In 2003, a 16-year-old Spaniard emerged on the tennis scene, defeating former world No. 1 Carlos Moya in Hamburg. The consensus? Rafael Nadal had the potential to be a pretty good tennis player. If only the world knew what was in store.
In 2020, the now 34-year-old Nadal is unrivaled at Roland-Garros, or the French Open, racking up titles as if they are mere formalities and putting away world-class players as if they belong on the junior tour. His most recent conquest was during the 2020 French Open, where he trounced current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 final.
We have to recognize the significance of Nadal’s performances. There are good records, and then there are great records. What Nadal has done in the French Open reaches the tier of unimaginable — 15 years and 13 titles. This success lies in the same vein as Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, Jerry Rice’s career receiving yards record, Wayne Gretzky’s points record and Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in a single game. In the history of men’s tennis, no other male player has won more than eight majors at a single event, and they have certainly never seemed unbeatable. Nadal is 100-2 at the French Open, looks primed to win several more titles and appears unflinching even as age bears down on him. It seems appreciative nicknames and accolades do not do justice to Nadal: On clay, he is unmatched, unbeatable and invincible.
It would be an injustice to discuss Nadal’s continued dominance without recognizing the other athletes who own men’s tennis. Nadal’s 20th Grand Slam title ties him with Roger Federer for the most ever Grand Slam titles. Djokovic lurks closely behind with 17 titles. A French Open victory would have allowed Djokovic to claim an unprecedented win over tennis’s best clay-court player on the biggest stage and an improved head-to-head record against his greatest foe, but Nadal is too great.
Meanwhile, Federer watched this year’s French Open from home due to a knee surgery, but he was certainly aware of the stakes. Once unanimously considered the greatest player tennis has ever seen, the 39-year-old’s grasp on that honor is slipping. Djokovic has continued to oust his competition at the other Grand Slams, and Nadal has had a remarkable career resurgence as he remains undefeated on clay. The competition for the tennis throne is only getting narrower.
This debate is intensified by the similarities of these players’ careers and the difference in what each individual represents as an athlete. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have battled in nearly every great match of the 21st century, and their primes have had remarkable overlaps. Despite this similarity, they are each special. Federer is poetry in motion. Only his game can be described as beautiful, with his motion so precise it is inimitable. Nadal is a fighter, the man John McEnroe dubbed “relentless” when Nadal was just a teenager. Nadal’s commitment to give his very best is as inspiring as anything in the sport. He earns the nickname “Raging Bull” every time he steps on the court. Djokovic, meanwhile, has carved out a place in sports lore as a mental giant. He is the personification of perseverance. His comebacks in primetime matches are legendary, and his ability to silence a crowd of 15,000 is unparalleled.
But as impressive as each player is, their differences seem to have earned the Big Three more scrutiny. They have joined the pantheon of tennis greats in their own unique way, which only causes fans to analyze them more closely. As we seek to understand what matters most among titles, win streaks and head-to-head records, we also want to know what reigns supreme among Federer’s finesse, Nadal’s force and Djokovic’s resolve.
Given the narratives that have been constructed around their respective careers, it is difficult to not just pick the player that resonates with you the most and argue for his case as the greatest tennis player of all time. But with Nadal tying Federer with 20 Grand Slam titles, the most important criterion for the whole discussion, I believe he is alone on the mountaintop right now. Djokovic is adding to his resume at an alarming rate, and Federer may be poised for a comeback after a long break from tennis with a knee surgery, but Nadal has established himself as the man to beat on tour. The fight for supremacy in men’s tennis is as contentious as ever, and with his 13th French Open title in 15 tries, Nadal may have a claim to one of the greatest, most unbelievable records in sports.
Saar Shah is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. The Fifth Quarter appears online every other week.