Who’s the best in men’s tennis? It depends on how you measure.
By Victor Mather
When Roger Federer announced his retirement last week, he was showered with hosannas befitting one of the greatest men’s tennis players of all time.
But was he merely one of the greatest? Or was he the greatest of them all?
It’s not hard to declare a favorite player the best ever and then seek out statistics to justify the argument. Let’s come at it from the other direction and look at numbers first to see where they lead.
Grand Slam wins
If any single number has been widely accepted as the ultimate measure of a tennis great, it is the number of Grand Slam tournaments won. And there is certainly plenty of logic behind that.
A Grand Slam title is the ultimate goal for most players: The Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open draw the most attention and the strongest fields and shower their winners with prize money and visibility. In men’s tennis, they are also known for a best-of-five-set format, a lengthier test than those in regular tour events.
This simplest of measures is the one most tennis fans know:
The Big Three (Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic) tower over the rest of men’s tennis history as they do in so many categories.
Both Nadal and Djokovic are still playing, too, and could increase their totals; the two between them won three of the four Grand Slam singles titles this year.
Grand Slam performances
Reducing Grand Slam performances to a binary — did he win or not? — is something of an oversimplification. Winning matches and advancing deep into a tournament are important, too, no matter what Vince Lombardi might say.
The scoring system might be debatable, but what if we awarded 6 points for a Grand Slam win, 3 for a runner-up finish and 1 for making a semifinal?
Now the players stack up this way:
If anything, it’s just as close. And a slightly different scoring system could easily change the order.
For example, plenty of fans consider the Olympics, in which tennis is staged every four years, to be a Slam or a near-Slam-caliber tournament in importance. Each of the players won one Olympic singles medal. Add 6 for Nadal’s gold, 3 for Federer’s silver and 1 for Djokovic’s bronze and you get a laughably close race: 171-171-170, with Nadal trailing by just a point.
All three men also lost the bronze medal match at an Olympics, and Djokovic did it twice. That’s the equivalent of a semifinal, which would push Djokovic a point ahead.
Grand Slams from another angle
Counting only Grand Slam wins, finals and semifinals doesn’t account for early round performances, nor does it factor in that Federer got his start earlier than the other two players and has had more opportunities in Grand Slams. A simple won-lost record in Grand Slam events accounts for both of those factors. By this measure:
Federer’s longevity counts against him here; some early- and late-career losses bring down his win percentage. The same could happen in the twilight of Nadal and Djokovic’s careers, if they stick around.
Winning on a variety of surfaces is important to a player’s legacy. That’s why Federer’s lone Grand Slam win on clay, in the 2009 French Open, mattered so much to tennis fans.
So — and stick with us here — what if instead of adding up the Grand Slam titles, we multiplied them? This would give more points to players who won a variety of Grand Slams and penalize the specialists. It would also give a score of 0 to anyone who didn’t win all four, but luckily each of the Big Three did.
Djokovic’s comparative versatility gives him the edge here. Federer is hurt by winning only once in Paris, while Nadal’s amazing 14 French Open wins have diminishing returns by this method.
Tennis is not just the Grand Slams, and the totality of the men’s careers should probably be looked at as well.
In terms of won-lost record in all official events, they stack up:
By winning percentage, it’s Nadal, Djokovic, Federer. By total wins, it’s Federer, Nadal, Djokovic.
Here’s more to consider: Djokovic spent 373 weeks ranked at No. 1 and ended seven different years there. Federer was on top for 310 weeks and five times at year’s end, and Nadal 209 and five.
Federer won 103 tour singles titles, Nadal won 92 and Djokovic won 88. (For once, another player beats the triumvirate: Jimmy Connors, playing in a much different era, won 109 titles, something for those who want to make a very contrarian case for the best ever.)
Although some players and fans dismiss the Davis Cup, others see it as a critical part of the tennis calendar. Nadal has a stunning 29-1 record in Cup play, for a .967 percentage. Djokovic is 38-7 (.844) and Federer is 40-8 (.833).
The nuts and bolts
Maybe gaudy stats such as wins and Grand Slams are too results oriented. The ATP Tour compiles plenty of others to examine the players at a hyper-granular level.
But there’s little clarity here either. Who has the best serve? Federer won 77% of his first-serve points, Djokovic 74% and Nadal 72%.
Best returner in the clutch? They rank in the opposite order. Nadal has won 45% of break points, Djokovic 44% and Federer 41%.
Head to head
Maybe it’s time to throw out all those matches against Tomas Berdych and Diego Schwartzman. How did the Big Three fare when they faced off against one another?
Here, Djokovic gets the nod, if slightly. He holds a 30-29 edge over Nadal and 27-23 over Federer. Nadal leads Federer, 24-16.
And in conclusion …
There are probably a million ways to figure it. And every time you figure it, someone won’t like the way you figured it.
In our little experiment, Nadal led in five categories, Djokovic in four and Federer in three. But most of the categories were extremely close. And if we had picked a few different ones, there would have been a different result. Unless you stubbornly decide that only one statistic matters, there doesn’t seem to be any way to clearly separate the three.
Maybe you have a favorite. If so, we have given you some ammunition to make your argument while you are waiting for the next match at Rod Laver Arena or Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But no matter whom you choose, it is clear that Federer’s retirement is the beginning of the end of a Golden Age for men’s tennis. Maybe young Carlos Alcaraz will scare some of these numbers in 20 years or so. Or maybe we will never see the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, at least all at the same time, again.