Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Novak Djokovic won his second French Open just a couple of weeks ago and I am writing this article as Wimbledon 2021 gets on the way where Novak will try to win his 20th Grand Slam title. At this time, sports media outlets once again post the same question they always do after one of the big 3 tennis players wins a Grand Slam: Who truly is the greatest tennis player of all times (G.O.A.T.)?
Before I dig out data from the statistical deep web, a quick callout: I will only compare the best three male players of the past two decades. Although Margaret Court, Serena Williams and Steffi Graf have more Grand Slam titles than any male tennis player, I will focus my analysis on the best three male tennis players because of the fact that they played against each other in the same era - which makes their achievements easy to compare.
What makes this discussion extra enjoyable for me is that we have three candidates that can arguably be the Michael Jordan of tennis. At least in theory. In practice, when looking deep into the data, one player still stands out among the rest. There is one aspect to his game that has consistently been overlooked by international tennis media. And I am not sure why considering that in other sports like basketball, it is used to determine their G.O.A.T.
Here is why I think that we tennis players are ready to crown our own Michael Jordan and who that should be. But first of all...
..who is even considered in the G.O.A.T discussion?
Well this is pretty obvious: Over the past two decades, we tennis fans were blessed with three uniquely talented players who have given their entire lives to this sport, playing it at unprecedented levels. We refer to them commonly as The Big Three...
Roger Federer turned pro in 1998 and is now 39 years old. He is the gentleman of the tennis world and by many considered the best player ever.
Rafael Nadal (Rafa) has been playing professional tennis since 2001 - when he was just 15 years old. He is often considered the greatest competitor of all times and also the most dominant player on one surface.
And then we have Novak Djokovic (Nole) who turned pro in 2003 and is currently 34 years old - the youngest in the field. He is by many considered the most consistent and stress resistant player.
We are lucky that these three men played in the same era. It didn’t only make for some of the best matches but also makes comparing these three legends using statistics easy...
… so what metric should we use to figure out who the G.O.A.T. is?
In tennis, media outlets commonly talk about the number of Grand Slam titles a player has. Grand Slams are the four largest tournaments in tennis. They happen over a two week period instead of one week, they include 128 players instead of 64 and on the male side, they are played best of five sets instead of best of three. Without a doubt, those are the hardest to win tournaments on the tour.
But obviously Grand Slam titles are not the only measure. Weeks spent as number one of the world, master titles (the second most important collection of tournaments), performances against each other and much more can be looked at. All of these matter, but looking at titles or rankings alone did not lead to Michael Jordan being considered the greatest. Let me explain.
According to a survey by The Athletic, polling 117 NBA players, the best player of all time is Michael Jordan. 73% of NBA stars voted for him. Michael won six championships, five regular-season MVP awards, and six Finals MVP awards. This means that Jordan was considered - by the NBA - the best player in five seasons and six postseasons. Michael also ended up scoring 32,292 points in his career. But, of the achievements mentioned, he only leads the NBA in a single one...
Although Michael Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T, he is only the 10th most successful basketball player when it comes to championships. Bill Russel, the leader in that statistic has 11, compared to Michael’s 6. When it comes to regular season MVPs trophies, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has one more and Bill Russel has the same count. Also, when it comes to points scored over their career, Michael is “only” at number 5.
What Michael does have is the most postseason MVP awards. That means when he had to play among the best teams for the championship, he was more often than not the best player. And this statistics matters a lot because it speaks to the quality of a true champion: Being at their best when it is the hardest.
Michael wanted to win more than any other player before or after him (although Kobe Bryant might be close). He had the ability to convince himself that it was more important for him to win than anyone else. And he had the mental resilience to show his greatness when it mattered. What we can take away from NBA analysts and stars is that the G.O.A.T. debate is not only about pure championship titles but also about mental strength, willpower and the pure desire to win. That is what carries the very best players beyond their physical abilities to achieve pure greatness.
Some of the basketball stars mentioned here played in different eras than Michael, so it makes it much harder to compare them with each other. Thankfully, we don’t have that problem in tennis when it comes to the Big Three.
Here are the 10 numbers I will be looking at to figure out who, of the Big three, truly is the greatest player ever:
1. Grand Slam Titles
Both Rafa and Roger have 20 Grand Slam titles, while Nole is one title behind. However, the Serb is the only male player who has won each of the four Grand Slams at least twice.
Rafa won 65% of his Grand Slams at just one tournament, the French Open. Roger's and Nole's most successful Grand Slams provided less than half of their Grand Slam trophies, showing how dominant Rafa is on clay. That being said, Rafa and Roger still have one more trophy than Novak.
