I admit it. I am bored with speculating about who is the greatest of all time (GOAT). Has any topic gotten more ink or pixels in the tennis universe over the past 20 years?
It started with Pete Sampras closing in on Roy Emmerson’s then record 12 major titles. Then Andre Agassi won the career Grand Slam in 1999. Then Roger Federer played at a level that led to people questioning Pete Sampras’ GOAT status. Then Rafa dominated much of his head-to-head series with Roger Federer. Then Federer won the career Grand Slam and broke Sampras’ record in short succession. Then Rafa won the career Grand Slam. Then Novak won the Nole Slam. Then Roger won 18. Then …
Two Separate but Related GOAT Questions
I have long said there are two separate but related question that often get intermixed in GOAT discussions.
Who Played Tennis at the Highest Level Ever?
Who Accomplished the Most?
I will look at these two question in brief and explain why I am done with this debate for at least 5 years.
1) Who Played Tennis at the Highest Level Ever?
The holder of this distinction is pretty fluid. Generally, the current #1 or a recent #1 attained the highest ever level of play in tennis. I hope that in 2028 that whoever is #1 in the world is playing better than Rafael Nadal is in 2018. Racquets, strings, shoes, nutritional knowledge, sports medicine, etc. generally get better over time. We will never know how Bjorn Borg would have played had he grown up with strings like today’s players use. We can say they generate more topspin with more ease than he ever did. That is not a knock on the past. Much of what drives a generational shift is simply having players who grew up with advancements in tennis equipment. Andre Agassi may have switched to polyester strings with some benefit in the early 2000s, but he did not have years of having his strokes co-evolve with this new equipment.
The current answer to the first question is debatable. I give Novak Djokovic’s form from January 2015 through June 2016 as the highest level of tennis I have ever seen. People could argue for periods of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s career in which they seemed to be at the top of their game and I would listen. The margins between these three are not great as we see a slight decline in one of the three often followed by the rise of another one of the three.
As much as I may respect periods of dominance players such as Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, or Pete Sampras had, I do not think anyone can argue with a straight face that they could simply be plucked up at their best and dropped onto a court today with the current Big 3 and compete overly well. As expected, Sampras would have the best chance of the group due to his game being the most contemporary of the group, but Pete’s notion of coasting until he got an opening when returning as well as his backhand would likely be his undoing more often than not.
2) Who Accomplished the Most?
Roger Federer has a slew of records that would seemingly tilt this in his direction. His 10 and 8 consecutive major finals reached, 20 majors won, most total weeks at #1, and most consecutive weeks at #1 being his most impressive records. One could throw in Federer winning 5 consecutive Wimbledon and 5 consecutive US Open titles as Bjorn Borg got a lot of mileage out of winning 5 straight Wimbledon titles. There are a slew of other records too. I think Roger holding the most Wimbledon titles ever and being tied for the most US Open and most Australian Open titles ever is probably his most underreported accomplishment. Being the best or tied for the best at 3 of the 4 majors plus winning 1 Roland Garros title with 4 runner-up finishes in Paris gives Federer a strong slate of accomplishments.
Rafael Nadal’s 11 Roland Garros titles is a record so gaudy it has to be taken into account. Rafa also has as many non-clay major titles, 6, as Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. Rafa cannot be called a one trick pony. Nadal has more Davis Cup titles than Federer or Djokovic. Spain has admittedly had an Armada, but Stan Wawrinka has 3 majors in the era of the Oligopoly of the Big Three. Rafa has a gold medal in singles whereas Roger has a silver in singles and Nole a bronze in singles. Rafa has a gold in doubles like Roger and Stan. Rafa has a head-to-head advantage against Roger Federer and against nearly everyone else not named Novak Djokovic. Each week Rafa spends at #1 he slightly closes the gap Roger and Novak hold in overall weeks at #1. Rafa also has the most Masters 1000 Shields of all time.
If Rafa’s best case is his dominance of head-to-head series versus everyone but Djokovic, what about Nole? Novak Djokovic not only has that head-to-head advantage over Rafa, but unlike Rafa he has 5 World Tour Finals Titles to Rafa’s zero. Djokovic held all 4 majors in the same 52 week period! The Djokovic Slam or Nole Slam is to my mind the greatest accomplishment in men’s tennis history. Djokovic has had more overall clay court accomplishments than Federer and had more hard court, grass court, and indoor court accomplishments than Nadal.
My Verdict – Wait and See
Federer likely gets the nod due to having more all-time records than the other two. However, Djokovic has the best accomplishment in his Nole Slam. I’d rank Rafa’s 11 Roland Garros titles second for unreal accomplishments. This is not quantity vs quality as winning 20 majors or having the most total weeks ranked #1 is quality, but we are witnessing an unprecedented era for tennis accomplishments.
I think people can already make a pretty compelling case that Rafa should get the nod. I may not be convinced, but I would have to take it seriously.
Beyond that, we can project out that both Rafa and Novak could assemble a set of records before they retire that may surpass what Roger has amassed. They have the most time of the big three to add to their legacies, but Roger has already added a major, two other titles, and a few stints at #1 in 2018. So none of their historical hauls are stationary.
Why Wait Five Years?
Aside from all 3 players being moving historical targets, I am just bored by the debate. Acrimony flies between three fanbases on Twitter. I think bogging down in this debate makes appreciating at least two of the big three harder (depending on rooting interests). The Male Tennis GOAT has been debated since Sampras and Agassi clashed at the 1999 Wimbledon final and neither of them really places in the top 3 in 2018. What was the point of the debate in 1999? Not much as far as I can tell.
My current answers to my two questions are:
Best Level of Tennis Ever – Novak Djokovic 2015-6 months of 2016
Most Accomplished Tennis Player of All Time as of Today – Roger Federer
My Guess as to Where this Stands in 5 Years:
Best Level of Tennis Ever – The First or Second Great Post Big 3 Champion
Most Accomplished Tennis Player of All Time – Whomever of the Big Three Compiles the Most and Best Records with a few people arguing for Rod Laver
I will check back on this topic in 2023.