Chasing The Goat: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic

Is it conceivable that in one generation there could be three male players all potentially vying for the title of the Greatest Of All Time? I think it is. This is unique in tennis history.  Only one other era: the mid-1970’s-early-1980’s when Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe all made a bid for the GOAT; has there ever been a span of ten-years-or-less that produced three historic players like the present one. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have either made their claim or are in the process of sealing the deal on being crowned the GOAT.

Federer, is generally perceived to be the GOAT today with a record 16 slams. He was No. 1 for 285 weeks, has won 782 matches and 67 tournaments. Nadal is making a strong push for the GOAT. The Spaniard is nearly five years younger than Federer and already has won 10 slams, 523 matches and 46 titles. Nadal also holds a decided advantage in head-to-head matches with Federer and was No. 1 for 102 weeks in total until Djokovic usurped the top spot by beating Nadal five times in a row in 2011, all in Masters finals except for his Wimbledon disposal of Nadal. Djokovic at 24 has come alive this year, going 48-1 in 2011 with two slams already, a semis at the French, and eight titles. He is the current No. 1 player and has won three slams, 372 matches and 26 titles. Pete Sampras was considered the GOAT until Federer upended him a few years ago. Sampras won 14 slams, 762 matches and 64 titles.

It is not ridiculous to postulate that by the end of the 2013 season, just nine slams in span, the GOAT debate will be safely settled. If Djokovic wins five of those nine slams, which I believe he will, he will be up to 8. Nadal could be at 12 or 13 by then. Federer could still eke out another slam. But if Djokovic wins seven of the next nine, not out of the question in my mind, I think he can be well onto his way to becoming the GOAT if he were to add another five slams from 26-30. If Djokovic ends up winning 14 slams to go along with a long stint at No. 1, along with Davis Cup triumphs, and the key fact that he took down both Federer and Nadal, he goes down in my book as the GOAT. And what a career-change that would augur.



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  • Gans · July 28, 2011 at 2:39 am

    Interesting subject! May be GOAT means, Greatest of All Topics! 🙂

    First of, thanks to Scoop the trouble(s) I was having with the website seems to have been fixed by your webmaster! Now I can access the full article with a click of a button and if this message gets posted successfully then that would be a success.

    I am curious to know how long would Djokovic be able to play at this level. I have a feeling that his style is similar to Nadal’s and they are both prone to injury. For the amount of tennis mileage that Fed has put in, his consistency and ranking are incredible and I doubt if these two can match that.

    RF is 5 years older to Rafa and 6 years to Novak. It still takes 4 or 5 sets for them to put him away even this late in his career. I do agree with Dan that we are in an unique era of three great players playing at the same time, but my point is while Nadal and Djokovic are playing at their very best, Federer is playing his ‘second innnings’ and that is still very near to the level of these two.

  • Sakhi · July 28, 2011 at 6:22 am

    Dan–I love the way you always indulge in hyperbole once you sniff someone having terrific success. Let’s get real–the DJoker is on a great streak, but 7 slams in a row–what are you smoking, dude? Also, let’s not forget in your rush to anoint Nadal that Federer has won multiple WTFs–which many folks would argue carry a lot of weight while Nadal has yet to win one. The GOAT debate is also about consistency–again, Fed’s record in semis will remain unchallenged. And if Djokovic beats Nadal again, will you then be saying that Nadal has no claims to greatness because he has a losing record against one of his contemporaries, disregarding his earlier successes? At this rate, I might have a change at GOAT-ness too!

  • Dan Markowitz · July 28, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Now I didn’t say Djoker will win 7 slams in a row. I think he’ll win the US Open, and then I think he has an outside shot to repeat what he’s done this year over the next two years, and that’s win 3 out of the 4 slams. Who’s going to stop him? Doesn’t look like Nadal. Murray is toast to Djoker, Fed’s chances are slimming and I think Del Potro will have better success with Fed and Nadal than he does with Djoker. Who does that leave: Tomic, Raonic, Harrison and Dmitrov? Let’s just say I think Djoker at the end of 2013 has a legitimate chance to lay claim to the GOAT.

