This is a new feature in which I will combine the overall flow of the ATP Tour for the past 52 weeks with recent trends to arrive at my own current rankings. Tomorrow, I will have another Youtube Tennis entry up and my GOAT series will resume this week as well. Much like college basketball has the RPI as well as human polls, I would treat this like my ballot for a press based poll.
Dan Martin’s 2012 Power Rankings
for the Week of February 26 through March 3
1. Novak Djokovic – With all of the precincts reporting Novak Djokovic is in clear command of the ATP Tour.
2. Rafael Nadal – An Australian Open runner-up finish has Nadal holding #2 for now, but a Murray or Federer title in Dubai might tilt against Rafa.
3. Andy Murray – My first deviation from the ATP rankings. Murray like Federer has a 250 point title and an Australian Open semifinal loss, but Murray showed strides down under so he’s #3 for now.
4. Roger Federer – The title in Rotterdam must make Roger wish there were more important indoor events a la the 1990′s. Fed’s Davis Cup performance vs. the US has placed Federer below Murray for now.
5. David Ferrer – A title in Argentina over a strong Nicolas Almagro confirms Ferrer’s ATP computer ranking.
6. Juan Martin del Potro – Delpo has a title, a runner-up finish and a Grand Slam quarterfinal to his name. Lost in his one-sided loss to Federer down under was that Delpo had reached his first quarter at a major since 2009. Brick by brick he is rebuilding.
7. Nicolas Almagro – Almagro has a title and a runner-up finish over the past two weeks. He is the third best player from Spain, but that is saying something.
8. J0-Wilfried Tsonga – Tsonga won Qatar and was a semifinalist this week. A better Aussie Open would have been nice, but Tsonga is still clearly in the tier just below the top four.
9. Tomas Berdych – He still owes Almagro a handshake, but he has played solidly well in 2012 as well as in late 2011.
10. Milos Raonic – Raonic came up short in the Memphis final again. He still has work to do, but his serve gives him a credible weapon around which to build the rest of his game. Two titles and one runner-up showing in 2012 earn Raonic a top 10 slot.
Why Roger Federer might be the GOAT - Roger Federer has a compelling case to make on both fronts of the GOAT argument. He holds many of tennis’ most important records and is close to the leader in the records that he does not (yet?) hold. He fills Sampras’ requirement for GOAT by holding the most Grand Slam singles titles. Therefore, he has probably the strongest answer to the question of who has accomplished the most as a male tennis player. Federer’s sixteen Grand Slam singles titles and career Grand Slam seem to separate him from even the great Pete Sampras.
In terms of who has played the best tennis ever, Federer’s game is quite adaptable to all surfaces. His style of play has an aesthetic quality to it that may turn off some but has won the allegiance of many fans. Federer’s success indoors and stroke mechanics make it easy to envision adapting his game to previous eras with faster courts and less advanced string technology. Rafael Nadal is an incredible competitor and athlete so he likely would have had success in other eras as well, but his game would need to be radically rebuilt to succeed in the past.
Federer’s strongest argument comes from his streaks. He has not only set records, but he has generally obliterated the previous or second place marks. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Federer reached Ten consecutive Grand Slam Finals (a record) followed by his own a streak of eight consecutive Grand Slam Finals (Agassi, Laver and Nadal are in third place with four consecutive Grand Slam final appearances)
- Federer won eight consecutive non-clay court Grand Slam titles from Wimbledon 2005 through the US Open 2007
- Federer has reached the final round of each Grand Slam event at least five times (His record in these finals: Wimbledon 6-1, US Open 5-1, Australian Open 4-1, French Open 1-4)
- Federer has won a record sixteen Grand Slam singles titles and reached a record twenty-three Grand Slam singles final rounds
- Federer made twenty-three consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances. That translates to 5.75 years of placing no worse than the top four at tennis’ biggest events. I bolded this because I think this is his greatest achievement.
- Federer has an active streak of thirty-one consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances. That translates 7.75 years of finishing no worse than the top eight at tennis’ biggest events.
