Federer and Nadal: The Grand Slam Record And Head-To-Head Stats Don’t Matter

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (zimbio.com)

In one of the most exciting rivalries in sports history, the numbers can sometimes be deceiving. The ATP ranking system decides which player is No. 1 without considering the outcome of the matches between the two rivals, but at least it is based on objective standards.   

Despite being ranked No. 1 in the world, in 2017 Rafael Nadal has lost all four encounters against his legendary rival Roger Federer, including the final at the Shanghai Masters on Sunday. Federer has also captured the last six sets played against the Spaniard. In terms of head-to-head between the two, Federer is on a five-match winning streak – his longest in the rivalry against Rafa. If Federer and Nadal clashed again in Basel, Paris-Bercy and London on fast indoor courts that will favor the Swiss during the upcoming weeks, Roger would have a very good opportunity to end the year with an astonishing 7-0 record against his former nemesis. In 2017 the tables have incredibly turned: In the past when Federer was No. 1 in the world, the Swiss had a very poor record against Nadal. Now their rivalry finds itself in the exact opposite situation, with Federer dominating the head-to-head and each player capturing six titles (including two majors).

Despite four losses against Roger, Rafa should end the year as the world No. 1. Federer is trailing by 1,960 points at the moment, which leads us to believe that computers know nothing about tennis and numbers should be interpreted with expertise. At the same time, the ranking system is based on a methodology that doesn’t leave any room for subjectivity.

In the history of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, we had years during which the head-to-head stats perfectly reflected the verdict provided by the ATP ranking system. In 2008 Rafa Nadal won all four matches against Federer and finished the year as the world No. 1.

On the other hand, in 1977 Guillermo Vilas won two Slams and countless tournaments, but Jimmy Connors undeservedly remained the world No. 1.

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Regarding the fascinating conversation about the Greatest of All Time, do the head-to-head stats really count? Should they be a key factor in determining who the better player is? The answer should theoretically be affirmative in case the two rivals were close in age. We often forget that Roger and Rafa are not the same age, even if they have been battling each other for 13 years. It is unusual how Federer wasn’t able to capitalize on the age difference at the beginning of their rivalry, when Roger was a more experienced and established champion and Rafa was a teenager. As matter of fact, the exact opposite occurred, with Rafa dominating the preliminary stages of their rivalry.

At the twilight of their respective careers, many would think that the younger player should have an advantage, instead this year we saw 36-year-old Federer dominating 31-year-old Nadal.

While age doesn’t seem to be a factor, game styles and playing surfaces certainly are. In the past Federer and Nadal often faced each other on clay, which certainly favored the Spaniard. Considering that Roger will probably not play on clay anymore, Rafa will not have the opportunity to improve his record against the Swiss on that surface. Federer is certainly better than Nadal on indoor courts and medium-fast hardcourts.  Since Nadal should overall continue playing on hardcourts, Federer will have the opportunity to improve his record against the Spaniard. At the end of the day, the head-to-head stats are not completely reliable as they depend on how often the two legends played each other on each surface. If they clashed on clay more often, Rafa would have the advantage. If they played on indoor hardcourts, Roger would have the edge.

As for the number of Grand Slam titles captured by the two champions, Federer has 19, while Nadal has 16. Are these numbers relevant? Not necessarily. Only one Slam event is on clay, while two are contested on hardcourts and one on grass, which gives Federer the edge in three out of four majors. In 2017 Federer could skip the entire clay court season including Roland Garros without compromising his year, while Nadal can’t certainly afford to skip three Grand Slams.

The ATP ranking equally values all tournaments and surfaces, so the frontrunner certainly deserves to be at the top. Nadal could lose 7 times to Federer in one year, but if Rafa plays more than Roger and collects more points, the Spaniard deserves to be No. 1 player.

The No. 1 player in the world doesn’t necessarily have to be the best in the world. The absolute best is someone who dominates on every surface. Despite 14 Slam titles including 7 Wimbledons, Pete Sampras never went further than the semifinals at the French Open and can’t be considered the absolute best, unlike Rod Laver who captured the Calendar-Year Grand Slam in 1962 and 1969. Truth be told, in the 1960s three of the four Grand Slams were contested on grass, while Roland Garros was played on clay.

In closing the Greatest of All Time doesn’t really exist. Besides the numbers provided by Grand Slam records and head-to-head stats, there are too many intangibles that prevent us from truly determining who the best player was.  It is a very subjective opinion, as anyone can say that a certain player was the best during a specific Era depending on their personal judgement.


(Article translation provided by T&L Global – Translation & Language Solutions – www.t-lglobal.com )

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