Now that the 2020 Grand Slam season is done and Rafael Nadal is tied with Roger Federer at 20 major championships, the most for a man in tennis history, followed by Novak Djokovic at 17, some might be tempted to rekindle the conversation about which is the “Greatest of All-Time.”
The truth is, everyone should just let that GOAT debate go.
Trying to come up with a consensus pick is silly — especially now, when the Big Three are still active — and, more to the point, unnecessary.
Why insist on choosing one when we should appreciate, admire and elevate all of them?
Two weeks before Nadal trounced Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 Sunday to earn a 13th trophy at the French Open and catch Federer in the Slam standings, Serena Williams was asked to assess the significance of such an achievement.
Williams owns 23 major singles trophies, the most by anyone in the professional era and second to Margaret Court’s all-era standard of 24.
“You can’t compare two people that are equally great. Roger — I mean, he’s Roger Federer. I think that says enough. So, you know, it’s like, I don’t understand why people want to pit, ‘Who’s this? Who’s that?’ They both have spectacular careers that 99% of people can only dream of. … Every single credit and every single thing that they get, they absolutely deserve it,” Williams said. “I’m a big fan of both, to be honest.”
Nothing wrong with that.
Also nothing wrong with picking one to cheer for, to like the best. That’s what fandom is all about.
Those partial to Federer, Nadal or Djokovic can build a case.
“I’m a man of numbers,” said Ivan Lendl, who won eight Slam titles from 1984-90. “And so to me, the guy who wins the most majors is going to probably be viewed as the best ever. Who is it right now? … It’s still undecided.”
Nadal has his 20, at least one at each Slam and at least one in each of three decades, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s; his 13 at Roland Garros are more than anyone won at any tournament; he leads Federer 24-16 head-to-head; he leads Djokovic 5-4 in Grand Slam finals.
Federer has his 20 and a career Slam, too; he holds the record for most weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings; his totals for tour titles (103) and match wins (1,242) are the highest of the group.
Djokovic’s 17 major titles makes him the only other man with more than 14, and he, like his rivals, owns a career Slam, and like Nadal, has won one in three decades; he leads the head-to-head series with both Nadal (29-27) and Federer (27-23); he’s won the most Masters 1000s and done so twice at each event, while no one else even has one title from each at that level; he is gaining on Federer in weeks at No. 1.
Their skills, styles and personalities offer something for everyone.
“They all play different. They all love their different surfaces, different conditions. Novak is still obviously in reach for the Slam count, as well,” American pro Jack Sock said. “You can’t really put your finger on one guy. … They’re all GOATs in their own way.”
Federer’s serve and his net game stand out; he’s been best on Wimbledon’s grass.
Nada’s lefty forehand and court coverage stand out; he’s been best on the French Open’s red clay.
Djokovic’s return and backhand stand out; he’s been best on the Australian Open’s hard courts.
“These three guys showed throughout their career (what) great champions they are, no matter the conditions, no matter the atmosphere, no matter anything,” 2014 U.S. Open winner Marin Cilic said. “They are able to sustain everything and to fight through difficulties, which is a great virtue of champions.”
There are, to be sure, other questions for tennis fans to ponder in 2021:
— Can Williams, 39, remain healthy enough to continue to contend for Slam success?
— Which of the young recent women’s major champions — Iga Swiatek, 19; Bianca Andreescu, 20; Sofia Kenin, 21; Naomi Osaka, 22; Ash Barty, 24 — will emerge as the best?
— Can U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem, 27, separate himself further from the up-and-coming men?
— Will someone else — Daniil Medvedev, 24; Alexander Zverev, 23; Stefanos Tsitsipas, 22; Andrey Rublev, 22; Denis Shapovalov, 21; Casper Ruud, 21; Felix Auger-Aliassime, 20; Jannik Sinner, 19 — be the next to break through?
Still, there’s nothing wrong with continuing to focus on the Big Three.
No way to know how much longer Federer — 39 and coming off a pair of knee operations that sidelined him for the U.S. Open and French Open — Nadal, 34, and Djokovic, 33, will face each other and ply their particular talents on their sport’s biggest stages.
Be grateful for whatever we get the rest of the way. Seems safe to say there never will be anything like it again.
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