Federer versus Nadal: Who is the greatest of them all?

Published: April 23, 2013

Nadal and Federer are both very lucky to have faced each other as opponents, as they bring the best out of each other.

Art is the purest form of human expression – free from the quagmire of social pessimism. The best way to appreciate it lies in the process of rising above vague parameters of judgment, which in their very design, are destined to create an infinite cycle of controversy. 

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are two modern day champions who epitomise art in sport.

Watching these two greats grace the tennis court is akin to the privilege of observing Leonardo da Vinci paint Mona Lisa, or Beethoven author a masterpiece.

It is with these thoughts that I attempt to write about two of the greatest champions that the world has ever seen, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Teenage tantrums, girlfriend/boyfriend politics and cola after dinner are some cast-iron certainties in life that we have gotten accustomed to. Their absence causes bewilderment. Nadal winning on clay is one of these certainties. Never has anyone, in the history of human competition, achieved a degree of domination as Nadal has in tennis.

It is a tribute to the greatness of the athlete that anyone with only a modicum of common sense would rather bet on Lord Voldemort coming to life than a fit and injury free Nadal losing on clay. Even though Nadal lost to Djokovic on Sunday, the fact that it was only the third time in 16 matches over 7 years that Djokovic had managed to defeat Nadal,  puts the the matter in a better perspective.

Nadal was a child prodigy who caught the attention of the world with an unorthodox forehand, bulging biceps, stamina of a marathon runner and a strange habit of inappropriately tugging at his shorts before serving.

His big breakthrough came at the Davis Cup when a teenage Nadal defeated Andrew Roddick in four sets, in 2004. The legendary rivalry with Roger Federer, Rolland Garros titles, 2008 and 2010 wins at Wimbledon, and success on hard courts when facing unprecedented competition, all elevated Nadal to the status of a legend.

His recent struggles with injury gave the world a chance to witness the powers of determination and hard work and confirmed his status amongst the greats.

Amidst the recent vitriolic criticism on Nadal’s fitness, one thing that most sport analysts forget about is his age. Nadal is not yet 27. Even if his career finishes today, he will be remembered as one of the very best.

Already with 11 Grand Slam titles, 22 Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) masters titles, four Davis Cup wins and an Olympic singles gold medal, Nadal has established himself as one of the stars in the hierarchy of tennis legends.

By the time Nadal does decide to hang up his tennis boots, who knows how big the trophy cabinet will be for him.

The story of Roger Federer is very different from Nadal’s, as is his style of play. He had to overcome his short temper and fear of losing, in order to achieve success.

When Federer had conquered these demons, there was no stopping him. The titanic victory against Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 marked the start of a new era – Federer’s era.

Over the course of the next few years, Federer dominance was unrivalled. The Grand Slam record of Sampras, thought to be an unassailable peak in tennis was vanquished by Federer. However, it was Federer’s style of play that made the world fall in love with him.

When Federer plays, children stop crying, couples stop fighting, and poor opponents resort to irrational delusions. He moves on the court like a swan on a lake, and defies the laws of physics with his craft. Sports writers have described him as being a magician with a tennis racquet, and never in the history of sport has an analogy held more merit.

Nadal and Federer are both very lucky to have faced each other as opponents, as they bring the best out of each other. Despite suggestions by some analysts, I believe a head to head count does hold some merit. In that context Nadal and Federer are tied six each, in their 12 hard court meetings, with Nadal winning both of the Grand Slam encounters.

On grass, Federer has had the better of Nadal twice with Nadal’s sole victory coming in the epic Wimbledon final in 2008. Nadal has completely dominated Federer on clay, winning 12 of the 14 matches including five times at Roland Garros.

So is Nadal the greatest or is it Federer?

Everyone can have different opinions, but it is my humble assertion that it will be blatant injustice not to include other greats from the past such as Laver, Bjorg, and Becker in this discussion. However, if someone would force me to choose one, it will probably be Nadal, but that’s only my point of view.

Read more by Ali here.


Dr Ali Osama Malik

The writer graduated from Aga Khan University, where he was the captain of the University Tennis team for the year 2010.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.