- Federer, like Bjorn Borg, won five consecutive Wimbledon titles and reached six consecutive Wimbledon finals. Unlike Borg, Federer added a sixth title and seventh consecutive championship appearance to his collection in 2009.
- Federer also won a record twenty-four consecutive championship matches when reaching the final of a tournament.
One could go on, but beyond Federer now holding the most season ending championships, I think the biggest accomplishments have been named. These records are so gaudy that it may take a decade or two after Federer’s retirement to fully grasp what they represent.
Why Roger Federer is not the GOAT – Two arguments are frequently cited in debating Federer’s status. The first is that Federer did not face stiff competition in setting his records. This seems like a hollow argument as Rafael Nadal first became a credible Grand Slam threat in June 2005 and Federer won twelve of his sixteen majors after this point. Also, consider the 2004 Australian Open in which Federer defeated Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian, Juan-Carlos Ferrero and Marat Safin in succession.
The other typical argument against Federer’s GOAT status has more heft. Roger Federer has a poor head-to-head record against his main rival in Rafael Nadal. Federer is 9-18 versus Nadal. This feeds into the second question relevant to GOAT debates regarding who has played the best tennis or held the highest standard of tennis. Some of this can be contextualized. Namely, during Federer’s best years he was reaching the final round of clay court events only to face Nadal, but Nadal did not often return the favor on faster hard courts and indoor courts. Still, Federer’s head-to-head record versus Nadal is a real number that impacts this debate.
You Decide - Federer has unquestionably been more consistently excellent than any other player in the Open era. Outside of Novak Djokovic, Federer has handed Nadal his biggest defeats by topping Nadal twice in the Wimbledon final, four times at the Masters Cup/World Tour Finals, and in the final round of three Masters 1000 events. Federer still leads his non-clay court head-to-head with Nadal seven to five. To be sure, Nadal has more frequently inflicted big losses on Federer, but it is not as if Roger has never drawn blood in this rivalry. Is Federer’s preternatural talent and consistent excellence enough to earn GOAT status or does Nadal’s record over Federer throw the debate into chaos?
Next – Rafael Nadal’s Credentials
Men Who Stare at Tennis GOATS Part 3
Why Pete Sampras Might be the GOAT - Pete Sampras holds fourteen Grand Slam singles titles and seven Wimbledon titles. Pete Sampras spent more weeks ranked number one than any other player. He finished a record six consecutive years ranked number one. Pete Sampras also shares an Open Era record of five US Open titles with Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors. These numbers are staggering. Considering that a player as strong as Rafael Nadal has finished two non-consecutive years as the number one ranked player and that Andre Agassi only finished one year ranked first, Sampras’ best claim might be his consistent finishes during the 1990′s.
I think Sampras best claim is found in the surface speeds of the tour when he played. Each Grand Slam in the 1990′s played at significantly different speeds. Pete Sampras won fourteen majors without the luxury of being able to play similarly at each major. All four slams playing somewhat similarly makes piling up major titles easier. The significantly different cast of contenders at the French Open and Wimbledon in the 1990′s meant that a player would have to make serious adjustments to contend in Paris and London.
Finally, Pete Sampras generally controlled key rivals in his career. He tended to get the better of Andre Agassi. Sampras beat Boris Becker at Wimbledon three times. Sampras’ only significant blemish was losing to Stefan Edberg at the 1991 US Open final and in the semifinal round of the 1992 Australian Open.
Why Pete Sampras is Not the GOAT - Sampras repeatedly set out the goal of holding the most Grand Slam singles titles in history. By his own definition of greatness, Sampras is number two. He even said Federer is the greatest player of all time following the 2009 French Open. That seems like an air tight case against Sampras as the GOAT, but of course his failure to reach a French Open final also looms large. Bjorn Borg reached the US Open final on four occasions and came up empty. Sampras did not once get that close to his white whale. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi all holding the career Grand Slam further damages Sampras’ GOAT credentials. Like Sampras, The French Open is Federer’s worst Grand Slam. Still, Roger Federer reached the final round of the French Open five times including his 2009 title run. Sampras may very well be the best fast court player ever, but GOAT seems out of reach.
