According to our proposed division, there are 4 types of achievements:
SUPER-HEAVYWEIGHT: achievements without which a player’s name could not be even mentioned
in the GOAT debate (multiple GS titles + multiple weeks/year-end finishes as
HEAVYWEIGHT: achievements that greatly boost a player’s candidacy (big titles);
MIDDLEWEIGHT: achievements that provide a subtler nuance to the discussion and, in
case of close contenders, make break the tie (tiebreakers);
Lightweight: achievements that, although very impressive, can never have the
strength to alter a verdict about the relative greatness of the players.
The first two (the big numbers) are mentioned in every discussion about
the GOAT. The last two normally comes into scene to heat the discussion up!
That division needs, of course, to be nuanced and gain further insight. However, it may already serve to help us select who our best possible candidates are.
First step: direct
Using (1), we can eliminate all players who don’t have these essential/sine-qua-non achievements and greatly reduce our list of candidates. The selected and remaining few will deserve our attention and the participation in the debate, either as a “leading” or a “supporting” actor.
Second step: the
Using (1) & (2) together, we will pair the selected candidates against each other & see if more potential candidates could be eliminated. A “clear” elimination would happen if and only if a candidate A has a better resume than candidate B beyond any reasonable doubt and argument (we shall explain more precisely what we mean by that).
STEP 1: DIRECT ELIMINATION
Let’s first select those players in the Open Era who satisfy our main condition (1), that is, select those who won multiple Grand Slam titles AND spent considerable time atop the rankings.
GRAND SLAM (GS) FILTER
First cut: in the Open Era, 54
different players won a GS title.
Second cut: of those 54, only 30
won multiple titles;
Third cut: of those 30, only 15
won at least five GS titles:
They are: Laver,
Newcombe, and Rosewall; Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Becker, Wilander,
Edberg, Sampras, Agassi, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.
First cut: from 1973 to present, only 26 players ranked as #1;
Second cut: of those 26, only 17
finished as #1.
Third cut: of those 17, only 12
have spent at least 52weeks atop the ranking.
They are: Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Courier, Sampras, Agassi, Hewitt, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.
Combining both filters, only 10
managed to (1) win at least 5 GS titles; (2) finish as year-end #1; and (3)
spend at least 52 weeks as #1.
As we can see, by following these two simple criteria we could quickly reduce
our number of GOAT contenders to only 10 players!
In the next step – the knock-outs
–, we’ll use the same two criteria to fine filter and further reduce our pool
STEP 2: THE KNOCK-OUTS
Let’s take this to next stage and see if, now using the criteria (1) & (2) combined, we can cleanly and clearly – i.e. without any shadow of controversy – reduce further our list of candidates.
Let’s call this stage “the knock-outs”: the survivors will be nominated
as the “true GOAT candidates” and hence deserve a more complete and thorough
analysis of their achievements.
Please, see next post: The GOAT candidates: The Fab Four (Selecting the GOAT candidates – the Knock-Outs).
 The computerised rankings
were introduced in 1973. Before that, a panel of experts elected the #1 player
at the end of the season. 1968-1969: Laver; 1970:
Laver/Rosewall (shared); 1971: Stan Smith/John Newcombe; 1972: Stan Smith.
 To those 10 players, we would certainly have to add Laver and Rosewall (and perhaps Newcombe), who won
more than 5 GS titles and spent considerable amount of time atop the rankings. However,
as a significant part of their careers took place before the Open Era, we found
more appropriate to analyse their resumes separately. We shall compare them
against each other and the winner will be able to face the Open Era winner. It’s a classic “divide & conquer”
IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT CRITERIA: THE “BIG NUMBERS” AND THE “TIEBREAKERS”
What's the real job here? Get our priorities – the main criteria – clearly stated. Which aspects of one's resume shall be more important? Which flaws counts more/less against each player?
should be clear by now, our first and foremost task is to find a set of hardcore, agreed-upon criteria so we can compare
the achievements of our beloved players.
“catch” obviously is to find criteria we can ALL agree… But one step at a time!
As a friend of mine well said, numbers are not
as objective and straightforward as one would want them to be. In order for the
numbers to have any meaning at all, we need to assign value to them.
A simple example to illustrate that is the hypothetical
Suppose player A has twenty ATP250 titles, but
no Grand Slam to his name, whereas player B has won only five ATP250 titles,
but managed to win one Grand Slam.
Which one has the better resume?
Everyone I asked that question answered
without hesitation: player B.