Advantage: Federer and Nadal
2. Masters Titles
The second highest tier of tournaments typically features a similar caliber of players as Grand Slams but is played out in the normal ATP format (best of three sets, 64 players and one week length). Rafa and Nole have 36 titles, while Roger has about 22% fewer titles sitting at 28.
What also stands out is that of Rafa’s 36 titles, 72% were achieved at only three Masters, all played on clay. Taking together with Grand Slam titles, 70% of Rafa’s trophies have been won on clay besides the fact that only 1 Grand Slam and 3 Masters are played on clay (31% of these tournaments). To call Rafa a clay court expert would be the understatement of the century.
Roger and Nole have won most of their Masters titles on hardcourt which shouldn’t be a surprise considering that most tournaments are played on hardcourt. Hardcourts make up ~62% of Masters and Grand Slams combined. Nole won 70% of his 57 Masters or Grand Slam titles on hard court while it was 33 out of 48 for Roger which translates to 69%.
Djokovic is the only player to win all Masters and all Grand Slams titles.
Advantage: Nadal and Djokovic
3. Weeks Leading the Rankings
Novak has been ranked #1 for a historic 325 weeks and counting. Roger comes in second at 310 weeks but he had the longest streak lasting 237 weeks. Rafa has spent a total of 209 weeks as number 1.
During the Covid pandemic, as tournament play was halted, the ATP made a controversial decision to pause counting weeks as number 1. ATP Rankings were frozen from 16 March 2020 until 24 August 2020. Several tournaments were cancelled (like Wimbledon), others played at different weeks than originally planned. I detracted those weeks from Novak’s statistics, who was number 1 at that point. Besides that, he is the player with the most weeks as number 1.
When looking at the career win-rate statistics, it becomes obvious that Roger has won most tournaments. But he has the lowest match win-rate among the three and has more players with a winning record against him than the other two. Rafa and Nole have about the same win-rate but Rafa won 4 more tournaments thus far.
Digging a little deeper, Rafa has a 91.6% win-rate on clay making him the best player on a single surface ever. Of Rafa’s total 88 career titles, 46 came from just four clay tournaments. In total, 62 of his 88 titles were won on clay, which is a staggering 70% - consistent with his Masters and Grand Slam titles win-rate on clay.
Djokovic is the most consistent when it comes to winning on the different surfaces. While he is the most successful hardcourt player between the three, he is also the only one who has a win-rate above 80% on all the major surfaces. You could call him the consistent one.
5. Difficulty Level of the Competition
There is often the argument made that Roger Federer had a little easier path to success because he was playing a few years before Nadal and Djokovic came around. Let’s look at how good the players they competed against actually were based on the average rank of opponent they faced.
Djokovic’s average opponent was ranked better than 24th in the world. No other player ever has faced better ranked opponents over their career. He also had the highest ranked opponents at Grand Slam tournaments ever and the highest ranked opponents at Masters tournaments among these three greats (only Tsitsipas has faced tougher competition at Masters events).
Nadal and Djokovic also had to face better opponents in finals than Federer had to face, highlighting that Roger might have had a slightly easier path to success.
So far the results probably meet our expectations. All three are exceedingly good. Federer is the oldest with most tournament titles albeit not the most important ones when considering the number of Masters titles. He is the best of them on grass, but he lacks behind when it comes to overall win-rate.
Rafa is clearly the best one surface player with 70% of his titles coming from clay at a staggering match win-rate of 91.5% on that surface.
Djokovic on the flip side, is extremely consistent on all surfaces and has won all major events while facing the hardest competition of any player ever.
But, what makes a true champion is more than the number of titles - it is also his ability to perform at his very best when it matters the most. There are some situations in tennis that require more than just great shoot making and movements. 5-set matches, tiebreaks, or playing against the very best in the sport often requires players to keep their nerves under control and perform well under stress. True champions are able to perform when it matters more often than the rest of the field.
So, let us analyze the mental strength of the top three to better understand who might truly be the greatest ever.
6. Five-set matches
5-set matches are a grind, typically lasting around four hours. Not only do they require incredible physical strength, but they also require the mental ability to work through exhaustion and perform well under stress. Nobody seems to do that better than Novak Djokovic: In Grand Slam matches that went the distance, Djokovic records 35 wins and 10 losses (77% win rate). Nadal’s record is 22-12 (63%) and Federer’s is 32-23 (58%).
