Why Rafael Nadal Might be the GOAT – Rafa’s claim to the GOAT title revolves around three areas of excellence. I’ll begin with clay. First, no one has dominated any surface in the manner that Nadal has dominated clay. Rafa is Borg’s equal in French Open titles, but his ownership of Monte Carlo, the Italian Open and Barcelona along with titles at the Hamburg/Madrid clay court Masters 1000 events is unreal. Rafa being so far out in front of everyone on that surface gives him a cushion to work with on other surfaces when he is compared to other players.
However, Rafa does not really need that cushion as his second attribute will attest. Rafa owns big titles on hard courts and grass courts and won his career Grand Slam much earlier in his career than Andre Agassi or Roger Federer did. Nadal won the 2008 Olympic Gold medal on a hard court. He won the 2009 Australian Open and 2010 US Open titles. Throw in multiple titles at Indian Wells and at the Canadian Open along with his runner-up finishes in New York and Melbourne, and no one can say Rafa is not a great hard court champion. On grass, Rafa’s case is even stronger. Rafa owns two Wimbledon titles as well as a title at the Queen’s Club. Rafa is a three time Wimbledon runner-up. Nadal has reached more Wimbledon championship matches than Stefan Edberg did! Rafa knows grass.
Finally, Rafael Nadal holds an 18-10 head-to-head edge over Roger Federer. A lot has been made of this fact. I think their age gap along with the surface gap has some implications here, but the numbers are there. Rafa has beaten Roger in many big matches. This means something.
Why Rafael Nadal is not the GOAT - The French Open specifically and clay court tennis in general did not gain equal footing with events on faster surfaces until the mid 1980′s. Rafael Nadal has never won a season ending title and has only reached the season ending event’s final round one time. Rafael Nadal still trails Bjorn Borg’s 11 majors, Pete Sampras’ 14 majors and Roger Federer’s 16 majors.
You Decide - Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are still moving targets as they keep adding to their career accomplishments. Consider that Federer and Nadal have combined to win seven titles in 2012 alone (and it is only May!). Rafa being younger than Roger makes it even harder to know where his career will lead. I can say with a lot of confidence that Rafa should equal and pass Bjorn Borg’s major totals. The Spaniard’s hard court wins already have Nadal ahead of Borg in my all-time lists. Will Rafa get to fourteen or sixteen majors? That is harder to predict. If his health holds up and he solves the Djokovic riddle, Nadal has a very good chance of laying claim to the title of GOAT. If Rafa’s knees go and/or he cannot beat Nole on surfaces other than clay, in my mind he’ll likely end up somewhere among the top three post-Laver players.