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By Raymond Lee | Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Rafael Nadal

Is Rafael Nadal the Greatest Of All Time? A tennis historian puts Nadal's legacy in perspective in a two-part series that examines the records of the greatest champions of all time.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

Several weeks ago, on October 11th, 2020 Rafael Nadal won his 13th Roland Garros title and 20th major championship over his awesome rival, Novak Djokovic by an astonishing score of 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.

I have never seen Nadal play better and considering how tremendous his career has been that is truly something that boggles the mind.

Watch: Borg's Backhanded Compliment for Federer

One of the keys to his crushing victory was Nadal’s backhand, which I have never seen him hit so well. Time and again Nadal handled Djokovic’s powerful crosscourt forehands to his backhand with ease and returned the shots with interest, often for stunning winners.

Nadal over the years has been thought of as a human backboard but never was this more evident than in this year’s French Open final. Coming into the final Djokovic was thought to have a great chance to win. Some considered Djokovic to be the favorite because of different conditions of this year’s French Open with a different ball and the fact it was played in October with cooler weather.

All of this made sense of course and at worst people figured it would be a competitive final especially considering that Djokovic is one of only two men to beat Nadal at the French Open.

I guess everyone forgot the new axiom in tennis “Never bet against Rafael Nadal in the French Open.” Nadal is now 100-2 at the French! As some have said, that’s video game type statistics!

Yet after all is said and done, Novak Djokovic concludes 2020 earning his record-tying sixth season as year-end No. 1.

We have three of the greatest players of all-time playing currently in Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. The current tennis media tends to just count majors to evaluate the greats. I believe that’s too simplistic a solution and doesn’t take into account many factors.

One factor is that Open Tennis started just in 1968 with Ken Rosewall winning the first Open major in the French Open over Rod Laver in four sets. That’s just a fraction of tennis history. Another reason is that frankly majors were not the end all in many years. When Open Tennis first started the top players were not the multimillionaires that they are today. The players, including the top names like Laver, Gonzalez, Rosewall wanted, like many of us to make a lot of money while the going is good. Therefore, the big money tournaments like the WCT Championships were in essence majors in their day, clearly more prestigious than the Australian Open for example or perhaps the French.

If memory serves, I believe John Newcombe said his goal for 1974 was to win the WCT Championship and Wimbledon which would seem to make the WCT Championship at worse number two in his book I would think. In fact when he won the WCT Championship in 1974 Newcombe was universally acclaimed as the world No. 1 for the first half of that year despite Bjorn Borg winning the French Open and Jimmy Connors capturing the Australian Open.

Borg and Connors rarely entered the Australian Open where I’m sure they would have won a number of them if they decided to enter and would have added to their majors resume. It frankly wasn’t that important to them in those days and the prize money down under wasn’t nearly what it is these days.

Eventually Jimmy Connors in probably his greatest year was number one in 1974 with an incredible record of 99-4 or 95-4 or 93-4 depending on the source. Connors won three of the four classic majors despite not being allowed to play the French Open because he signed on to play World Team Tennis. Hard to believe nowadays that they would do that, but they did.

Prior to 1968 the tennis field for the men was divided into the professionals and the Amateurs. Generally speaking the pros were in the past, the top amateurs who wanted to make a monetary living at the top tennis levels so they turned pro. The amateurs were supposed to play for the glory for no monetary rewards even though we know many received under the table payments. So the amateurs would win all the classic majors while the pros, who were clearly superior overall to the amateurs played on a smaller circuit if you could even call it a circuit. The pros were not allowed to play the classic majors like the Australian, French, Wimbledon and the United States Nationals, now known as the US Open.

This smaller field of pros may have legends like Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Frank Sedgman, Pancho Segura, Bobby Riggs, Rod Laver, Tony Trabert among others. There were very few if any easy rounds. There was considered to be a clear difference in the level of play between the pros and the amateurs.

To put it in perspective in 1959 the great Pancho Gonzalez, a player sorely underrated and in my opinion possibly (with some others) on the short list for the greatest of all time played Ashley Cooper and Mal Anderson on a professional tour, who had won four of the last five amateur majors (Cooper and Anderson just turned pro) and defeated them 34 times without a loss! I suppose you could make the argument that winning several majors in the amateurs was easier than beating Pancho Gonzalez for just one match!