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 28, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Success Gans success, Finally! I too do like the possibility that Djokovic could take over tennis and just dominate for years and years. Don’t forget, Djokovic is probably the favorite right now to win the Olympics next year too. It’s going to be up to Federer and Nadal to make some changes to stop this Serbian Express and from the sounds of things, I don’t think Nadal has any ideas of what he can do, other than to just make the key shots next time. Nadal may have hit his ceiling as a player. Federer always seems to be tricky for Djokovic in majors but I think Djokovic is going to figure it out and fix that. Djokovic seems like a perfectly efficient tennis match winning machine. I don’t see the style out there ye that can overtake him. Tomic perhaps.

  • Sakhi · July 28, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Hi Dan and Scoop,

    I just wanted to post a link to a terrific piece — I hope one of you will write a piece on this important issue:


  • Dan markowitz · July 29, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Interesting, saki. Don’t know how it pertains to the subject of the GOAT, but it is a hot topic, what with Michelle Bachman’s husband, a psychologist, calling gay life “barbarism.” tennis has always been ahead of the curve. NHL, Martina, Mauresmo, Lisa Raymond, Rennae Stubbs, I think Stosur came out (I don’t want to out someone who isn’t already out). The GOAT of the first half-century was Big Bill Tilden, and although he never admitted it, and lived mostly an asexual life, he was gay.

    This very engaging book A Terrible Splendor depicts the great German player, Gottfried Cramm, who married twice even while he carried on affairs with young men, the Nazis imprisoned him for his lifestyle and when he tried to emigrate to the U.S. After the war, this country wouldn’t even allow him to visit on a visa.

    There’s still a lot of homophobia here and sports, especially team sports, has shunned gays. Lesbians in tennis and basketball have been more bold in living openly gay lifestyles, but for the most part it’s become a non-issue because what does your sexuality, race, political views have to do with an athlete playing a sport? It’s secondary and really doesn’t come out to the public unless the player her or him self makes an issue of it. Sports is about looking for weaknesses in your opponent so if someone percieves being gay as a weakness that’s a problem. But athletes are usually focused on the weaknesses that can gain them a competitive advantage and knowing that an opponent is gay isn’t usually one.

  • Sakhi · July 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Hi Dan–I know the Bill Tilden story, though it’s not the best endorsement for queers in sports, given his predilection for young boys. And no direct connection to GOAT-ness but there wasn’t a thread to post this on!! I only brought it up because we were talking about the fantastic breadth and newsworthiness of mens’ tennis and it struck me (that despite all the general goodwill around queer representation in other sports), there is no male tennis player who has come out in the last two decades. I’m part of LATA (the biggest LGBT tennis association in the U.S. based in Los Angeles) and I can tell you that there there is much discussion on this subject. I don’t think gender roles are as troubled when women come out (sports already marks them as differently feminine) but more is at stake when men do in sports. That’s why I’m a big fan of Federer (it always returns to him!!) because he’s the GOAT (for me always!) and likes fashion, speaks multiple languages, and participates in no bellicose activities on and off the court.

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 29, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    I think this should be kept as a private matter, as each person’s personal business should be their own. Respect the players and their personal lives. I’m pretty sure there are gays in tennis as there are in boxing and all sports. If someone is gay, why should they be pressured to come out? What’s the difference if the public knows or doesn’t know if they are? The in your face aspect about this issue is unappealing. If certain top players (present or past) are gay and they want to conceal it, so be it. It’s just unfair that some people want every gay athlete to be as public about it as King, Navratilova and Louganis. There should be more respect to the athletes who want to remain private about it. As it’s really none of anybody’s business what they do in their private romantic lives.

  • Tom Michael · July 29, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I hope this goes through. A test!

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 29, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    It went through!

  • Gans · July 29, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I agree with Scoop.

