Facebook Social Button Twitter Social Button Follow Us on InstagramYouTube Social Button Follow Me on Pinterest
NewsVideosLive ScoresTV ListingsTournamentsRankingsLucky Letcord PodcastMagazine

By Raymond Lee | Thursday, November 19, 2020

Rafael Nadal

s Rafael Nadal the Greatest Of All Time? A tennis historian puts Nadal's legacy in perspective in a two-part series that examines the records of the greatest champions of all time.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

How does Rafael Nadal compare with the greats of the past?

As I discussed in Part 1 of this article, you can’t just count majors to compare players of different eras.

We detailed Nadal’s key statistics in Part 1 of this article.

Here’s some all-time great players and some of their stats for comparison’s sake.

Bill Tilden

Tilden was apparently a player with no weaknesses. According to Ellsworth Vines he could do more on both sides than any player he had seen and Vines saw Budge, Riggs, Laver, Rosewall, Gonzalez, Kramer, Connors and Borg. Tilden was an all-court player who preferred to control play from the baseline with his power and spin, much like the players of today. He had perhaps the best serve of his time and he moved like a dancer.

Tilden was about 6’2” tall. Tilden was truly a tennis genius who was always studying the game. I’m sure nowadays, with our modern day racquets and strings he would have developed unique theories on how to play the game. Essentially the stroke principles of what Tilden taught are being still used today!

One story about Tilden shows his ability to adapt. This is from Fred Perry’s super book Fred Perry, An Autobiography-When we got on court he asked me to hit a few to his forehand, low and wide. I did this and he returned them using a perfect continental grip, just as if he was mimicking my own forehand. When I inquired what he was to Tilden said “After playing so many matches against you and studying your style, I realized that the continental grip, and not my own Eastern grip, is the only one for that sort of shot. I felt I wouldn’t be the complete tennis player unless I had mastered it to the stage where I could use it in a match if I wanted to.” Tilden was 53 years old when he learned how to hit that shot.

Tilden won approximately 160 tournaments in his career out of about 369 entered accord to Tennis Base. That’s about 43.4% but remember that he played until he was over 50. In Tilden’s last years he had trouble winning half his matches. I doubt if any player was as dominant as Tilden was at his peak. He almost never lost.

Jack Kramer

Another player who many called the Greatest Ever was Jack Kramer.

Players and experts like Hoad, Riggs, Sedgman, Bromwich, Segura, Trabert (tied with Laver), Don Budge and Vic Braden have called Kramer the best ever. I spoke to Vic Braden around 2013 or early 2014 and we spoke about Jack Kramer for a little while. Braden as I wrote earlier thought Kramer was the best he had seen and Braden had already seen Laver, Borg, Connors, Lendl, Sampras, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. He went in depth why he thought Kramer was the best and frankly he was extremely convincing.

Kramer was perhaps the greatest server of all time along with Gonzalez and Sampras on this list. He had of course explosive power on his serve and he served on at very high percentage especially in those days of tiny heavy wood racquets. He was so accurate that he regularly was able to hit his serve through rings placed at various heights over the net! Kramer had a slice serve that some said could pull the receiver wider off the court than anyone and his kick serve could bounce incredibly high. Kramer was very mobile at his peak but was eventually slowed down by his arthritis.

Kramer was a serve and volley player who had a superb volley, especially off the forehand side. His overhead was called by Riggs to be so good that he never saw Kramer miss one. Kramer’s forehand was a great shot that was timed with the old devices to be hit over 100 mph and his backhand was a strong solid consistent shot. He was known for his great sidespin approach shot that could pull an opponent off the court while Kramer waited at the net for an easy volley. He had a great combination of power and control.

Kramer had a lot of bad luck with injuries and illness so he didn’t win as many classic majors as he probably should have but he was a dominant player in his day. There aren’t too many players in tennis history who can be argued to be the best on all surfaces but Kramer at his best is one of the few.