You Decide - Does an impeccable record against his main rivals, unmatched season ending rankings, and fourteen major titles overcome Sampras’ difficulties on terre batu?
Next – Roger Federer’s Case
Setting Difficulties Aside
In part 1, I asserted that the GOAT question is hard to answer, but that two separate but related questions contribute to the process of naming a GOAT. Who played tennis at the highest level and who accomplished the most in his or her career are rarely the same thing. No one would doubt that Mats Wilander’s 1988 was a better year than any single calendar year posted by Andre Agassi or even Pete Sampras. However, across their career accomplishments Wilander had a respectable career, but not one that rivals Agassi or Sampras’ in total. Novak Djokovic is still a moving target but as of now the same could be said for Nole’s 2011 and overall body of work.
Beyond the two questions listed in part 1, there are difficulties in comparing accomplishments. Is Roscoe Tanner’s 1977 Australian Open title worth as much as Rafael Nadal’s 2009 Australian Open title? Tanner won the Australian Open in a year that the event was held twice (!?!) (Vitas Gerulaitas winning the other 1977 title Down Under). I also hate to keep bringing up Johan Kriek, but his two Australian Open titles don’t seem to be as prestigious as Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, or Jim Courier’s two titles down under. The Australian Open took on added importance when it moved to a hard court to start the tennis season in 1988. Also consider:
- Super 9/Masters Series/Masters 1000 events have morphed from events that generally required three out of five set finals and six matches in one week to events where top seeds receive byes and the championship match is only two out of three sets.
- Super 9 Events only Emerged in 1990 whereas key events such as the WCT Finals in Dallas have faded away.
- The Year End Championship shifted the championship match from a three out of five set format to a two out of three sets format.
- The US and Australian Opens have both changed surfaces since the Open Era began whereas the French Open and Wimbledon have substantially modified the speed of their surfaces. (i.e. The French Open used to use pressure free tennis balls that were quite heavy and used to water the courts between sets)
- Tennis Became a Medal Sport at the 1988 Olympics
- Two Grand Slam events now have the potential for matches to be played indoors
- Racquet, string, and shoe technology is always shifting
- Sports medicine has rendered formerly career threatening injuries less daunting
- Travel has become both easier and harder as private jets may offset some wear and tear, but the tour has become far more global since 1988
- Slower courts have made it harder for young players to simply ride a hot streak to a major title due to increased physical demands
Having said all of that four candidates for the GOAT in a post-Rod Laver world emerge without too much quibbling. I will look at each in chronological order
- Why Bjorn Borg might be the GOAT – Bjorn Borg accumulated six French Open titles while also winning five consecutive Wimbledon titles. At this time, Wimbledon and the French Open played quite differently so his three “channel doubles” are more impressive in my mind than Nadal’s two or Federer’s one. Borg had a mystique. He innovated the sport by using a great deal of topspin to control his error total while also being freakishly fit and quick. Borg retired at the age of 26 when he probably had another two French Open titles left in him. Despite retiring early, Borg tallied eleven major titles in an era when the Australian Open was not really a major. Borg had a heavy top spin forehand, a strong serve for his time and a two handed backhand. Borg was the first top player to completely ignore doubles. He was a trend setter and negotiated the transition from slow clay to fast grass better than anyone in history.
- Why Bjorn Borg is not the GOAT – Total majors aside, had Bjorn Borg won the US Open his GOAT candidacy would be much stronger. Bjorn Borg was a four time US Open runner-up. His best chances at victory came in 1976 and 1980. Borg lost to Jimmy Connors in four sets in the 1976 US Open final. This match was held on green clay and could have been a signature win for Borg. Instead, Connors bounced back from an injury influenced Wimbledon defeat at the hands of Borg. Borg lost to Connors in straight sets in 1978 on the inaugural hard court final of the US Open. Borg lost to John McEnroe in the 1980 US Open final. Borg lost in five sets after beating McEnroe in an epic five set Wimbledon final. In 1981, Borg lost to McEnroe in the US Open final again, but this time it was a four set loss. Skipping the Australian Open does not impact my view of Borg’s success. Borg winning the 1974 French Open when then runaway world number one Jimmy Connors was barred from the tournament does not impact Borg’s success either. However, not winning the US Open does hurt Borg. He, like Lendl at Wimbledon, deserves credit for coming close in an environment that never quite suited his personality. Still, a win over McEnroe or Connors in the U.S. would have been a career capping achievement.