    Back to the Greatest of All Topics:

    Check this out: http://www.10sballs.com/2011/07/27/which-roger-federer-records-will-stand-the-test-of-time/

  • Tom Michael · July 29, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Wow! I can post here again. About Novak being the GOAT, it is too early to say. He is having a great season, and he deserves his #1 ranking. I have to criticize that he should have had this kind of season back in 2009-2010, at ages 22-23 years old, his potentially primal years; instead he went slamless those years. Presently, at the age of 24, with 3 slams to his name, he is not getting to Roger’s 16, and would be lucky to get to Rafa’s 10. Dominating the next 2 years are crucial for him, along with winning this year’s US Open, staying injury-free, having few mental lapses, to achieve mythical GOATdom, which requires winning double-digit number of majors and now a career grand slam,to even be considered part of the debate. The following double-digit winners: Federer had 6 slams, Rafa 9, Borg 10, and Sampras 7 all by age 24. If Novak wins the upcoming US Open, he would be at 4 slams, which is behind the pace of the aforementioned players. There are even players who won 4 or more slams by age 24, and did not achieve double digits: Becker (5), Edberg (4), Wilander (7), McEnroe (5), Connors (4), and Courier (4). Realistically for Novak, there is a greater chance he would be in the 6-8 slam club, with a chance at the career grand slam, and this is a pretty awesome place to be in tennis history.

    About the upcoming US Open, there is no guarantee Novak is going to win it. The tournament is going to be draw-dependent, much like Wimbledon was. The player whom I would want no one in the top 4 to face in the early stages, is Del Potro. He can hit anyone off the court on a great day, and at least exhaust anyone in the top 4. Novak and Rafa both went on to lose in later rounds of the slam, after beating Del Potro. Have to factor Federer’s determination to not go through the year slamless. Soderling’s place in the draw is going to be crucial as well.

    Of course, the US Open is weeks away. But again, Novak’s place in tennis history is years away.

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 29, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Welcome back Tom! Regarding GOAT, consider this hypotethical: Say Djokovic wins the Grand Slam next year, and the Olympics and he wins every match in each slam without losing a set. IN other words, Djokvoic wins the grand slam without ever losing a set. But then he fades out and never wins another after 2012. Now that would be the greatest tennis ever played, for one man to win every major without losing a set. But it would only total seven slams, far less than many other great champions. But the quality of tennis in that short span could qualify as the greatest level of tennis ever played. If Djokovic were to accomplish that next year, or something close to that, would that qualify him as the GOAT? Or must he surpass Roger and Pete’s total slam record to earn GOAT status?

  • Tom Michael · July 29, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Scoop, that would qualify especially in the men’s game because it has never been done before in the era of three different surfaces. The closest to that level in terms of seasonal achievement is Nadal because he won three slams on 3 different surfaces in 2010. But realistically, Novak is not going to do it. Novak’s game is brilliant, but in order to achieve the seasonal grand slam, he would need to win Roland Garros, and most likely beat Rafa there, which is not an easy task. Rafa may be due a win against Novak some time next year. He would need to achieve the most difficult combo in tennis: French-Wimbledon. He would need to be illness/injury-free the whole year. There is no guarantee of this. He would need to achieve that perfect balance of being match-tough, and well-rested, and this is hard. There is the issue of young players improving like Tomic and Dimitrov, and stepping up for the win. There is the issue of veteran players looking for a career making win at the slam level, and Novak on a bad day can lose like anyone else. And all slams are draw-dependent, and there can be a bad match-up Novak may not like, especially on an average day, and he needs a great day to win.

    And let us not entertain the silly thought of Novak winning without the loss of sets. That is just ridiculous. Perfection of that level is difficult with too much parity in the men’s game.

  • Dan markowitz · July 29, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    I would pick Djoko over Nadal if they were to play at the French. Nadal was fortunate Fed beat Novak in semis else we’d be tlingit about the Grand Slam this year. If fognini didn’t default, I don’t think Fed beats Djoko.

