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The Debate - Tennis
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The Debate: Who is the greatest male tennis player of all time?

Between them they've amassed 66 Grand Slam titles and transcended the sport with their relentless pursuit of perfection.

The domination of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer across the last two decades has marked a golden era in men's tennis.

Each player has forged an illustrious career, basking in an extensive list of major titles and all three have strong arguments in the GOAT discussion.

But who is the greatest male tennis player of all time? Writers in the bet365 News Team have attempted to settle the debate.

Novak Djokovic

The male tennis player with the most Grand Slam titles ever with 24, the only player in the Open Era to have held all four majors at once, the only player to have achieved the Triple Career Grand Slam with at least three wins at each major and a career Golden Masters having won all nine Masters 1000 events, the longest total time spent as world number one of over 400 weeks…

Once considered part of an elite ‘Big Three’ in tennis alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic is currently in the process of distinguishing himself as the undisputed GOAT with each fresh Grand Slam crown collected.

Roger may be deemed to have been more graceful, Rafa more powerful, but there ought to be little debate over who is ultimately the most well-rounded player.

His head-to-head record against his famous Swiss and Spanish adversaries speaks for itself, with Djokovic prevailing 27-23 over Federer and 30-29 over Nadal.

Novak in his pomp is like a robot out on the court, with a lack of any glaring weaknesses for his opponents to even attempt to exploit. 

Not only exceptionally technically accomplished, Djokovic is an athletic freak capable of returning the most unlikely of balls, and boasts an unrivalled champion’s mindset which enables him to thrive in tennis’ most pressure-inducing moments.

Tennis players are ultimately separated in status in relation to their performances at the sport’s four Grand Slam events – Wimbledon, the US Open, the French Open and the Australian Open.

In the case of Novak Djokovic, there is little more to have possibly been achieved at any of the four famous showpieces.

Whereas Federer infamously struggled to break Nadal’s stranglehold on the French Open, winning just one title at Roland Garros in 2009, and 14 of the Spaniard’s 22 major wins (63.6%) arriving on the Parisian clay, Djokovic has been a serial champion at each of the four Slams with at least three successes at each event on different surfaces.

If one was to hypothesise a one-off showdown between these three decorated champions in their prime on what could be deemed a neutral surface if possible, my money would be on the Serb having the requisite nous and will to win to grind his two fiercest rivals down. 

When Federer won his 20th Slam at the Australian Open in 2018 there was a shared feeling that this was a feat that would be difficult to top, until Nadal managed just this at the same venue four years later, but now Djokovic is racing away on his own on 24 and counting.

At the ripe old age of 36, Djokovic is still world number one and typically favourite to win every competition he enters.

With the Serb showing little sign of letting up on the biggest stage amidst the emergence of a new generation of stars led by Carlos Alcaraz, his record tally of Grand Slams could yet be bolstered to leave the likes of Federer and Nadal further in his wake.

Roger Federer

There’s an argument for Nadal; he beat the best Roger Federer on Federer’s beloved grass in what was instantly recognised as the greatest Wimbledon final ever, and nobody has dominated a surface like Nadal on clay, but that’s about where the argument ends. 

Novak Djokovic feels like the obvious answer these days; he’s the only player to have completed the career Grand Slam three times, he has the most Grand Slam wins with 24, a figure that will surely now never be eclipsed, but in terms of who was the greatest tennis player, the answer will always be Roger Federer.

Djokovic has had more success – the numbers don’t lie there – but Djokovic has always felt more machine-like in his work – Erling Haaland with a tennis racquet. He’d win titles smashing forehands from the baseline, forever winning staring contests with opponents who didn’t have his persistence or will.

Federer, however, was an artist, waving his racquet like Michelangelo would wave a brush; Centre Court his Sistine Chapel; his single-handed backhand leaving spectators swooning. 

Of course, Federer wasn’t all panache. Hidden amongst the grace and style was a steeliness to slug out the long rallies and emerge on top. En route to his fifth Australian Open win, nearing the end of his 218-minute epic with Nadal, Federer found himself engaged in a 26-shot rally, sending a forehand winner down the line.

Federer would go on to edge out Nadal, winning the Australian Open for the first time in seven years at the age of 35, having missed most of the previous year through injury and falling out of the world’s top 10. He’d win Wimbledon that year without dropping a set, and took a 20th Grand Slam at the 2018 Australian Open.

This, of course, was Federer in the twilight of his career, mortal. But from 2004-2009, Federer was virtually unbeatable. 

132 matches, 124 wins, eight losses, five of which came at the French Open, and four of those were to clay king Nadal. 

