For many tennis fans, Roger Federer is indisputably the greatest of all time. With an all-time record 20 Grand Slam titles, six wins at the ATP Finals, as well as the longest reign as world #1, his achievements speak for themselves. But in recent years, Federer’s claim to being the greatest of all time has come under a determined assault from his two great rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who inch by inch have closed in on the great Swiss.
Indeed, there looks to be little between the three men now, with Nadal just one Major title behind Federer in the count and Djokovic possibly primed to surpass his 310 weeks as world #1 when tennis returns after the pandemic. Nor should Pete Sampras, winner of 14 Grand Slams, be forgotten. But what of the merits of Federer’s case? Is his position still unassailable or have the breaches been stormed? In essence: what are Federer’s unique achievements that set him apart from his peers?
Federer has the longest reign as #1
Nobody has held the #1 ranking for longer than Federer. In fact, not only has the Swiss spent more time ranked as the world’s best than any other, with his closest rivals Sampras and Djokovic* 24 and 28 weeks behind respectively, he has also held the top spot for more consecutive weeks than any other. Between February 2nd, 2004, when he displaced Andy Roddick, and August 17th, 2008, when Nadal dethroned him, Federer spent 237 uninterrupted weeks as the world #1.
That is a record no other player can come close to matching. Djokovic’s longest streak stands at 122 weeks with Sampras further back at 102 weeks. Even Jimmy Connors, second placed on the list with 160 consecutive weeks as #1, is more than a year behind Federer. Federer also has by far the longest span between his first and last stints as world #1, with nearly 14 and a half years separating his first and last appearances at the summit. Nadal’s mark, though impressive, falls well short at 11.5 years.
Federer is only the second man to win 100 titles
A tennis player’s legacy is determined principally by winning and Federer has done more of that than just about any other player. Jimmy Connors did finish his career with six more trophies in his cabinet than Federer currently owns. But far more of Federer’s 103 titles have come on the biggest stages. Connors won eight Majors, three year-end championships‡ and 17 Grand Prix Super Series titles which rather pales in comparison with Federer’s 20 Grand Slams, 28 Masters titles and six ATP Finals wins.
He arguably has the best peak performance among the all-time greats
It was once common to hear that Borg – despite Sampras having more majors – was the greatest of all time because nobody had achieved so much so fast. Before his 26th birthday Borg had won 11 Majors, two year-end championships and 15 Masters in a total of 64 titles. He also won a staggering 89.8% of the matches he played at the Majors. To this date, nobody has achieved as much by that age or come close to matching that win-loss percentage.
But when looking at ‘peak performance’, age definitely isn’t the best frame of reference. As players start their careers and, most importantly, mature their game at different ages, it is more useful to choose a fixed interval in order to compare their best years. To put this idea in practice, let’s see how the five best GOAT candidates – Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Sampras, and Borg – fare against each other when only a five-year peak period of their careers is under scrutiny.
Federer’s records have been amassed over a significantly longer period of time than Nadal and Djokovic’s. That leaves Federer at a disadvantage in terms of strike rate, particularly when compared with Nadal. Despite having played in 20 more Majors than the Spaniard, and 19 more than Djokovic for that matter, he has won only one more title than Nadal and three more than the Serbian. In short, when Nadal and Djokovic enter a Major, historically they have been more likely to win it than Federer.
Five-year peak table
In the best five years of his career Federer outperformed all his closest rivals, with Borg relegated to fifth place according to this metric. Djokovic claims second place behind Federer, with three fewer Majors and less time spent as world #1 but a lead in big titles won. Sampras leads in weeks as #1 over the five year stretch, but is far behind both Federer and Djokovic in big titles won, whilst Nadal performs surprisingly poorly, but finishes narrowly ahead of Borg.
Significantly, if the analysis is extended to an eight year period, the time it took for Borg to win all 11 of his Major titles, the result is still the same, with Federer coming out on top.
Eight-year peak table:
In this eight-year peak period, Federer managed to win nothing less than 16 of his 20 Major titles, as well as five year-end championships and 16 Masters. Here as above, there cannot be any doubt as to who had the best peak performance. Indeed, the only notable change is that Nadal stretches his lead over Borg, surpassing the Swede in almost every metric.
