Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic. These five words, in a sense, define why we love any sport. It is this very essence of unrelenting competition that drives a game. In a sense, this is what every sport is. Yet, this is exactly what no other sport is. For one moment, take one step back and try to chaperon any other sport into the discord where three of its absolute finest are tussling for the top, simultaneously.
Football’s most competitive league, the Premier League, despite its many contenders almost always has one or two competing for the top prize at one instant. Cricket, the country’s most popular sport, juggles one pretender to every contender. IPL, cricket’s richest league, is dominated by one team while others rally around. With Usain Bolt’s departure, sprinting is now a hot potato between its myriad suitors. In an instance, this very context signifies the punch and counterpunch between these mega prize fighters of tennis as singular, unprecedented and inimitably breath taking.
Tennis is unique in the glorious manifestation of its best bets. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are, title for title, the three greatest ever dancers in the ball room of sporting ballerinas. It is equally as exciting as it is eye-bulgingly ethereal that these three men have chosen our time to statistically lessen but symbolically elevate each other’s legacies.
Imagine if the world found a way of spacing the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic GOAT debate out across three different generations. Like the Pele vs Maradona debate of football – enough breathing space for each man to fight the rivals of their time and emerge worthy. These men – in fighting those of their times – are fighting the very gods of their game.
If the three managed to indeed space it out, if nature found a way to, they would individually be sitting on unimaginable glory. Statistically unparalleled perhaps. However, that they choose to glide and move, drop a shot and ace a court together makes this Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic GOAT debate even more alluring, albeit equally difficult to find a solution to.
Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic – grand slams and stats
Perhaps the most boring, yet revealing, aspect of the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic debate is the one involving the numbers. Although statistics are said to hide context and emotion, it still remains the best quantifier in our society. Right from examination grades to body temperature, we use numbers to quantify and compare. Similarly, in tennis, the grandest comparison between its players is the tally of grand slams – Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open and US Open – won.
In this race, Federer and Nadal lead Djokovic and indeed the rest of male tennis players to have ever wielded a racquet. Both men sit on 20 slams and the Serb follows them close at 18. All three men have completed a Career Grand Slam, winning all the four major competitions at least once. The Spaniard Nadal has gone one better to be worthy of calling himself a Career Golden Master, having appended his resume with an Olympic Singles Gold at Beijing in 2008.
All three men have a different favoured ground – each likening themselves to a separate parish where they are not regular devotees on Sunday mornings, but the ones prayed to. A demigod of the land in human form. Walking around in flesh and blood, and yet so intangible in their achievements.
For Federer, it is the Wimbledon in London that he chose as his court of godliness. The Swiss has 8 grand slam wins here. Djokovic – as if to symoblise how far away in spirit he is from Federer – favours the meadows of Melbourne. On the hard court of the hard Australian summer sun, the Serb has won 9 slams. And then there is Nadal, with a penchant for the coup de grace just a few footsteps away from the mainland of Paris. He has 13 French Open triumphs – untouchable and beyond compare at Roland Garros.
While Federer and Nadal are ahead of Djokovic in the grand slam debate, it is the Serbian who leads the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic race with 6 year-end World number 1 finishes. It is a modern era record he holds with Pete Sampras and is one more than his all-time rivals. Federer, meanwhile, holds the record for most consecutive weeks atop of the ATP rankings chart with a preposterous number standing at 237. Nadal, the King of Clay, holds the Open Era record for the most consecutive single-surface wins – 81.
Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic – no stats, just great games
No matter how much data we use in modern society as barometers of precision and directors of decision, there is only as much data can do to qualify choices. Imagine using data to qualify the timeless Wimbledon Federer vs Nadal classic from 2008. The sense of grand occasion, inevitable tension and an arm wrestle between the elite and to-be elite on the green grass in front of British and Spanish Royalty.
The journey from Spain for the then Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia was worthwhile as nearly seven hours into the hide and seek of blue-blood tennis with dark-skied spoilsport, Nadal sunk himself to the floor in disbelief. In that instance, he had propelled himself into the history book. Moments later, he would propel himself into the Friends Box to collect a Spanish flag. By the time he made his way back to the court, the flash bulbs of recognition had lit up the half-light of London. It was a game fitting to crown a king – nothing the numbers can ever justify.
A very similar crowning came four years later in Melbourne. As the world realised that the Djoker was heir apparent to the crown, everyone in the court of the kingdom gasped in awe. The statisticians will concur with the general idea of this Nadal vs Djokovic match being the latter’s crowning moment as the game is the longest Grand Slam men’s singles final in history. But it will resoundingly fail to picture the marriage of pure artistry and Herculean physical mileage.