“Of course!” – you might be thinking. And you
may even add: “No amount of small titles (like ATP250) can replace or overcome
the glory of winning a Grand Slam!”. I couldn’t agree more. But in so doing, we have already made our minds about
the absolute superiority of Grand Slam titles versus smaller ones!
But what if I had said Masters 1000 instead of
Grand Slam? Or Masters 1000 instead of ATP250?
The answer wouldn’t be quite as easy and
And how about even trickier questions… 2 Grand
Slam titles + 8 finals versus 3 Grand Slam titles + 3 finals? What’s more
So, whereas the first question seems to have
an “obvious” answer (meaning “everyone agrees”), there are a bunch of other
questions and comparisons that aren’t so easily settled.
That shouldn’t surprise us.
With so many different numbers and statistics
to be analysed and taken into consideration, we actually should expect many doubts
and hesitations to happen.
And that’s why the first crucial step isreallyto establish some
criteria to guide us as to which numbers are more important, which
achievements have a deeper impact on a tennis player’s resume, on a tennis
Without that, unless a player had better
numbers in all possible categories – which is not the current case – we could
not even start to have a reasonable conversation about who’s got the best
numbers or the best set of achievements.
Only after this can we take the second crucial
step, that of defining how those big achievements fare relative to each other.
* * *
first idea here is to divide the achievements in TWO main categories: the BIG
NUMBERS & the TIEBREAKERS.
Each of them can then be divided in another two subcategories.
Let’s borrow some Boxing categories to help us illustrate their relative merit.
BIG NUMBERS comprise those career-defining achievements, the
kind of achievement that is mentioned in EVERY discussion about who is the
greatest, which means that
we don’t really consider someone as a GOAT candidate unless he’s got a very
strong performance in most, if not all, of those items.
can be divided in two subcategories: super-heavyweight and heavyweight.
(1) The SUPER–HEAVYWEIGHT achievements are the essential, sine-qua-non kind of achievements. They are the very foundation of the GOAT discussion in the sense that EVERYONE AGREES that they are indispensable in a player’s resume for him to be declared the GOAT.
Winning (multiple) Grand Slam (GS) and
Spending (multiple) weeks/year-end as #1.
to have a strong performance in those two immediately disqualifies the player
as a legitimate GOAT candidate.
the HEAVYWEIGHT achievements comprise
the other so-called “big titles”: the prestigious Tour Finals (TF) and the Master Series (MS). One could add Olympics and the “Alternative Tour Finals”
here, but one may wonder whether they would be a better fit in the TIEBREAKER/middleweight category.
case, they are also super
relevant achievements, but, being somewhat less important, they kind of gravitate
around the former, super-heavyweight, achievements.
basic difference between the super-heavyweight and the heavyweight is this:
player has not spent multiple weeks and/or finished the year multiple times as
#1 AND if he has not won multiple Grand Slams, then he cannot be seriously
considered a GOAT candidate.
Very simply put: bad performance at #1/GS
titles –> no GOAT.
if a player satisfies the “essential” condition above, he may still be
considered a plausible candidate even if he’s got some “flaws” in the “heavyweight”
other words, although everyone agrees that the heavyweight achievements are
immensely important in a player’s resume, very few would go on to say that a
weak(er) performance here entails direct disqualification as a GOAT candidate.
more concrete terms:
never won the Tour Finals, but that flaw alone doesn’t necessarily destroy his
has a (comparatively) poor performance in terms of MS titles, but that should
be judged in the light of his other (more) important achievements, such as his
record 6 times year-end finishes as #1.
the other hand, the fact that Nalbandian has won the Tour Finals and a few
Master Series does not make him a GOAT candidate since he never won a Grand
Slam and never reached the top of the rankings.
* * *
An important note
There can be no controversy over the super-heavyweight category. Everyone must agree that they are essential/indispensable requisites.
By this I mean the following.
If there is a significant controversy over the relevance of an aspect of a player’s resume, that should be enough to downgrade it, i.e, this aspect cannot be considered as essential.
Example: there could be people who think
that TF titles should be essential for the GOAT. But as that opinion is by no
means an unanimity, it has to be downgraded at least to the heavyweight
Attention for the
There may be SOME people (few, I believe) who consider having a
TF title (or even an Olympic Gold or Davis Cup title, or…) to be essential for
someone to be the GOAT.
But there are NO people who think
that one may be the GOAT without having won multiple slams or without having
spent considerable time atop the rankings!
In other words:
We can ALL
agree that there are at leasttwo essential (multiple GS and multiple
weeks/year-end as #1) requirements for a player to be the GOAT, even if SOME of us may think that the list of
the essential requirements should include some other items.