One of the things we must realize is that in Kramer’s day, when he was on the Pro Tour, the most important event was the World Championship Tour. Whoever won that tour was indisputably the World Pro Champion and whoever was the World Pro Champion was generally considered to be the best in the world. Often these tours were close to or over 100 matches. The tennis tour in those days were more like Professional Boxing in that the challenger if he wins, becomes World Champion.

Kramer was the new amateur champion in 1947 and he faced the Pro Champion Bobby Riggs who by the way was a great player in his own right. After 30 matches it was very close but Kramer eventually pulled away to win 69 matches to 20! Kramer was the new Pro Champion!

Over the next few years Kramer would defeat Pancho Segura by 64 to 28. Pancho Gonzalez (who was young and not quite at his peak) by 96 to 27 although I have also seen 94 to 29. And lastly Frank Sedgman by 54 to 41 in the only close series.

Kramer didn’t win a huge amount of tournaments but that’s partly due to the fact he played some years virtually all the time on tour. He would have to go city to city, often driving there with his opponent or some other person perhaps on the tour in the secondary match. This also was true with players like Gonzalez, Segura and others. It was not an easy life to be a pro in those days.

Kramer in his peak years won the great majority of his tournaments played. One awesome result that I saw was when Kramer won every match on a non-World Championship Tour with Segura, Riggs and Pails on clay, sweeping all eleven matches. Considering that Riggs and Segura were super clay court players and Pail was also excellent on clay it is an amazing result.

Kramer had to retire as World Champion due to early onset arthritis. At his peak it is arguable he was as great as any player ever.

Pancho Gonzalez

Pancho Gonzalez was perhaps the most natural tennis player that ever lived. He was about 6”3 1/2” tall, moved like a panther and had very smooth strokes. He never had a formal tennis lesson yet made himself into the greatest tennis player in the world, arguably the greatest ever.

Gonzalez got into the game almost accidentally. As a child, he pleaded with his parents—Manuel and Carmen—to buy him a new bicycle. On Christmas morning, his mother presented him with a 51-cent tennis racquet that turned out to be one of the greatest investments in tennis history. It was a purchase that would alter both Gonzalez and the game forever.

Armed with the new racquet, Gonzalez began teaching himself tennis on the courts of South Central Los Angeles' Exposition Park. He quickly became consumed by the game and dropped out of high school after two years to pursue his passion.

Local officials used Gonzalez's departure from high school against him and banned him from playing both junior and men's tournaments for almost three years. A frustrated Gonzalez soon found trouble off the court and at 15 was arrested for burglarizing houses. As part of his punishment, Gonzalez served nearly a year in detention and shortly after his release, joined the Navy at the age of 17.

The disciplined life of military service did not exactly appeal to the free-spirited teenager who spent nearly two and a half years without playing any competitive tennis. Gonzalez missed the game greatly, went AWOL once and eventually earned a bad conduct discharge from the Navy in 1947.

Returning home to Southern California, he entered into the first of six marriages in 1948 and though he had played little tennis in the previous years, Gonzalez soon began his climb up the amateur rankings. It was then that the unheralded Gonzalez exploded onto the elite scene, storming through the Forest Hills field as the 17th-ranked amateur player to score a 6-2, 6-3, 14-12 victory over South Africa's Eric Sturgess to capture the 1948 U.S. Nationals, which is the equivalent of the U.S. Open today. He was 20 years old and a Grand Slam champion.

A year later, Gonzalez turned the final into a showcase for his fierce, fighting spirit. Facing a two-set deficit against top-seeded Ted Schroeder, 16-18, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 to successfully defend his championship. The victory gave Gonzalez the credibility to turn pro and play a long tour of 123 matches with the veteran world champion of tennis, Jack Kramer, who was then the world's best player.

