Roger Federer, and are the three favourites for the next week and it’s another opportunity to notch another major win to assert themselves as the greatest tennis player of all time (GOAT).

Djokovic has thrown his hat firmly back into the ring after his exploits at and in becoming the first man to win all nine Masters 1000 titles.

So now seems the ideal opportunity to delve deep into some of the data behind three of the all-time greats.

With all three getting their hands on a major in 2018 already, the US Open feels finely poised.

Heading into Flushing Meadows, most casual observers would consider Federer to be the GOAT. The Swiss has the most Grand Slam titles to his name – perhaps the easiest way to discern the best players throughout history – and is still going strong at 37 years young.

Most matches played between rivals in Open Era (ATP only)

Djokovic vs Nadal – 52
Djokovic vs Federer – 46
Federer vs Nadal – 38

But the joy of having Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all playing at the same time – indeed, each of their rivalries are the most played fixtures in the Open Era – is that we have vast amounts of comparative data to sift through.

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So without further ado, we will take a look through a few of the factors that could be involved in deciding who truly is the GOAT among them.

Prima facie data

As stated above, the most important number, in my opinion, is the total number of Grand Slam titles.

The reasoning is pretty simple, it’s the best number we have to compare it to other generations.

It gives us a pretty strong idea as to just how good these guys are, with only Pete Sampras bettering Djokovic’s total and Federer and Nadal at the top of the list.

Most Grand Slam titles (ATP)

20 – Federer
17 – Nadal
14 – Sampras
13 – Djokovic

Federer, by this number alone is the GOAT (for the time being at least).

Another useful indicator to compare the three is the second tier of tennis tournaments, which all top players typically compete in – the Masters 1000 events.

In this list, Nadal reigns supreme followed by Djokovic and then Federer.

Most Masters titles

33 – Nadal
31 – Djokovic
27 – Federer
17 – Agassi
14 – Murray

This leaderboard is ever changing, of course, and Nadal only recently surpassed Djokovic during the clay-court season so it’s worth keeping an eye on in future.

The Masters series is not as useful a comparison with other generations, given they were only formatted as such in 1990 – and reformatted several times since then – but it will be a useful tool to compare future generations and is useful by means of comparison between this trio.

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It’s worth factoring the ATP World Tour Finals into the Masters 1000 series as it’s an event that offers more ranking points (1500) and if we do so, the list changes somewhat given Nadal’s failure to lift that title.

Most Masters and ATP Finals titles

36 – Djokovic
33 – Nadal
33 – Federer

If we throw Grand Slams into the mix, this is how the three compare in terms of elite titles.

Combined Grand Slam, Masters & ATP Finals totals

53 – Federer
50 – Nadal
49 – Djokovic

Big titles as % of overall titles

Federer – 53/98 (54%)
Nadal – 50/80 (63%)
Djokovic – 49/70 (70%)

It’s pretty close on that front but obviously, Grand Slam titles remain a cut above given their status and the fact they’re best-of-five.

Having said that, what sets the Masters events apart is the wider variety of surfaces.

Not only between an indoor hard court and a clay court but also the variety within the certain court types. The slower Monte Carlo clay courts, for example, are vastly different to the high altitude, faster clay in Madrid.

Djokovic’s maiden title in Cincinnati saw him become the first player to win all the Masters 1000 titles, with Nadal (Miami & Paris) and Federer (Monte Carlo & Rome) both short of two crowns.

This leads to an argument that he’s the most versatile and adaptable to different surfaces of the three, despite all of them having claimed all four majors.

Biggest events by ‘Big 3‘ winners

Slams

Australian Open – Djokovic (6), Federer (6), Nadal (1)
French Open – Djokovic (1), Federer (1), Nadal (11)
Wimbledon – Djokovic (4), Federer (8), Nadal (2)
US Open – Djokovic (2), Federer (5), Nadal (3)

Masters 1000 & ATP Finals

Indian Wells – Djokovic (5), Federer (5), Nadal (3)
Miami – Djokovic (6), Federer (3)
Monte Carlo – Djokovic (2), Nadal (11)
Madrid – Djokovic (2), Federer (3), Nadal (5*)
Rome – Djokovic (4), Nadal (8)
Canada – Djokovic (4), Federer (2), Nadal (4)
Cincinnati – Djokovic (1), Federer (7), Nadal (1)
Shanghai – Djokovic (3), Federer (2)
Paris – Djokovic (4), Federer (1)
ATP Finals – Djokovic (5), Federer (6)

(Hamburg: Federer (4), Nadal (1) – was Masters event before relegation to 500 in 2009)
*Nadal won Madrid when indoor hard court event in Shanghai slot

Of course, Federer may well have found his Masters 1000 total higher if there was an event on a grass court – his favoured surface – so that could be used as a mitigating factor.