    Slams are draw dependent–not really, you hVe to win 7 matches and Djoko has shown that whether it’s Nadal, Fed or Delpo, it doesn’t really matter.

    Tom, how are you able to post now? Welcome back.

  • Tom Michael · July 29, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    “I would pick Djoko over Nadal if they were to play at the French. Nadal was fortunate Fed beat Novak in semis else we’d be tlingit about the Grand Slam this year. If fognini didn’t default, I don’t think Fed beats Djoko.” Well I could say that Novak was fortunate that Rafa had the flu in Melbourne (then maybe Rafa would have had five slams in a row). Novak did not have to play Rafa in the final, and at that point in the year, Novak had never won a final against Rafa, and Melbourne was not the place to start; Indian Wells was instead. And there is no excuse to losing to Federer in the semis of Roland Garros after a walkover earlier. Novak was favored, and he choked.

    “Slams are draw dependent–not really, you hVe to win 7 matches and Djoko has shown that whether it’s Nadal, Fed or Delpo, it doesn’t really matter.” Novak has not proven any such thing. He has a great season this year, with his Australian Open, Wimbledon victory, long win streak, and number one ranking being the highlights. He has also proven he can lose to anyone, evidenced by his losses from 2008 French Open to 2010 US Open (11 slams without a title).

    Admittedly, Novak has improved immensely since last year’s US Open. And he has two great years ahead of him if he plays according to his full ability. And if Rafa does not make the necessary improvements (i.e. his backhand), then Novak has a chance to dominate and win many more slams.

    About Djoker becoming the GOAT, “Pipe down, Pardner!” He is behind schedule.

    Tom, how are you able to post now? I do not know. Welcome back. Thank You!

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 29, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Tom I know it’s a miracle for Djokovic to win the slam without surrendering a set, but the point is, if he were to do it, it would be an achievement worthy of qualifying Djokovic as maybe the GOAT. Dan, Tom is able to post now finally after the problem with Explorer users has been corrected by the webmaster.

  • Sakhi · July 30, 2011 at 2:27 am

    scoop—just to clarify here, being a gay athlete is not a PRIVATE matter, especially if you are discriminated against for that part of yourself. Billie Jean King would be the first one to speak of gender discrimination as being the motivating force for why the WTA exists in the first place. Am happy to take the subject off the table in this GOAT debate, but please don’t trivialize the issue as being one of personal choice and simple tolerance where people should just let people be. They don’t, and if that was the case, we wouldn’t have the extensive homophobia as we do, and there would be more openly gay male athletes.

    My apologies for posting the link on this thread as it clearly didn’t make sense here. and thanks for your consideration.

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 30, 2011 at 2:43 am

    Sakhi, when we started tennis-prose.com we wanted there to be no limitations or boundaries about what we can talk about or write about relating to tennis. I’m glad you mentioned it, that was just my initial response. Feel free to discuss anything you want. Didn’t you say you were going to the UCLA event tonight? Resurgent Gulbis vs. Delpo should be a good one.

  • Gans · July 30, 2011 at 3:33 am

    It’s 11:30PM in Louisville and am watching Gulbis thoroughly outplay Delpo. He has taken the first set 6-2 and has lost only three points on his serve. Incredible serves, FHs and BHs. DelPo can’t believe what’s happening.

    Should Gulbis beat Delpo in straights w/o losing a point in his service game in the second, should we consider him as a GOAT contender? 🙂

  • Gans · July 30, 2011 at 4:43 am

    It’s 12:30! Gulbis beats DelPo in his 4th Match Point 6-2 6-4.

    Serving made all the difference between the two and Gulbis’s FH did some serious damage at critical moments. Have to mention that DelPo served very poorly and made a ton of errors including couple of FH shanks at inopportune moments.

    I am glad I sat through and watched this quarter final clash because I had a feeling that this may be a breakthrough match for the immensely talented Kid from Latvia.

