Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: where does 2017 lead us in the GOAT debate?

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer took their games to new heights in 2017 against all the odds. Where do the pair stand among the greatest of all time?


At the start of 2017, very few would have predicted that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would each win a Grand Slam title. Even fewer would have said that they would take two apiece in what was the most remarkable of years for arguably the two greatest tennis players of all time.

A year for the ages

Federer, coming off a six-month layoff at the end of the 2016 season, triumphed against Nadal in a thrilling five set final at the Australian Open. Nadal, aged 31, however, would not be outdone, winning four of the five major clay court titles in Europe, including the French Open, where he dropped just 35 games. Federer sat out the entire clay-court season to preserve his mind and body ahead of Wimbledon, and reaped the rewards of his decision, claiming his eighth title at the All England Club without dropping a set.

When the two lead-up masters events to the US Open, in Montreal and Cincinnati, were won by Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov respectively, it appeared that the form of Nadal and Federer was tapering off somewhat. Federer, again plagued by his troublesome back, was not himself on the hard courts of New York. He struggled early on before bowing out in the quarter-finals to Juan Martin del Potro. Nadal, who had suffered three surprise losses since his French Open triumph, also looked short of his best in the early rounds. But he found form when it mattered most, claiming his 16th Grand Slam with a straight sets win over Kevin Anderson.

So as it stands, the Grand Slam tally, arguably the most important measure in determining tennis greatness, is at 19 for Federer, and 16 for Nadal.

Contributing Factors

The dominance of the two greats in 2017 was in part thanks to the struggles of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Indeed, by the end of Wimbledon, when Djokovic and Murray ground to crashing halt in the quarter-finals, it was painful to watch last year’s top two. Both were a long way from their best and had been for a while. They weren’t alone in that with the injury troubles faced by top 10 players Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori well documented.

The highly touted Nick Kyrgios and Zverev also struggled at the major tournaments in 2017. Zverev, a two-time Masters 1000 champion, and Kyrgios, the two-time conqueror of Djokovic and Nadal, disappointed on the biggest stages in 2017. In fact, Kyrgios won just two matches at Slam level, and Zverev’s best effort was making the fourth round at Wimbledon. 

Federer and Nadal, however, remained healthy throughout the season. For Nadal especially, it was the biggest key to his success. Federer has reinvented his game thanks to the improvement of his one-handed backhand, which he is now striking cleaner and earlier than in years past. The transition to a larger racquet face was crucial in this improvement. Though it cost him some of the control on his rightly legendary slice, his topspin drives have improved dramatically. For Nadal, more pace and variety on his serve and a more aggressive execution of his cross-court backhand have made him a more complete player than ever before. He is just as ruthless and physically imposing as ever, as his opponents have learned painfully.

What the greats have said

Four-time Grand Slam winner Jim Courier said following Nadal’s US Open triumph, “It could be 18-17 right now [had Nadal won the Australian Open] and if Nadal stays healthy; he’s going to have significantly more opportunities than Federer just because of the age gap. Who’s going to bet against Nadal winning a couple more French Opens if he’s in good health? Not me. That’s for sure.”

Former world number one Mats Wilander also spoke on the topic, saying, “Nadal’s playing better than he ever has. He’s made changes to the serve, he’s been varying more, and he’s also taken the backhand much earlier as he doesn’t play as far from the baseline when the rally is in play. I think the lesson is that he’s always learning, and he’s always gonna be changing things because he has that hunger to play the perfect tennis match. We’ve never had a hungrier player than Federer and Nadal and I would say that Nadal is probably much hungrier than Federer.”

Verdict

Chances are that the tour will be reinvigorated for the start of the 2018 season. Having seen the obstacles that Nadal and Federer have overcome to return to the top of their games, Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka will likely be encouraged that they can do the same. But the evidence would suggest that, in the case of Nadal, it does not matter who he comes up against at the French Open; he is going to beat them if he is playing his best tennis. An 11th French Open title would narrow the gap in Slam wins to just two, assuming that Federer doesn’t go back-to-back in Melbourne.

When you consider the age gap of the two, and the clay court dominance of Nadal, it is becoming increasingly likely that the Spaniard will equal, if not surpass, Federer’s Grand Slam tally within the next two or three years. Write Roger off at your own peril though. What is certain is that there are plenty more chapters to be written in this all-time great rivalry before all is said and done.

Who do you think is the greatest of all time? Let us know in the comments below!

  1. POLL: Who will finish with more Slams?

    1. Federer
    2. Nadal
    85 votes
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Justin Ahrns

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A dedicated sports fan and writer, I follow Hockey, Basketball, Australian Football, Tennis, Cricket and Baseball.

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