- You Decide – Winning five straight Wimbledon titles and six French Open titles places Borg above just about everyone. Borg initiated a great number of changes in the sport that are still in full effect today. Still, the US Open stands out as a missing piece. Bjorn Borg is in the top pantheon of tennis players, but did he do enough to be the top player?
The Remaining Usual Suspects Will Be Examined Tomorrow
Tomorrow – Part 3 – Pete Sampras
Future Men Who Stare at Tennis Goats entries - The Top 25 Players of the Open Era, Who Would You Bet Your Retirement On?, and What to do about Rod Laver?
Big Wins for Almagro, Azarenka, Federer and Raonic
Federer wins his 71st career title beating Juan Martin del Potro for the second time in 2012. Delpo crashed the finals by demolishing Tomas Berdych.
2. Milos Raonic won his 2nd title of 2012. Here are some highlights of his win in India earlier this year. It is a good sign that Raonic defended his title from 2011.
3. Nicolas Almagro won the Brasil Open yet again. Here is some video of Almagro practicing. He has a great ground game.
4. Victoria Azarenka continues her run as the #1 player in the world with a title in Doha. Azarenka may finally restore order to the WTA Tour. Greater predictability helps the sport so hats off to Vika.
5. A nice interview with Rod Laver.
Part 1 – Arriving at the Relevant Questions
A Question from California
Shortly after Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in the 2012 Australian Open semifinal round, I was asked how I thought Roger Federer’s record against Rafael Nadal impacted his arguable status as the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). Federer winning only one third of his matches versus his primary rival since 2005 is not a great resume line to be sure. Oddly enough, Rafael Nadal losing seven consecutive tournament finals to the same opponent while Rafa is in his mid-20′s is not a great resume line either. I am not a huge proponent of GOAT debates for reasons I will express in this series. However, I respect my friend’s tennis mind and game enough to try to give this topic a thorough examination.
When Did All of this GOAT Stuff Become so Prevalent?
Some questions about the GOAT likely began when Pete Sampras made public his career goal of breaking Roy Emerson’s then record twelve Grand Slam singles titles.* Still, I think 1999 was the year when the levy started to break. What has followed is a more than decade long debate in tennis. Andre Agassi won the 1999 French Open and questions began to emerge as to who had the better career between Sampras and Agassi. Pete Sampras had eleven major titles at that time and Andre Agassi had a career Grand Slam. One month later, Sampras beat Agassi in straight sets to win his sixth Wimbledon title while also tying Emerson’s twelve major singles titles. Agassi did not fade from the conversation as he captured both the 1999 US Open and 2000 Australian Open titles to become the first man since Rod Laver to reach four Grand Slam finals in a fifty-two week period of time.
Blame it on 2004?
While Sampras and Agassi each won two more majors after the 2000 Australian Open ended, consensus began to settle on Sampras as the GOAT. He was taller and more powerful than Rod Laver. He did not get to play three majors per year on grass. He won fourteen Grand Slam titles in total. Sampras’ lack of success on clay was overshadowed by his Grand Slam successes, finishing six consecutive years with the number one ranking and winning five season ending championships.
In 2004, Roger Federer put together what appeared to be a year for the ages. Federer did not match Mats Wilander’s Grand Slam match record from 1988, but he did win three Grand Slams in a single season. This was something Pete Sampras had never done. Federer also won four Masters Series events, won tournaments on every surface, won the season ending championship and won eleven total tournaments. Pete Sampras’ best single season tournament haul had been ten titles in 1997. It was not just that 2004 had been a better year than any that Sampras had numerically posted, Federer was eerily excellent in 2004. His 6-0, 7-6, 6-0 dismissal of Lleyton Hewitt in the 2004 US Open championship match was a virtuoso performance that had people wondering if Federer had just played the best match for big stakes in the Open Era.
