Rafael Nadal fell to his knees, overcome by joy and relief, after defeating Novak Djokovic in dominating fashion to win his 13th French Open title in 16 years.
Nadal has dominated the top tournaments on clay courts for nearly his entire career, sporting a nearly incomprehensible 115-14 record in his matches played on the surface. This year’s French Open performance by the 34-year-old was almost an expected display of perfection. Yet his straight set win over Djokovic in the final (6-0, 6-2, 7-5) is a moment in tennis history that will not be soon forgotten. This 13th Roland Garros title gives Nadal 20 career grand slam titles, tying him with Roger Federer for the most in the history of the sport.
Nadal has battled injuries for his entire career, and was, for all intents and purposes, a non-factor on the ATP Tour for 2014 and 2015. Throughout his health related struggles, Federer managed to remain relatively durable, well into his thirties, allowing him to maintain his status as the best tennis player in the world. However, with Nadal battling through those several tough years, and returning to an incredibly high level of play in the last few, Federer’s perch at the top has become all-the-more precarious.
Both players, along with Novak Djokovic have continued to show that they are head and shoulders above the rest of the field, despite being well past the typical prime years of pro tennis players. This extended excellence has left both Nadal and Federer as the unanimous one and two on the mount rushmore of the sport. The only question that remains is that of who should claim the top spot?
Let’s start by looking at the numbers. Although both now have 20 grand slam titles, Federer’s wins are spread across all four slams in a much more balanced manner, showing year-round dominance. He has eight Wimbledon titles, six at the Australian Open, five at the US Open, and one at the French Open. This is opposed to Nadal’s 13 French Open wins, four at the US Open, two at Wimbledon, and one at the Australian Open.
Federer has also shown a kind of consistency through not just the majors, but the smaller tournaments as well that Rafa has not been able to match due to injury. Federer holds the all time lead for most weeks ranked number one in the ATP all time with 310, more than 100 more than Nadal’s 209.
One important factor to remember though is age. Nadal entered the tour 3 years after the Swiss great, and is five years younger than him. Although Federer has shown few signs of dropping off, one has to consider that Nadal probably has much more left to give the game.
The mode of comparison that seems to trump all though is what these two elite competitors have done when they have faced off. This decade-long rivalry has given some of the best matches in history, and has produced a level of tennis rarely seen. It seems that every tennis fan remembers the day they saw the 2008 Wimbledon Final, a nearly five hour match between the two that ended with a Nadal victory 9-7 in the fifth set. It was the kind of match that, at several points, seemed as though they should stop playing and call it a tie.
Overall they have played 40 matches against each other, with Nadal holding the edge in wins 24-16. Nadal also has the better of Federer in their all time matchups in grand slam tournaments, winning 10 of those 14 matches.
At the end of the day, Nadal and Federer are the two best tennis players to ever live. Regardless of who will be considered the greatest of all time when they both retire, it is truly one of the most special things in all of sport to be able to witness their prowess side by side as they continuously make history. We have been spoiled for the past decade, and the next generation of tennis, which is filled with talented young players like Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, will be hard pressed to meet the high bar that has been set by two European stars who have made the sport what it is.