The argument that Federer is the top player ever to hoist a racket is pretty straightforward: He’s won 16 Grand Slam tournaments (two more than Sampras), won five straight Wimbledons and five straight U.S. Opens, turned in three of the greatest years in tennis history from 2005 to 2007, once won 11 Grand Slams in four years (a record for either gender), and played in 23 Grand Slam finals in a span of 32 majors (Ivan Lendl is second on the list with 19 in 40). The numbers are all on Federer’s side. The case for Nadal is a lot shakier, but it’s also simple to make: If Federer is the best ever, then why does Nadal always beat him? Nadal’s overall record against the Swiss player is a pretty decisive 17-8, and if you rack up that kind of ownage against the player everyone thinks is the greatest, and then you go out and win a bunch of Grand Slams yourself, well, how are you second to anyone?
In other words, the Federer-Nadal rivalry has confounded our normal assumption that greatness, wins, and dominance are all inextricably linked.2 Federer has the most wins, but Nadal has dominated Federer. So what matters more? And while we’re not quite there yet, Djokovic’s win at Wimbledon threatens to mix things up even further. Djokovic has now won five straight against Nadal while Nadal was ranked no. 1 in the world, including wins on all three surfaces and in a Grand Slam tournament final. What happens if Djokovic — who doesn’t dominate Federer, as their French Open semifinal this year proved — turns out to dominate Nadal? We’re looking at the possibility of a greatness equation in which, measured by overall results, Federer > Nadal > Djokovic, but measured by dominance, Djokovic > Nadal > Federer > Djokovic. It’s as if math looked at all the talent at the top of the men’s game right now and spontaneously burst into flames.