WHY NADAL CANNOT BE THE GOAT
03rd of June 2015
After Roland Garros’ quarter finals
I was going to wait until the end of both careers – Federer’s and Nadal’s – to write a piece on who should be considered the GOAT (The Greatest of All Times), but I realised we actually don’t need to wait that long.
The reason is simple: unless Nadal finishes two more years as #1 and/or accumulates at least another 100 weeks as #1 – which is very much unlikely even from the point of view of the most delusional fans of Nadal –, nobody can claim, or even start thinking, that he’s the GOAT.
The argument for sustaining that is quite straightforward.
Up to now, Nadal was not able to finish as year-end #1 for two consecutive years – an achievement that even Hewitt managed to do –, so how can any one genuinely consider him as a serious candidate for being the GOAT?
Except if the criteria as to what to count as relevant to being the GOAT are reduced to only Grand Slam titles and head-to-head (H2H) comparisons, Nadal is completely out of the picture. Indeed, should Slam titles be considered the determinant factor – which would be a fairly abnormal way of assessing the GOAT criteria –, Nadal would “only” need to win three more Slams, tying Federer’s 17 but having the notorious H2H advantage.
But why would anyone think that way?
The GOAT is about having the best CV in tennis and being #1 is at least as an important factor to be considered as the number of Slam titles. To many people, being #1 is even more important than Slam titles, considering that it’s far more difficult to get to be #1 (only 25 players have got that honour in the Open Era) than to have a Slam to your name (I mean, who’s Albert Costa?).
Jokes aside, and as Sampras well put in his book “A Champion’s mind”, dominance is a key factor when we’re discussing the GOAT contenders. And Nadal was never dominant for a long enough period of time, and that’s a point very easy to make:
- Nadal never finished two consecutive years as #1 (and only 3 times in 6 years!) – which is in stark contrast to Sampras’ 6 (consecutive), Connors’ 5 (consecutive), Federer’s 5 (in 6 years), McEnroe’s 4 (consecutive), Lendl’s 4 (in 5), and soon-enough Djokovic’s 4 times (in 5 years);
- In terms of weeks as #1, the situation is not any better. Nadal, with his 141 weeks atop, is only the 7th, behind the six above-mentioned and less than half the weeks Federer (302) and Sampras (286) spent ahead of their peers, and only a bit more than half the weeks Lendl (270) and Connors (268) did;
- If we think about consecutive weeks leading the field, Nadal appears as owning only the 10th best sequence, with 56 weeks (only a little bit over a full year), behind Federer and his astonishing 237 consecutive weeks (now that’s dominance!), Connors (160 and 84), Lendl (157 and 80), Sampras (102 and 82), Hewitt (75) and McEnroe (58).
So, how not dominant has Nadal been?
I mean, don’t get me wrong. For me, Nadal is obviously among the greatest players ever. His feats are many and incredible, but as we get down to the important numbers – and being #1, being dominantly #1, is definitely one of them –, it seems clear that he cannot be said to have the best CV in tennis. He still might, as he’s an active player, but he doesn’t.
Later on I will, of course, discuss at great length all these and other relevant – and more multifaceted – factors, but these provide us enough evidence for a clear-cut conclusion to be reached: as far as the GOAT is concerned, at least for now, Nadal has to withdraw his candidature. For now, Nadal and his fans have to find consolation in the fact that he is, indeed, the greatest of all times… on clay!
* * *
A parallel discussion or… Giving some context to the GOAT discussion
Whenever we talk about the GOAT these days, we think mostly about Federer and Nadal, and that can be a bit misleading sometimes. Why? Because while Federer has most of the biggest and best numbers and records, he’s got a (very) bad head-to-head against Nadal and – although H2H comparisons are more about match-up than greatness (I’ll dedicate an entire session about this debate) – that single fact seems to have the power to blind (some) people, especially Nadal fans.
Or, that H2H cannot be a crucial (not even close to that!) factor concerning the GOAT is quite obvious from two arguments:
- H2H lacks the “transitive property”.