Star Light, Star Bright
Was Federer’s brilliance enough to make one forget that he had ten fewer Grand Slam titles than Pete Sampras? I remember thinking that Federer had just completed the best year since Jimmy Connors’ 1974. I also thought that Federer would retire with somewhere between eight to ten majors because he would not be interested in playing tennis past his late twenties. It was simply a hunch I had that Federer would not be driven by the idea of longevity. A great deal of Federer vs. Sampras rhetoric arose from 2004-2009. I remember writing Jon Wertheim with a solution at which I had arrived. I simply said, “Some stars shine brighter than others while some stars shine longer than others.” While Carl Sagan or Timothy Ferris might have been influencing my thoughts, I simply felt that Federer in 2004 and 2005 had produced two better years than any on Sampras’ resume, but I doubted that Federer would grind out another eight or nine majors to tie or surpass Sampras in the major title column. Therefore, Federer would be the brightest star in the tennis sky, but Sampras would be the star had the longest high quality life.
By the end of 2006, my thinking had changed. Federer had put together a year that dwarfed even his impressive 2004 marks. In 2006, Federer won three majors, the season ending title, was runner-up at the French Open, and won twelve total titles. Given that Roger had also reached six consecutive major final rounds winning five majors in that stretch and given that Federer had now posted thirty-six months that were better than any single year or three year stretch in Sampras’ career, I felt Roger had done enough to surpass fourteen majors. Three years is a long time to shine so brightly. Plus, Sampras had never reached a French Open final. By the end of 2007, I thought the case was more or less closed despite Federer only holding twelve major titles. Reaching ten consecutive Grand Slam final rounds and winning eight of those matches seemed to be a strong closing argument.
Determining the GOAT: Two Separate But Related Questions
The pre-2009 Federer-Sampras debate did yield some data that is going to be helpful for exploring the topic of the tennis GOAT. During the 2004-2009 debates regarding the Sampras and Federer claims, the pro-Sampras crowd generally argued about raw numbers of major titles, years finished ranked number one and total weeks ranked number one. The pro-Federer crowd argued that Federer had done enough in these categories to make his superior play on clay and domineering brilliance the deciding factor. These two lines of argumentation rest on two different questions.
1. Who accomplished the most?
2. Who played the best tennis?
Certainly, the pro-Sampras crowd might have argued and probably still argues that Pete was basically unbeatable on a fast grass court and on an indoor court. The pro-Federer crew prior to 2009 certainly argued that Federer reaching ten consecutive Grand Slam championship matches was an accomplishment far beyond Sampras’ best stretch of three consecutive Grand Slam final appearances. Still, the answers to these two questions generally yield different results in the search for a GOAT. This series will pursue both lines of thought while taking into account results since 2009 in an attempt to at least place the landscape of the GOAT question into more precise relief.
* – Somehow Emerson’s sixteen Grand Slam doubles titles never made it into the discussion. The decline of doubles as an important factor in tennis is another vexing aspect of determining a GOAT.
Next Part 2 - The Usual Suspects
It is hard to say if Jim Courier will ever win a Davis Cup title as a captain. I also don’t think Davis Cup is nearly as important as it could be if reconfigured. Still, Courier coaching the US to an unlikely 5-0 victory at Switzerland including Roger Federer losing in singles and doubles marks Courier taking full command of the US Davis Cup Team. With a decent crop of young talent and with Spain not yet placing players younger than Rafael Nadal into the top tier of tennis, Courier and the U.S. could have a nice run in the next 5-7 years.
A quick note to my readers. I have had a lingering computer issue that has cut into my posting the past 2 weeks. It is still not yet resolved, but rest assured some good posts are coming. I am not a huge Davis Cup person so this lull in posts is not coming at the worst possible time, but it has not been easy to step away from writing after such a great Australian Open.