With His 13th Grand Slam Title, Could Rafael Nadal Be the Best Tennis Player Ever?

For now, Roger Federer’s unofficial title is safe. But it’s in play.

Last night, Rafael Nadal captured the 13th Grand Slam title of his career with a scintillating victory over number-one ranked Novak Djokovic, capping a stellar 2013 season. The win also raised an interesting possibility: Could Nadal one day surpass Roger Federer, who is generally regarded as the greatest player in men’s tennis history, with his record 17 Grand Slam titles? It’s not as farfetched as it might seem.

To be sure, Nadal has made his name — and won the bulk of his Grand Slams — on clay. But over the last half-decade he’s proven adept on all surfaces, with two titles on grass, three on hard court, and — yes — eight on the clay of Roland Garros at the French Open. But consider this: Federer was 27 years and one month old when he won his 13th slam in 2008. As of last night, Nadal was 27 years, three months. When Federer tied Pete Sampras’ then-record of 14 slams, he was 27 years, 303 days. So with a win at either the Australian Open or the French Open in 2014, Rafa could conceivably — could realistically — become the youngest male player ever to reach that lofty plateau. Last spring the Tennis Channel presented its list of the “100 Greatest Players of All-Time.” Among male players, Nadal came in fourth behind Federer, Aussie ace Rod Laver, and Sampras. But that was two Grand Slams titles ago. Federer is now 32, and ranked 6th in the world. He has 77 career titles overall, with a winning percentage of 81%. Nadal is 27, has 60 career titles, and an 84% winning percentage.

Given his injury history, and the presence of other elite talents such as Djokovic, Andy Murray, and even Old Man Federer, Nadal has his work cut out for him. And despite Nadal’s career Golden Grand Slam (one of each, plus an Olympic Gold Medal), Federer is considered the more rounded, and more elegant, player. He’s also still really, really good, and will no doubt add to his tally. But on the evidence of Rafa’s performance last night, and throughout this tournament, that all-time record — and unofficial title of G.O.A.T. — well, let’s just say it’s in play. For now, advantage Federer – he’s the best there’s ever been. Just don’t count Nadal out.

Photos by AFP/ Getty Images | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013