GOAT debate: Three matches that changed everything

  • Matt Trollope

Should Novak Djokovic win Wimbledon in two weeks’ time, tennis historians and statisticians will be gifted figures both beautifully symmetrical and highly improbable.

Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would own the same number of major trophies atop the men’s all-time list of Grand Slam titles won.

20-20-20.

It is incredible to consider that history’s three greatest male players are compiling their achievements simultaneously. It is even more staggering, despite so many opportunities over so many years for their careers to diverge, that they are almost inseparable according to major titles won – arguably the most significant marker of tennis greatness. 

Had just a few points in these three significant matches gone the other way, the Grand Slam “arms race” could have been a whole lot different. So, too, could the conversation around which of these modern-day legends is the unofficial “Greatest of All Time”.

But here we are. And these "sliding doors" moments illustrate how we arrived at this point.

Australian Open 2017 final:
Federer d Nadal 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3

When Federer trailed 3-1 in the fifth set of this final, few people – if anybody – believed he would win it.

Nadal led the head-to-head series 23-11. He was 9-2 against Federer in Slams, and 3-0 in Australia. He had not lost to Federer at a Grand Slam tournament in almost 10 years.

Had this match followed the same pattern, Nadal would have claimed a 15th major title, rapidly closing in on Federer’s tally of 17 – especially significant when you consider he won Roland Garros just a few months later. Nadal would have also become the first male player in the Open Era to achieve the extraordinary feat of winning all four major trophies at least twice.

But he didn’t. Federer rallied, reeling off five straight games to win his first Grand Slam tournament in almost five years. 

At the time, it completely changed the course of the GOAT debate. Noted Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim later in 2017: “The fifth set of the Federer/Nadal 2017 Australian Open—a 42-minute interregnum—will have consequences on tennis history that will echo for decades.”

Federer now led Nadal 18-14 in major titles won. And it unlocked something for Federer in this match-up against his nemesis; he went undefeated against Nadal in four matches in 2017, and has won five of their past six meetings to close the gap to a more-respectable 16-24.

Federer’s AO 2017 triumph was also a springboard to a brilliant stretch that followed; he won two more major titles in the next 12 months – Wimbledon 2017 and Australian Open 2018 – to boost his collection to 20, and returned to world No.1 in early 2018.

At this point in history, Djokovic had won 12 major titles.

Wimbledon 2019 final:
Djokovic d Federer 7-6(5) 1-6 7-6(4) 4-6 13-12[7-3]

Federer had a chance to put his case as the GOAT almost beyond doubt when he earned two match points in the 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic.

Had he converted either of them, at 8-7, 40-15 in the fifth set when he served for the championship, it would have marked perhaps the finest achievement of his career.

Within a month of his 38th birthday, Federer would have become the oldest Grand Slam men’s singles champion in more than 100 years, and done so by beating Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back – the first time he would have ever beaten his two biggest rivals at the same major tournament. 

And, critically, the Grand Slam arms race would have stood at 21-18-15, with Federer well clear in front.

Instead, thanks to Djokovic’s comeback, and ultimate victory, that tally now stood at 20-18-16.

“I just feel like it's such an incredible opportunity missed, I can't believe it,” Federer said.

As we would discover, Federer’s lead of four major trophies would be a lot easier for Djokovic to chase down than a lead of six.

Roland Garros 2021 semifinal:
Djokovic d Nadal 3-6 6-3 7-6(4) 6-2

Until this match, you probably would have included the Roland Garros 2020 final on this list.

With unusually limited preparation and playing the tournament at a time of year when all his supposed advantages were nullified, Nadal crushed Djokovic – indoors, no less – in a French final he entered for the first time as an underdog.

That incredible display earned Nadal a 20th Grand Slam singles title to see him finally draw level with Federer.

READ MORE: Nadal beats Djokovic for 20th major title

He entered the 2021 French Open as the overwhelming favourite, on the cusp of creating men’s tennis history with a 21st Grand Slam singles title. He was the four-time defending champion in Paris and had won the Barcelona and Rome titles leading in. 

Playing Djokovic in the semifinals, he faced a player he had not lost to on clay in five years, and against whom he was 7-1 at Roland Garros. That 2020 final was fresh in their minds – it had played out only eight months prior – as was their Rome final, which Nadal had won four weeks earlier.

But Djokovic flipped the script.

He dealt Nadal just his third ever loss at Roland Garros in a match hinging on an epic, crucial third set; Djokovic saved a set point before winning the tensest of tiebreaks, eventually outlasting Nadal physically in the fourth. 

By going on to beat Tsitsipas in a five-set final, Djokovic achieved the feat that Nadal was mere games away from completing in the AO 2017 final – winning all four major titles at least twice.

The Grand Slam arms race now? 20-20-19.

It sets the stage for a compelling edition of the Wimbledon championships, beginning Monday.