In the past 20 years we have witnessed a golden era in tennis. We tennis fans were offered epic matches, spectacular rallies and one of the most legendary rivalries in tennis history.
We are talking about Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the so-called "Big 3" of tennis.
For many tennis fans, the question still arises: Who is the GOAT in tennis, i.e. the best in history?
What is the meaning of GOAT?
The term GOAT, meaning “ Greatest of all time ”, was made world-famous by the American boxing legend Muhammad Ali when he called himself the GOAT before the boxing match against Sonny Liston.
Who is the best tennis player in history?
A lot has changed in tennis in the last 55 years. The different rubbers have been adjusted, the technology has changed and even the weighting of the different tournaments has shifted as well. That is why we only consider the current era of tennis for the evaluation.
Tennis is a sport for statistics lovers. There are countless records and statistics to mention. In order not to go beyond the scope, we concentrate on the most important titles and records.
All three players are on par when it comes to Grand Slams. An exciting head-to-head race awaits us. However, Djokovic has the opportunity to win the Grand Slam with a success at the US Open, i.e. all four Grand Slam titles in one calendar year.
ATP Tour Masters 1000
With the tournament victory in Rome, Rafa won his 36th master's title and drew level with Novak Djokovic. Roger Federer is currently behind with 28 1000 titles.
Roger Feder leads the ranking with 24 ATP 500 titles, closely followed by Rafael Nadal, who can name 22 titles. Novak is a full 10 titles behind Roger.
At the end of each year, the ATP Finals take place, which will take place in Turin for the first time in 2021. With 6 titles, the Swiss tennis superstar leads the ranking while Djokovic is in 2nd place with 5 titles. Rafael Nadal has never won the tennis final at the ATP Finals.
Number of weeks as No.1
The race for the eternal number 1 in world tennis seems to have been decided. Novak solidly tops the list at over 331 weeks. It's hard to imagine that Roger (310 weeks) and Rafa (209 weeks) will climb the tennis throne again. We can be curious to see how far Djokovic will expand this record.
Rafael Nadal is the only one of the Big 3 to have an Olympic gold medal in singles. Together with Stanislas Wawrinka, Roger Federer was able to win gold in doubles, while Djokovic can only call bronze in singles his own.
The Greatest Rivalries & Head2Head
Rafael Nadal (58x) and Roger Federer (51x) had to play against no opponent more often than against Novak Djokovic.
Novak has the edge in the Head2Head stats. Novak has a positive record against both Rafa (30-28) and Roger (27-23).
Win Rate Overall
If you look at the win rate of all games, Djokovic also leads just ahead of Nadal and Federer. However, it has to be said that Roger and Rafa have played more games and the numbers could change rapidly over the next few months.
If you consider the most important titles, number of weeks as number 1, Head2Head and the overall win rate, then objectively speaking there is an overall winner and his name is Novak Djokovic. On Ultimate Tennis Statistics, he tops the Open Era GOAT List ahead of Roger and Rafa, which can change after every game or tournament win.
Which of the Big 3 has the GOAT factor?
However, we don't just want to be satisfied with bare numbers and hard facts, we want to find out which of the Big 3 has the ultimate GOAT factor. We would like to address the subjective arguments of tennis fans and also express our opinion on them.
When you hear the name Roger Federer, you think of the luminary of tennis. He is the first of the Big 3 to dominate the tennis circuit and is still very popular.
Roger Federer also showed what is possible in tennis and that Pete Sampras' (14) Grand Slam record can be broken.
Many of his fans see Roger Federer as GOAT and the most common arguments are his elegant playing style, his likeable manner on and off the pitch and that he is the player with the greatest talent.
As a counter-argument, however, it is often mentioned that he had to give up his relevant records and that most of his successes were achieved in a weaker era compared to Nadal and Djokovic. He also has a negative Head2Head balance sheet against his opponents.
GOAT Factor: Likeability and Playstyle
His unbridled power resembles a force of nature and his fearless aura has long been Rafael Nadal's trademark. He was Roger Federer's first opponent who could play at eye level. Together with Roger Federer he dominated the major tournaments from 2005 to 2010 and the matches between the two quickly became crowd pullers.
Rafa's favorite surface is the red ash. Out of 507 matches, he won a whopping 464 games, a total of 91.52% (!). No wonder he is also called the King of Clay, because this quota is unparalleled.
The dangerous topspin forehand and power have long proclaimed Rafa the best clay court player in history and for many fans he is the GOAT in tennis. Quite a few argue against the fact that he has won most of the Grand Slams on the red ashes.
GOAT factor: Power
Novak Djokovic is the personification of willpower in tennis. No other player is able to increase his level and turn hopeless games as quickly as Novak has often presented, most recently in the French Open final against Tsitsipas.
This willpower did not go unrewarded. Since 2010 he has single-handedly won 19 Grand Slams, while Roger and Rafa total 15 together.
For many neutral tennis fans, Novak Djokovic has long been the GOAT and his numbers support that claim. He currently has the most weeks as No. 1, a positive Head2Head record against Roger and Rafa and he is the only one who has won every Grand Slam twice. He also had to prove himself at a time when Roger and Rafa were at their most dominant.
But there are also people who do not want to recognize Novak Djokovic as a GOAT. Arguing that he hasn't achieved the same level of popularity as Roger and Rafa or that he doesn't control his emotions.
GOAT Factor: Willpower
As mentioned at the beginning, the Big 3 are the best thing that could have happened to tennis. Tennis has never been so diverse and balanced at the top as it was in this golden era. Therefore it is also very difficult to choose the GOAT. Every player has their strengths and weaknesses and every fan has different preferences.
If you were to go purely by the numbers, which would also be the most objective and honest way, then the winner would be Novak Djokovic. He has dominated his opponents for the last 10 years, catching or even overtaking them in the most important areas.
Novak Djokovic also has the GOAT factor, his mental strength, which gives him an elementary competitive advantage.
Although Roger Federer's style of play is nice to look at, it's difficult for me to choose this criterion as a GOAT factor, because the style of play is a matter of taste. Some people prefer Nick Kyrgio's crazy style of play, while others prefer Rafael Nadal's power tennis.
The argument about sympathy wasn't entirely convincing either, as this criterion has no connection with athletic performance and can be influenced negatively or positively by various factors (PR agency, media, etc.).
This criterion would be considered relevant if we were assessing an athlete's financial aspects.
Rafael Nadal is superior on clay, no question. However, he can't show 100% of his class on grass or hard court like on the red clay. Therefore, the physical power as a GOAT factor must also be put into perspective.
Even if the decision to choose willpower as the GOAT factor is also purely subjective, Novak Djokovic has shown us several times in the most important moments that he can move mountains with his will, such as in the legendary 2019 Wimbledon final.
There he not only had to deal with a very strong Roger Federer, but also with the audience, who loudly cheered on Roger Winner and Novak's mistakes. Although (felt) 15,000 people were against Djokovic, he managed to fend off two match points and finally turned the game in his favor.
Paradoxical as it may sound, Novak benefited from having the two best players in history. Since Roger and Nadal seemed untouchable, this resistance allowed Novak's willpower to grow even more until he acquired the skills to smash through their phalanx.The GOAT is not defined by the number of followers or triumphs, but by the size of the challenge they faced.