Prior to that spell of dominance, Federer would break through as a teenager, earning worldwide recognition as the 19-year-old who would end Pete Sampras’s 31-match winning streak at SW19. The man who had lost just once at Wimbledon the previous eight years would only win once more, as the torch would be passed to the supreme Swiss.

As Federer hit 30, Djokovic rose to prominence, becoming the man to beat in the Slams, and recognising that he didn’t have the ridiculous physical gifts of Djokovic – certainly not in the more advanced stage of his career – Federer had to adapt his game in order to play on at the top level into his mid-30s. 

While the art of serve-and-volley died out, Federer became one of its greatest proponents, ensuring points were kept short and sweet, while retaining the wonderful array of shots that ensured he was still a threat to every player he faced.

By the end of his glittering career, Federer retired with a number of records that even Djokovic is unlikely to break – five consecutive wins in two Grand Slams, 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals (Djokovic has 14, Nadal seven), 100+ match wins at two Slams (Djokovic’s best figures are 92 and 92; Nadal’s 112 and 77), eight-plus wins at two Grand Slams, five-plus wins at three Grand Slams.

You can of course look at whatever numbers you like, but if you want to know who the better tennis player was, go and watch them both at their best – you’ll see who the greatest is.

Rafael Nadal

Roger Federer reigned supreme on grass. Novak Djokovic is the greatest hard-court player of all time. Rafael Nadal is the King of Clay.

Of the 115 matches Nadal has played on the grounds of Roland Garros, he’s been defeated on just three occasions; once by Robin Soderling, of all people.

Such dominance of one surface is truly insane. From 2005 to 2007, he won an astonishing 81 consecutive matches on clay - the longest single-surface winning streak in the Open Era.

His dominance at Roland Garros is even more striking when you consider he won four of his 14 titles without dropping a set. Only a wrist injury in 2016 prevented Nadal from wrapping up a 15th title at the famed French venue.

But don’t be fooled into believing Nadal is just a clay merchant.

An imposing figure on the court with his muscular frame, Nadal’s overwhelming power, mesmerising footwork and extraordinary tenacity set him apart from his adversaries and captivated fans when he made his breakthrough.

In the middle of Federer’s golden era, Nadal rocked up to Wimbledon and avenged his two previous final defeats in SW19 by defeating his arch-rival in one of the sport’s greatest ever matches.

Both exhibited impeccable tennis but importantly it was Nadal who prevailed. His non-French Open duck had been banished and it was the first of eight major titles outside the gates of Roland Garros.

In 2010, only a knee injury prevented him from completing the Calendar Slam. The Spaniard was triumphant in the French Open and Wimbledon but was forced to retire in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open at the start of the season. 

Nadal did complete the career Golden Slam - all four majors and an Olympic gold medal - with his first US Open victory (a feat neither Federer or Djokovic have achieved), while his success at Flushing Meadows etched his name into the record books as the youngest male player to complete a career Grand Slam. 

Injuries have plagued Nadal and yet he’s still been able to produce flawless performances to return an incredible 22 Grand Slam titles.

At the age of 19 and the same year he won his first French Open, Nadal was diagnosed with Mueller-Weiss Syndrome, a rare degenerative condition that affects bones in the feet and can cause chronic pain.

Nadal had learnt to live with it but as he grew older, the condition of his left foot deteriorated.

Not that it’s stopped him. There’s a reason he’s known as El Matador.

This is a man that dominated the 2022 French Open while dosed up on numbing injections and anti-inflammatories in an attempt to quell the pain.

He remarkably defeated four top 10 players and dropped just three sets in the tournament, despite competing with barely any sensation in his left foot.

Could Djokovic or Federer have achieved the same result with the same physical impediment? I dare to doubt either of these phenomenal athletes but I can’t imagine either demonstrating the same mental fortitude that Nadal showcased in his Parisian triumph.

It’s a ferocious resilience that has served him incredibly well across his 20-year career.

His body has suffered as a consequence of his distinctive style but even in the twilight of his career, he has continued to conquer. As competitors learnt in the 2022 Australian Open, you underestimate him at your peril. Two sets down against Daniil Medvedev in the final, he roared back to claim victory in a gruelling five-hour contest.

And Nadal has won major titles while defeating Federer and Djokovic en route; three times in fact. Djokovic has only defeated the other members of the ‘Big Three’ once on the way to the US Open title in 2011, while Federer has never achieved the feat.

We were extremely privileged to watch Nadal, Federer and Djokovic compete against one another at the peak of their powers. Yet for the greatness of the other two, no one will ever surpass Nadal’s clay court dominance and no one will come close to emulating his unique skillset.

And if you're still not convinced by this argument, Nadal's head-to-head record against the other two in Grand Slams looks like this:

10-4 v Federer
11-7 v Djokovic

Case closed.

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