Against Federer and history, advantage Nadal

Against Federer and history, advantage Nadal
June 9, 2014, 12:00 am
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(Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports)

Between Rafael Nadal winning his 14th Grand Slam title on Sunday and LeBron James aiming for a rare 3-peat with the Miami Heat, there has been lots of GOAT (Greatest of All Time) talk this week. In the case of James, it isn't whether an NBA title makes him the best of the best now, but where he would rank all-time and what it would take to pass Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and so on.

For Nadal, now tied with Pete Sampras for the most majors on the men's tour with 14, his GOAT candidacy is ready to go.

That's true whether he ever ties or matches Roger Federer's record of 17 majors or not. Federer is universally praised as the GOAT and with spectacular reason. He just hasn't been the best player in his era for a while now, thanks to Nadal. Based on the data presented below, an argument exists that at this point, the match has been decided. Advantage, Nadal.

Now, the following points are about whether Nadal's power and passion is better than Federer's precise ground strokes and never-let-them-see-you-sweat cool (though a 23-10 head-to-head record says it might as well be). We can have those barroom or message board arguments, perhaps work in Rod Laver* and Sampras** as well.

This is about an examination of the eras. For all of his greatness, when it came to racking up GS titles, Federer may simply have found recent history's sweet spot.

* Let's start with the elephant in the room: Federer has more majors, true. In most cases, I'm no fan of only counting rings or trophies.  If this is the main counter argument, then Bill Russell is greater than Jordan.

* For Nadal, 13 of those 23 wins over Federer came on clay (as have nine of his 14 majors). Clearly, that's the Spaniard's best surface and Federer's worst. Take those clay court matches out and Nadal still leads 10-8.

In 11 years, only once did Federer have more head-to-head victories. They have met 11 times in major finals. Nadal is 9-2 with a current six-match winning streak. He also started his career 6-1 versus Federer and never lost more than two in a row.

* Before we get into Federer-Nadal from a majors title standpoint, it's important we look back just before those two became the sport's main headliners. Sampras retired having won the most majors. His first came at the 1990 US Open. His last also took place in New York, with a surprising run in 2002.

In between, 18 players won at least one major. Of those 18, nine won multiple titles including Andre Agassi (7 of his 8 overall), Jim Courier ( 4/4), Gustavo Kuerten (3 /3), Stefan Edberg (2/6), Boris Becker (2/6) and Lleyton Hewitt (2/2).

 Agassi would win the next major, the 2003 Australian Open. Federer started his reign that summer at Wimbledon.

 Of the aforementioned 18 other major title holders during Sampras' reign, only one (Marat Safin) won another major after Federer claimed his first.

Agassi, Edberg and Becker are among the top 15-20 players all-time with Courier another rung back. Remember that depth Sampras faced as we move forward.

* Again mention Federer's first major came in 2003 (Wimbledon) and note his 14th, same as Nadal/Sampras now, came at the 2009 French.  In between, only five other players won a major with only Nadal (6) a repeat winner.

As for Nadal, the 2005 French served as his major breakthrough with Sunday's win at the French obviously his most recent. Like Federer, five others won a major in between his first and 14th. However, Novak Djokovic won five of his six Grand Slam titles in that time, Andy Murray claimed two and of course, Federer won 12.

Now, about those 12 (or at least 11 of them)...

* From 2004-2007, the Swiss savant won 11 of the 16 majors. In that span Nadal turned 18, won his first tour event - and the French three times, though none of the other three Grand Slams.

Everything changed in 2008 when the 22-year-old triumphed at Wimbledon over the nearly 27-year-old Federer. Starting with that victory, here is how the two stack up with Grand Slam titles: Australian (Tied, 1-1); French (Nadal, 5-1); Wimbledon (Tied, 2-2) and U.S. Open (Nadal, 2-1)

Djokovic has also won five GS titles in that span, same as Federer.

Maybe 22-year-old Federer beats 22-year-old Nadal. The version that faced Nadal over the years when both were in their prime rarely did.

Federer has several notable records, including holding the No. 1 rank for a record 237 straight weeks from 2004 to 2008. That level of consistency, especially in a sport littered with head cases and burnouts is unreal. That doesn't mean it's not logical to look back and wonder about the level of competition.

Coincidence or not, Federer's most dominant era came as the previous generation faded away and before Nadal learned to contend on all surfaces.

It's time to re-open the debate. The numbers say so. Unless Nadal's often-ailing body breaks down and quickly, the Spaniard's numbers are only going to improve.

(*) Laver, the only man ever to win all four titles in the same year twice, is often deemed the best ever. Won't argue against. Different era, different tour.

(**)Sampras never came close to winning the French. So, he's out of the debate until further notice.