Rafael Nadal has never been so close to Roger Federer's grand slam total - where does GOAT race go next?

Charlie Eccleshare
The Telegraph
Roger Federer celebrates winning his 12th French Open title on Sunday  - Getty Images Europe
Roger Federer celebrates winning his 12th French Open title on Sunday  - Getty Images Europe

As much as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have shared the defining sporting rivalry of the last 15 years, until Sunday they had never actually been that close according to the metric most often used to judge tennis greatness. 

Looking only at grand slams won - more later on why that is not the only criterion for assessing greatest of all time (GOAT) credentials - Federer has held at least a three-slam lead over his great rival since July 2004. As of Sunday however, Nadal's 12th French Open title means he has at last closed the gap to two, which given he is five years younger than Federer looks distinctly bridgeable.

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Nadal then is closer now than he has ever been since he started winning grand slams and established himself as a credible challenger to Federer. For the record, by the time Nadal won his maiden major at the 2005 French Open, Federer had already built a 4-1 lead. 

Nadal knows that he is closing the gap, and that he has a realistic chance of pipping his great rival at the post - even if he protested on Sunday that it is not an issue that much concerns him. "I never tried to think about: I gonna catch Roger or not," he said after beating Dominic Thiem. "Being honest, I am not very worried about this stuff, no?"

To which the natural response was: er, yes. Nadal might protest but his claims of indifference were about as convincing as Theresa May telling us after her latest disaster that "nothing has changed". 

Whether Nadal is bothered or not, he knows that there will be endless speculation over the coming days, months and years about which direction the GOAT race will turn next. 

In the immediate term, it is tempting to view Nadal's win on Sunday as him effectively having played a game more, with Federer's 'game in hand' to come at Wimbledon. Federer though has been far less dominant in south-west London than Nadal has been in Paris, so a ninth Wimbledon title next month is far from a formality. Federer has only actually won one title in his last six visits, with Novak Djokovic once again the man to beat this year. 

Should Federer fail to win Wimbledon or the US Open - where he is without a title since 2008 - then his lead will stand at two or less by the end of the year, by which time he will be 38. In an ideal world you expect he would want to build up more of a buffer by the time he retires, given than Nadal and Djokovic are five and six years his junior. 

A major factor in what happens next will be Nadal's fitness. Over the course of his career he has missed 10 majors through injury, and earlier this year his uncle Toni described him as "an injured person who plays tennis".

Managing his schedule is clearly the key for Nadal, and - encouragingly for his supporters - he appears to be finding a way to consistently peak at the majors. Despite only completing 14 tour events outside of the slams over the last two years, Nadal has reached the quarter-final of every grand slam bar one since the start of 2017. It is a level of consistency that no other player can match and if it continues will at least give him the chance to eat away at Federer's lead in the next few years - even if ultimately it may well be Djokovic who ends up trumping both of them.

It could also be that whoever ends up with the most grand slams doesn't necessarily end up being anointed as the GOAT. As I wrote in January, factors like wider cultural significance, how they changed the game and their playing style will probably all end up being taken into account. 

For the players, the debate is understandably tedious, and you could appreciate Nadal saying yesterday that: "You can’t be frustrated all the time because the neighbour has a bigger house than you or a bigger TV or better garden."

But at the same time players like Nadal don't get to where they are without expending every last ounce of energy to earn themselves the best TV or the best garden. 

So now we wait to see who will ultimately end up carrying that 100-inch plasma screen off into the sunset. 

Will Nadal end up with more slams than Federer? Have your say in the comments below

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