Why Roger Federer might be the GOAT - Roger Federer has a compelling case to make on both fronts of the GOAT argument. He holds many of tennis’ most important records and is close to the leader in the records that he does not (yet?) hold. He fills Sampras’ requirement for GOAT by holding the most Grand Slam singles titles. Therefore, he has probably the strongest answer to the question of who has accomplished the most as a male tennis player. Federer’s sixteen Grand Slam singles titles and career Grand Slam seem to separate him from even the great Pete Sampras.
In terms of who has played the best tennis ever, Federer’s game is quite adaptable to all surfaces. His style of play has an aesthetic quality to it that may turn off some but has won the allegiance of many fans. Federer’s success indoors and stroke mechanics make it easy to envision adapting his game to previous eras with faster courts and less advanced string technology. Rafael Nadal is an incredible competitor and athlete so he likely would have had success in other eras as well, but his game would need to be radically rebuilt to succeed in the past.
Federer’s strongest argument comes from his streaks. He has not only set records, but he has generally obliterated the previous or second place marks. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Federer reached Ten consecutive Grand Slam Finals (a record) followed by his own a streak of eight consecutive Grand Slam Finals (Agassi, Laver and Nadal are in third place with four consecutive Grand Slam final appearances)
- Federer won eight consecutive non-clay court Grand Slam titles from Wimbledon 2005 through the US Open 2007
- Federer has reached the final round of each Grand Slam event at least five times (His record in these finals: Wimbledon 6-1, US Open 5-1, Australian Open 4-1, French Open 1-4)
- Federer has won a record sixteen Grand Slam singles titles and reached a record twenty-three Grand Slam singles final rounds
- Federer made twenty-three consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances. That translates to 5.75 years of placing no worse than the top four at tennis’ biggest events. I bolded this because I think this is his greatest achievement.
- Federer has an active streak of thirty-one consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances. That translates 7.75 years of finishing no worse than the top eight at tennis’ biggest events.
- Federer, like Bjorn Borg, won five consecutive Wimbledon titles and reached six consecutive Wimbledon finals. Unlike Borg, Federer added a sixth title and seventh consecutive championship appearance to his collection in 2009.
- Federer also won a record twenty-four consecutive championship matches when reaching the final of a tournament.
One could go on, but beyond Federer now holding the most season ending championships, I think the biggest accomplishments have been named. These records are so gaudy that it may take a decade or two after Federer’s retirement to fully grasp what they represent.
Why Roger Federer is not the GOAT – Two arguments are frequently cited in debating Federer’s status. The first is that Federer did not face stiff competition in setting his records. This seems like a hollow argument as Rafael Nadal first became a credible Grand Slam threat in June 2005 and Federer won twelve of his sixteen majors after this point. Also, consider the 2004 Australian Open in which Federer defeated Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian, Juan-Carlos Ferrero and Marat Safin in succession.
The other typical argument against Federer’s GOAT status has more heft. Roger Federer has a poor head-to-head record against his main rival in Rafael Nadal. Federer is 9-18 versus Nadal. This feeds into the second question relevant to GOAT debates regarding who has played the best tennis or held the highest standard of tennis. Some of this can be contextualized. Namely, during Federer’s best years he was reaching the final round of clay court events only to face Nadal, but Nadal did not often return the favor on faster hard courts and indoor courts. Still, Federer’s head-to-head record versus Nadal is a real number that impacts this debate.
You Decide - Federer has unquestionably been more consistently excellent than any other player in the Open era. Outside of Novak Djokovic, Federer has handed Nadal his biggest defeats by topping Nadal twice in the Wimbledon final, four times at the Masters Cup/World Tour Finals, and in the final round of three Masters 1000 events. Federer still leads his non-clay court head-to-head with Nadal seven to five. To be sure, Nadal has more frequently inflicted big losses on Federer, but it is not as if Roger has never drawn blood in this rivalry. Is Federer’s preternatural talent and consistent excellence enough to earn GOAT status or does Nadal’s record over Federer throw the debate into chaos?
Next – Rafael Nadal’s Credentials