At this point of his tennis career Gonzalez only had been playing for five years, not counting his years in the Navy, and lacked the extensive junior tournament experience of his rivals. In tournament play, he was vulnerable to the veterans who had twice as much experience. By playing Kramer at this point of his career it was like feeding a lamb to a lion. Naturally he was crushed by Kramer, who posted a 96-27 (some sources say 94-29) against Gonzalez on their initial tour. Amazingly, some wrote Gonzalez off as washed up by the age of 21! Despite this less than stellar start to his pro career, Gonzalez eventually compiled a record perhaps as great as any player.

Gonzalez main weapon was his awesome serve, which many have called the best ever. He was mainly a serve and volley player but was quite comfortable trading groundstrokes from the baseline. His volley was superb and he was a great touch player.

One may also assert the supposedly physical superiority of today’s players, but Pancho Gonzalez was a big, explosive athlete with a devastating serve. The renowned tennis instructor, Vic Braden considers Gonzalez’s serve to be the smoothest and perhaps greatest serve in history. According to Braden in his book Tennis 2000, there was no stress on the shoulder and upper arm when Gonzalez served so he could serve as hard in the fifth set as in the first set. Braden was convinced that Gonzalez could easily serve greater than 140 miles per hour with today’s rackets. And that was in the late 1990s when the book was written. How much speed and spin could Gonzalez hit with now?

Gonzalez probably won about 120 tournaments in his career but he only won two amateur majors which were the US Nationals (the forerunner of the US Open today) in 1948 and 1949. On the surface it does not appear to be that great a tennis record.

Eventually Gonzalez became the dominant player in the world for many years. As I wrote earlier the World Championship Tours were of utmost importance in those day and once Kramer retired, Gonzalez won every one of those World Championship Tours. To my mind the World Championship Tours were perhaps more important than perhaps even several majors because if you win it you can the champion for the year. If you win a major, even a few majors in the year you aren’t necessarily number one for the year.

Gonzalez defeated greats like Pancho Segura, Ken Rosewall, Ashley Cooper, Mal Anderson, Alex Olmedo, Fred Sedgman, Andres Gimeno, Butch Buchholz, Tony Trabert among others, some of them several times. His great rival on those tours was however Lew Hoad, who some called the best ever when he was on his game. Whether that is true or not is subject to debate but Hoad in their famous one on one tour led Gonzalez 18 to 9. Gonzalez looked beaten but he made some adjustments that allowed him to pass Hoad more easily and eventually won the tour 51 matches to 36! He won six or seven World Championship Tours plus he won a number of other regular tours that were not for the World Championship.

Considering that Gonzalez was probably the best player in the world for perhaps a decade and considering that the World Championships Tours were by far the most important tennis achievement in those day you have to say Gonzalez is among the top few in tennis history. He has a record arguably as great as any. He is very possibly the greatest of all time.

Rod Laver

Rod Laver is one of the greatest shotmakers in tennis history. He was not a particular tall man at 5”9” but he had the left arm that was larger than some world heavyweight boxing champions. He was perhaps the most powerful player of his time, with the possible exception of Lew Hoad.

Laver was a lefty who hit with heavy topspin on the forehand and mixed slice and topspin on his backhand. He was famous for being able to hit passing shots at super sharp angles and thread the needle on down the line shots. Both backhand and forehand were powerful attacking weapons.

Laver was excellent defensively with a great lob, both topspin and slice on both sides. His touch was also superb.

His serve was excellent with a great slice and kick serve. He was a great volleyer especially off the backhand side. The fact that he was a left hander helped also on serve.

Laver won over 200 tournaments in his career including two Grand Slams, one as an amateur in 1962 and one as a Pro during Open Tennis in 1969. Admittedly some of those tournaments he won when he won on the Old Pro Tour had fewer rounds but even when Open Tennis started in 1968 Laver won 46 tournaments in the first three years, although the first three tournament Laver won in 1968 was still on the Old Pro Tour. After that all the tournaments he won were just during the Open Era. I think Laver would have probably won about as many tournaments if he play Open Tournaments for the totality of his career.