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At the other end of the spectrum, King of Clay Nadal has three Masters events on his favoured surface every season.

Finally, all have an Olympics singles medal to their names, but only Nadal’s is gold. The trio have also all won the Davis Cup.

How do they fare against each other?

We’re pretty blessed to have these three unique athletes performing at the highest level all at the same time and it allows us to get some interesting insights into their victories at Grand Slam level.

While Federer’s total of 20 Slams will be tough to beat, Djokovic boasts a 100% record of beating a member of the ‘Big Four’ (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray) en route to every major he’s won.

Now, of course, Federer is several years older than the pair and it would be ridiculous to penalise him for not beating players who weren’t around at the time.

So it’s perhaps better to qualify some of our data by looking within a particular time frame.

If we begin looking from 2008 – the year where Djokovic won his first Grand Slam, meaning that all three had won majors – that seems a good point to class them all as elite players.

So if we revise our list from that point we have Nadal winning the most majors with 14 and Federer in third with 8.

No. of Slams won beating ‘Big Four‘ member en route since 2008

Djokovic: 13/13 (100%) 
Nadal: 10/14 (71%)
Federer: 4/8 (50%)

Djokovic’s total doesn’t change, 10 of Nadal’s titles came while beating a member of the ‘Big Four’ en route, while Federer only beat a ‘Big Four’ member four times on his way to Grand Slam titles over the past decade.

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If we take Murray out of the equation, the data looks like this:

Slam wins beating member of ‘Big Three‘ en route

Djokovic

Overall: 10/13 (77%)
Since 2008: 10/13 (77%)

Nadal

Overall: 12/17 (70.5%)
Since 2008: 9/14 (64%)

Federer

Overall: 7/20 (35%)
Since 2008: 3/8 (37.5%)

The order remains the same but Djokovic’s lead over Nadal in this category is somewhat reduced.

If we make the same alterations with Masters and ATP Finals titles, here’s what we’re left with since 2008:

Masters & ATP Finals stats

No. titles won since 2008

34 – Djokovic
24 – Nadal
15 – Federer

No. of Big 4 wins 

Djokovic overall: 28/36 (78%)
Djokovic since 2008: 26/34 (76%)

Nadal overall: 22/33 (67%)
Nadal since 2008: 17/24 (70.8%)

Federer overall: 16/33 (48%)
Federer since 2008: 12/15 (80%)

No. of Big 3 wins 

Djokovic overall: 21/36 (58%)
Djokovic since 2008:19/34 (56%)

Nadal overall: 18/33 (54.5%)
Nadal since 2008: 13/24 (54%)

Federer overall: 15/33 (45%)
Federer since 2008: 11/15 (73%)

Djokovic is the leader in this category in terms of titles won, and although Federer has the highest percentage of ‘Big Three’ titles won since 2008, he has won 19 fewer than the Serb in that period which may skew that figure somewhat.

Head-to-heads

One pretty obvious way to compare the trio is their success when playing against one another.

Federer missed out on the opportunity to level his head-to-head (H2H) with Djokovic in the Cincinnati final and actually has a losing H2H against both players.

‘Big Three head-to-head‘

Federer 22-24 Djokovic
Federer 15-23 Nadal
Nadal 25-27 Djokovic

H2H v Andy Murray

Federer 14-11 Murray
Nadal 17-7 Murray
Djokovic 25-11 Murray

Similarly, Nadal’s defeat to Djokovic in the semi-finals of Wimbledon saw him miss an opportunity to level their H2H and the Serb boasts a winning record against the pair.

Nadal enjoys the largest winning margin over a rival – sitting eight wins clear above Federer. That total was considerably worse before Federer won their last five meetings.

All have winning records against ‘Big Four’ member Murray.

At first glance, Djokovic seems to hold the majority of the cards in this department – but there are several different ways to break down these statistics.

In finals as a whole, the Serb remains the dominant figure, winning 14 of 24 matches with Nadal and 13 of 19 matches with Federer

Head-to-head in finals

Djokovic 14-10 Nadal

Federer 10-14 Nadal

Djokovic 13-6 Federer

Nadal leads Federer 14-10 in their finals head-to-head.

