The Greatest Men's Tennis Player of All Time Is at the French Open

But who is he?

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AP Images, Reuters

Friday at the French Open, the greatest men's tennis player of all time will be knocking the red brick dust out of his shoes with his racket and whacking balls in anger as he seeks to solidify his place in history.

The only question: Who is it?

In the first semifinal, Rafael Nadal can make a legitimate claim to all-time tennis supremacy. And on the other side of the draw, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic can each make an equally powerful case for being the Greatest Of All Time—or GOAT for short.

The GOAT question is really the ultimate sports debate. Every game, every match, in every sport is an attempt to address this bedrock issue: Who's better? Seasons and careers are played to take that question to a higher level: Who's the best? The GOAT question takes this discussion to its natural conclusion.

But compelling though they may be, GOAT debates usually move in slow motion.

They almost always pit an active player near the end of his career with a legend who's retired. In basketball, for example, Kobe Bryant bumped up his GOAT credentials when he won his fifth NBA title in 2010, but after two early playoff exits in the years that followed, he's now less of a threat to Michael Jordan's pre-eminence.

The GOAT question has always been especially resonant in tennis, because there are no teams or teammates to confuse the issue. And unlike, say, baseball, where purists suggest that progress stopped with Babe Ruth, most tennis fans nod politely in the direction of legends like Don Budge and Bill Tilden and acknowledge that the best active players would clean the great Rod Laver's clock.

And as we speak, the GOAT question in men's tennis sits at a remarkable, possibly unprecedented juncture, with three active players wrestling over all-time supremacy like dogs over a juicy soup bone. Here are the three candidates and their respective claims to ultimate fame.

Roger Federer: Federer is everything you'd want in a GOAT. His resume is nothing short of stellar. At age 30, he owns the career record for the most grand slam tournament wins with 16. And unlike the previous owner of that record, Pete Sampras, Federer also has a career grand slam, or in other words, he has won each of the majors at least once. Federer owns a wide variety of lesser records—like an all-time-best 237 consecutive weeks at number one on the ATP computer—and a few marks that seem utterly unbreakable, like a mind-boggling 23 grand slam semifinal appearances in a row.

In virtually any other era, this body of work would be more than enough to cement his place as the GOAT over Sampras and Rod Laver, who won the Grand Slam twice in 1962 and 1969 but lost the best years of his career to the schism between amateur and professional tennis. But there is one blemish on Federer's resume can be summed up in two words: Rafael Nadal.

Nadal owns an 18-10 career record against Federer. He's 8-2 in Grand Slams, including five wins in a row, on three different surfaces, dating back to 2007. And while Nadal is four years younger than Federer, this is not merely a question of Federer losing a step as he ages (as evidenced by recent bad losses to players like Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilifred Tsonga, and Juan Martin del Potro). On the contrary, Nadal has had Federer's number from almost the very beginning of their respective careers.
Which raises a very real question: How can Federer be the greatest player of all time if he's not the greatest player of his day?

Rafael Nadal: On the surface, Nadal seems like the logical heir to the GOAT throne. He's got 10 slam wins—a total that might put Federer's record of 16 within reach. He too owns a career grand slam—and completed his sweep at a younger age than Federer.

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Allen St. John is a New York Times-best selling author and an award-winning journalist who has written about tennis for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Forbes.com, and Tennis magazine.

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