The following is a timeline charting how Nadal, playing in what is considered to be the greatest era of men’s tennis, surpassed the haul of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
2003: Federer became the newest entrant into the Grand Slam club with the first of his eight Wimbledon titles, beating Mark Philippoussis in the final.
Tally: Federer 1
2004: The Swiss flexed his muscles by winning three majors — the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Tally: Federer 4
2005: While Federer defended his Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, Nadal burst on to the scene with his first French Open title beating Mariano Puerta in the final.
Tally: Federer 6; Nadal 1
2006: Federer’s domination continued as he won three majors, including beating Nadal in the Wimbledon final, but Nadal laid the foundation for his claycourt reign with his second French Open title.
Tally: Federer 9; Nadal 2
2007: The seemingly unstoppable Federer repeated his feat from the previous year but the French Open title continued to elude him as Nadal thwarted him in the final for a second straight year.
Tally: Federer 12; Nadal 3
2008: Djokovic hit the big time with his maiden major, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open final. After his French Open triumph, Nadal stunned Federer in the Wimbledon final but the Swiss responded by winning the U.S. Open.
Tally: Federer 13; Nadal 5; Djokovic 1
2009: Nadal won his first hardcourt Grand Slam title, edging out Federer in five sets in the Australian Open final. However, Nadal’s 31-match winning streak at Roland Garros ended in the fourth round, allowing Federer to claim his only French crown.
Nadal was unable to defend his Wimbledon title as he was forced to pull out with knee problems.
The Swiss went on to claim his record 15th major at Wimbledon, surpassing Pete Sampras’ record tally.
Tally: Federer 15; Nadal 6; Djokovic 1
2010: Federer started the year by winning the Australian Open for a fourth time.
But it turned out to be Nadal’s finest campaign as he swept the next three majors. He defeated Djokovic in the U.S. Open final to complete a career Grand Slam.
Tally: Federer 16; Nadal 9; Djokovic 1
2011: The Big Two became the Big Three as Djokovic won 10 titles in 2011, including three majors at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Meanwhile, Nadal reclaimed his French Open crown for his 10th major title overall.
Tally: Federer 16; Nadal 10; Djokovic 4
2012: Djokovic overcame Nadal in the longest Grand Slam final in Open Era to win his third Australian Open title.
Nadal continued his dominant run at Roland Garros to add another major title to his tally, while Federer won a record-extending 17th major at Wimbledon.
Tally: Federer 17; Nadal 11; Djokovic 5
2013: Djokovic won his third straight Australian Open by defeating Andy Murray in the final. While Federer struggled with a back injury, Nadal finished the year as number one after defending his French Open crown and adding another U.S. Open title to his tally.
Tally: Federer 17; Nadal 13; Djokovic 6
2014: Again Federer failed to add to his Grand Slam tally as Nadal won his ninth French Open title, equalling Sampras’ total of 14 slams. Djokovic defeated Federer in the Wimbledon final.
Tally: Federer 17; Nadal 14; Djokovic 7
2015: Djokovic accelerates, winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open and also became only the second man to defeat Nadal at the French Open when he beat the Spaniard in the quarter-finals, only to lose to Stan Wawrinka in the final.
Tally: Federer 17; Nadal 14; Djokovic 10
2016: Djokovic defended his Australian Open crown before winning his maiden French Open title, making him the holder of all four majors — a feat the media dubbed the “Nole Slam”.
Nadal and Federer were both plagued by injuries during the season and failed to add to their Grand Slam hauls.
Tally: Federer 17; Nadal 14; Djokovic 12
2017: Federer won his 18th slam — and his first since Wimbledon 2012 — with a thrilling five-set victory over Nadal in the Australian Open final.
Nadal cemented his place as the greatest claycourter in history when he secured a record 10th title in Roland Garros.
Federer became the first man to win Wimbledon eight times with victory over Marin Cilic in the final, before Nadal clinched his third U.S. Open title.
Djokovic missed the second part of the year with an elbow problem.
Tally: Federer 19; Nadal 16; Djokovic 12
2018: Federer won his sixth Australian Open to become only the fourth player after Margaret Court, Serena Williams and Steffi Graf to win 20 or more major singles titles. Nadal extended his winning run at Roland Garros, before Djokovic earned his first major in more than two years at Wimbledon.
A third triumph in New York ensured Djokovic had equalled Sampras’ tally of 14 majors and was now only behind Federer and Nadal in the all-time list.
Tally: Federer 20; Nadal 17; Djokovic 14
2019: Nadal closes to within one of Federer’s total as he maintained his stranglehold at the French Open and beat rising Russian Daniil Medvedev to win the U.S. Open.
Djokovic won a third successive major and a seventh Australian Open with a dominant straight sets win over Nadal and saved two match points against Federer to win a fifth Wimbledon title in a five-set classic.
Tally: Federer 20; Nadal 19; Djokovic 16
2020: Djokovic reeled off another Australian Open title but was thrashed 6-0 6-2 7-5 in the Roland Garros final by Nadal who moved alongside Federer for the first time with a record-equalling 20th men’s major title. With Nadal and Federer absent from the U.S. Open, Djokovic missed an opportunity to close the gap on his rivals after being disqualified from his fourth-round match for accidentally hitting a ball at a line judge.
Tally: Federer 20; Nadal 20; Djokovic 17
2021: Djokovic appears set to eclipse Nadal and Federer as he stormed to a ninth Australian Open title, beat Nadal in the French Open semi-final before downing Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final and outclassed Italian Matteo Berrettini in the Wimbledon final.
Victory over Medvedev in the U.S. Open final would have sealed a first men’s calendar year Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969, and the lead in the G.O.A.T (greatest of all time) race, but the Serbian was surprisingly beaten.
Nadal missed the second half of the year with a foot injury while Federer was also sidelined by a knee injury.
Tally: Federer 20, Nadal 20, Djokovic 20
2022: Nadal admitted that he was just pleased to be playing in Melbourne after fearing his foot injury might end his career. But with Djokovic deported after his visa was cancelled and Federer absent through injury, the Spaniard rolled back the years, becoming the first man to win 21 Grand Slam titles by beating Medvedev to claim the Australian Open for the first time since 2009.
Tally: Nadal 21, Federer 20, Djokovic 20