You also have to take into account that in the early days it was not that easy to travel. For example, Bill Tilden in the 1920s and many players were reluctant to travel overseas. The reason being that they did not have the advantage of our quick airplane travel of today. They had to take ships when would take many weeks. During that time the players would get out of shape and would be very vulnerable to defeat.

Tilden was an extremely dominant player in his day. According to The Bud Collins History of Tennis-From 1912 to 1930 “Tilden won 138 of 192 tournaments, lost 28 and had a 907-62 match record—a phenomenal .936 average.”

At one point Tilden won nine straight majors that he entered (if you include the 1921 World Hard Court) but the problem was that this over a period of six years. I believe if Tilden entered 24 majors during those six years that he would have probably won the majority of them. Despite this Tilden held the record for most majors won with 10, or 11 if you include the World Hard Court in 1921 which was the clay court major at those times.

I would also like to point out that in those years the amateurs even though there were pros were the best players in the world so Tilden played the best players in those days.

Nowadays basically all the top players are almost required to play the majors. Federer as many know has won 20 majors (along with Nadal) but he also has entered 79 majors. That’s a major tournament winning percentage of 25.3% which is superb. Nadal has entered 60 majors and won 20 for a better percentage of 33.3%. However Nadal has missed a number of majors due to injury. You have to give Federer some credit for keeping in shape and staying healthy. Nadal is about five years younger than Federer so there is an excellent chance he will surpass Federer by a decent margin in total majors when it is all done.

Novak Djokovic has won 17 majors out of 62 played for 27.4%. However, he is about one year younger than Nadal and since 2011 has been the dominant player in tennis, often winning several majors in a row. Many favor Djokovic to eventually win the most majors out of the big three of today. That is of course subject to question.

Now I know there is all this discussion about majors won in tennis but isn’t being No. 1 for the year always the end goal? In any team sport the ultimate goal is to win the championship aka being number one. There are many teams who have had lesser records yet when push comes to shove they were able to become the champion for the year.

John Newcombe for example in 1973 won the Australian Open and the US Open. However in the meantime he didn’t play that well. Ilie Nastase won only one major in the French Open but won many other important tournaments like the Italian and the Year End Masters. Nastase was easily No. 1 for 1973 and acclaimed so by just about all experts. Incidentally Nastase was the first ATP world No. 1 according to the computer rankings.

I think Pete Sampras doesn’t get enough credit for the six consecutive years he was the world No. 1 player at year’s end. That is an amazing accomplishment and to me at least it FAR EXCEEDS his total majors total of 14 which many acclaimed as almost unbreakable at the time. People thought the record of 14 majors won by Sampras may not be broken for decades.

I did not think the record would last that long. The reason is that players really never had the chance to enter many classic majors in the past because the top players would turn pro and instantly be banned from playing the Australian, French, Wimbledon and the United States Championship. You can’t break a majors record if you don’t enter it enough.

For example, Don Budge entered eight majors, lost the first two and proceeded to win the next six. So how can you win twenty plus majors if you only enter eight? When was more important to Budge was to challenge the great World Champion Pro Ellsworth Vines on a tour to win the World Pro Championship. Now admittedly Budge might not have won six majors in a row if Vines, Perry, Nusslein and Tilden were allowed to play the majors but my point is that you can’t win a major if you aren’t allowed to enter it. I’m sure it still annoys Jimmy Connors that he couldn’t enter the French Open in 1974 because of his involvement with World Team Tennis. This possibly could have stopped Connors from winning the Grand Slam.

Sampras won an excellent 14 majors but he also entered 52 majors for a percentage of 26.9%. A great percentage and number but not comparable to Nadal with 20 majors out of 60 (33.3%) or Djokovic with 17 out of 62 which is 27.4% with more majors entered.

Sampras is ahead of Federer in percentage who is at 25.3% but that’s not quite fair since Federer has entered so many more majors and the percentage usually goes down when a player ages. Sampras retired at a very young 32. Federer will still be playing next year when he will be 40 years old! Who would believe Federer would play as long as Gonzalez, Tilden and Rosewall!

So how does Rafael Nadal compare with the greats of the past? You can’t just count majors to compare players of different eras due to some of the reasons I mentioned earlier in this article.

In part two of this article, we’ll look at the greatest players of all time—from Bill Tilden to the Big 3 champions of today—and draw conclusions on who is the mythical GOAT based on total championships, winning percentage, strength of competition and other important factors.

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer and tennis historian who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and


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