* * *
Minor controversy 1: Olympic Gold – a big number or a tiebreaker?
think very highly of an Olympic title and think a great deal of it. So, it
would be only natural to put it along the other big titles, like the Tour
Finals and Masters Series.
there is a line of argument that may downgrade if not its importance, at least
its decisiveness to the GOAT discussion.
main problem here is that it was not disputed by professional tennis players before
1988. That basically means that players like Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl
never quite had their chance to conquer a gold medal. So, how then to make this
a requisite for the GOAT?
could also add that it’s a tournament with restrictions as to the participation
of the athletes.
singles competitions, for instance, the top 56 players in the world
rankings are qualified for the Olympics. However, entry has been limited to four players from a
As each country can only send a limited number of athletes to compete, that means that not necessarily all the best players will compete in each tournament, reducing even if a little bit its competitiveness. Indeed, even if a country had 10 players with ranking to play, only 4 of them would be able to compete.
Finally, it’s held only every four years, so it’s not part of the regular calendar. If that, on one hand, definitely makes it more rare-therefore-more-valuable, on the other hand, that makes it less of an “obligatory” kind of achievement.
For those reasons, I would tend to think that although having an Olympic Gold is a great glory to achieve, it’s got to have only a secondary, complementary role in the GOAT discussion.
Minor controversy 2: Alternative Tour Finals – a big
number or a tiebreaker?
argument could be made to judge the relative importance of the so-called
Alternative Tour Finals (e.g. Dallas WCT and Grand Slam Cup).
Here there is also lack of standard and continuity, as it was not held uniformly during the whole open era.
Like the Tour Finals, they reunited the best players of the year.
Unlike the Tour Finals, they went extinct after 1999 (Dallas WCT from 1971 to 1989; Grand Slam Cup from 1990 to 1999).
So, players like Federer, Nadal, Djokovic never had the opportunity to have a shot at this particular achievement. This way, it’s a bit complicated to give McEnroe’s 5 titles at this category the same weight that have Lendl’s 5 titles at the classic Tour Finals (former Masters Cup).
Because of that I would say that the Alt. TF could be said to have a status somewhere between an ATP500 and a Masters 1000. Definitely more important than an ATP500, somewhat less important than a Masters 1000. But if we want to be generous, I’d have no quarrel giving them a status similar to the Masters 1000, as the (excellent site) The Ultimate Tennis Statistics does (http://www.ultimatetennisstatistics.com/) .
TIEBREAKERS – THE NUMBERS THAT MAY BREAK THE TIE
The next list of achievements is obviously also
important in a player’s resume although to a significant lesser extent. Those
feats and numbers are often mentioned in the discussions, but normally with a
“complementary kind of status”: as a bonus when they are good/better or
as a flaw
when they are bad/worse.
They come in the discussion to enrich one’s resume and, at most and in extreme cases, may serve to break the tie between two close contenders.
I’ll say (much) more about them later on, but let’s
quickly mention them here in no particular order:
GS finals, semi-finals and other records;
TF, MS finals, semi-finals and other records;
Olympics & Alternative Tour Finals performance;
Overall titles, finals and other records;
Davis Cup performance;
Weeks and year-end finishes in the top two/three/five/ten;
The “all-round” factor;
The “age factor” (precocity/longevity: youngest at, oldest at…)
The “peak performance” factor;
The H2H factor.
interesting thing about the “tiebreakers” is that, even if we have different
opinions as to which is more important in (or more damaging to) a particular
resume, we surely ALL agree that ANY of those stats are ONLY mentioned in the
GOAT debate AFTER the big numbers have been counted in.
gives me confidence to make the division between the “big numbers” and the
“tiebreakers” is that NO ONE would mention ANY of these last stats and numbers
UNLESS the player has already got very big numbers – as far as the GOAT is
concerned, of course, but that goes without saying.
Indeed, nobody will care to mention the winning
H2H Davidenko has against Nadal (6X5) because Davidenko is nowhere near the
the same line, the fact that Nicolas Massu has won
Olympic Gold – both in singles and doubles! – is irrelevant to the GOAT discussion
since he fails at having a single big title to his name.
those “smaller” numbers and stats are important and that can be used to
boost/damage someone’s candidacy, there can be little doubt about.
there should be little doubt that their role in the debate is more of a
secondary, complementary kind, if you will.
They are achievements
that provide a nuance to the discussion and, eventually, in cases where the
dispute is very close in terms of the big numbers, may help to “break the tie”
between the contenders.
* * *
Major controversy: HEAD-TO-HEAD
may have to be considered a special kind of factor, for several reasons.
