three greatest champions, the best we can probably do is to take Djokovic’s age now as a temporary cut-off to measure them against each other.
After all, why should Djokovic be penalised in the comparison for time that he has not yet had, yet his rivals have?
And, enticingly, if you do a progress comparison between the three men on their 33rd birthdays, their Grand Slam count is perfectly level with 17 apiece.
So… tennis GOAT?
Right now, Rafael Nadal deserves all the acclaim he is receiving. He has reached a major and historic career milestone.
However, Nadal fans rightly refused to accept Roger Federer as the GOAT before the Spaniard had the chance to catch up on the career head start that Federer had. They now have to allow Djokovic the same opportunity
And, crucially, even when the careers are over and the final statistics are in, it’s important to accept that they will only ever be an aide to the debate, not the end of it.
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