Who is the Greatest Men’s Tennis Player of All Time?

Who is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time? That’s a hot topic on tour these days and for good reason. This is the golden era of men’s tennis. In my opinion, the three best players ever are playing right now; ranked #1, #2 and #3-still. Those players are Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic.

Who is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time?

I’m well aware that it’s hard to compare eras, the equipment is different, top players travel with physios, nutrition is different, Rod Laver won a Grand Slam, Pete Sampras won 14 majors, players didn’t really start playing in Australia until the mid/late 80’s and there aren’t as many great players as there used to be, etc.

Who is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time?

All those arguments have some merit but to me, it’s a no-brainer, the three greatest tennis players that ever lived are playing right now, at the top level and I don’t even think it’s debatable. So, who is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time?

Who is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time?

First let’s look at the numbers:

tennis

When you examine these hard numbers you have to look a little closer at them and put some context to them. Roger Federer is 5 and 6 years older than Nadal and Djokovic respectively. He won his first ATP title in 2001, whereas Nadal won his first in 2004 and Djokovic 2006. Federer has his most dominant period from 2004-2007 where he won an absurd 11 grand slam titles.

While Nadal has always been incredibly consistent winning the French Open 11 times dating back to 2005; his most dominant period was 2008-2010 where he won 6 majors and completed the career grand slam.

Novak Djokovic had his extended period of dominance from 2011-2016 where he won 11 majors and was in 7 other finals. He not only completed the career grand slam to match Federer and Nadal but he also held all four grand slam titles at the same time. Something nobody had done since Rod Laver won the grand slam in 1969. I remember because I was in Paris to witness his Roland Garros win over Andy Murray!

The reason I mention the period of dominance and age is because during each players dominant years they accumulated a lot of titles and statistics while keeping the others down. Hence, the descending age to title chart with these 3 players. However, what really sets them apart to me is the head to head matchups and those numbers might surprise you.

Djokovic vs Federer

Djokovic leads 24-22 overall, 13-6 in all Finals, 5-3 in Masters Finals and 3-1 in Grand Slam Finals with Federer’s only win coming in the 2007 US Open Final which was Djokovic’s first ever Grand Slam Final.

Djokovic vs Federer

I’ve seen nearly every one of these matches between these 2 greats. Federer won the majority early in the rivalry and Djokovic has pretty much dominated in the last several years taking the head to head lead and more importantly-winning handily the biggest matches, the finals.

Advantage Djokovic

Djokovic vs Nadal

Djokovic leads 27-25 overall, 14-10 in all Finals, 3-2 in Masters Finals and Nadal leads 4-3 in Grand Slam Finals. It needs to be noted that Djokovic has beaten Nadal in all 4 Grand Slams including Roland Garros where Nadal has won 11 titles and only lost 2 matches since 2005. Federer never beat Nadal at the French Open.

Djokovic vs Nadal

These are perhaps the most entertaining matches in the history of tennis. I’ve been fortunate to witness several in person and yearn for more. The most interesting thing in this rivalry is that Nadal leads on clay 16-7. 7 losses to Djokovic is more on clay than Federer, Murray, Wawrinka and basically everyone else combined.

Advantage Djokovic

Nadal vs Federer

Nadal leads 23-15 overall, 14-10 in all Finals, 7-5 in Masters Finals and 6-3 in Grand Slam Finals. Nadal beat Federer in Finals in Australia, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Federer beat him in Australia and Wimbledon but is 0-5 at the French and only 2-7 in clay Finals and 2-13 overall on clay.

Federer vs Nadal

This is a tough one for any Federer fan to swallow because Nadal basically has owned Federer over the years. Yes Roger has won the last 5 meetings to narrow the gap a bit but his inability to beat Rafa on clay and never beat him in Paris, never even taking him to 5 sets at Roland Garros, definitely hurts his case.

Advantage Nadal

So, who is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time? After really examining the numbers and the fact that I’ve meticulously watched these 3 warriors for the last 15 years I can make an argument for and against each of them for being the greatest of all time but in my mind here are the bottom line arguments.

big 3

Roger Federer, at the moment has the most grand slam titles. But his inability to beat Rafael Nadal consistently and basically at all on clay hurts his case. How can you be the best of all time if you cannot beat your biggest rival at Roland Garros in 5 tries especially when Nadal beat Federer at Wimbledon. He’s also lost to Djokovic at all 4 majors and twice in Wimbledon finals.

Wimbledon Federer

Rafael Nadal is unquestionably the greatest clay court player of all time. In fact, his dominance on clay may be the most dominant thing in any sport-ever. Of his 80 titles, 57 are on clay. Of his 17 majors, 11 are French Opens. Nothing against his amazing clay court prowess but it overshadows the rest of his game; which is also great. But he is not the best all court player of the 3 men and he has a losing record to Djokovic as well.