Firstly, it’s the only
number/stat that doesn’t have the “transitiveproperty”.
all other cases, if player A has better numbers than player B and if player B
has better numbers than player C (at some category X), then A has better
numbers than C. In a word, concerning the category X, we can imply that A is
better than C.
doesn’t work like that for H2H comparisons. Player A may have a better H2H
against B and B may have a better H2H against C. But that doesn’t entail that A
has a better H2H against C!
a certain period, for instance, Nadal had a better H2H against Federer, who had
a better H2H against Djokovic, who had a better H2H against Nadal. Or, Nadal
has a better H2H against Federer, who has a better H2H against Davidenko, who
has a better H2H against Nadal.
the fact that Davidenko has a winning H2H against Nadal may teach us something
valuable about H2H comparisons. I’m certain that NOBODY would try and use this
to say that Davidenko is a better player than (or even in the same league as)
Nadal. However, this fact could give food to the following thought: why having
a losing record against Davidenko doesn’t – and shouldn’t – harm Nadal’s
candidacy to be considered the GOAT whereas having a losing record against
Nadal seems to harm Federer’s candidacy?
Secondly, it’s a number/stat
that doesn’t translate well in comparisons between players of different
generations. In all other cases, a number achieved by a certain player may be
achieved by other player, therefore they may be compared. Not so in the case of
H2H. Federer and Nadal’s rivalry is completely irrelevant to help judge their respective
merits as players relative to other players, especially players from another
generation, like Borg and Connors.
Anyway, as it is much cited and because of the huge polemics it often raises (yes, I’m thinking of FEDAL here), the H2H factor will deserve a lengthier discussion, even a separate chapter of its own.
actually consider the H2H stats as the most
misleading category of them all and precisely because of that I shall
dedicate special attention this topic, as it casts a dark shadow on many
instance, I hear many people go to extremes and give it a kind of “veto power”:
losing record against your main(s) adversary(ies) –> no GOAT. This is
especially mentioned in the case of Federer vs. Nadal. Ironically, Nadal’s fans
may want to change their minds now that Djokovic leads their H2H.
* * *
final subcategory could be mentioned here: the lightweight kind of achievements.
Those are the achievements that, although may be quite impressive – like having an 86-match winning streak on clay or surpassing the 10,000-aces mark –, will never have the strength to alter a verdict about the relative greatness of the players. They serve more as rhetorical additions to one’s curriculum. Here we could mention number of aces, different kinds of winning streaks, titles without losing a set, without being broken, youngest at or oldest at, most titles/finals/points in a season, etc. etc.
I personally would mention them more as interesting
curiosities than effectively count them as a relevant part in the GOAT debate.
However, as some people and sites mention them – and may even assign “GOAT points”
to them – I thought important to have them here.
As I have said before: my goal here is to find
some solid and durable agreements on the criteria used to assess a player’s career,
meaning that my personal opinion is only valid if it also finds echo and resonance
in others’ opinions too!
For instance, if I personally thought (it’s not
the case) that the Tour Finals should be considered the most important title in
a tennis player’s career, that would not matter much here because (very) few
people would agree with me.
In still other words: I’m not here on a “dictatorial/indoctrinating/imposing” kind of mission. Instead, I’m here more on a “compromising, mutual-persuasion, convergence-focused” kind of mission.
that’s why I welcome comments and suggestion at every step of the way!
* * *
In the next posts, I will face a more
difficult (i.e. controversial) task ahead:
To dissect each of those items and try to present arguments – pros and cons – concerning their respective values and importance to a player’s resume, to a player’s legacy.
Why “Tennis GOATs” if there is only ONE true GOAT?
Ok, ok, the title of this blog cannot be right!
There cannot be multiple GOATs, that doesn’t make sense.
There can be only ONE player that truly deserves the title
of THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME. This is a unique kind of glory, not to be shared,
there can be no tie in this contest.
I couldn’t agree more.
There is & there can only be one GOAT sitting atop the
HOWEVER – and this is a big however –, there can be multiple
opinions as to who is THE GOAT.
And that’s actually the current
case. Fans and tennis aficionados all over the world dispute and claim their
right to elect the true GOAT, each group pretending to have the final answer.
Now, our problem is precisely this: we don’t want this “holy” discussion to be a simple matter of opinion based
on personal preferences, like there were no solidcriteria to help
us judge who is the best player of them all.
In the current state of the
discussion, opinions seem to be divided in “fan groups”. There is no true
conversation and the only thing they agree is their right to disagree: “Nadal
is my GOAT, Federer is your GOAT, end of discussion”.