Nole wins more than 3 out of 4 matches when going over 5-sets while Nadal wins less than 2 out of 3 and Roger wins less than 6 out of 10. That is a surprisingly significant difference between these 3 players.
To win a tiebreak, a player typically needs to have at least two things going for them: a great serve and nerves of steel. It comes as no surprise that Roger Federer has the leading tiebreak record among all players winning 65.4%. Nole, while not as big of a server, comes in 2nd on the all time list with 64.6%. Nadal, at 60.5%, is 13th all time.
Tiebreaks are already challenging enough from a mental standpoint, but what makes them even more stressful is when they are match deciding. The greatest players are clutch when it matters most, and there is no game that matters more than a match deciding tiebreak. As of the middle of 2020 (latest statistic I could find on this), Novak Djokovic's 16-7 (70%) tiebreak record in deciding sets comfortably eclipses Roger Federer's 36-27 (57%) and Rafael Nadal's 19-17 (53%). Novak is more clutch than anybody else when it matters the most.
Although Roger is slightly ahead when it comes to pure tiebreak wins, Nole’s win-rate is much better at deciding tiebreaks. I Will call it a tie.
Advantage: Djokovic and Federer
Within a game, the most important point is the break-point. Whether one has to defend against being broken or has a chance to break the opponent's serve, how one plays a single breakpoint can define the outcome of the whole match.
To defend breakpoints well, one needs great serving and mental resilience. On the other hand, taking advantage of a breakpoint on the opponent's serve requires a superb return and again mental fortitude.
Unsurprisingly, Roger is great when it comes to defending breakpoints. Actually, all three are outstanding at defending breakpoints, ranking in the top 30 of all time doing so. Impressive for both, Nadal and Djokovic, who are not known to be among the greatest servers.
When it comes to converting breakpoints on an opponent's serve, Nadal leads the pack. Both Nadal and Djokovic, are among the top 15 ever when it comes to conversion. However, Federer doesn’t even make it into the top 150 players of all time when it comes to breakpoint conversion. He is just not an all time great when it comes to converting breakpoints.
9. Playing the Top 10
When playing the very best in the world, it is little details that decide who wins the match. It often comes down to having the better day or more willpower to win. Djokovic’s win/loss record is 222-100 against top 10 ranked players which converts to a success rate of 68.9%. Federer (223-123) sits at 64.4% and Nadal (178-99) 64.3%.
10. Playing the Big Three
What happens when Roger, Rafa and Nole meet each other? They provide us with the most memorable matches in the history of tennis. Ok, but who wins? You might ask.
Djokovic leads both Roger Federer (27-23) and Rafael Nadal (30-28) in head-to-head records. He is the only player to have wins over Federer and Nadal at all four Grand Slams and the only one to beat both of them in multiple Grand Slam finals, multiple Masters finals and in the final of the season-ending Championship.
Nadal also has a winning record against Federer (24-16) making it the most one sided of the matchups. However, 16 of those matches were played on clay of which Roger only won two.
In Summary: Novak Djokovic seems to be the ultimate champion
In basketball, there is one player whom you would always pass the ball to in the last minute of overtime. His name is Michael Jordan. He is the best player when it is most difficult to shine. He has the ultimate winning mentality.
In tennis, that player is Novak Djokovic. No player has ever performed as well under pressure, when it matters the most. No other tennis player has been as consistent over the years, on different surfaces and under the most challenging circumstances. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Djokovic himself said in his French Open 2021 postgame interview that he trains his mind as much as he trains his body!
Here is a bonus statistics that proves his champions mentality once more: As of mid 2020 (last update I could find on this), Federer lost 22 matches after having match points (1.48% of all career matches) while Rafa lost 8 (0.69%) and Novak lost only 3 matches (0.28%) after having a match point. Once Novak figures out how to beat an opponent, he rarely ever lets them get away with a win.
While neither Jordan nor Djokovic hold the most championship or tournament wins, they have the ultimate champions mentality. When the match is on the line, they are most likely to win it.
Other players might play with less effort, more style and - at least in Djokovic’s case - seem to be more popular. Steph Curry is a better shooter and Vince Carter a flashier dunker than Michael Jordan. Roger Federer has the most beautiful tennis game, while Rafa’s fighting spirit is unmatched.
But, at the end of the day, a true champion is the one, who overcomes difficulty most consistently and performs under stress. In tennis, the one who does this the best, the greatest player of all times, seems to be Novak Djokovic even if he ends up, just like Michael Jordan, with fewer titles than other players. Whom would you want to play the final-deciding set if your life depended on it?