Roger Federer Is Retiring, But Nadal, Djokovic And The GOAT Debate Will Rage On

After Roger Federer hit a crosscourt forehand winner that was ultimately ruled in on match point of the 2017 Australian Open final against his rival Rafael Nadal, John McEnroe proclaimed on ESPN, “Roger Federer has solidified himself as the Greatest of All Time.”

At that moment, it was hard to argue with Johnny Mac.

Federer, then 35, stood at 18 Grand Slam singles titles compared with 14 for Nadal (and Pete Sampras) and 12 for Novak Djokovic (and Roy Emerson).

Federer would go on to win two more Slams — at Wimbledon later on in 2017, a year in which he also won titles in Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai — and again in his age-37 year at the 2018 Australian Open. In 2018, he also became the oldest man ever to hold the world No. 1 ranking.

Of course, the GOAT debate has continued to evolve since McEnroe made his proclamation and figures to continue to rage on even with Federer departing the game. On Thursday, Federer, now 41, announced his retirement following next week’s Laver Cup in London.

Nadal, 36, and Djokovic, 35, continue to play and have dominated the game in recent years. Of the 22 majors since that 2017 Australian Open final, Djokovic (9) and Nadal (8) have combined to win 17.

Nadal, who won the Australian and French Opens this season, stands at 22 heading into 2023, while Djokovic, who won Wimbledon and was not allowed to play in the Australian or U.S. Opens due to his vaccination status, remains at 21.

Just as few could have foreseen those totals just a few years ago, it’s impossible to know how the ultimate Grand Slam tally will look. Will Nadal keep playing, win another French Open or two, and wind up with 23 or 24? Or will his impending fatherhood draw him away from the game and into a family life that means he will no longer compete for Grand Slam titles?

“Now I just want to go home, I have more important things to care about than tennis,” Nadal told the Spanish press after losing to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. “I have to fix a major thing like having my first son.”

Will Djokovic play for another five years — as some have suggested — and finish with 25 or 26 majors — or more. Or will new world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz, who has “reached only 60% of his potential,” according to his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, and the younger guns start to dominate the game and push Djokovic and Nadal off their pedestal?

“The ordeal [Djokovic] went through this year in Australia only extended his career,” Goran Djokovic, Novak’s uncle, said recently. “Instead of maybe retiring from tennis in three or four years, his career has been extended for five, or six years. He is resting his body.”

Djokovic is the youngest of the “Big 3,” and keeps himself in incredible condition. If he’s able to play at the majors for the next several years and finishes with 25 or 26 Slams, he may put an exclamation point on the GOAT debate.

But what if his vaccination status — or other issues — prevent him from playing at as many Slams as possible? He’s already missed two this season and who knows how that will play out going forward?

“I think that the more this saga, Rafa, Novak and Roger, the GOAT between them with all that’s happening to Novak, that race is becoming irrelevant because he’s not allowed to play,” Mats Wilander said ahead of the U.S. Open.

There is also the issue of whether Grand Slam titles should be the sole — or major — determinant of GOAT status. It’s worth remembering that players like Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe rarely played the Australian Open in their Era due to travel and schedule issues. Margaret Court won 11 of her 24 majors at the Australian (against much smaller fields), but most observers think Serena Williams — and her 23 majors — was the superior player. That goes for Steffi Graf (22 majors) and Martina Navratilova (18), too.

In a deep-dive in the New York TimesNYT
, Victor Mather examined multiple categories in addition to Grand Slam singles titles — including overall Grand slam performances, versatility and head-to-head, and determined that Nadal led in five categories, Djokovic in four and Federer three.

For example, Nadal leads in winning percentage at the Slams (.882) over Djokovic (.877) and Federer (.860) and at other tournaments (.833) over Djokovic (.832) and Federer (.820).

Under the Times scoring system of awarding 6 points for a Slam title, 3 for a finals appearance and 1 for a semifinals appearance, Djokovic leads with 170 points, followed by Federer (168) and then Nadal (164).

In overall head-to-head, Djokovic holds the edge. He is 30-29 over Nadal and 27-23 over Federer. Nadal leads Federer, 24-16.

And what about money?

Per my Forbes colleague Brett Knight: “The Swiss ace has collected $131 million in prize money since turning pro in 19988
, third in ATPATP
history behind Djokovic’s $159 million and Nadal’s $132 million. Off the court, however, it’s no contest. Federer has made roughly $1 billion (before taxes and agents’ fees) across his career just from his endorsements and other business endeavors, according to Forbes estimates. He remains sports’ top pitchman, with $90 million in annual off-court earnings, $1010
million ahead of No. 2 LeBron James.”

Still, are numbers really everything when it comes to GOAT status?

For Federer fans — and many tennis observers — he was the most aesthetically pleasing and graceful of the “Big 3” and perhaps ever. And that should count for something.

“Nadal and Djokovic are amazing, but Federer is unique,” French veteran Richard Gasquet said. “His one-handed backhand, his elegance and technique… He might be the greatest sportsman of all time.”

As far as being a role model on and off the court, it is hard to top Federer there, either.

“Federer is the epitome of what you would want your kid to be when they grew up,” McEnroe said. “And he’s the most beautiful player I’ve ever watched play. I idolized (Rod) Laver. He is kind of an updated Laver to me.”

The bottom line is the GOAT debate remains open at least until Nadal and Djokovic are done playing. If one of them winds up with 25 or 26 majors and leaves the others in the dust, it may be hard to argue against that person.

Of course, it may also be useless to focus on the idea that one person can ever be the GOAT.

“I would encourage us to talk about sheeps rather than GOATs,” 1999 U.S. Open finalist Todd Martin told me at a recent event for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. “There’s no such thing, there’s no such thing….It’s easier to identify who are the best, as opposed to who is the best.”

“To me personally, I don’t care who end up with the most Slams,” Wilander added. “We are going to define this as best three tennis players on the men’s side of the sport.”