Now, I think we can definitely do better than that. And the key word here is CRITERIA.
I do believe there is a way – if not to reach a perfect consensus
– to lay down certain criteria as fundamental and, in doing so, we may lay down
the foundations for a more reliable
judgement as to who may
rightfully deserve to be called the GOAT.
And, fortunately for all of us who love this debate, there
are indeed very safe –
and agreed upon – criteria to help us decide who is the greatest of them all.
One small proof of the existence of such solid criteria is that, no matter how much we disagree
as to who is the GOAT, we rarely disagree
as to who can be a legitimate GOAT candidate.
There may be people who defend Sampras to be the GOAT, or
Federer, or Nadal, or Djokovic, or even Borg. But no one would dream to propose
Murray, Edberg, or Wilander – let alone Wawrinka or Davidenko – to be true GOAT candidates.
And why is that?
Because even if we haven’t reached a consensus as to who is
the greatest of them all, we have pretty much settled the main requisites, the main conditions the GOAT has to fulfill.
Generally speaking, a GOAT candidate must have accomplished in
his career a number of things that nobody else did. More than that: a number of
great things, of the greatest things a tennis player can aspire to achieve.
Now, what are those conditions, what are those agreed-upon criteria, what are those
achievements that a player must have in his resume to be a legitimate GOAT candidate?
In a word: what are the biggest prizes in the tennis world?
Now, it happens that we can all easily
agree on what the biggest prizes are.
Be the #1 player in the
world & winning Grand Slam titles (not necessarily in this order);
Winning other “big titles”
(like the Master Series and Tour Finals – some people may add the Olympics Gold
and, in a stretch of imagination, the Davis Cup).
Indeed, there can be little doubt
that the two greatest achievements for a tennis player are to win a Grand Slam crown
and to sit atop the rankings, to be the best player in the world. Sure, there may
be people who think that having more Grand Slam titles is more important than having
more weeks as #1, or vice-versa, but no
one will say that there are higher glories than those.
The same can be said about the next big prizes. There is in
fact very-little-to-none disagreement as to which tournaments qualifies as “Big
This may seem trivial to say, but this represents the basic
and sole foundation upon which to build our arguments – our cases – as to who legitimately can be said the GOAT.
Straightforward, and useful, conclusions
from this are:
No Grand Slam titles or no weeks/year-end as #1 = not a GOAT candidate.
No relevant records in terms of Slams titles, weeks/year-end as #1, and/or other big titles = not a GOAT candidate.
In other words, to even be mentioned in the GOAT conversation,
the player has to show in his resume something
unique, something no one else has achieved in those top categories. And I
think we can ALL agree on that.
And by agreeing on that, we immediately and dramatically reduce our list of candidates to a handful:
Federer, Sampras, Nadal, and Djokovic.
Not necessarily in that order.
Federer is the current leader in both Grand Slam titles and weeks as #1. To many, this should be the decisive criterion to elect him as the GOAT.
Sampras is the only player not only to have finished atop the rankings 6 times, but did so consecutively. That unprecedented dominance could well boost his case as the GOAT.
Nadal is the only player to have multiple Slam titles in all surfaces, as well as an Olympic gold. He’s also the current leader in Master Series’ titles, besides edging Federer in H2H. Some believe that this is good enough to make him the GOAT.
Djokovic is the only player to have won every one of the so-called Big Titles, has a winning H2H against both Nadal and Federer, and may be said to have dominated the tennis world in its arguably most competitive era. One could claim that this outweighs his having less Slam titles than Federer and Nadal.
Disagreements apart, it’s very clear that each of those four
players have achieved (great) things that no other player has. And because of
that, they can be said legitimate GOAT candidates.
But let’s digress a little bit here and ask ourselves what
exactly does it mean to consider them as legitimate GOAT candidates?
For starters, it means (1) that a solid case can be built for each one of them and (2) that it’s not easy (this in an understatement!) to reach a consensus, even after examining all kind of arguments and stats about their careers.
But why can’t we find a consensus, why is it so hard?
Because – and this is crucial – depending on the relative value
we assign to each set of achievements, the verdict as to who is the GOAT
Let’s break this down.
We all easily agree that winning multiple Slams and being #1
and winning other big titles is crucial for the GOAT.
But when no player is better than the others in every possible category, that’s when we have to start assigning relative value to each of their achievements, that’s when we have to start asking “what’s worth more, X or Y?
