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?