3 Phases of the GOAT Discussion

GOATs on our Mind

Tennis GOAT discussions and debates have been good for fans and the press because we’ve always got something to contemplate.  Here is my breakdown of events that amped up GOAT debates:

Career slams and Pete chasing Emerson get the credit or blame

  1. Andre Agassi completing the career Grand Slam in 1999 set up an intense Sampras vs. Agassi debate.
  2. Pete Sampras’ 12 year pursuit of the all-time Grand Slam record was a long running storyline.
  3. Roger Federer’s incredible 2004 coming so close after Pete Sampras’ final triumph at the 2002 US Open, opened up a debate about Federer and Sampras.
  4. Rafael Nadal’s emergence in 2005 and strong head-to-head record vs. Federer added a new debate.
  5. Federer completing the career Grand Slam and surpassing Sampras’ 14 majors in 2009 led to a coronation less than 7 years after Sampras’ coronation.
  6. Nadal’s completion of the career Grand Slam in 2010, rise to 12 total major titles and dominance in Masters 1000 events keep the question in our minds today.

I’ve managed to rub a few sticks together and start a small fire by saying there are really two separate but related questions: 1.  Who was the most decorated player? 2.  Who played tennis at the highest level?

A Third Category

Something dawned on me recently that there are really 3 phases to the debate.  I need to add a category about consistency as well.  Tennis rankings measure consistency over a 52 week period of time.  Ranking careers has to measure consistency as well.  For instance, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin each won 2 slams, each were runner-up at 2 slams and each held the #1 ranking. Hewitt’s career was far more consistent than Marat’s so I would not call their careers a tie. Conversely, if I had to pick one of them to win a single match, I would pick Safin.

I will take a look at the 3 phases of this debate and offer my views as to who deserves the top spot in each phase.

A.  Consistency – Roger Federer has locked up the consistency portion of the competition for the foreseeable future.  Federer reached a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, followed that by reaching 8 more consecutive major finals and holds the record for the most consecutive Grand Slam semifinals and quarterfinals reached. The next closest player in terms of reaching consecutive Grand Slam finals is Rafael Nadal who reached every major final from the 2011 French Open through the 2012 French Open.  Add in Federer being ranked #1 for more consecutive weeks than any player in history, and Federer is not going to be easy to catch.  It will take a decade for a player to attempt to do so.  Consider that Federer was at worst a top 8 finisher at every Grand Slam from Wimbledon 2004-French Open 2013.   Federer also holds the Open Era longest winning streaks on grass and outdoor hard courts.  Federer won 24 consecutive matches in tournament finals as well.

Federer has been more consistent than anyone

Nadal’s mastery of clay and the French Open, Nadal winning at least one Grand Slam for 10 consecutive years, Pete Sampras’ record of finishing 6 consecutive seasons ranked #1 (a highly underrated accomplishment), Ivan Lendl reaching 8 consecutive US Open finals, and Jimmy Connors finishing every year from 1973-1988 ranked in the top 10 are about the only consistency marks in the Open Era not held by Federer.

B.  Most Decorated/Accomplished Player – Roger Federer holds this spot as well, but his lead is far less secure. We obviously know that Federer has won more Grand Slams and reached more Grand Slam finals than anyone in history.  That is a big deal.  Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi both have a career Grand Slam and an Olympic gold medal in singles.  On this front, Federer is insulated by his career Grand Slam and silver medal in singles plus a gold medal in doubles. Federer’s record 6 year end championships and second place in total Masters 1000 titles are also feathers in his cap.   Still, Rafael Nadal has 12 Grand Slam titles.  He is likely to add to that total. Can Nadal add 5 more Grand Slams?  5 is a lot, but Nadal already having 12 in the bank makes him a serious active threat.  Also, Nadal’s lead over Federer in Masters 10000 titles is only going to grow. Finally, if Nadal finishes a 3rd year ranked #1 in 2013 will close some of that gap in terms of ranking related accomplishments.  Novak Djokovic is not a serious active threat as of yet as he would have to more or less add Bjorn Borg’s career to his own to hit 17 major titles.