Being #1 or winning Grand Slams? Weeks or Year-End #1? Overall or consecutive? Being the first in Slams and having a losing H2H or being the second with a winning H2H record? How crucial is to have won the four different Grand Slams to be the GOAT? How valuable is to win all Big Titles? What’s the role of multiple finals, semi-finals and other lesser records when judging their overall achievements? Should we assign “points” to every achievement and the one who’s amassed more points is declared the GOAT? But how many points is a Grand Slam title worth? A final? A week as #1? As top 10? A Tour Finals title?
And what about the flaws? How bad is not having achieved something? Not having a winning H2H against all
opponents? Not having won all Grand Slams? Not having won a Tour Finals? Not…?
As we can see, we can all easily agree on which achievements are the greatest and crucial in the GOAT’s resume. The trouble starts when we have to decide their relative merits!
why I decided for the “S” in the title.
Although there can be only ONE GOAT, and although we can all agree on the hard-core criteria the GOAT needs to fulfill, different people may end up reaching different verdicts depending on subtle divergences when assigning values to those most celebrated achievements.
So, the “S”
is not to imply that they can all be simultaneously declared GOATs.
it’s to point out that, depending on how we finely interpret those hard-core
criteria, each of them could – separately – be elected the GOAT.
of the blog is “The Tennis GOATs”, but it would perhaps be more accurate to say
“The potential Tennis GOATs”!
would be less catchy, wouldn’t it? 😉
* * *
Please allow me to be somewhat repetitive and spell my conclusion out.
There are hard-core criteria that the GOAT must fulfill:
he must have a unique collection of the greatest tennis achievements;
we can ALL agree on which the greatest achievements are.
Within this primordial agreement on the greatest achievements, there might be disagreements as to their relative merits:
These disagreements can lead to different verdicts as to who the GOAT is;
However, based on (1), we can reduce our list of potential GOATs to as few as four candidates.
Once a person commits to a certain interpretation, to a certain way of assigning values to the different set of achievements, he/she has no choice but to say: based on that interpretation, “X is the true GOAT” (and not Y, or Z);
This implies that the four of them cannot be, simultaneously, declared GOATs;
This also means that the verdict reached is not a “relativistic” one: declaring “X is the GOAT” excludes all the others.
In the end, we may not reach a consensus as to who the GOAT is, but we can certainly hope to pinpoint, as clearly as possible, where our views diverge. And that is no small feat. I invite you all to this journey!
 Laver could be mentioned as the fifth. But as I wrote elsewhere, since many of Laver’s achievements were attained before the Open Era, I decided to leave him out of the main discussion and dedicate a special post/chapter to him.
A few nostalgic fans could also propose Borg as a legitimate candidate based on the premise that “if he hadn’t retired, he would have…”. I’ll address this kind of argumentation and try to show that not even using it would Borg be able to beat, for instance, Nadal’s resume. I feel confident that this will leave no controversy worth mentioning.
 What about the other greats, like Agassi, Connors, McEnroe, or Lendl? As great as they may be, upon close examination it’s not too hard to see that they clearly have a lesser set of achievements than the selected four, meaning by that that for every great thing they achieved, one of those four achieved more or better. I’ll extensively cover that base in other posts/chapters.
The discussion about the tennis GOAT – the greatest of all time – is prone to raise huge polemics. And this is true not only for tennis but for whichever sport you choose to debate!
One tends to be discouraged by many obstacles:
How to compare players of different generations?
How to compare their respective qualities, their respective achievements?
Because of all the difficulties involved – and they are many –, there are those who argue that this is a silly, unreasonable or even impossible discussion.
But is it?
Well, it all depends on how you think about the question, on how the comparison is to be made, on which criteria are to be used.
There are people who imagine that the discussion about the GOAT is a sort of an imaginary tournament, where all the greatest players of each generation play against each other. In this scenario, the GOAT would be the one to win the tournament.
Now, how to pick who would win a match between, say, Laver vs. McEnroe, Borg vs. Ashe, Federer vs. Connors, Lendl vs. Nadal, Djokovic vs. Rosewall, Sampras vs. Pancho Gonzales?
Now, this truly seems to be an impossible thing to decide, an implausible task to accomplish!
How could one possibly tell – or at least establish reasonable criteria under which to decide – who would perform better in this imaginary tournament?
Different generations, different styles, different equipment (rackets, balls), different courts, even different physical possibilities…
How could we even start the discussion?
Laver has the best backhand, McEnroe the best net game, Nadal’s the best athlete, Borg has the best mind-set, Sampras the best serve, Djokovic the best all-round game? And could we even hope to agree on who’s got the best what?