Both men, unrelenting and unwilling to yield ground, engaged in a battle of only knockouts which culminated in Djokovic overcoming not only Nadal, but also fatigue of a near 5-hour semi-final, allergies and popular belief of physical inferiority. As if to signal his position to the tennis world in one epic gesture, Djokovic tore open his shirt akin to WWE’s Hulk Hogan, after shaking the hand of his fellow GOAT debate contestant.
Watching these three indulge in each other and indulge the world is almost like living in an intense parallel universe. One that pulls the viewer and even the participant out of character. Ask Roger Federer as he signalled to the world in 2011 that wounded as he might be, he was still very much the tiger of the jungle. An instant Federer vs Djokovic classic, it was a statement victory in the semi-final of the Roland Garros. Federer had not won a slam in nearly two years when he beat that year’s insurmountable Serb.
Djokovic would go on to win every other slam in 2011. But, on that evening in Paris, he fell to the gentleman’s resistance. And on beating the unbeatable, Federer jiggled a finger as if to signal, “I told you so”, and then leave a loud grunt of rare cannibalism. A side of his and a sight of his rarely before seen.
These are only but three of the countless epics between the three men that show how little justice the numbers do to the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic GOAT debate.
Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic – what they represent
Perhaps even the mutual skirmishes fail to completely depict the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic rivalry in its truest glory. It does even less in daring to take a side. Opinions and judgements are intrinsic parts of society, but there is no exact science to this. This is what makes the art of studying this abstract revealingly fascinating. And eventually which side of the coin depends on who you are really are as a person or who you want to be. It comes down to identity and self-association. That is why the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic GOAT debate is an intriguing study in human psychology.
Federer, for example, represents the prim and proper aristocrat. Hair perfectly done, graceful in mannerisms and poetic in disposing competition. That whiplash of a single-handed backhand cutting across the court to leave the opposition crestfallen and bemused all at the same time. He makes tennis look awfully simple with his dismissive style. His tennis represents the crème de la crème of society.
Then there is the common man approach of Nadal. He represents the working class – those who grind and sweat to the fullest of their physical capacity to succeed. His court coverage and the absolute apathy for accepting the concession of a point is akin to those who clutch and claw for their daily success. His style likens him to the masses who feel they always start with a disadvantage – be it of opportunities or ability – but habitually travel that extra mile to get their just reward.
And finally, there is Djokovic. He is a bit of both and not much of either. Federer vs Nadal is a rivalry of friendship and mutual adulation. Add Djokovic to the mix and suddenly the entire dynamic of Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic changes. Respect aside, Djokovic’s unwaveringly enigmatic persona is the perfect Antichrist to the two good Samaritans. He has a separate fanbase too – the anit-establishment and those who perpetually seek to rebel.
Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic – the final verdict
The three are galaxies apart in manifestation. However, in spirit, the separation is minimal. All three are aspirational. No matter how godly Federer is and how replicable Nadal feels or how alluring Djokovic’s persona comes across as, they are all equally difficult to emulate. Almost elusive.
Yet, there are some extremely human qualities about them that makes it painful to sound a definitive verdict. If they were solely what we see on the tennis pitch, it would perhaps be easier. But the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic debate would completely miss the point if it did not factor in the Roger, Rafa and Novak. The people behind the tennis gods our years of collective awe and passionate siding have given birth to.
And there is no room for versus in this debate. Roger, Rafa and Novak are all humans – like us. Think about an overwhelmed Novak crouching down after winning Wimbledon in 2018 as his 3-year-old son shouts “Daddy! Daddy!” only months after admitting he had lost motivation to play tennis. Or watching Rafa hug the US open trophy in 2019 with extra sinew as the philosophers of the tennis world opined the Spaniard’s time was up. Or watching Roger defy time, physics and better sense to keep returning for what – on each iteration – feels like the one last hurrah.
Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic, what is the verdict then? Who wins the GOAT debate? It really eventually comes down to the individual and what one chooses to see. If one views tennis as the representation of poetry, smooth as the water flowing downstream from a mountain peak, Federer wins the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic GOAT debate. If one prefers to watch tennis as the inimitable mastery of a particular craft, Nadal’s prowess on red soil wins him the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic GOAT debate. And if one prefers sharp retort and resistance to conventional authority, Djokovic – with his best serve return in the game – quite literally wins the Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic GOAT debate.
Whichever path one chooses, the singular beauty is that they are simultaneously accessible. In this world – a parallel universe as mentioned – one can have the cake and eat it too. Perhaps even gloat in the knowledge of baking it in the first place. Whichever man you choose to fight for, you will still be treated by the others – for they keep bumping their swords against one another.
And so, ask yourselves again, Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic GOAT debate, what is the verdict? Who is the greatest winner? The answer is very simple. You. It has been you all along. You are the real winner.