Federer’s dominance in the Majors extends well beyond his all-time titles record
Titles won should not, however, be the only metric of judging a player’s career. Though the number of big titles each player has won, particularly Grand Slams, naturally holds considerable weight in the debate over the greatest of all time, it is also worth looking at their performance on the biggest stages more broadly. The results are certainly interesting. For whilst even the most casual fan knows Federer has won the most Majors, it is perhaps less well known that he holds the lead in almost every metric of Grand Slam success.
Federer may have won only one more Major than his closest rival Nadal, but he has played in four more finals than the Spaniard, 13 more semifinals and 16 more quarterfinals. He enjoys a similar advantage over Djokovic, having won three more titles and played in five more finals, nine more semifinals and 11 more quarterfinals than the Serbian. He also outperforms both Nadal and Djokovic in matches won, with 87 and 75 more match wins than Nadal and Djokovic respectively.
We can add an extra layer of analysis by examining how many points these legends have accumulated only in the Grand Slams. Federer has so far amassed approximately 70,300 points. That gives him a 13,000 point lead over Djokovic in second place and leaves him just 600 points behind the combined totals of Sampras and Borg. Federer has also made more semifinals, quarterfinals and won more matches than both the Swede and the American combined.
Nor should Federer’s consistency be overlooked. The Swiss reached ten consecutive Grand Slam finals between 2005 and 2008, as well as 23 consecutive semifinals between 2004 and 2010 and 36 consecutive quarterfinals between 2004 and 2013. Indeed, of his many records, they are perhaps the best equipped to stand the test of time. However, Federer’s success at the Grand Slams is not without one significant caveat.
Federer has some skeletons in his closet
Even Federer’s resume is not without a few flaws. Federer’s records at the Majors have been amassed over a significantly longer period of time than Nadal and Djokovic’s. That leaves Federer at a disadvantage in terms of strike rate, particularly when compared with Nadal. Despite having played in 20 more Majors than the Spaniard, and 19 more than Djokovic for that matter, he has won only one more title than Nadal and three more than the Serbian. In short, when Nadal and Djokovic enter a Major, historically they have been more likely to win it than Federer.
And perhaps more damaging still to his case is his losing head-to-head record against both Djokovic and Nadal. Many have argued that the Swiss cannot be considered the greatest of all time when his great rivals have been him more than he has beaten them. But should head-to-head records have a say in the GOAT debate?
For example, Nikolay Davydenko finished his career with a winning record (6-5) over Nadal and Roddick beat Djokovic in three of their five meetings, but no one would consider Davydenko and Roddick to be the superior players. After all, when trying to decide who the more accomplished player is on a certain surface or overall, should one look into their head-to-head records or, instead, at the titles that they have won?
The truth is that what really tells us that Nadal is a better clay-courter than Federer is not his better head-to-head, it is his many more titles on the surface. Equally, it’s not necessary to assess their head-to-head to realise that Federer is a more accomplished player on grass and hard courts. Nadal has an impressive seven Grand Slam titles away from his preferred clay, but that does not match Federer’s 19. Federer’s rivalry with Djokovic is closer, with the Serbian holding a 28-24 lead in their head-to-head and Federer a lead of three in Grand Slams won. But would Djokovic not trade his head-to-head lead against Federer for three more Major titles?
This is not to deny that Federer’s losing record against Nadal and Djokovic has put a real dent into his claims. Rather, it is to point out that the real significance in his losing record lies not in the actual head-to-head numbers, but in the trophies won and lost in those encounters. For Federer, there are surely few defeats more painful than the ten Grand Slam finals he has lost to Nadal and Djokovic nor triumphs sweeter than the four he has won. Because in the end, what really counts is not who a player loses, it is what they have won.
Comparing players of different generations is always a challenge. To choose the right metric or frame of reference is paramount to achieving a fair verdict. In this series of articles, we saw that a strong case could be made for each one of these all-time greats: Nadal, Djokovic, Sampras, and Federer. What guided us all along was the ultimate question: what are the unique achievements that set them apart from their peers?
In Federer’s case, there are plenty of those unique achievements. Indeed, one might even argue that he is less dependent on his most celebrated records than his rivals, although his case, like theirs, is not without its flaws. But Federer does certainly have a strong claim to having the deepest and most multi-faceted list of achievements of any male player. And isn’t that enough for him to claim the title of the greatest of all time?