When we talk about titles, numbers are quite straightforward. If X has more titles than Y, and if Y has more titles than Z, it means that X has more titles than Z.
Now, in terms of H2H comparisons, it may sometimes happen that X has a better H2H against Y; Y a better H2H against Z; and Z a better H2H against Y!
Or, by the titles comparison, we could say something like: if X has more titles than Y, he’s better (or has a better CV) than Y. But if we do the same in the second, H2H, example, we’d have a clear paradox: X is better than Y, who is better than Y, who… is better than X!!
Now, how can that help us comparing multiple players? Well, it cannot.
H2H can, at most, serve as a “tiebreak” between two players: if A and B have similar numbers, whoever has the better H2H wins.
The thing is… Federer and Nadal do not share similar numbers. At all.
- A “better H2H” against your main adversaries does not necessarily transform into “more titles” than your main adversaries.
X may have a better H2H against Y and Z on hard, clay and grass. But that does not imply that X has more titles neither on hard, nor clay, nor grass. That actually is the case with Nadal. Putting clay aside, he famously has a better H2H, for instance, against both Federer and Murray on hard courts, but has (considerably) fewer titles than either player on that surface.
From those small considerations, we should conclude the following:
– If a good H2H against your main adversaries does not “transform” itself into more titles than your adversaries, it just means that you lost to other (lesser) players more than your main adversaries did.
The same conclusion may be stated in another way, this time taking Nadal as a concrete example:
- Nadal has a good H2H against Federer even on hard courts, but has only a 78% winning-ratio overall, which transformed in 16 titles and 34 finals.
- Federer, on the other hand, may have a bad H2H against Nadal even on hard courts, but has a 83% winning-ratio, which transformed into an all-time record 58 titles in 77 finals.
- Interestingly enough, Murray, who also has a bad H2H against Nadal on hard courts, has also a 78% winning-ratio, but in his case, it transformed into 25 titles and 40 finals!
Conclusion: Nadal may have beaten Federer more times than the other way around, but ended up losing to other (lesser) players many more times than Federer did (hence much fewer titles).
* * *
Now, let’s try something else and help clarifying the discussion. Let’s take Federer out of the equation for a moment, and ask ourselves where Nadal stand in the GOAT discussion compared to the other contenders?
Comparing the greatest players’ CVs is no easy task, but we can ask the following question: which are the biggest assets and the biggest predicaments in a player’s CVs?
Nadal X Sampras
Let’s have a quick look at the big numbers.
Both have 14 slams, but Nadal won all four, while Sampras never even made to a final in RG. Point to Nadal.
Sampras finished the year 6 (consecutive) times as #1, Nadal only 3. Sampras has twice as many weeks as #1 (286 vs. 141). Point to Sampras.
Nadal won 27 Master Series, Sampras only 11. On the other hand, Sampras won the prestigious Masters Cup (ATP Finals) 5 times in 6 finals, whereas Nadal barely made a final.
Now, the big question to be asked seems to be:
– Which is to be preferred: being a long-term, all-dominant #1, or having won all four slams + a more balanced performance on all surfaces?
Or asking the opposite question: Which is the biggest “stain” on their CVs?
– No title at RG, very few clay titles? Or never having finished 2 consecutive years as #1 and having only half of the weeks ahead of the field?
Now, that’s a very serious question.
Personally speaking, I’d rather have won all four Slams for the sheer pleasure of winning each one of them. Nonetheless, if I were to be asked which feat is more outstanding, or more difficult, I would have to say that Sampras’ 286 weeks and finishing 6 times as #1 are far more challenging feats to achieve, in the sense that those numbers are more unlikely to be surpassed by a future player than Nadal’s.
Why do I say that?
Actually, it’s quite simple.
Or, no one has finished more atop than Sampras (and only Federer has more weeks – and by a meagre 16-week lead). That’s pretty unique.
