SmashDebate: has Nadal or Djokovic had a better 2018?

Published by Matt Trollope & Bede Briscomb

Rafael Nadal (L) and Novak Djokovic meet at net after their epic Wimbledon semifinal. The pair have split two meetings in 2018. (Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are locked in a tense battle for the No.1 ranking and coming into Paris both had 45 match wins in 2018. We debate which one has enjoyed the better season.

Heading into this week’s Paris Masters, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are neck-and-neck at the top of the game.

Nadal shades Djokovic by only 215 points in the rankings, and must outperform the Serb this week to have any hope of holding onto top spot. They’re practically even in the Race to London, with Nadal just 35 points clear of second-placed Djokovic.

This season, both have won major titles, and both have won Masters titles. In their two meetings in 2018, they have won one each. Djokovic, victorious in his first outing on Tuesday in Paris, now owns 46 match wins in 2018 to Nadal’s 45.

With these incredibly even stats as the context, which of them has had the better season?

Tennismash writers Matt Trollope and Bede Briscomb thrash it out in the latest SmashDebate.

Trollope: DJOKOVIC

This is hardly a clear-cut decision, but when I look at both players’ records in 2018, I lean towards Djokovic. And I think I find his season more impressive because of where he’s come from.

In the 18 subsequent months after his triumph at Roland Garros in 2016, Djokovic was a shadow of the player that once dominated the game. We won’t re-hash all the problems, but they sent him spiralling out of the top 20.

His floundering at US hard-court events in Indian Wells and Miami earlier this year truly was the nadir. Which makes his transformation into practically-unbeatable, almost-No.1 all the more impressive. Although his four titles – Wimbledon, Cincinnati, US Open, Shanghai – have come in a relatively condensed four-month period, the Serb has actually been playing consistently good tennis for a while now, across all surfaces. Semis in Rome, quarters at Roland Garros, final at Queen’s – these preceded the stunning run that began at Wimbledon.

It’s this consistency-turned-dominance that sees me give the Serb the nod over the Spaniard.

Your thoughts?

Briscomb: NADAL

I’m just a sucker for comebacks as the next man.

And between his bum elbow and eyebrow-raising experimentation with his coaching line-up, Nole’s return to the top has been borderline legendary.

But that means squat in this debate.

We’re talking who’s had the better year, and the numbers don’t lie:

– Rafa’s record is 45-4, Novak’s is 45-10
– Rafa’s won five titles, Novak’s won four
– Rafa is 17-1 in Masters 1000s, Novak is 20-6
– Rafa has an 80%+ win percentage on three surfaces, Novak’s is only 80%+ on two
– Rafa’s won 77% of his matches against top ten players, Novak’s won 75%

Don’t get me wrong, Nole is *very* close, however Rafa is world No.1 for a reason right now, and that’s because he’s had the better season.

Trollope

If you’re a sucker for a comeback, then I’m a sucker for stats. And these are particularly good ones.

Still, Djokovic shades Nadal in a few statistical categories in 2018 you didn’t mention:

– Djokovic’s record at the Grand Slams is 21-2 (91.3%) to Nadal’s 21-3 (87.5%)
– Djokovic has won two Grand Slam titles to Nadal’s one
– Djokovic’s longest winning streak is 19 matches (and counting) to Nadal’s 17
– Djokovic has earned $10.63 million to Nadal’s $8.66 million

Two of Rafa’s losses at the majors were by retirement, yes. But Novak was playing injured at Melbourne Park and underwent surgery shortly after.

The season still has a little way to go. The Paris Masters is unfolding as we speak, while the ATP Finals are still to come. But speaking of stats, this is where it skews dramatically in Djokovic’s favour. He’s won Paris four times, and the ATP Finals five times. Nadal has never managed to win either.

I know it may be premature to project what might happen, but if history and form hold true, Djokovic emerges as the runaway winner in this contest. If he hasn’t already started to.

Briscomb

The numbers are super tight and indicate two players who have been a notch above the rest of the field for three quarters of the season.

So let’s nit-pick further and look at the calibre of player each guy has lost to this year.

Nadal:
Marin Cilic (retired): excusable
Dominic Thiem: excusable
Novak Djokovic: excusable
Juan Martin del Potro: excusable

Djokovic:
Hyeon Chung: excusable…I guess
Taro Daniel: inexcusable
Benoit Paire: inexcusable
Dominic Thiem: excusable
Martin Klizan: inexcusable
Kyle Edmund: excusable
Rafael Nadal: excusable
Marco Cecchinato: inexcusable
Stefanos Tsitsipas: excusable

I count four times Novak has bombed badly, and when the margins are this thin, that’s enough to give the edge to Rafa.

Trollope

That’s a pretty compelling argument. Rafa’s losses have all come against opponents of the highest quality. And he’s hardly lost any matches, period.

But that raises a question rather than ending the argument – can you be considered the best player in a season when you’ve only played nine tournaments?

That’s especially pertinent when you consider the bulk of his success was compressed into eight weeks on clay. Four of his five titles, and 26 of his 45 match wins (almost 60 per cent!) have come in that single swing alone. As impressive as his clay-court dominance is, it skews his record significantly.

Another thing to consider is that Nadal’s level this year hasn’t changed dramatically. He was No.1 last year and remains at No.1 this year. He’s always prolific on clay, and 2018 is no different. Djokovic has elevated his level from the floundering player who suffered those “inexcusable” losses to Daniel, Paire and Klizan to the man we see now – one who was solid on clay, who went nearly undefeated on grass, and who is now dominating on hard courts.

Djokovic may have had to swallow more bitter, inexplicable losses than Nadal, but his overall body of work is more impressive. He gets my nod.

Briscomb

I’ll answer your question with a question: if we dock Rafa for boosting his numbers on clay, why don’t we dock Roger for skipping clay so he can boost his numbers on grass?

They are similar strategies. And they are both more than fair.

It’s arbitrary, but I think 50 matches in one season (which Rafa should surpass in Paris) should be considered a pretty comprehensive body of work, regardless of where or when the matches are played.

As for your ‘elevated levels’ argument, pish posh. We’re talking who’s had the best season, not the best storyline; it’s irrelevant how far Djokovic has come or how little Nadal has improved.

What matters is the numbers, and right now Nadal’s are slightly better.

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