However, if we shift the landscape to Grand Slams alone, then Nadal looks to be top dog.

Head-to-head in Grand Slams

Federer 6-9 Djokovic
Nadal 9-5 Djokovic
Nadal 9-3 Federer

He holds strong records against both Djokovic and Federer. The Serb also leads the Swiss.

That perhaps doesn’t tell the full story, particularly given Nadal’s dominance at the French Open. So let’s also break it down by Slams.

In Australia, Djokovic has winning records against both his counterparts, which is perhaps not so surprising given his six titles Down Under.

Australian Open H2Hs

Federer 1-3 Nadal
Federer 1-3 Djokovic
Nadal 0-1 Djokovic

What is more surprising is that Federer has losing head-to-heads against both Nadal and Djokovic in what is his second strongest Slam in terms of titles won.

In Paris, there are no prizes for guessing who has the strongest record.

French Open H2Hs

Nadal 5-0 Federer
Nadal 6-1 Djokovic
Federer 1-1 Djokovic

Nadal has an 11-1 record against his closest rivals, with Djokovic one of only two men to ever beat him at Roland Garros.

Djokovic and Federer have both beaten each other once on the clay courts in Paris.

At the All England Club, one would expect eight-time champion Federer to be the dominant force.

Wimbledon H2Hs

Federer 2-1 Nadal
Djokovic 2-1 Nadal
Djokovic 2-1 Federer

However, that’s not the case. While the 37-year-old has a winning record against Nadal, he is trailing Djokovic – who defeated him in the 2014 and 2015 finals.

Finally, it’s one of tennis’ more curious statistics that Federer and Nadal have never met in Flushing Meadows.

US Open

Federer 3-3 Djokovic
Federer 0-0 Nadal
Nadal 2-1 Djokovic

Nadal exudes slight dominance over Djokovic at the US Open, while the Serb shares the spoils from his six meetings with Federer.

What we can see from this stretching out of the data is that there’s not a fat lot between all of them… until you factor in Nadal’s clay court results.

Grand Slam head-to-heads excluding French Open

Nadal 3-4 Djokovic
Nadal 4-3 Federer
Federer 5-8 Djokovic

Take those away and you see a pretty close rivalry between them all. The lopsided results on clay certainly prove Nadal to be the greatest on a single surface.

Federer trails both his rivals in this category, but are there external factors due to his advanced years?

It might be of interest to break down their head-to-heads by age.

The age factor

Nadal is widely regarded to have been one of the most talented youngsters in the history of the sport and won a Grand Slam title younger than both Federer and Djokovic.

First Grand Slam by age

Nadal – 19 years, three days
Djokovic – 20 years, 251 days
Federer – 21 years, 333 days

Obviously, we can’t compare how Djokovic and Nadal got on against Federer when he was a teenager. Maybe he would have matured faster if their ages had been the other way round? It’s hard to say.

But we can perhaps draw some interesting conclusions in terms of at what age things started to shift in the rivalries and whether it was ever truly a factor.

Let’s begin with Djokovic and Federer.

As you might expect, the early years of this rivalry is heavily in Federer’s favour.

Djokovic didn’t pick up a win against the already well-established Swiss during his teenage years.

Similarly, in the back-end of the rivalry (to date), Djokovic has largely dominated – particularly since 2015.

There are anomalies for both, however, and arguably at strange times.

Djokovic v Federer H2H by season

2006: Federer 2-0 Djokovic (Djokovic 18/19, Federer 24/25)
2007: Federer 3-1 Djokovic (Djokovic 19/20, Federer 25/26)
2008: Federer 2-1 Djokovic (Djokovic 20/21, Federer 26/27)
2009: Djokovic 3-2 Federer (Djokovic 21/22, Federer 27/28)
2010: Federer 4-1 Djokovic (Djokovic 22/23, Federer 28/29)
2011: Djokovic 4-1 Federer (Djokovic 23/24, Federer 29/30)
2012: Djokovic 3-2 Federer (Djokovic 24/25, Federer 30/31)
2013: Djokovic 2-0 Federer (Djokovic 25/26, Federer 31/32)
2014: Federer 3-2 Djokovic (Djokovic 26/27, Federer 32/33)
2015: Djokovic 5-3 Federer (Djokovic 27/28, Federer 33/34)
2016: Djokovic 1-0 Federer (Djokovic 28/29, Federer 34/35)
2017: N/A
2018: Djokovic 1-0 Federer (Djokovic 30/31, Federer 36/37)

Take the year 2009, for example. Federer would – by today’s standards at least – typically be well into his prime and yet he fell down 3-2 to Djokovic who was in his early 20s. This was despite picking up two Grand Slam titles that year compared to Djokovic’s zero.