Much has been made of Federer winning over 1200 matches in his career and Nadal just recently winning 1000 matches but Laver has won over 1500 matches in his career. Ken Rosewall won over 1700 matches in his great career. Gonzalez won over 1300 matches and Tilden won over 1600 matches. These are at minimum. We may find more unknown matches won by these greats.

Now in favor of Federer and Nadal is that they purposely chose to play fewer matches. The players of the past played far more matches per year. They had to because the monies were not nearly as high as they are today.

Laver was extremely dominant in his best years from 1964 to 1970, winning about 109 tournaments, an average of 15.57 per year! He won five classic majors and many important Old Pro Tournaments like Wembley, the French Pro, the Newport Pro, the US Pro, Forest Hills Pro, Newport Casino Pro etc.

Many have called some of these titles Pro Majors, basically even giving them the same importance and significance as the current Open Majors of today. I find that a bit off the wall after a lot of thought. I did think that for a while but I realized that while these tournaments were strong they didn’t have as deep a field or as many rounds as Open Majors. Also how can you plan a schedule around some tournaments if you don’t know if those tournaments will exist every year? The French Pro and Wembley weren’t played in many years. Some tournaments like the Tournaments of Championships may have been bigger than any of them. It’s not like today when except in 2020 because of COVID-19 that a Pro Tour player can expect to play the four majors around the same time of year every year.

Perhaps the biggest tournament in terms of historical significance on the Old Pro Tour was the 1967 Wimbledon Pro. The reason for its great importance (aside from the fact it was place at the legendary Wimbledon) was if the Pros drew large crowds (which they did) Wimbledon would have an Open Wimbledon the next year with all the Pros able to play. The 1967 Wimbledon Pro was won by Laver over Rosewall 6-2 6-2 12-10. Once the tournament was finished the Pros knew that Open Tennis would begin at Wimbledon the next year. Laver won the first Open Wimbledon in 1968 in straight sets over Tony Roche.

Laver won a total of 11 majors in his career and two Grand Slams. Six of them were amateur majors and only five of them were Open Majors. Still evidence of his great strength at his peak is demonstrated by his Open Grand Slam in 1969 and in winning 5 of the first 7 Open Majors played and being in the final in the French in 1968 losing to Ken Rosewall. If Open Tennis was always around I believe Laver would have reached dominance earlier than in 1964 because he would have played the top players from the very beginning. Instead he was in the amateurs and could not play the top professionals until he turned pro in 1963.

Considering that Laver was so dominant to win five of the first seven Open Majors played and the Open Grand Slam (which should be extra credit in his career resume) that Laver would have won far more majors than the 11 he won if he played his whole career in conditions like today. By that I mean a set schedule of majors every year so he could play all of them without many of the boycotts and bans because he was pro.

It will be hard for anyone to break Laver’s record of over 200 tournament victories simply because player don’t enter as many tournaments nowadays. It is truly an awesome record that should stand for a very long time. To me his 200 plus tournament victories may be the toughest tennis record to break. You can win ten tournaments a year for 20 years and still be behind Laver!

Laver is truly one of the all-time greats. He was as versatile a player that has ever lived. Laver has been called the GOAT by many and he very well could be.

Bjorn Borg

It’s very possible Borg has influenced the modern game of tennis as much as anyone. He was the ultimate baseline who was strong in every area. Many believe he was the fastest player ever along with the greatest stamina.

Many consider Borg to be the greatest athlete to ever play tennis. Prior to Rafael Nadal’s ownership of the French Open Borg was considered perhaps the greatest clay court player ever and who knows, he still arguably can be considering he did this with a wood racquet. Borg still holds the record for the French Open for fewest games lost. This record was set in 1978.

