And yet, the paradox: If Roger Federer is the all-around GOAT, why can't he beat Nadal?
Well, first of all, he can, he has, and he does.
There are many other answers to this question, each of which proves that while Nadal is the greatest clay court player of his generation and of all time, Federer is the greatest all-around player of his generation, as well as the greatest player of all time.
Federer rarely beats Nadal on clay. They are even on hard courts, however, and Federer leads 2-1 on grass. Thus, when you hear commentators saying, "Geez, how can Federer be the best ever if he can't beat Nadal?," they should be saying, "How impressive that Federer continues to make clay court finals and have the opportunity to play Nadal!"
Also, despite the fact that Federer and Nadal have already played 25 times, we should be wondering, "Why haven't they played more?" Even if we look only at Grand Slams, we have to ask: Where was Nadal in the '04, '06, '07, and '10 Australian Open final? Where was Nadal in the '03, '04, '05, and '09 Wimbledon final? Where was Nadal in the '04, '05, '06, '07, and '08 U.S. Open final? That's 13 Grand Slam finals in which Federer simply didn't have the opportunity to play Nadal. On the flip side, Nadal didn't get to play Federer in only three of the Grand Slams he won, the '10 French Open, '10 Wimbledon, and '10 U.S. Open. These numbers don't include all of the other tournaments Federer won without getting to play Nadal. To simplify: Yes, Nadal beats Federer on clay consistently and has had two fantastic wins against him at the '08 Wimbledon and '09 Australian, but Federer has not had the opportunity to play Nadal in many other grass and hard court tournaments.
Nadal has proven his greatness not just on clay, but also at all the other majors, and thus he is rightfully considered one of the greatest of all time. Federer has done him one better: He has not only won 16 majors, but he has lost in the finals seven other times. Seven. Four of them on clay. So, should we condemn him for making all those French Open finals and losing to the clay court GOAT or should we celebrate the fact that he has been the second best player on clay for the last seven years? Second best on clay, by the way, not to Kuerten, Muster, or Courier, but instead to the clay court GOAT. If Federer sucked on clay and thus never got to play and lose to Nadal, he would have 15 Grand Slams instead of 16. How ironic he ends up getting a bad rap for being so good on clay.
To be the greatest ever, you don't have to dominate on every surface; you just have to dominate overall. 16 Grand Slams is dominating overall. Did anyone care that Sampras couldn't beat countless clay courters? No, and we shouldn't care that Federer rarely beats Nadal on clay.
Head-to-heads are important, but not that important. If we make the argument that Federer is not the GOAT because of his head-to-head versus Nadal, then we have to include Murray in the conversation, as he also has a winning head-to-head versus Federer. That would be flat-out stupid.
Nadal is five years younger, and age matters. In 2006 and 2007, when Federer was in his prime, he beat Nadal in five out of seven matches, twice on hard, twice on grass, and once on clay.
We are unfair: We want Federer, at age 29, to beat Nadal, already the clay court GOAT at age 25, in the finals of the French Open, the slowest clay on the planet. Tough. Very tough.
Had Federer won the 2011 French Open this past Sunday, he wouldn't have proven he's the GOAT. He's already proven that. All he would have done is made me cry for having witnessed something that transcends everything I know.