Federer pulled off a similar trick when Djokovic was close to his prime. He enjoyed a 3-2 lead over his great rival in 2014 – when one would perhaps expect him to be over the hill – although, similarly to above, the Swiss ended the year without a major.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the strongest period in Federer’s career for the best part of a decade in 2017/18 came in a spell when he completely avoided Djokovic.

Nadal clearly matured the fastest of the three.

He was competitive from the off against Federer and, in truth, largely dominated the Swiss.

Nadal v Federer H2H by season

2004: Nadal 1-0 Federer (Nadal 17/18, Federer 22/23)
2005: Federer 1-1 Nadal (Nadal 18/19, Federer 23/24)
2006: Nadal 4-2 Federer (Nadal 19/20, Federer 24/25)
2007: Federer 3-2 Nadal (Nadal 20/21, Federer 25/26)
2008: Nadal 4-0 Federer (Nadal 21/22, Federer 26/27)
2009: Nadal 1-1 Federer (Nadal 22/23, Federer 27/28)
2010: Nadal 1-1 Federer (Nadal 23/24, Federer 28/29)
2011: Nadal 3-1 Federer (Nadal 24/25, Federer 29/30)
2012: Nadal 1-1 Federer (Nadal 25/26, Federer 30/31)
2013: Nadal 4-0 Federer (Nadal 26/27, Federer 31/32)
2014: Nadal 1-0 Federer (Nadal 27/28, Federer 32/33)
2015: Federer 1-0 Nadal (Nadal 28/29, Federer 33/34)
2016: N/A
2017: Federer 4-0 Nadal (Nadal, 30/31, Federer 35/36)
2018: N/A

But that’s all changed since 2015 and Federer is without a defeat to the current world No. 1 in three years.

Considering the Swiss’ decline against Djokovic in the same period, it’s curious to say the least that he has since discovered his best form against Nadal (even if they haven’t been playing on clay in that spell).

Moving onto Nadal’s record against Djokovic. It’s no surprise given the previous sets of head-to-heads that the Spaniard was the more dominant in their early years.

Aside from 2011 – a year where the Serb won three of four Slam titles – Nadal led their head-to-head in every year up until 2014.

Nadal v Djokokic H2H by season

2006: Nadal 1-0 Djokovic (Djokovic 18/19, Nadal 19/20)
2007: Nadal 5-2 Djokovic (Djokovic 19/20, Nadal 20/21)
2008: Nadal 4-2 Djokovic (Djokovic 20/21, Nadal 21/22)
2009: Nadal 4-3 Djokovic (Djokovic 21/22, Nadal 22/23)
2010: Nadal 2-0 Djokovic (Djokovic 22/23, Nadal 23/24)
2011: Djokovic 6-0 Nadal (Djokovic 23/24, Nadal 24/25)
2012: Nadal 3-1 Djokovic (Djokovic 24/25, Nadal 25/26)
2013: Nadal 3-3 Djokovic (Djokovic 25/26, Nadal 26/27)
2014: Djokovic 2-1 Nadal (Djokovic 26/27, Nadal 27/28)
2015: Djokovic 4-0 Nadal (Djokovic 27/28, Nadal 28/29)
2016: Djokovic 3-0 Nadal (Djokovic 28/29, Nadal 29/30)
2017: Nadal 1-0 Djokovic (Djokovic 29/30, Nadal 30/31)
2018: Djokovic 1-1 Nadal (Djokovic 30/31, Nadal 31/32)

From there, it’s been pretty much the Djokovic show – apart from 2017 where the 13-time major winner suffered a major dip in form amid fitness struggles.

His dominance between 2014-2016 is particularly striking considering traditionally both would be expected to be somewhere near their peak performance.

Away from their rivalries, we can also plot their Grand Slam success both by season and age.