Nadal on clay

Novak Djokovic took his lumps from Federer and Nadal early on in his career, learned, waited patiently and then took over. His peak was better and more dominant than any player-ever. More importantly, he wins finals against his biggest rivals. He is 27-16 in all finals against Federer and Nadal. That’s a big number. Plus, he has a winning record against them both and has beaten Federer at Wimbledon multiple times and has beaten Rafa at Roland Garros. Additionally, he is the only person ever to win all 9 Masters 1000 events-that cannot be understated. Add that he’s the youngest of the group and I don’t think he’s done yet. Barring injury he’ll add more titles to continue his assault on the other 2 guys.

Djokovic

All that said, Novak Djokovic is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time! I know all 3 are still playing and each will add to their numbers. But at this point in time, I don’t see how you can conclude anything else than the greatest of all time is Novak Djokovic. As a Federer loyalist that hurts to say, but sometimes the truth hurts. In the end, many of the victory numbers will more or less even out. However for me, Novak Djokovic consistently beats his biggest rivals in the biggest matches on all surfaces. That’s the bottom line as to why Djokovic is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time.

Comments

  1. I love your argument backed up by numbers. However, until someone overtakes Federer with major wins it’s hard for me to say it’s anyone but him.

    • I hear you but there’s more to a great player than simply number of majors. Do you not consider Tiger Woods the best golfer ever? Do you penalize him because he only has 14 majors to Nicklaus’s 18? I don’t.

  2. I personally believe that Roger Federer is the best Tennis player of this generation indeed.

    • He’s certainly my favorite player but it’s hard to argue against what I wrote.

      • Brennan Sanchez says:

        Your post as well as the statistics that you’ve pointed out as your basis of who’s the GOAT in tennis were very accurate and i couldn’t agree more if we talked about analytics. However, don’t forget that there are intangibles as well and the strongest case why Roger Federer is still the GOAT is the fact that he has the most major title wins and he spent the most no. of weeks being the No.1.
        I like your argument about Novak because it’s a pretty strong argument. However, many pundits and sports journalists of today, still consider Roger as the GOAT and Rafa as No.2.. Infact, they have Novak currently at No.3.
        The only legitimate and precise statement that you had in which i totally agree 100% is that the 3 of them clearly are the greatest tennis players of all-time.

        • It’s aobviously all opinion and people get emotional about Roger and Rafa. However, I did offer pretty compelling numbers to back up my statement but of course it’s still opinion. In the end I think we’ll have distinct answers in 5 years or so when they’re all done playing and you can really compare the full numbers. Although I imagine most Federer fans will never accept anything other than Fed as the top.

  3. To say that anyone other than Roger is the best ever just shows you have no idea what you’re talking about. You should stick to travel and leave tennis to the tennis writers.

    • That’s a really well thought out comment. Thanks for taking the time to formulate rational thoughts backed up with hard numbers or at least reasonable opinions. You’re clearly a tennis person!

  4. I think it’s Nadal because he has beaten Federer so many times. Plus, he won the epic Wimbledon match against the 5 time defending champ Fed.

    • You know it’s really funny. You take the time to do all this research and have hard numbers and facts to back up your claims and people just say blanket things as opposed to listening to reason. Tennis, basically the Fed/Nadal debate is like politics-people become irrational. Then add in Djokovic and people are all out of sorts, barely even acknowledging him.

  5. I didn’t realize Novak had a winning record versus both other guys. I agree Nadal’s clay dominance hurts his greatest ever claim because the numbers are so skewed. I also appreciate you mentioning Masters events as those are even more telling at times than Majors. They show more consistency. I also think they elevate Andy Murray because he’s won several albeit only 3 majors. I’m clearly a Murray fan!

    • You know Murray is an interesting case in terms of all time rankings. As you mentioned if you just go by majors then what’s to distinguish him from Wawrinka? Well 14 I think it is masters wins to Stans 1 or Del Potro’s 1. Murray is similar to Andy Roddick in that if it wasn’t for the 3 greats, he’d be an all time great.

  6. You cannot compare Novak to Roger. Roger has so much grace and a beautiful game. Novak is just a counterpuncher with no real game. Roger is way more accomplished than Novak and is the best ever.

  7. I agree with just about everything you’re saying. The numbers don’t lie although I think he still needs a few more grand slams before I say he’s definitely the GOAT.

  8. Roger won’t even play clay tournaments now because he is scared of Rafa. I think that hurts his legacy and I’d say Rafa is the best ever.

  9. Well said, it’s about time someone gave Djokovic the credit he deserves. His game translates across all surfaces and h’s literally won everything possible in tennis. Rafa and Roger cannot say that.

  10. Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg

    • I was wondering when someone would go old school on me. All respect in the world to the Rocket for winning a Grand Slam and then another pre open era. Borg didn’t stick around long enough or surely he’d have a claim that may be hard to argue.

  11. Interesting observation, very nice article indeed, as an ex tennis player i must disagree, as much as i like djokovic, he is few steps below federers supremacy, its just his universal style of playing is mind blowing, not to mention consistence, i also like to see the big picture od tennis overall throughout history, so its unfair to exclude old school players as lever, bjorg, mcnroe, sampras

    • it’s hard to compare different eras but mcenroe nor sampras ever won a french open or had much success on clay at all. The 3 I mentioned are all contemporaries which is why it’s fun to compare them.