    Hiring Canas is a sign of seriousness and maturity on the part of Gulbis. This is a big win for him and hope it propels him to do well in the rest of the season.

  • Dan markowitz · July 30, 2011 at 6:45 am

    Why would hiring Canas be a sign of seriousness? Canas has never coached anyone. Beating Delpo is impressive, but Delpo has not been very good this. Look at loss to Fish in Miami. Gil is is fools gold. He performs well at secondary events like Delray Bch and LA. He doesnt do well anywhere else.

  • Mitch · July 30, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    It’s silly exercise to be making these sorts of predictions. If someone asked you a year ago what the odds were of Djokovic entering the GOAT conversation, what would you have said then? The game is too physical and the field too deep to make accurate long-term forecasts. Djokovic could easily suffer a debilitating injury or illness that sidelines him for months, or someone else could go on a run. As Gulbis and Cilic are reminding us this week, there’s no shortage of players who have top 10 talent but haven’t been able to piece it all together in the dominant way that Djokovic has year.

  • Dan markowitz · July 30, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    Firstly, Gulbis and Cilic aren’t Top10 because they have weaknesses mostly in the mind. And, of course, you can make predictions. They’re predictions based on observation of players and the arc of their careers. I said way back that Djoko would win double-digit slams and if I were a betting man, I’d take that bet today.

    As far as gay athletes, I understand your point, Sakhi, that coming out is not a private matter as it serves to hopefully de-stigmatize gays in sport. But if someone chooses not to because they feel they’re not ready to come out personally, how can you argue with their decision.

  • Mitch · July 30, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    That’s my point; until last summer, Djokovic had “weaknesses of the mind.” You’d make the bet today that Djokovic will win double digit slams, and I’m sure you’d make it when you first said it, which I’m guessing was either when he made his first slam final or after his first slam win. Would you have wanted to make the bet when Djokovic was slumping in early to mid 2010? I think instead of career arcs we should be thinking in terms of career oscillations. With rare exceptions, most notably Federer, results for most players waver within and between seasons. You seem to be betting that Djokovic will have a Federer-like trajectory; I’d like to see Novak sustain his current level, but I’m not as certain that he will.

  • Dan markowitz · July 31, 2011 at 4:03 am

    I think he will. When you own Nadal and Murray and only had one hiccup with Federer who is on his way out sorry to say as an elite player. You are something special. Djoko’s physicality, mental maturation, his sense of humor and his game all speak volumes. Although I get your point. Who would think 8 years into his NBA career he’d be title-less?

  • Peter Ho · April 12, 2012 at 4:06 am

    Bit too early to say – but he’s got a decent chance.

    The key thing he needs is weak competition. Nadal stopped Federer, Djokovic stopped Nadal. A new younger guy needs to step up and stop Djoko. And by the look of the younger guys right now, it is quite promising. Raonic, Tomic, Harrison – they are all behind schedule when compared to Djoko/Murray at the same age. They just don’t look like they could become better players than Murray – who is not as good as Djoko.

    Without younger players challenging him, Fed slowly declining and Nadal unable to overturn the rivalry, Djoko can dominate for years. He can win 3 slams per year for the next 3, 4 years. And honestly speaking, he has by far the greatest chance to win 4 slams in a row, much better chance than Federer in his prime since Nadal is less of a threat to Djoko.

    If no younger guys can topple Djokovic, he will get to Federer’s slam count by 2016.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 12, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Peter welcome to the site, I agree with your thinking, Nadal overcame Fed, Djok overcame Rafa, but it is still very unclear if anyone has what it takes to overcome Djokovic. Murray looked like the best hope but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Dogopolov looked like a contender during that first set tiebreak at the US Open last year but he has not continued his upward ascent and actually is going the wrong way in the rankings now. Harrison, Tomic, Dimitrov and Raonic are still very far away from threatening Djokovic who is a machine now, just a brutally efficient tennis wrecking machine. And yes agree with you, Djok can win the slam and threaten Fed’s slam total if he stays healthy and committed 100% to the sport.



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