On the 18th December 2022, Gonzalo Montiel slotted home Argentina’s fourth penalty in the
While soccer (or Football depending on where you’re from), is a team sport, the attention all went to one man, Lionel Messi.
Over the last 15 or so years, the soccer world, and anyone who has a vague interest in the sport, has been in a heated debate over who is the so called ‘GOAT’ (greatest of all time). The two clear cut candidates being Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Both parties had a fair case to be labelled the ‘GOAT’ of arguably the biggest sport in the world, and while I won’t go into all the points, the one glaring omission from both of their trophy cabinets was a World Cup.
So when Argentina were victorious in Qatar, and Messi hoisted the iconic trophy, it was as if a general consensus had been reached, and the 35 year old would now hold the ‘GOAT’ crown alone.
As humans we tend to rank everything, so most sports do tend to have similar debates going on,. In basketball the GOAT is Michael Jordan, in cricket it’s Don Bradman, NFL has Tom Brady and boxing has Muhammad Ali.
All of those listed above have various reasons as to why they can lay claim to being a GOAT, whether it be down to winning the most, breaking/ setting all of the records or simply just being the best.
So when it comes to tennis, we know who the GOAT is on the women’s side of things, as it’s clear as day that Serena Williams is the best female player we have ever seen take the court. However when it comes to the men, it may feel like the GOAT is Rodger Federer, but personally, I think it might be time to reopen the debate.
It's an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s clear there is an elephant in the room that is the tennis world, and in this instance, the elephant comes in the form of Novak Djokovic.
Breaking it down by the numbers to begin with, Djokovic has 10 Australian opens, two French opens, seven Wimbledon’s, three U.S opens, has spent 378 weeks as world number one (a record), a 66.7% win rate in grand slam finals, and of course the most notable number of his career, 22 total grand slam titles, the equal most ever by a male player.
Those numbers alone are insane for one individual to hold, but at the end of the day, they need to stand up when compared to the other players who can also hold claim to the GOAT title, and in this case his two competitors are Federer and Rafael Nadal.
So let’s compare these three legends of the game and see if a conclusion can be reached.
Going head to head with Federer, Djokovic has won the Australian open four more times and the French open once more. On the other hand, Federer can boast that he has won the U.S Open two more times than Djokovic, as well as holding one more Wimbledon title.
Overall Djokovic holds two more majors than Federer, and unless the Swiss decides to shock the world and come out of retirement, the gap can only get bigger. But being the GOAT isn’t all about winning the most trophies, otherwise the NBA’s GOAT would be Bill Russell, yet instead we go to Jordan, mainly because he had that killer instinct and was unbeatable on his day, and especially in the finals.
So then, how do the pairs record in grand slam finals hold up?
Well as it stands, Djokovic has won 66.7% of all major finals he has been a part of, which narrowly edges out Federer who sits at 64.52%.
So using these metrics, as slight as it may be, it’s clear that Djokovic statistically has an edge over Federer, and while Federer’s overall game is more pretty and his nice guy attitude makes him far more likable, when it comes to winning, you have to give this one to Djokovic.
So what about Nadal? The Spaniard also sits next to Djokovic on 22 total majors won, so he too has just as big of a claim to being the GOAT.
Again going by numbers, Djokovic holds eight more Australian Open titles and five more Wimbledon championships, where Nadal has one more U.S open, and not surprisingly, 12 more French open titles.
In grand slam finals, while there is no denying that winning two thirds of all finals you’ve been a part of is impressive for Djokovic, it doesn’t compare to Nadal’s winning record in finals, which sits at 73.33%.
So really, while the aim of this is to make the GOAT case for Djokovic, the numbers seem to stack up just as well, if not better for Nadal. But, and you probably saw this coming, the glaring difference between these two, is the spread of majors won.
Only eight out of Nadal’s 22 majors are not French Open’s. You can’t knock him too much for being so dominate on the clay and practically owning Roland Garros, I mean, it’s human nature to find something specific you’re good at and procced to rule over it.
Yet, here we’re talking about the GOAT of tennis, not just the GOAT of clay, and personally, I think a wide variety of different championships holds more weight than ruling over one.
But it’s only fair to give Djokovic the same treatment, so while he hasn’t controlled the Australian open to the same degree, if you were to take away those titles from him, he would still hold 12 majors, which simple maths would tell you, is four more then Nadal without his French opens.
So from an overall sense, the numbers look to fall in Djokovic’s favour when compared to the other two.
But here is what makes the tennis GOAT debate so unique, and in my opinion, the best one in sports. All three of these players played against each other and at some stage, were all in their primes together.
The NBA world never got to see Jordan go up against LeBron James, there was never a heavy weight fight between Ali and Floyd Mayweather, and while Messi and Ronaldo both played in Spain at the same time, it’s hard to give either of them an edge due to the team nature of the sport.
When it comes to tennis, these three frequently went head to head and battled it out on some of the most famous courts in the world.
So then, what’s their records against each other in all competitions?
Novak comes in at 30-29 against Nadal and 27-23 against Federer, and in the Federer vs Nadal match ups, the edge goes to the Spaniard, 24-16.
As tennis fans, we’ve also been incredibly lucky, as these three have frequently met each other in numerous grand slam finals, so it only makes sense to compare their records against each other when the stakes are at its highest.
Most surprisingly, Federer sits at a fairly average record of 4-10, meanwhile Nadal sits at 11-7, while Djokovic sits at 8-6. Again though, seven of Nadal’s wins here have come on clay, how much you want to penalise him is up to you, but for me personally while it does put a dent in his goat case, the other two were playing on that same surface.
Before writing this and looking into the numbers, I had always strongly sided with Federer being the GOAT, however, I think as time goes by, the conversation may now start circling around Djokovic and Nadal and soon, Federer may have to play third wheel.
Here’s where things get interesting though, with Nadal announcing that he won’t be playing in this year’s French Open, it well and truly opens the door for Djokovic to reach the magical number 23 and go ahead overall on majors.
The other part to Nadal’s announcement was that the soon to be 37-year-old, “plans to retire next year,” opening the door for Djokovic to build a lead over him, and finish outright with the most majors in men’s tennis.
Maybe, just maybe, then Djokovic will have his crowning moment, where the world all agrees (albeit, quite hesitantly), that we haven’t seen anyone better pick up a tennis racquet.
Until then, we can only enjoy what time we have left with the pair, and personally, I really hope we can see them face off in one last major final. Who knows, maybe if they do meet again in a final, not only will they play off for the trophy, but also the ‘GOAT’ title.