• Whenever Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic are in a Grand Slam final, the conversation inevitably shifts to the GOAT debate. When two of the Big Three are playing for a major title? It reaches a whole new level.
By Stanley Kay
January 25, 2019

Is anyone bored yet? Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have combined to win 51 of the last 62 Grand Slam events, including each of the last eight. Either Nadal or Djokovic, this year’s Australian Open finalists, will push those already staggering numbers to 52 and nine on Sunday. Plenty of sports fans are sick of the Patriots, fed up with the Warriors and tired of Real Madrid. But in tennis, we can’t seem to get enough of our dynasties. 

No tennis match is played in a vacuum, but that’s especially true with the Big 3. Legacies are always at stake. Sunday’s final between Djokovic and Nadal won’t just be an enticing tactical battle of the world No. 1 and 2—two all-time greats playing “a different dimension of tennis completely,” to borrow a phrase from Nadal’s semifinal punching bag (better known as Stefanos Tsitsipas). We must also consider the match through the lens of the GOAT debate. It’s a discussion as tired as an East Coast tennis fan during the Aussie Open, but we must have it. We must and we will! Especially this time around: Whether Djokovic or Nadal prevails, the result will force us to look long and hard at Federer’s assumed supremacy. 

Even the most zealous Fedfans must recognize—but perhaps not acknowledge—that Federer’s GOAT status is far more tenuous than it was a year ago, when he beat Marin Cilic in Melbourne to win his 20th major title. After Melbourne, last season belonged to Nadal and a resurgent Djokovic. Nadal’s French Open triumph wasn’t unexpected, but Djokovic’s comeback to collect his 13th and 14th major titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open—after a drought that extended two years—saw him reassert himself in this never-ending conversation.

Two points of agreement among all factions: Entering Sunday’s match, Roger Federer leads all three candidates with 20 Grand Slam titles, compared to 17 for Nadal and 14 for Djokovic. Career titles: 99 for Federer, 80 for Nadal, 72 for Djokovic.

Hope you enjoyed that brief moment of harmony, because that’s pretty much where the consensus ends. 

ROUNDTABLE: Previewing the Australian Open Men's Final Between Nadal and Djokovic

Nadal’s 23–15 record against Federer, including a 9–3 advantage in majors, remains his (or, more accurately, his devotees’) most effective talking point. Federer can point to his trophy case. But if Nadal beats Djokovic on Sunday, he’ll have 18 Grand Slam titles to Federer’s 20, with the French Open—where Nadal, barring an injury, will be the overwhelming favorite to win for the 12th time—just around the corner. Winning Roland Garros would give him 19, just one behind Federer—the closest gap since Federer won his first major in 2003, when Nadal was just 17. 

If Djokovic wins his 15th career major on Sunday, he’ll surpass Pete Sampras to take sole possession of third place on the all-time list. He’ll still trail Federer by five and Nadal by two, but at 31 years old, he’ll have plenty of time to make that up, and he could feasibly move to within striking distance of Federer this year. Barring a physical setback, he’ll be favored at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and should Nadal falter at Roland Garros, Djokovic would be the likely beneficiary. 

Whatever happens on Sunday, the result won't crystallize the GOAT debate. No bloc will admit defeat. On the contrary: As long as Nadal and Djokovic remain this dominant, the conversation will only grow thornier. This summer, Federer will have a chance—perhaps his last—to put some distance between himself and his two rivals. Will it be enough to hold them off? We might not ever get a definitive answer.

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