Grand Slam titles by year

2003 – Federer (21/22) – 1

2004 – Federer (22/23) – 3

2005 – Federer (23/24) – 2 Nadal (18/19) – 1

2006 – Federer (24/25) – 3 Nadal (19/20) – 1

2007 – Federer (25/26) – 3 Nadal (20/21) – 1

2008 – Federer (26/27) – 1 Djokovic (20/21) – 1 Nadal (21/22) – 2

2009 – Federer (27/28) – 2 Djokovic (21/22) – 0 Nadal (22/23) – 1

2010 – Federer (28/29) – 1 Djokovic (22/23) – 0 Nadal (23/24) – 3

2011 – Federer (29/30) – 0 Djokovic (23/24) – 3 Nadal (24/25) – 1

2012 – Federer (30/31) – 1 Djokovic (24/25) – 1 Nadal (25/26) – 1

2013 – Federer (31/32) – 0 Djokovic (25/26) – 1 Nadal (26/27) – 2

2014 – Federer (32/33) – 0 Djokovic (26/27) – 1 Nadal (27/28) – 1

2015 – Federer (33/34) – 0 Djokovic (27/28) – 3 Nadal (28/29) – 0

2016 – Federer (34/35) – 0 Djokovic (28/29) – 2 Nadal (29/30) – 0

2017 – Federer (35/36) – 2 Djokovic (29/30) – 0 Nadal (30/31) – 2

2018  Federer (36/37) – 1 Djokovic (30/31) – 1 Nadal (31/32) – 1

NB/ age given by calendar year e.g. starting the year aged 23 and finishing it aged 24

Given their head-to-heads, it’ll come as no shock to see Federer and Nadal enjoy the better of the earlier years and Djokovic largely thriving from 2011 onwards.

Their titles by age, though, is perhaps more interesting.

Grand Slam titles by calendar year age

18/19 (1) – Nadal – 1

19/20 (1) – Nadal – 1

20/21 (2) – Djokovic – 1 Nadal – 1

21/22 (3) – Federer – 1 Djokovic – 0 Nadal – 2

22/23 (4) – Federer – 3 Djokovic – 0 Nadal – 1

23/24 (8) – Federer – 2 Djokovic – 3 Nadal – 3

24/25 (5) – Federer – 3 Djokovic – 1 Nadal – 1

25/26 (4) – Federer – 3 Djokovic – 0 Nadal – 1

26/27 (4) – Federer – 1 Djokovic – 1 Nadal – 2

27/28 (6) – Federer – 2 Djokovic – 3 Nadal – 1

28/29 (2) – Federer – 1 Djokovic – 2 Nadal – 0

29/30 (1) – Federer – 0 Djokovic – 1 Nadal – 0

30/31 (4) – Federer – 1 Djokovic – 1 Nadal – 2

31/32 (1) – Federer – 0 Nadal – 1

32/33 (0) – Federer – 0

33/34 (0) – Federer – 0

34/35 (0) – Federer – 0

35/36 (2) – Federer – 2

36/37 (1) – Federer – 1

Grand Slam titles by age bands

22/23 & under

Federer – 4
Nadal – 6
Djokovic – 1

23/24-28/29

Federer – 12
Nadal – 8
Djokovic – 10

29/30 +

Federer – 4
Nadal – 3
Djokovic – 2

Nadal is clearly the strongest starter – as we’ve established above – but it’s Federer who enjoyed the best of what we’d perhaps define as the peak years.

In many ways, with Djokovic being the youngest of the three, we’d expect his results to be the weakest in his youth, having to contend with two of the greatest players of all time above him.

Federer winning as many Slams above the age of 29/30 as he did when 22/23 and under is also mighty impressive.

What’s also fascinating is that the age group 23/24 produced the most Slams combined, with Djokovic and Nadal both claiming three in that particular season in their career and Federer claiming two.

All in all, aside from Nadal being the strongest player from a young age, there’s perhaps not too much we can conclude from how age has affected their rivalries – or at least it doesn’t seem to have had a seriously one-sided effect on one rivalry one way or another.

So what do we make of this all?

Well, there are a few conclusions we might like to draw from the data above.

Nadal is the strongest player at a single Slam and peaked earliest, while it seems fair to claim Djokovic has had to work the hardest for each of his major titles. One could also go a step further and argue that the Serb reached the highest peak – a theory particularly supported by the fact he held all Grand Slam titles at once, something Federer and Nadal have not achieved.

That said, as I was keen to point out at the start, the stat of Federer’s 20 Grand Slams remains the most important and unwavering piece of information.

Slams are the most comparable set of tournaments to any other era and it’s not really fair to penalise Federer for quality of opposition when he’s substantially older than both his greatest rivals.

The fact Djokovic and Nadal are even in this debate when Federer has chalked up 20 major wins is seriously impressive and with time on their side – and both playing an extremely high level of tennis – they may well close that gap.

Perhaps the upcoming US Open will provide another twist in the tale…

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