And although it’s a rare and much-admired feat to win all four slams, that’s something already achieved by 4 players in the Open Era: Laver, Agassi, Federer and Nadal (and Djokovic could be the fifth by the end of this week).
So, before answering who’s got the best CV, Sampras or Nadal, we would have to decide what weighs more: #1 weeks/year-ends or the Grand Slam.
Nadal X Lendl
The same reasoning could be carried over the comparison between Nadal vs. Connors/Lendl/McEnroe. They all dominated the tennis field in a far more comprehensive way than Nadal did, but they all have less Slam titles and none has won all four.
I would take McEnroe out of the picture here, because his 170 weeks vs. Nadal’s 141 do not impress that much.
But Lendl has a very, very solid CV and I could see someone advocating his case against Nadal’s.
- “Only” 8 slams (vs. 14), but 19 finals (vs. 20) and 28 semi-finals (vs. 23);
- No title at Wimbledon, but 2 finals and 7 semi-finals, showing that he was also a real contender in grass back then;
- 270 weeks (3rd all-time); 4 year-ends as #1;
- 5 Master Cups in 9 finals (vs. no title at all and one lonely final);
- 22 Master series (vs. 27);
- 94 titles overall (vs. 65);
Nadal has obviously the edge in terms of Slams and a little bit in terms of Master Series, but loses (very) badly in the rest.
May I say something? Should Lendl have won Wimbledon only once, I’d take Lendl’s CV any day, even with 5 less Slams! Without Wimbledon, however, personally, I prefer Nadal’s achievements. But, once again, were I to be asked which achievements are more challenging, I wouldn’t be so sure!
Nadal X Djokovic
What about Djokovic? Can he enter the discussion? Not quite yet, but should he win RG next Sunday, we sure can put him in the picture!
Let’s speculate a little bit and put RG 2015 to Djokovic’s name. Then what is the new scenario?
- 9 slams, 16 finals, 26 semis;
- All four slams, multiple finals at all of them;
- 180 weeks by the end of 2015 (and, as it’d be very unlikely for him to be surpassed until next RG, we’d inevitably see him complete 200 weeks atop); 4-year-ends as #1;
- 4 Master Cups in as many finals;
- 24 Master Series;
- 54 titles.
Again, Nadal would have the edge in terms of Slams and a small margin in terms of Master Series, but would be far behind as far as being #1 is concerned.
Besides, Djokovic’s CV is far more “balanced” than Nadal, with a good ratio between clay/hard/grass – outdoor/indoor titles, with no real “holes” in his curriculum.
Nadal, on the other hand, has no Masters Cup to his name, has a poor record on indoor courts and his overall stats on hard courts are subpar, at least in comparison to the other “big dogs”.
This becomes mightily evident when we scrutinise the abnormal ratio between his clay vs. hard court performances. Although the hard courts account for about two thirds (or so) of the tournaments, Nadal’s stats completely invert this ratio, with more than 2/3 of his titles having come from the red-dirt courts (overall titles: 46/65 or 71%; master series: 19/27 or 70%; slams: 9/14 or 64%).
This much atypical proportion becomes even more bewildering when we compare Nadal’s numbers to two other clay masters, such as Borg and Lendl, in a way that we really get to see how unprecedentedly dependent he is on his clay results.
|Overall titles||46/65 (71%)||30/64 (47%)||28/94 (30%)|
|Master Series||19/27 (70%)|
|Slams||9/14 (64%)||5/11 (45%)||3/8 (38%)|
From this, it becomes very patent that (1) Nadal is, without any possible doubt, the clay GOAT, and (2) when all things and surfaces are considered, he’s still got some ground to cover.
So, back to comparing Nadal’s and Djokovic’s numbers, in that fantasy book, where Novak wins RG 2015 (and despite still having 5 less Slams), I’d rather have Djokovic’s CV than Nadal’s. But let’s wait until Sunday. The history book is about to have another great chapter in it.
TO BE CONTINUED…