Borg was strong on all surface as shown by winning the French Open on slow red clay and winning Wimbledon on grass a few weeks later from 1978 to 1980. In 1978 he also won the prestigious Italian Open to complete the European triple aka Old World Triple.

He had great power on all his strokes, serve, forehand and backhand.

Borg won 11 majors out of 27 entered and was in the final of 5 others. He also won tournaments considered to be as important as some majors like the WCT Championship and the Grand Prix Master Year End Finals several tunes.

At his peak Borg regularly won over 90% of his matches for the year, in fact he is one of the few that AVERAGED over 90% over five years. To put it in perspective, greats like Sampras never did that in one year. His Games Won percentage are the greatest of the Open Era during his peak years with percentages that are amazing. When Borg was at his best he had no peers. No one was close to him.

I believe Borg’s strokes are ideal for today’s equipment. It would have been interesting to see how much topspin he could put on the tennis ball today.

Pete Sampras

Sampras is one of the most gifted players I have ever seen. His serve is arguably the best of all time. I believe that in most years of his career that he led the ATP in percentage of holding serve! 

Sampras was always in the Top 10 in that most important category. Sampras was a great athlete with a very fluid serve and an excellent volley. He is arguably the greatest fast court player of all time and perhaps the greatest Wimbledon champion ever. During one period Sampras won 7 Wimbledons in 8 years, losing only in the quarterfinals in 1996!

When Sampras won his 14th major in 2002 in a storybook type ending, some experts thought that number would last for a very long time. Well Federer easily broke that in just a few years. The record was never that strong because it didn’t take into account how past players couldn’t play majors once they turned pro and that airplane travel wasn’t available to players way in the past. The record probably should have been in the twenties or even thirty considering how dominant Tilden was if conditions were then as they are now. You have to consider that the women players who always could play in the majors have the current record at 24 by Margaret Court and several just behind with Serena Williams at 23, Graf with 22, Wills at 19, Evert and Navratilova at 18. Wills incidentally won her 19 majors in only 24 attempts! Not bad!

Pete also won a great five Year End Championships and two Grand Slam Cups. Overall Pete won 64 tournaments in his career. As I wrote earlier I believe that most impressive feat by Sampras is his six straight years finishing at number one on the ATP tour! Very few in the history of tennis can say that. One is the great Pancho Gonzalez who can be argued to have been number one 8 straight years and Bill Tilden for 6 straight years. However those were the days of ranking lists so the lists are subject to question.

Roger Federer

Perhaps the most revered player in tennis history. At his peak Federer was untouchable by any player with the exception of a young Nadal. From 2004 to 2008 Federer won 12 of 20 majors entered, only stopped by Nadal in five of those majors. Nadal won over Federer in the French from 2005 to 2008 and Wimbledon in 2008 in a match many called the greatest match ever.

Federer’s most feared weapon is his forehand, a shot many considered by many to be the greatest in history. That’s debatable but it’s definitely up there. His serve can only be called great. I do feel that his defensive game is greatly underrated. He can make great recoveries to win points he had no right to win. That’s probably because of Federer’s exceptional footwork. Federer is about as smooth a player as you will ever see.

In Federer’s two best percentage years he was 81-4 in 2004 and 92-5 in 2005 for an unbelievable 173-9 for 95.0%. That’s Bill Tilden type numbers!

When has impressed me over the years is how he make tweaks to try to improve he already super tennis game. His backhand, which was already a quality stroke has improved over the years on his service return and in his overall groundstroking game. He added a nice drop shot and improved his net game.

Federer has won over 100 tournaments and 20 majors in his career and will continue to play in 2021 in a year he will be 40. I would not put it out of his reach to win more majors in the future to add to his legend.

Novak Djokovic

Djokovic has clearly been the best player in tennis over the last few years. He has already won 17 majors in 62 attempts but since his streak of dominance he has won 16 out of 39 majors entered including 4 majors in a row. He is the first man to hold all four major titles since Rod Laver in 1969!