At least for now, no one has added as much to the history book in the Open Era

C.  Who Played Tennis at the Highest Level – A lot can be argued here in terms of slower vs. faster courts, string and racquet technology changes, etc.  In raw numbers, tennis today is generally being played at a higher level than it was in the distant past and in the recent past.  I would say Don Budge’s career exceeds that of Andy Murray’s in terms of accomplishments, but if someone grabbed Budge with a time machine and put him in the US Open this year, he would lose in the first round if he drew Murray or the lowest ranked player in the event.

John McEnroe called this the best baseline point he had ever seen in 1995.  It is a great point, but no one would say that it was the best baseline point ever today.

Similarly, Pete Sampras posted one of his best year’s in 1997 winning a tour leading 8 titles including the Australian Open, Wimbledon, Cincinnati, The Bercy, the ATP World Championships and the Grand Slam Cup. Would anyone soon be able to play tennis at that level?  It seemed unlikely, as Sampras had a huge serve, moved smoothly, was a great athlete in his prime and had a devastating all-court game.  In 2000, Marat Safin played a US Open final that showed where tennis could be going.  One might argue that a zoning Safin could play at a scary level, but that Safin was not consistent.  By 2004, Roger Federer was playing at a consistent level of excellence that sparked debates about his standing versus Sampras despite Roger having 10 fewer majors than Pete at that time.  Federer in 2004 could not exceed Sampras in consistency or over-all accomplishments, but the debate ensued because people’s eyes told them that Roger was playing tennis as well as anyone ever had.

The harsh reality of the tennis arms race comes into play in this category.  A short reigning #1 or a caretaker #1 likely do not reach a level that exceeds that of the most recent dominant number one.  However, if a player is a dominant number one, he is likely playing tennis at or near the highest level it has ever been played.  No matter how great a Sampras was within a few years someone did play tennis at a level as high or higher than Pete did.  The same is already true for Federer.  Roger is almost exactly 10 years younger than Sampras.  So Roger’s 2012 Wimbledon title lines up nicely with Sampras’ 2002 US Open farewell victory. Had Roger retired right after Wimbledon 2012 romantic notions might have emerged for a few years to shield Federer on this front.  However, the fact is that tennis keeps pushing forward.

Best baseline points in history (for now)

The baseline points I saw between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Montreal semifinal round were as good or better than any I have ever seen. Baseline tennis is not everything, but the sport has trended toward emphasizing that aspect of the game more and more.  That is good news for Rafa and Nole as it means they are probably playing tennis at a level few if any have ever achieved.  The bad news is that in 5-10 years someone will be almost certainly be playing tennis at a level that will exceed their current form. For now, given Rafael Nadal’s edge in head-to-head matches with virtually everyone on tour, I’d say he has the best claim to this phase of the GOAT debate.

Who will next change and raise the game?

PS – In terms of imagination, I’d place Federer at number one.  He’s a genius on the court.  However, much like power players eventually blunted McEnroe’s opportunities to use his feel for the game to open up the court and win big titles, Rafa’s unrelenting lefty topspin blunted Roger’s ability to make imagination a major factor in their matches. Others have used different strategies (with less consistent success than Rafa) to limit Roger’s shotmaking as a decisive factor in matches.   Players such as JMDP, Berdych, and Tsonga have at times hit enough big serves and power shots to limit Federer’s magical shot making.  If one of them hits 3 service winners before Federer hits an impossible shot, Federer is still down 40-15 in the game.  Nole and Murray have used their foot speed, great returns and counterpunching abilities with varying degrees of success to frustrate Federer.  Federer is the most imaginative and entertaining player I have ever seen, but people have adapted to some of this creativity as one would expect in an arms race.

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