  12. Ryan Michael says:

    No one will will argue that Novak is better than Federer. Unless Novak wins 7 more Slams
    Federer is the greatest of all time.

  13. Please stick to travel and not post such a dumb post

  14. Robert Star says:

    You make fair points and I too am inclined to agree that Djokovic is and will finish as the GOAT. He has so many facets to his game and when he is on, it is a site to marvel. His tennis is intelligent as well. He is quite the athlete and his peak levels have surpassed even that of Fed or Nadal.

  15. Great article Lee! I am a big Djoker fan so it’s very easy for me to agree with your conclusion. I do agree with the poster above that at least a few more Grand Slams will be required for Djoker to be the clear cut GOAT. One thing that’s pretty clear is that Djoker and Roger are extremely similar with their success on all 3 surfaces. Nadal’s greatness is so concentrated to clay (although he has won the other 3 Slams, 6 in all, which doesn’t measure up to the other two but is still pretty impressive.) The next 6 years or so will settle this argument, if Novak stays healthy over that period he will surely put this debate to rest!

  16. I agree with your breakdown. I have been on Camp Nole for some time. It all started with my despise (don’t get me wrong he is pure genius too) for Nadal. Djoker was the only one who could stop him and Fed hadn’t figured him out. Then I started to notice what Djoker was accomplishing. In this era of Nadal and Fed, he managed to topple them both, at their peaks that too! It is a phenomenal feat that just goes unnoticed and way too underappreciated. Part of it is the lack of indepth knowledge of stats among fans who are just drawn in by Fed’s grace. It helped (and only natural) that he was the first to emerge. Everything just fell in place for him. He had just enough time to grab all those slams before the other two (better players at their peak) started to find their place. At the end of the day slam count speaks to most casual fans and hence it will be a hard sell to convince them about Djokers dominance over Fed etc. They will always use Feds age as an excuse. Hope Djoker can overtake Fed and Nadal and plant himself at the apex of tennis greatness. In my mind, he has already proved himself way above the rest. I am hoping he can grab another French, that too from Nadal. That would be really something. As many slams as they have one, none of them have two of each slam.

  17. The problem is that the best player ever is an emotional choice, not statistics.
    And we all try to use statistics (the ones that suits us) to convince ourselfs.
    That’s human, that’s fine,
    But if you use statistics , the start should be the definition.
    Then look at the data, and eventually the result.
    What determines the best player ever?
    What is you definition (one that can be measured)?
    So we end up arguing about our personal definition.

    Please think about your definition , I like Djoker a lot, but to come up with a reasonable definition that makes him the best tennis player ever, is very tough.

    Kind Renards,
    Sander

  18. Brennan Sanchez says:

    Your post as well as the statistics that you’ve pointed out as your basis of who’s the GOAT in tennis were very accurate and i couldn’t agree more if we talked about analytics. However, don’t forget that there are intangibles as well and the strongest case why Roger Federer is still the GOAT is the fact that he has the most major title wins and he spent the most no. of weeks being the No.1.
    I like your argument about Novak because it’s a pretty strong argument. However, many pundits and sports journalists of today, still consider Roger as the GOAT and Rafa as No.2.. Infact, they have Novak currently at No.3.
    The only legitimate and precise statement that you had in which i totally agree 100% is that the 3 of them clearly are the greatest tennis players of all-time.

  19. This isn’t as clear cut of a case as you make it out to be. Head to head hardly tells the whole story. For example, Djokovic only started beating federer on a consistent basis after Federer had crossed the red line of 30 and his play started to dip. The six year age gap between them is no joke and its part of the reason why Djokovic has dominated their rivalry. In addition, Djokovic reached his peak around the time courts started to slowing down. This benefits Djokovic’s defensive game and minimizes Federer’s more aggressive style of tennis where he seeks to finish points as quickly as possible. Go watch Federer play back in 2003-2007. You’ll notice that the court speeds are faster and thus Federer’s attacking game is unparalleled. His forehand was like a cannon back then and I think could have broken through Djokovic’s defenses. So no, the particular statistics you picked out don’t even come close to telling the whole story. If you’re going to make an argument about who’s the greatest of all time, you need to look at everything and even then it is hard to come up with a definitive answer. Also, let’s be honest here. Djockovic’s brick wall of a game can be just flat out boring to watch. If we’re talking about who has the most entertaining game of all time, Roger takes it by a mile.

    • I never said it was an easy cut and dry, I just made my case

      • “But at this point in time, I don’t see how you can conclude anything else than the greatest of all time is Novak Djokovic.”
        That sounds pretty clear cut, doesn’t it? And the fact that you boiled it all down to a couple of statistics makes it seem like its an easy cut and dry.
        I just pointed out how the case you made isn’t nearly comprehensive or in depth enough to warrant the conclusion you came to.

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