Commentary

Rafael Nadal: Greatest of All Time?

Or is it Federer? Here's how the Spaniard can settle the debate once and for all.

Originally Published: June 24, 2010
By Johnette Howard | Special to ESPN.com

Rafael Nadal and Roger FedererKarimSahib/AFP/Getty ImagesThe rivalry figures to last awhile, but the next 10 days at Wimbledon will be the next debate point.

If John McEnroe's pre-Wimbledon astral projections are right (and really, is there anything the man can't do?) and 24-year-old Rafael Nadal goes on to win 12 or 13 Grand Slam titles before he's through, then couldn't Nadal -- not Roger Federer -- be considered the best player of all time?

I know that's sacrilege. Federer already has a men's record 16 Grand Slam titles, the Vogue photo shoots, the archive of unforgettable victories and acclaim. People are in the habit of calling Federer the "Best Tennis Player of All Time" in the same way they just accept Aretha Franklin as the "Queen of Soul." To quote the old baseball flamethrower, Mickey McDermott, Federer is just one of those athletes God looked at and said, "Hey. You. Go get a tuxedo."

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer has been the best for a long time … except when he plays Rafael Nadal.

But Federer has a big problem: He can't beat Nadal, especially when it counts most. Right now, Nadal has a 21-7 head-to-head edge over Federer, including a 6-2 advantage against the Swiss star in Grand Slam finals.

Federer could still finish with more majors by the end of their careers. But would that be enough for Federer to keep his claim on best ever, since he can't beat the other best player of his generation? Again, why should it be?

Someone once said what all sports greats have had is a poet in the press box to help conflate their legend. And Federer is like that. He's been hang gliding a long time on an updraft of praise that crested in 2007, when he really was near invincible and still steamrollering the rest of the world.

A roster of retired greats purred that Federer was the best they'd ever seen, especially after he passed Pete Sampras last year for the lead in all-time major titles. And Federer deserved every last rave. Until last month's French Open, Federer had been to at least the semifinals in 23 straight Grand Slams, a men's record. He's just one shy of matching Pete Sampras for total number of weeks at No. 1 (286), though Nadal just passed him again for the top ranking.

But here's the catch: Since 2008, Nadal is 3-0 against Federer when they've met head-to-head at the Slams. Each has won four majors in that span, but two of Federer's came last year at the French and Wimbledon when Nadal, the defending champion at both tournaments, was hampered by injuries.

That's why the same experts, even before Federer struggled to win his first two matches this week at Wimbledon, would've probably told you Nadal is the best player right now.

So how does Nadal change that to best ever?

Crazy as it sounds, Nadal should start by actually rooting to meet Federer in the finals of every major, because beating Federer would serve a twofold purpose. It would stop Federer from adding to his own Grand Slam total, and it would pad Nadal's head-to-head advantage against Federer even more. Nothing else would work the same alchemy for Nadal's career.

And Federer knows it.

"He's got the better record against me," Federer said this week, "so every time I play him, I try to improve on it."

[+] EnlargeRodger Federer and Rafael Nadal
Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty ImagesThey both clean up well, don't they?

What else?

Nadal has given lip service in the past to playing shorter points; but given the knee problems that have afflicted him over his career, he needs to commit to that approach even more. Longevity is necessary to match Federer's consistency.

It isn't Nadal's style to brag, but he could also remind people he's not a clay-court specialist anymore. The past three times he and Federer met in a major, Nadal beat Federer at the Australian Open, demolished him at the French Open and outdueled him in their 2008 epic at Wimbledon -- on a hard court, a clay court and a grass court.

Despite all that, Nadal still treats the suggestion that he could overtake Federer for best ever as if someone has just pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and lobbed it to him. Nadal's fans smile warmly and say this is just proof of his charming humility. Others (OK, me) say it can drive you crazy.

"If somebody says I am better than Roger, I think this person don't know nothing about tennis," Nadal insisted a few weeks ago on his way to winning his fifth French Open title. "You see the titles of him [Federer] and you see the titles of me? It's no comparison. So that's the answer. It's difficult to compare Roger with me now, because he has 16 Grand Slams. I have six."

Nadal now has seven.

It will be eight if he beats Federer in next week's hoped-for Wimbledon final, which McEnroe predicts Nadal will do because Nadal "just seems a little hungrier."

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty ImagesNadal's latest Slam prize: the 2010 French Open trophy.

Federer hasn't won any titles since he beat Andy Murray for the Australian Open title in January. By the looks of him, confidence -- not hunger -- might be Federer's biggest problem. He's been oddly subdued at Wimbledon so far, as if he doesn't recognize this guy inhabiting his body and spraying shots all over the yard. He should've lost his opening match to 60th-ranked Alejandro Falla, a left-hander (same as Nadal), who choked on a chance to serve out the match at 5-4 of the fourth set.

Nadal cruised through his opening match; but then, channeling his inner Falla, dropped the third set 6-3 to Holland's Robin Haase before rallying for a five-set win on Thursday.

The great thing about sports debates such as Federer-Nadal is that the criterion is so highly personal. Style can trump stats. Quite often, when it comes to rating all-time greats, it's the anecdotal evidence or the sight of them in the mind's eye that tips arguments. Was Michael Jordan really better than Bill Russell if Russell won nine NBA titles to Jordan's six, but Jordan could fly? Does Joe Montana's edge in Super Bowl rings make him better than Peyton Manning, though Manning is a better pure passer?

Federer is a magician with a racket. Nadal uses his like a sledgehammer to bludgeon groundstrokes. Federer plays breathtaking sleight-of-hand defense, not just offense. Nadal's best defense is his legs, which allow him to run down so many shots he often breaks his opponent's will. Andy Roddick, after yet another remorseless dissection by Federer, once called Federer the perfect tennis player. Nadal's will makes him seem like a force of nature.

Both of them are remarkable.

Federer, who turns 29 in August, has hung up a lot for Nadal to chase. But if Nadal gets to 12 or 13 majors and their head-to-head matchups keep trending the way they are now, even Nadal might have to admit that when it comes to "best ever," the polls haven't closed. The sands are always shifting, but he's got a shot, all right.

With any luck, they'll egg on the debate in next Sunday's final at Wimbledon.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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