March 18, 2022, 01.09 PM - As Rafael Nadal burst the brittle shell of the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) race with his win over Daniil Medvedev in the 2022 Australian Open to claim his 21st Grand Slam title, the GOAT debate has become hotter than ever.

From being the outsider whose distractors wrote him off as only a Clay court genius and whose injuries put doubts on his participation, Nadal has turned the tennis world upside down by winning his 21st Slam and becoming only the fourth man in history to claim multiple crowns at each of the majors.

Nadal has upped the notch and raised the bar as he always has done throughout his career. I could write chronicles about Nadal’s style, personality, behavior, and rationality. However, this article is about the claim to GOAT status and I analyze only that.

In that context, the year 2022 will be a defining for tennis. The fulcrum for the GOAT is delicately pivoted on just a few matches, a few points, and a few chances taken. The possibility of Nadal winning another French and extending the lead seems likely given his win third win of the year in Mexico. With Novak Djokovic showing nerves in a straight-set loss to Medvedev in New York, covering up with three more Slams would be a heavy burden. However, just like Roger Federer and Nadal have their defining opportunities, Novak can end the debate with just one more French open title which will catapult him to being the only one ever to have won all majors three times.

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At the same time, it is not going to be easy for any of the veterans because their fallibility has caught the attention of the younger players. There was a time when opponents facing Federer in Wimbledon, Nadal in French, and Novak in Australia would book cheaper tickets in advance for the evening of the match day to save the hotel expenses. Today, that is not the case and many juniors fathom their chances.

Dominic Thiem would certainly look for redemption in Paris and a defensive Medvedev might want to make adjustments to suit the slower bounce on clay. Nadal being a favorite based on his records and his rejuvenation in Australia would still have to be vary of shocks. We leave the future possibilities aside for the time being and discuss what we have in hand.

For the records, it would be pertinent to say that when Federer lost 2008 Wimbledon in 5 hard-fought sets, not many had expected a GOAT debate to split up into two. Hardly anyone raised the eyebrow as Federer’s streak of 237 weeks at the top of the rankings ended and shifted to the young Spaniard. Things were still in control as the likable, soft-spoken ballet dancer of tennis paid back with his own French and Wimbledon triumphs same year, especially as it also meant he overhauled Pete Sampras record of 14 Grand Slams. By the end of 2010, it was accepted that Nadal was better on clay, and although Federer and Nadal have had some memorable matches in Philippe-Chatrier. Even today, many fans would argue that Federer’s lone French title was facilitated by Robin Soderling, who beat Nadal in that epic encounter.

Tennis equations started changing in 2011 when Novak Djokovic claimed 3 of the 4 Grand Slams and earned a well-deserved ranking number 1 on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). Novak’s success was instantly a thorn in the eyes of tennis followers because as Nadal kept winning the French Open, the young Serb was eating into the Federer pie and shockingly biting huge chunks out of it.

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Federer and Nadal’s popularity was in fact the main reason for the negative induction rubbing onto the opponents who beat them. For Novak, this was certainly a big shock to the person who was adored as funny, friendly, and had hardly any controversies to his name before reaching the top.

Analyzing the statistics is equally divisive. Nadal with 13 French titles and tens of other titles on clay is undoubtedly the Greatest Clay court player ever in the history of the game. If there is any record that might stand forever, it might be Nadal’s clay-court performances.

Federer with 8 Wimbledon titles comes in the elite category because Wimbledon is the Royalty of Lawn tennis. His unbeaten run of 237 weeks as the number 1 ranked player is also a record that will take superhuman effort to beat. The domination of Federer was so absolute that many analysts would actually doubt the class of his opponents. That is not a fair observation because outclassing the opponents was the essence of Federer’s game that makes tennis look easy and effortless.

The playing style

Such variation in styles, as shown by each of the Big Three, was unimaginable in the past. A lot of that can be credited to technology. Federer came as a fresh breath that combined grace and grit, tact and timing, precision and speed that caught the imagination of all, especially when he beat Sampras in the fourth round of Wimbledon 2001 in the match famously named “Change of guard”.

For a phenomenal talent like Federer, he started late for his Grand Slam scorecard as he was almost 23 when he won his first Wimbledon on July 9, 2003. Nadal, on the other hand, won his first French Open just two days after his 19th birthday, whereas Novak was a few months short of his 21st birthday when he won his first Australian Open.

While Federer is grace, Nadal has redefined the top spin forehand that has unsettled most of his opponents, forcing them into mistiming their shots. Rafa’s forehands seem like looping slow returns to the viewer, but the spin has decimated his opponents as mere mortals. A bagel for Novak in the 2020 French Open final stands testimony to that. His never say die approach has made his brand of tennis a unique feature that will be adopted by many players in coming years.

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Novak on the other hand has redefined the art of service returns and capitalizes on the fact that a player completing the serve is hardly in a position to take advantage if the return is fast, precise and forces him to move rather than receive the return within a few feet of the center. This was the strategy used by Jim Courier to win against Stefan Edberg in the early 90s and by Andre Agassi against Boris Becker but seemed to have been forgotten till Novak made it his greatest weapon. Novak excels in returns and neutralizes the opponents’ advantage to a great extent, making him the only player to beat Rafa twice in the French Open, four times in Clay court finals, and in a streak of seven finals they played. Novak’s agility makes him cover ground faster and his shots while sliding enable him to keep still and execute better placement of winners.

If playing style were to be the sole factor to evaluate the Greatest, Federer would be the greatest and will perhaps continue to be the most graceful player for a long time. Style, however, is not the only factor and with a heavy heart, I have to keep the style as only one of the factors and give time to the other aspects so that a fair evaluation would be possible. That shall be done in the next edition of this article.

(Manoj Bhat, founder of SpIns Interactional School Surabaya and tennis spectator wrote this article. The views expressed in this article belong to the writer).

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