How could anyone find a way to, by analysing the different and complex qualities of a player, decide which player has the “better set of qualities”?
If the discussion takes this direction, I agree, I don’t see how we could possibly reach any kind of consensus!
I love sports and no wonder I love spending time speculating on all kinds of things: who is the best soccer player of all time: Pele or Messi (or Di Stefano, Garrincha, Puskas, Maradona, Ronaldo)? Who is the best Formula 1 driver: Senna or Schumacher (or Piquet, Prost, Fangio, Lauda)? The best basketball/volleyball player? Who would be in your dream team: in soccer, volley, or basketball?
All those discussions are fun to have and spend time on, but the first thing I realised is: how difficult it is for people to agree! And this is so even when we have people with (apparently) similar lines of thought.
So the next thing I realised is: we can never reachaconsensus – whichever the subject may be – if we don’t agree, beforehand, on the criteria we are going to use to judge the respective assets involved in the debated topic.
GOAT in soccer/football
Let’s spare a few minutes here and indulge ourselves in speculating on who is the best soccer player of all time.
Now, we could start the discussion by selecting a few legends everyone would agree to be among the greatest: Leonidas, Garrincha, Pele, Di Stefano, Puskas, George Best, Cruiff, Zico, Maradona, Ronaldo, Messi, to name a few.
But after that, how could we go on when two or more people disagreed?
For example, how are we to decide whether Pele or Messi is the better player?
By analysing their respective qualities such as the ability of dribbling, shooting, passing, assisting, scoring?
By analysing and comparing their numbers and achievements, such as goals scored, assists, titles?
Any discussion would obviously have to contemplate all those things, but I’m sure the reader already sees where the problem lies.
The first criteria, for example, are far too subjective, and it seems very hard – if not impossible – to find a common ground we can all agree on.
If I say/think that Messi dribbles better than Pele, whereas one friend is convinced that Pele is the best and another one chooses Ronaldo instead… how could we try to persuade each other? Which kind of (more) objective arguments or evidence could we give in support of our respective opinion? We could watch as many videos as we wanted and I bet no agreement would ever be reached!
Resortingtonumbers would seem to be a good move, for numbers bring a more objective kind of data. After all, there can be no doubt that Pele scored more goals or won more important titles than Messi or any of the others in that list. Actually, there’s this famous response Pele gave to a reporter when asked, provocatively, who was the best, Maradona or him: “when Maradona scores more than 1,000 goals and wins 3 World Cups, he can come and talk to me”.
But should numbers settle the question so easily? And, maybe more to the point: which numbers are or would be able to help?
The first and obvious problem here is the fact that soccer is a collective sport and hence it does not seem to be completely fair or appropriate to solely judge a player’s merit based on accomplishments that were reached as/by/in a team.
Indeed, based solely on the “important titles criterion”, for instance, Brazilian Cafu – with two World Cup titles in three finals – would be considered a (far) better player than Argentinian Messi. However, nobody who understands just a little bit of soccer would be capable of uttering such blasphemy!
But there are other difficulties to take the numbers “at face value”, even considering only the more individual achievements, such as goals scored.
The average number of goals scored in a match before the seventies was far higher than in today’s game, which could raise the question whether a goal scored back then should have the same value as a goal scored today.
On a similar reasoning, one could raise the question whether a goal scored in the Spanish Premier League (or Portuguese, Turkish, Japanese…) should be worth the same as one scored in the Italian or English ones, when all the stats point out to the fact that goals in the latter are scarcer than goals in the former.
Obviously a “mix and match” of both subjective and objective criteria could be used, but… how much weight would we give to each?
We are also all well aware that numbers don’t “speak by themselves”, that numbers need to be interpreted to mean something. But what do we do in those cases when it’s not even obvious how to interpret them?! Can anyone think of a clear – and persuasive – way of balancing all available criteria in the cases above-mentioned? The collective aspect, as well as the wild variation in the strength of the different leagues in different countries are definitely complicating factors in judging a player’s achievements!
The only sure thing in all of this is that if people are unable to reach an agreement as to the criteria, then there’s really no way to agree on all the rest.
GOAT in Formula 1
What about other sports, say, Formula 1?
Who is the best: Schumacher or Senna? Fangio or Prost? Lauda or Piquet?
Schumacher has the obvious edge in terms of titles and other numbers and records, but Senna died young and could be thought of as being capable of the same (or even bigger) exploits.
On the other hand, one could argue that after the 1990’s Formula 1 has become more a race of the constructors than of the drivers: whoever has the best car wins, in stark contrast with the previous decades, when up to five different drivers from up to five different constructors would fight to the last race to see who would be crowned the champion.
