Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Can Rafa get to 18 Slams?

After Rafa's stunning US Open campaign, the question on everyone's lips is whether he can go onto break the record for male Grand Slam winners. At the moment Roger Federer holds the record with 17, and it's widely accepted now that he is highly unlikely to add to that tally given his showing at the last couple of majors. As of the other night, Rafa now has 13 Slams: 1x Aus, 8x Fre, 2x Wim, 2x US, and needs another 5 to hold the record out on his own.

He now has an unparalleled 9 consecutive years with at least 1 Grand Slam victory (incidentally he also holds a similar unmatched record for 9 consecutive years winning a Masters Series/1000 Series title), and not many would bet on 2014 breaking that streak. 

It doesn't take an expert tennis analyst (luckily for me) to recognise that the main thing standing in Rafa's way is likely to be his own fitness. Over the last 5 years or so, he has been decidedly held back by recurring injuries, and in particular tendonitis in his knees. The chances of him being fully fit for all of the slams over the next 2 or 3 years seem slim at best. 
If there was less competition then he might be able to cruise to the odd title but with Murray and Djokovic (as well as the likes of JMDP, Wawrinka, Berdych, even Federer) around, he will have to be at his best to win a Slam. Even then it might not be enough.

There has been lots of talk about this being one of the best years in tennis history but just a couple of months ago he was knocked out of Wimbledon in the first round. Then, all of the discussion was about Nadal's knees and his ability to play on surfaces other than clay.

At most he is likely to have 3 years left at the very top, before the physical nature of his play restricts his chances of claiming the biggest prizes, even on clay. That means potentially just 12 more chances. Can he win 5 of them to enhance his claim to be considered the greatest ever? Only time will tell.

Geeky statto alert:

It is interesting (I appreciate this is a subjective term) to look at the ages of Grand Slam winners. The below graph shows the progression in terms of slam victories for each of the best known major winners.

You should be able to click on the graph to open it up and see more, but here are a few highlights that I thought were interesting. 

1) Aged 27, only Federer had more Slams than Rafa.
2) At 25 years old, Federer and Borg had 11 Slams, Sampras and Rafa 10. Borg retired without winning another, Pistol Pete kept going for years longer and added a consistent 1 per year, and then another aged 31.
3) Djokovic is considered one of the greatest and aged 25 he was behind only McEnroe (who didn't win another), and the above 4. He hasn't won one as a 26 year old yet so he's got a long way to go to catch up those in double figures.
4) Murray's slow start to winning Slams, mirroring his coach Lendl, is demonstrated as well, with the two of them being the oldest to claim their maiden slams from this list.
5) Agassi won more than half of his Slams after he turned 28, so there could yet be lots to come from RN/ND/AM all moving into the 2nd half of their careers.
6) I'm really geeky

PS I sort of just chose players who are best known for the chart, and left off the likes of Laver/Rosewall who won Slams both pre and post-Open era because it was too confusing.


  1. Nadal seems to have the most trouble except on clay against opponents with huge serves where breaking is very difficult. Then he has to rely on a few points going his way to eek out a tiebreaker. Isner has given him difficulty in the past and with the maturation of a player such as Raonic the likelihood of his being upset at Melbourne, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows is enhanced as Nadal ages. If JDP recovers from his seemingly endless battle with injuries he will present Nadal with problems at Wimbledon and the two hard court slams

    I am sure Rafa will begin to play a reduced schedule especially on clay to preserve himself for the majors.

    Remember despite their one sided head to heads, Fed is still clearly the superior Grand Slam player on hard ( 9 to 3) and on grass (7 to 2) and if you take into account the year end tournament (Fed 6, Nadal 0) Fed is still the more dominant player in this era.

  2. a) Great article. Very insightful, well-written and full of genuinely interesting stats.

    b) In response to my fellow anonymous contributor, yes, if you discount the head-to-head and take into account the year-end tournament, the Fed is still the "more dominant player in this era". On the other hand, if you take into account the Monte Carlo Masters (Nadal 8, Fed 0), or masters tournaments in general, or the ability to play left-handed, or the ability to speak Spanish with a Majorcan accent, Rafa wins. My point being, why on earth WOULD you discount the head-to-head? Tennis is a sport, not a sonata or a newspaper editorial, and like any proper sport, the only thing that matters is results. And the results between these two players are very clear. From their first meeting, when Nadal was 17 years old and hadn't finished growing, until their most recent, when RN beat RF at one of the few tournaments that the Fed has won more than anyone else, are clear. Rafa has a commanding, crushing lead over Federer. The idea that the dominant player is the guy who has lost most of their matches - more than twice as many as he's won in fact - is frankly borderline.

    Come to think of it, no wonder you want to ignore the head-to-head. Talk about an inconvenient truth!

  3. To Anonymous 1....... you can be selective on which stats you pick out and spin it any way you wish.
    Let's take few shall we.....
    Nadal best surface clay with 8 French vs Federer best grass 7 Wimbledons.
    Federer's worst surface clay...... 1 French
    Nadal's worst surface hard court 2 US ,1 Australian & 1 Olympic.
    Nadal is clearly the better player if you consider those stats, and remember Fedrerer failed to get that elusive Olympic gold on his favourite surface.....whilst Nadal managed to win gold on his worst surface.
    Let's imagine if instead of 2 hard court majors each year you had 2 clay court doesn't take a genius to work out who would come out on top by a big big margin!


    1. Great points! (From another anonymous contributor!)

  4. Interesting comments. I'm a huge fan of both (as players and personalities) and think the debate over who is/was better will surely never be unanimously settled.
    Head-to-head can be misleading, no one thinks that Murray will be remembered as a better player than Federer but is ahead in matches between the two. Equally it's impossible to determine when players are in their prime. Some Rafa-Roger matches were when the Spaniard was still maturing, some have been since the Swiss was past his prime.
    How one defines greatness is another factor too. Are longevity, fitness and range of shots more or less significant than physical strength, power and mental attitude? Like I say, we could comment all year and be no nearer a consensus!

    1. Nice try Sam but your admirably subtle attempt to hide your Fed favoritism won't wash. Eg "Are longevity, fitness and range of shots more or less significant than physical strength, power and mental attitude?" Talk about a loaded question! And "head-to-head can be misleading"? I'm not sure. I reckon if Murray had been in his early 20s in the years 2003-2007, when the Fed was beating the likes of Philippousis and Baghdatis, he'd have racked up 12 grand slams too.

      The only thing that skews a well-established head-to-head rivalry (ie one in which the players have met at least 10 times) is age, and given that Nadal has dominated Federer at EVERY stage of their respective careers, that's not a factor in this case.

      Despite that, I think your article is excellent!

  5. The stat that stands out clearly above all others is the head to head in majors.
    Nadal 8-2 Federer, with both Fed's wins coming at Wimbledon.

    Good article.

  6. I've been using your pic of Rafa's 13 slam wins as an avatar for some time. I need a pic of his 14 slam wins. Are you going to do one?

  7. sorry slow reply, I've been away. I'm afraid I just googled the 13 slam picture so can't help with updating it, although happy to email you the JPG if you need