Djokovic really has no stroke weaknesses and moves like the wind. The only possible weakness is on occasion his overhead can be shaky. His service return is considered by many to be the best of all time. That again is debatable, but he is in the running.

Novak has also won the most Masters 1000 tournaments with 36 and five Year End Championships.

Djokovic also has an edge in head to head matches as of now in 2020 over his two all-time great rivals Nadal and Federer. It’s an awesome record. Clearly a strong GOAT candidate.

Final Thoughts

Many feel the greatest three players of all time are playing today. That may be true but I am not so sure about that. There is often recency bias involved. There are many greats that at least deserve decent consideration for the best player in tennis history. All the players I discussed early have great credentials but the credentials may not be the same in every era. Each era has to be examined individually to see what is considered prestigious during that time.

Gonzalez for example had his World Championship Tour victories, many years at number one and decades among the top few players. Kramer had great overall dominance. Laver with his Grand Slams and incredible career tournament totals had an amazing record. Borg with incredible winning percentages, incredible amount of tournaments won at a young age and also majors won at such a young age. All of these players have legit claims to be the greatest. Tilden of course is always in the running.

We also have to consider that in the past the players played with tiny wood racquets with strings that aren’t nearly as effective as the great strings we have. It was much harder to hit topspin and attack from defensive positions. Would players like Gonzalez, Tilden, Borg and Kramer be able to hit with more consistent power and spin today? I would think there is no doubt they could.

I think the bottom line is that great players would be great in any era. Gonzalez would be a monster today as would Kramer and a few others.

Other greats I neglected to discuss in depth but some consider up there with the best would be Connors, Lendl, Rosewall, McEnroe, Budge and Vines. The first four were, if they weren’t number one, were always in the top ten.

John McEnroe in 1984 went 82-3 in winning the Wimbledon title and US Open plus the Year End Championships. He was also in the finals of the French, leading Lendl two sets to none before Lendl somehow summoned up enough reserved to win.

McEnroe didn’t just beat people that year he slaughtered them. His Wimbledon final that year against Connors is considered by some to be the greatest match of all time in beating Connors in straight sets with the loss of only four games. He had an unbelievable two unforced errors for the match. Many were already calling McEnroe the GOAT at that point and understandably so. He won an amazing 65.32% of his games that year which is superhuman. Even the greats like Laver, Federer, Nadal, Sampras and Djokovic have never reached that level in any year! It would unthinkable to think McEnroe wouldn’t win another major after 1984 but that’s exactly what happened. It is not unreasonable to think McEnroe at his best was the greatest ever.

The winning percentages of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are extremely high compared to the past players. I think that has a lot to do with the uniform surfaces of today. For example, the grass at Wimbledon now is suitable for baseline play when in the past it was much harder. Certainly the transition from red clay at the French to Wimbledon was a much tougher task in the past as opposed to current times.

The US Open at the West Side Tennis club would have the grass so chewed up at the end it was impossible at times to have decent baseline rallies. It was easy to have an upset.

So how does Nadal fit in among the all-time greats?

Well as of now, Nadal has the highest winning percentage lifetime of the Open Era, he has won about 86 tournaments and has won every major. He now stands at 20 majors and it seems reasonable that he will win a number of more majors. Sometimes I think that he is so unbeatable at the French that they should just give him the title and have the rest of the field play for second place!

No doubt Nadal is an all court player despite his greatness and power from the baseline.

Do I think Nadal is the GOAT?

Well his record is so great that to call him the GOAT isn’t unreasonable. He’s been ranked year end number one in five years and in other years he’s been number two and three but always in the top ten. Nadal is awesome but there are so many greats of the past that now there is doubt whether he’s even the best lefty of all time taking into account Laver’s super record.

Let’s just say as the years progress and Nadal presumably adds to his achievements that perhaps it will be unreasonable NOT to call him the GOAT!

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer and tennis historian who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and


Latest News