SmashDebate: who’s the Player of the Year?

Published by Bede Briscomb & Matt Trollope

Who's had the better year, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer? Getty Images
In the latest SmashDebate, Tennismash staff writers Bede Briscomb and Matt Trollope go toe-to-toe over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

The ATP Player of the Year is a two-man race. Rafael Nadal, who will finish the year as world No.1, or Roger Federer, who has won the most titles in 2017.

Let’s debate.

Related: Who’s better, Maria or Venus?

Bede Briscomb: Nadal

Hey, Matt. I’m glad to see you’ve recovered from the beat down I handed to you in our Keys vs Stephens debate. This should be fun…

In the words of the great Jay-Z, “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.” So, with that in mind, allow me to present the following: Nadal is ranked No.1, Federer is ranked No.2. One is a higher number than two. Simple.

Matt Trollope: Federer

Oh hi, Bede.

Yeah, that wasn’t my finest moment, although I still have plenty of time for Madison 🙂

But as for Roger v Rafa? Any time there’s a debate involving these two it’s always fun. So, because Rafa is world No.1, you feel he’s the best player this year?

I beg to differ. You say numbers don’t lie? There’s some merit to that. So let’s look at Roger’s numbers. He’s played a slim-line schedule of 11 tournaments. He’s won seven of them. SEVEN. Across those 11 events he’s built a win-loss record of 49-4. That’s a success rate of 92.45%. Outstanding. And the clincher? He’s an unblemished 4-0 against Nadal in 2017.

Those are numbers that are hard to ignore this debate. Not that Rafa’s own numbers are bad. Six titles in 16 tournaments. Sixty-five match wins for a winning record of 86.67%. More than 10,000 ranking points to top the table.

But I’m going for quality over quantity. Roger is my player of the year.



They are some impressive numbers but there’s a caveat: he is just handpicking the tournaments he knows he’ll do well in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a smart move, the right move, but it’s a strike against his name. Imagine if Michael Jordan was like, “Hm, nah, we’re playing the Lakers tonight and I’m tired so I’m gonna sit this one out.” He’d be lambasted!

I don’t know if you’re a Seinfeld fan, but Jerry said it best when he was referring to the ‘Golden Boy’. “The reason Golden Boy is the iron man is he goes out there and plays every game. You take that away from him, you break his spirit.”

This is why Rafa’s great. Being present for every tournament matters. Playing every match matters. It’s about durability and consistency as much as it is a head-to-head record. Yes, Roger is old so he can’t play as many tournaments, but why is that a knock against Rafa? It’s not his fault (and at 31-years-old with a bung knee, it’s not like he’s a spring chicken).


Yes, I am a big Seinfeld fan. And what I’ll say about Roger’s numbers is that they’re real, and they’re spectacular.

It’s one thing to “handpick” your schedule. It’s another thing to actually then execute the wins and lift the trophies. If it’s such an apparent advantage for Roger to be fresh for every tournament he plays thanks to a light schedule, then why doesn’t Rafa and everyone else do the same? Nobody’s forcing Rafa to play as much as he does. Hey, it might even be the reason for his bung knee. And didn’t Rafa load up his clay court schedule and then play just a single grass court event? There’s an element of “handpicking” there, too …

Clever schedule management is one of the reasons Federer is flourishing as late into his 30s as he is. It’s the same reason why Venus and Serena remain so incredible at the same age. No-one’s bemoaning the Williams sisters’ approach. Federer deserved plaudits for this, not admonishment.

I would have loved to see Federer play a couple of clay court events. I would have loved to see him – now that he’s healthier, in better form and with a stronger backhand – take on Rafa in a clay court match to see how he’d fare. But he knows his body and he has his goals. The clay court season, and Roland Garros, didn’t fit into that picture. It’s his choice. He’s the master of his domain.

Sure, Rafa shows up at lots of tournaments and competes like hell. He’s put runs on the board and produced a magnificent season. But here were are again – he’s injury-hampered, taped up and limping to the finish line in the post-US Open portion of the season, where he’s always struggled.

What would you say if Roger was to go on and win the ATP Finals on top of all this?

Related: Federer prioritises body management over No.1


You can give Roger all the plaudits you want, but skipping a quarter of the season has to be a mark against his viability considering the award is for the best tennis player for the whole year – not best tennis player on this day or that day.

Here’s a fun way to think about it: if Denis Hopper from Speed calls you and says, ‘Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. You have to pick a player to win 70+ tennis matches in one year. If your player fails, the bomb blows up. What do you do? What do you do?!”

You’d be crazy not to pick The Spanish Bull. Ergo, Rafa is the Player of the Year (unless Roger wins the ATP Finals, then I’d have to reassess).


Well then we’d better pray in future that no player gets an injury and misses a few months, because that would count them out of the running for Player of the Year too, it would seem!

When Roger has played, he’s simply been more effective, more frequently. Especially against Rafa. And that’s revealing. We always heard, back in the days when Rafa dominated their rivalry, that if Roger couldn’t consistently beat his biggest rival, then how could he be considered the GOAT? Flip that around. If Rafa can’t beat the No.2 player in any of their four matches in 2017, then how can he be considered Player of the Year?

It’s too early to say yet, but I’d be far more confident of Roger winning the ATP Finals – where he’s a six-time champion – than Rafa, who’s never won it. That would mean that Roger finishes the year with eight titles to Rafa’s six.

And that would also mean Rafa finishes the season with less than 70 match wins. We’re all gonna blow up.

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