Who is the tennis GOAT? We examine the claims of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic

With Rafael Nadal edging out in front of his rivals in the career majors race, we take a look at the perpetually changing tennis GOAT race.

If you were hoping that the men's tennis season was going to start with a bang, you are unlikely to have been disappointed. 

Novak Djokovic was sensationally deported from Australia and Rafael Nadal took ruthless advantage to win one of the greatest ever Grand Slam finals of all time and set a new record for most career majors.

That has reignited the perpetual debate about which of the modern era's three titans of tennis, Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer is the greatest of all time (GOAT), so we thought we'd take a look at the claim to be made by each of them.

Roger Federer

There are essentially two sides of the debate here. One is that what matters the most is not what you have won, but how you have won it, while the other believes statistics are essentially everything.

If we are talking about the former, though, then Roger Federer has a supremely strong case to be considered the GOAT.

Even the staunchest Federer fan would struggle to make a statistical argument for the Swiss maestro being the best ever. His major-winning days look a long way behind him now, and the record he set in that department has already been broken.

Roger Federer with Australian Open trophy

He can no longer lay claim to being the longest reigning world number one. Novak Djokovic took that record from him nearly a year ago.

However, what does set Federer apart is the completely unique style and grace that made him so popular. No one has ever played the game like Federer, and it's highly unlikely anyone ever will again.

At times he looked like he was performing some kind of ballet whilst wielding a tennis racket with pinpoint precision. Watching him even close to his peak was an absolute privilege that few forget.

Federer also deserves credit for the way he revolutionised tennis and transitioned it away from the big-servers that badly damaged its spectacle in the 1990s. New regulations helped, but Federer carried the game commercially for a good while back then.

And, of course, whilst his statistics are no longer record-holding in most regards, they are pretty spectacular to say the least. Put it all together, and Federer has as strong a GOAT case as anyone.

Novak Djokovic

Djokovic represents the counter argument. Whilst the Serbian is largely dominant statistically now, he has never done it in such a manner that has seen him earn the universal popularity which Federer enjoyed.

That shouldn't be taken as suggesting he is not popular, it must be stressed. Djokovic has millions of devoted fans who admire him both on and off the court.

Novak Djokovic Wimbledon winners board

However, while Federer's appeal is ubiquitous, Djokovic's is felt by a much narrower section of sports fans.

I think it is also important to point out that Djokovic has not been served by the press and media in quite the same way Federer and Nadal have. Often, in fact, he is criticised seemingly for doing no more than beating them.

Ultimately, though, Djokovic is a divisive figure. He plays with a demeanour many interpret as immodest and a passion some see as aggressively arrogant.

Djokovic is a very unique character with a unique background, so it is perhaps unfair to judge him. He is a product of a war-torn country and while Nadal and Federer grew up in privilege, he had to fight his way up through poverty. That context is vital.

What is not open to interpretation with Djokovic is his statistical dominance. Like Federer, Djokovic has fallen behind in the race to win the most majors, but he is far from out of it.

He has also spent (by far) the most weeks at world number one, been year-end world number one more times than anyone else, was the first man to win every major multiple times, and his head-to-head against both Federer and Nadal is incredibly impressive.

If, and it is a big 'if', you are judging the GOAT on nothing but statistics alone, then Novak Djokovic just has to be your pick.

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal not yet thinking about more grand slam success

If Federer is the how you have done it and Djokovic is the what you have done, then Rafael Nadal is the middle ground between them.

Nadal has more mainstream popularity than Djokovic, but less than Federer, and better statistics than Federer but not as good as Djokovic.

After winning the Australian Open last month he has forged ahead of his rivals in the race to win most majors, and that alone adds considerable weight to his case.

Like Djokovic, he has won every major multiple times now too. More than half of those have come on the clays of Roland Garros, though. That either makes it even more impressive (as his specialist surface has only one Slam every year) or not half as impressive (as he is too much of a one-court specialist), depending on your point of view.

What probably sets Nadal apart from Djokovic and Federer is that his career has been the most storied one.

He is a naturally right-handed player who is winning everything playing left-handed. For the record he is not ambidextrous either - he is very much right-handed. In fact, he can't even brush his teeth with his left hand, so that surely makes winning 21 majors with it all the more impressive.

Nadal has also had to fight his way through a lengthy injury record, which is something his rivals have not had to face.

As far as the debate goes, Rafael Nadal has both universal appeal and plenty of impressive statistics, and he has achieved it under arguably more trying circumstances than his rivals.


Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal

The only real conclusion anyone can draw from this is just how lucky we have all been to have witnessed three such players in the same era.

It has never happened before and it's highly unlikely to ever happen again.

In terms of who is the greatest of all time? Well, that is and always will be a subjective call. There is no definitive criteria so there can never be a definitive winner.

Your opinion will be coloured by who your favourite is and what you personally value the most. If it's style and elegance, then Federer will be your man. If it's statistics and underdog spirit, it's Djokovic. If it's ferocity and sheer will to compete, then Nadal is probably going to be your pick.

What we can say without question, though, is that we are looking at the best three male players to ever pick up a racket, whichever order you want to put them in.

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