Rafael Nadal is right: Novak Djokovic did reach a higher level than Roger Federer

Rafael Nadal is right: Novak Djokovic did reach higher level than Roger Federer
Has Djokovic reached a higher level than Federer? (Picture: Getty)

Rafael Nadal threw a cat among the pigeons with his suggestion that Novak Djokovic reached a higher playing level than Roger Federer during their respective careers.

Few men seem more qualified to make such a statement than the 16-time Grand Slam winner, who has faced the Swiss 38 times and Djokovic on a remarkable 50 occasions.

Though the Spaniard was keen to allow Federer his greatest of all time (GOAT) status due to the vast quantity of titles and Slams won, Nadal described the Serb as ‘invincible’ when he was at his peak.

Asked whether Federer was the best he’d ever come up against, Nadal told SER: ‘ Well, it’s complicated.

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‘What with titles and what he’s accomplished that says he’s the best in the history of our sport.

‘Is he the best I’ve played against? Well, maybe, yes, I’ve also played the great Djokovic, we’ve run into other really good players.

‘But it’d be unfair to say that Federer isn’t the best I’ve ever played against because the titles and his track record prove that to be the case.

Rafael Nadal is right: Novak Djokovic did reach higher level than Roger Federer
Nadal offered his opinion on the matter (Picture: AFP/Getty)

‘But at a technical level, when Djokovic has been at the top of his game, I have to say that I’ve been up against an invincible player.’

It’s perhaps tough to pinpoint exactly when Djokovic and Federer were at their peak, but Djokovic’s run from the 2015 season through to his French Open triumph in 2016 seems a fairly strong reference point for the 12-time major winner, while Federer completely dominated the sport in 2005 and 2006.

The stats for both in this period are truly remarkable. Seriously, seriously good. We’re hair splitting to pull them apart.

Both enjoyed astonishing win ratios, with Federer’s seasons just pipping Djokovic’s but the Serb beat a record 31 top-10 players in 2015, while the Swiss *only* racked up 19 (2006) and 15 (2005) of those.

Djokovic 2015

Win ratio: 93.2%

Slams: 3

Masters: 6

Titles: 11

Top-10 wins: 31

Federer 2005

Win ratio: 95.3%

Slams: 3

Masters: 4

Titles: 11

Top-10 wins: 15

Federer 2006

Win ratio: 94.8%

Slams: 3

Masters: 4

Titles: 12

Top-10 wins: 19

Federer’s 12 titles of 2006 betters his own 2005 total and Djokovic’s 2015 haul (both 11) but the 30-year-old won a simply stunning six Masters 1000 crowns on top of his three Slams, while Federer won four in 2005 and 2006.

If you take a cross-section of just the strongest 12 months, Djokovic can boast holding all four Slams at one time – a feat only achieved by two other men in history (Don Budge and Rod Laver).

From Nadal’s perspective, it becomes apparent pretty quickly why he would find Djokovic the much tougher opponent than Federer based on his record against them.

Over the course of 2005-2006, he met the 36-year-old on eight occasions, winning six of those contests. Conversely, when facing Djokovic at his most dominant Nadal failed to win any of their seven meetings.

Rafael Nadal is right: Novak Djokovic did reach higher level than Roger Federer
Djokovic became just the second man to beat Nadal at Roland Garros (Picture: Getty)

Indeed, Djokovic downed Federer in six of their nine meetings in his strongest period – winning every single Grand Slam contest along the way, including two finals.

When trying to flip it round, we encounter an obvious statistical problem.

Federer beat a then 19-year-old Djokovic in one tour-level clash over the course of his best two seasons, before the Serb had even reached the top-10.

Rafael Nadal is right: Novak Djokovic did reach higher level than Roger Federer
Federer won three Slams in 2006 (Picture: Popperfoto/Getty)

There were two meetings with Andy Murray – split one apiece. Djokovic beat the Scot in nine of 12 contests in his most dominant period.

But perhaps most damning for Federer is Djokovic’s results against 10-time French Open winner Nadal on clay and against eight-time Wimbledon winner Federer on grass.

Djokovic became one of just two men in history to beat the king of clay at his favoured Slam in 2015 – a ruthless straight sets victory – while also beating the most successful man to ever compete at Wimbledon in the final of the same year.

Rafael Nadal is right: Novak Djokovic did reach higher level than Roger Federer
Djokovic held all four Slams after winning the French Open (Picture: Getty/Bai Xue/VCG)***_***

Across 2005 and 2006 Federer picked up just one title on clay at the Hamburg Masters – where Nadal was forced to withdraw with an injury to his left hand.

Djokovic, by contrast, won four titles on clay, beat Nadal on his favourite surface three times and won a Slam on clay, grass and hard courts.

Federer’s level was exceptional but if we’re truly ranking the ‘Big Four’ as the best players who ever competed simultaneously then how can we rank seasons where they weren’t playing one another as better than years where they were all readily active on the ATP Tour?

Djokovic 'Big Four' record from 2015-FO2016

Djokovic 7-0 Nadal

Djokovic 6-3 Federer

Djokovic 9-3 Murray

Record v Nadal on clay in strongest eras

Djokovic 3-0 Nadal

Federer 0-4 Nadal

How can we overlook Djokovic dominating the greatest clay-court player of all-time – something Federer has simply never managed – while in the same period beating the finest grass-court ATP star we’re likely to see?

Federer’s brilliance – as much as anything – boils down to his longevity. He’s set a multitude of records that are hard to fathom being surpassed in our lifetime. There are few aspects in which he can be seriously challenged as the GOAT.

But there’s no question that Djokovic’s level at his peak was near super-human. And Nadal is right, he eclipsed Federer’s finest form.

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