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