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By Richard Pagliaro

© Natasha Peterson/Corleve
© Michael O'Kane


(September 12, 2010)
Roger Federer created the monster marching through Melbourne two years ago and has been asked to address the GOAT rearing up its historic head in Flushing Meadows. Strong-arming his way through the US Open field without surrendering a set, Rafael Nadal is set to square off against Novak Djokovic in the US Open final. The World No. 1 is one win removed from capturing his first US Open crown and completing the career Grand Slam, but is there potentially much more at stake than mastering the only major that has eluded him?

Before you roll eyes at the thought of another in a long line of Greatest Of All Time speculations — an understandable reaction as it's impossible to accurately compare generations due to advancements in string and racquet technology and the homogenization of surfaces — how about considering a more immediate question: who is the best of this time?

Clearly, Nadal, who is bidding to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in succession, is the best player right now. Federer owns twice as many majors as Nadal, but if the 24-year-old Spaniard beats Djokovic to win the Open, complete the career Grand Slam and capture his ninth Grand Slam crown in the process, could he be on pace to surpass Federer's all-time record of 16-majors and secure status as the mythical GOAT?

Absolutely, says Federer, who conceded he had "created a monster" — namely trying to live up to his own championship legacy — after losing to Djokovic at the 2008 Australian Open. Federer is well aware Nadal, who is
5-0 in his last five Grand Slam finals, can begin to lay claim to the GOAT if he completes the career Grand Slam and continues to collect majors.

"Clearly has a chance because he's young enough.  He has already so many, let's say, French Open titles to his name just alone at his age is an amazing accomplishment," Federer said.  "Plus he's had some incredible clay court records that are going to be very hard to beat."

Factor in Nadal's 14-7 career edge over the Swiss stylist, including a 6-2 advantage in their major meetings and should Nadal reach double digits in Grand Slam titles at the very least you have to put him alongside Federer in the Great Debate, right?

Wrong, says Nadal, a World No. 1 who has the humility of a World No. 2 and says he dismisses head-to-head record as a criteria in determining the mythical GOAT.

"Head-to-head is not an element for me," Nadal said after his semifinal sweep of Mikhail Youzhny. "Even a Grand Slam is important element, but not all on tennis because for me some things, more important things and more difficult things to do than win a Grand Slam."

Nadal asserts that Federer's record of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, a mark some view as the gold standard of tennis milestones, should carry weight as well as Masters Series titles.

"In my opinion, Roger won 16 Grand Slams already," Nadal said. "But what he did 23 or 24 semifinals in a row, that's something amazing. It is impossible to repeat, in my opinion. For me, what I did on clay the last six years in the previous tournaments, winning Monte-Carlo six, Barcelona five, Rome five and Hamburg one and Madrid another one. These previous places before Roland Garros much more difficult to win than Roland Garros because it's three sets, it's tournaments back-to-back and you play against the best players since the first round."

It's a valid point: Masters Series titles should carry more weight than they do and in a sense both Federer and Nadal are stating the same case: total Grand Slam titles, while clearly a very vital measuring stick, should not be the sole criteria in the Great debate.

When Nadal beat Federer, 6-4, 7-6(5) in the Madrid final to win a record-breaking 18th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title he became the first player to win all three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 clay court tournaments in the same season. Federer has spent

Time is on Nadal's sign. If he beats Djokovic to capture his first career US Open title, he will be the third-youngest man in history to complete the career Grand Slam behind Don Budge, who was 22 years, 357 days when he did it and Laver, who was 24 years, 32 days.

Following Federer's sweep of Andy Murray in the Australian Open final in January, Hall of Famer John McEnroe tabbed Federer as the greatest he's ever seen.

Federer has finally got McEnroe's GOAT.

"Roger is just the greatest player of all time," McEnroe said. "He is the most beautiful player I’ve ever seen and I don’t ever get tired of watching him. Rod Laver is my idol, Pete Sampras is the greatest grass court player ever, but Roger is just the greatest player of all.  I think we can all appreciate how incredible he is even more lately, because he’s shown a bit more emotion on court and he’s become a father so he seems a bit more human, more relatable. That makes what he’s doing seem even more amazing."

McEnroe cites Federer's record of reaching 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals is the gold standard of tennis achievement. 

"It’s difficult to pick out one of his achievements as the best because they’re all so incredible," said McEnroe. "But I would probably say the 23 semis or better in a row is the best record of them all. There’s probably not another player in the top 20 who’s even played 23 straight majors (Grand Slam tournaments) in a row. Then throw in the fact that he got to 18 out of 19 finals and that he’s averaging two Grand Slam titles a year, it’s just phenomenally consistent. It's amazing."


Indeed, but if Nadal, who has not won a hard-court title since Indian Wells in 2009, goes on to match Federer's mark of finished as year-end No. 1 five times and continues to collect Grand Slam title trophies on all surfaces, some of his closest competitors believe he will have a strong shot to conclude his career as the mythical GOAT.

"I give him a big chance," said Djokovic, who has won seven of 10 hard-court meetings with Nadal, including three in a row. "I think already he's one of the best ever because he has won the Olympic gold medal, he has won Davis Cup, he has won every major except this one and so many tournaments. He has the record of 1000 events as well and he's still only 24 years old. So it's just incredible what he has done so far in his career."


 

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