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Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Updated: May 21, 11:23 AM ET
Who is the greatest of all time?

It's the fly in the ointment of immortality, the chink in an otherwise flawless piece of armor. It's Roger Federer's head-to-head record against Rafael Nadal, and it's back in the news (or at least on this blog).

Two years ago, when Nadal was in the process of beating his rival five consecutive times and ascending to No. 1, some began to ask a not unreasonable question: How can Federer be considered the greatest of all time when he has a lopsided losing record against someone from his own era? In 2009, Federer seemed to answer that question once and for all when he completed a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros and then broke the men's record for Grand Slam titles a month later at Wimbledon. The pesky head-to-head numbers, which remained 13-7 in Nadal's favor, just didn't fit into the happy theme of the moment, namely, that in Roger Federer we were all lucky enough to be witnessing the Greatest Tennis Player of All Time. It felt good to believe it.

And we were right to believe it, for a few reasons. One negative head-to-head can't invalidate Federer's dominance of everyone else, everywhere else. Federer has been punished for doing better on clay at the French Open, where he's lost three finals to Nadal, than the Spaniard has done on hard courts at the U.S. Open, where he has never kept his final-round date with Federer, a five-time Open champion. Finally, and most crucially, tennis players can only be judged on what they set out to accomplish. The best of them play to win the most prestigious tournaments, not to beat certain opponents, and by that measure Federer reigns supreme.

On Sunday, though, for the first time in a year, the head-to-head numbers made a cameo appearance in the ever-evolving and never-to-be-resolved GOAT drama. Nadal beat Federer on clay in Madrid to up his record to 14-7; surfaces aside, he wins two-thirds of their matches. Rafa hasn't just built those numbers on a mound of red dirt, either. He has beaten Federer once on grass (against two defeats, all in Wimbledon finals) and three times on hard courts (against three defeats), including the most important match they've played on that surface, the 2009 Australian Open final. In the Slams, Federer's specialty, Nadal is 6-2.

Is it time to start thinking about reopening Federer's case for greatest ever? If not now, when? If Nadal gets to 16-8, 18-9, 20-10? Is there a number that we just won't be able to ignore? I'd say no, that Federer's status will be safe for years to come, unless Nadal makes an unlikely run at his career Slam record. But while tournament wins are how players should be judged, Nadal's record against Federer shows that tennis is, at its heart, a head-to-head sport. Unlike golf, your success is always in direct relation to someone else on the other side of the court, which means that a head-to-head record can never be meaningless. This one is more meaningful than most: It proves again how the GOAT exists only in theory, and that when we descend from the world of statistics, of Slams won and years spent at No. 1, the sport is still all about individual matchups, figured out and played out one at a time. Federer remains the best, the GOAT, for his ability to dominate more of those match-ups than anyone. Nadal, for now, has a more peculiar title, one unique to tennis. Call him the Fly (In the ointment). He's the best at beating the best.