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Australian Open: Rafael Nadal ahead of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in GOAT race

Not only was Rafael Nadal playing for the Australian Open title on Sunday, he also had the chance to move clear in the race to be crowned the GOAT of men’s tennis.

The number of Grand Slam titles is the most obvious and easiest metric for those who wish to determine – and not everyone does – who is the Greatest Of All Time.

Spaniard Nadal, 35, won in Melbourne to land his 21st major title, moving him one ahead of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic after all three were tied on 20 Grand Slam singles victories.

Beating Daniil Medvedev for his second Australian Open title may prove to be pivotal in the race.

A graphic showing the Grand Slam titles won by Rafael Nadal (21), Roger Federer (20) and Novak Djokovic (20)

For some, the GOAT discussion is frivolous and does a disservice to the achievements of each player in their own right.

Looking purely at the numbers does not tell the full picture. It is not possible to quantify their different playing styles, how they have adapted their games, their physical and mental strength, nor how they have overcome the tough moments that have peppered all of their careers.

But it does provide the framework for the debate. Here, BBC Sport crunches the statistics for you to consider, and gives you the chance to have your say in the comments section at the bottom.

From a clear frontrunner to a three-horse race

The race to be crowned the GOAT – in terms of major titles, at least – is tighter between the top three men than many thought it would ever be.

When Federer overtook Pete Sampras’ previous best mark – winning his 15th Grand Slam title, aged 27, at Wimbledon in 2009 – few thought he would ever be caught.

At that stage, 23-year-old Nadal had won six majors and 22-year-old Djokovic had not added to his maiden title at the Australian Open in 2008.

A line chart showing when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic won their Grand Slam titles

After winning at least one major in every year from 2003-2010, Federer’s trajectory began to plateau in 2011, the year Djokovic took his game to new heights.

Another Wimbledon title followed for Federer in 2012 but then, thanks to a combination of his rivals’ brilliance and his injuries, the Swiss player did not win another major for four years.

Most wrote him off as Nadal and Djokovic closed on his tally, before Federer’s renaissance in 2017 – when his rivals stumbled because of injury and loss of form – kept him at least three titles ahead.

That was until 2019, when Nadal and Djokovic shared the four majors equally between them, leaving the trio closer than ever.

Then Federer had company – for the first time since he was briefly level with Sampras in 2009 – after Nadal’s win at Roland Garros last year.

Djokovic, 34, pulled level too after winning the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon titles in 2021.

But he missed the opportunity to add to his nine triumphs in Melbourne when he was deported from Australia in a visa row connected to him not being vaccinated.

The Serb is a year younger than Nadal and has time on his side compared with 40-year-old Federer, who did not play in Melbourne because of a knee injury.

How do they compare on different surfaces?

Some argue that Nadal’s utter dominance on the Roland Garros clay means he is perhaps not as complete an all-round player as Federer and Djokovic.

The ‘King of Clay’ has won 13 of his 21 major titles in Paris. Neither Federer nor Djokovic has been as dominant at one place, although nor has any other player – male or female – in the history of the sport.

But Federer and Djokovic do each have a Grand Slam they have bossed over the years, and at which they hold the record for the number of men’s titles won.

Djokovic has claimed nine of his 20 victories on the Australian Open hard courts, while Federer has won eight of his 20 majors on the Wimbledon grass.

However, Federer has not achieved what Nadal has now joined Djokovic in doing – winning at least two Slams on each surface.

By beating Medvedev, Nadal has become the second man in the Open era – and fourth in history – to win each of the four majors twice. Federer, meanwhile, has won just once in France.

A picture showing the breakdown of Grand Slam titles won by Rafael Nadal (21), Novak Djokovic (20) and Roger Federer (20)

How have they fared against each other?

This is another area where Djokovic’s claims are strengthened. He has a better overall head-to-head record in his past meetings with both Federer and Nadal.

However, the Spaniard has a better record against the Serb in just their Grand Slam meetings, and has also come out on top more often when he has faced Federer.

A pie chart showing Rafael Nadal's record against Novak Djokovic: 28-30A pie chart showing Rafael Nadal's record against Roger Federer: 24-16A pie chart showing Rafael Nadal's Grand Slam record against Novak Djokovic: 10-7A pie chart showing Rafael Nadal's Grand Slam record against Roger Federer: 10-4

How do they compare in terms of longevity?

Aside from Grand Slam titles, the length of time spent as the world number one is another indicator.

Djokovic has spent the most weeks in history at the top of the men’s rankings. The Serb has not been dislodged since February 2020 and, after Nadal beat world number two Medvedev, will be top of the rankings for a 357th week of his career.

That is well ahead of Federer’s 310 weeks, with Pete Sampras (287), Ivan Lendl (270), Jimmy Connors (268) and Nadal (209) trailing behind.

A bar chart showing the number of weeks spent at world number one. Roger Federer has spent the most, followed by Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Rafael Nadal.

What about the other big tournaments?

While Grand Slams garner the most attention, there are plenty of other important tournaments that feed into this conversation.

Of the big three, Federer has won the most titles in his career. In fact, only American Jimmy Connors – who won 109 titles – has bettered this tally in the men’s game.

A bar chart showing the ATP titles won by Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer, Ivan Lendl, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic

Federer also leads the way in terms of winning the end-of-season ATP Tour Finals, considered by most a fifth Grand Slam.

The Swiss has won six of those events, which see a round-robin group followed by a knockout stage for the world’s top eight leading players over the season.

Djokovic has won the event five times, while Nadal curiously has never won.

Nadal is a two-time runner-up – losing to Federer in 2010 and Djokovic in 2013 – but has missed five of the past 10 tournaments.

Below the Grand Slams and Tour Finals, the next tier of events are the nine Masters tournaments.

Since 2009, these have been held on hard courts in Indian Wells, Miami, Canada (alternating between Montreal and Toronto), Cincinnati, Shanghai and Paris Bercy, with clay-court events in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome.

Last year, Shanghai did not take place because of the coronavirus pandemic, so eight were held.

Djokovic won indoors in Paris to claim his 37th Masters title and again move clear of Nadal, who won in Rome earlier in the year. Behind the pair are Federer, Andre Agassi and Andy Murray.

A bar chart showing the number of Masters tournaments won by Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andre Agassi and Andy Murray.

In 2018, Djokovic became the first and only man to win all nine Masters tournaments.

Now you have considered the evidence, who do you think is the men’s GOAT? Have your say in the comments section below.

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