Indeed, when a driver is able to win (more than) half of the season’s grand prix, should we ascribe this (more) to his talent or to his car?
And the reverse question: when, in a season, the driver managed to be the champion with only a few wins and a lot of second/third places, should this equilibrium among the candidates count for or against the champion?
Nelson Piquet’s case is an interesting one.
Prost and Piquet were contemporaries for most of their careers and their rivalry started in an era when there seemed to be more “true competition” among the constructors and, therefore, drivers. However, despite the fact that Piquet got his third title before Prost got his second, Piquet is never mentioned in any top-five list of the best of all time, whereas Prost is in almost all lists… Go figure!
Anyway, Formula 1 is also a very difficult sport to use numbers as the sole (or main) criterion because – and we all agree at least on that! – the quality of the car has (at least) as an important role in a driver’s success as his talent.
Ok, we all also know that the best driver has a fundamental role in developing a car and we all also know that the best driver tends to get hired by the best constructor. However, that did not prevent us from seeing Damon Hill being crowned champion in 1996… And I guess, here too, we can all agree that he was far from being the best driver back then!
Now, what about tennis?
Of course, here too there are pitfalls.
Nevertheless, here we have, to start with, at least onecrucial advantage: it’s a one-against-one sport, where, moreover, no player can blame lack of access to the best available equipment for not having achieved success in his career. Indeed, we can without fear say that any player within the top 100 can use the best equipment money can buy and an athlete can wish for.
In that case, it seems fair to conclude that their “objective” achievements – titles, #1 awards, and other records – are a suitable way of assessing his overall success and, therefore, their quality/efficiency of play.
Now, this is a very important point, so let’s not be afraid of being redundant and repetitive here.
Normally, in informal discussions about who is the best, it’s common to focus on a player’s individual and observable qualities, such they are presented in a match: backhand, forehand, serve, footwork, mind-set, physical capacity… you name it!
This is a fascinating and amusing debate to take part in and I personally love it! But it is also a dead-end when it comes to more manifold comparisons.
There is no way for two people, even with slight differences of opinion, to reach a consensus based solely on these so-called subjective criteria on who is the best player. For one reason: it’s already very hard for two people to reach consensus as to which player is the best at any specific criterion – say, the best serve –, let alone as to who has the best set of such different qualities!
Do you think I am a pessimistic person? Ask ten friends (or read ten renowned tennis critics) about which player has the best backhand/forehand/serve/etc./etc. Now compare their answers. Now try and take into consideration the opinion of the people who are older and also saw the players of yore. Reached any consensus? Good luck! As the French say: “autant de têtes, autant d’avis” (as many minds, as many opinions).
Does that mean that we should then give up? Not at all!
The good (thegreat) thing about tennis is that we can – and should – rely on the following premise: all the qualities (or lack of them) a tennis player possesses, they will – inexorably – be reflected in his accomplishments. If a tennis player is good, by the end of his career, he’ll have won a few titles. If he’s very good, he’ll have won many and important titles. If he’s one of the greats, this will accordingly be translated in many unique achievements and records.It cannot get any simpler than that!
Unlike soccer, where you can blame your National team for not having won a World Cup during your career, or Formula 1, where you can blame your car or team, there is no such excuse in the tennis world. If you fail to win tournaments, to reach #1 in the world, to put your name on the records books, there’s no one you can blame… but yourself. It might be your mind or your body that fails you. Or both. But, in the end, it’s you and only you.
It’s the whole of you that will succeed; it’s the whole of you that will fail.
The same body that allows you to make astonishing things on court is the same one that may get injured; the same mind that allows you to keep your cool inside the court is the same one that may prevent you from training hard or even urge you to quit your career abruptly.
So, although it’s very intuitive – and almost irresistible – to imagine that your idol could’ve won more titles “if his body/mind/whatever hadn’t let him down”, it’s neither practical nor fair to indulge in such speculations.
You may say it was bad luck and it might well have been. But listen: you did not complain when he accomplished off-the-chart feats because of this very body/mind duo.
An athlete is both his body and his mind. They are both needed to make him great. It can take either of them to make his ruin.
At any case, we are not here to discuss “unfulfilled talents” or players that could be/have been better or could have reached higher levels if…
There are no “ifs” in the history books!
Anyway, what we observe in tennis is that we appear to have this ideal situation, where the whole set of qualities of an athlete, mind-and-body-in-all-their-intricate-and-complex-interactions, will invariably be translated into titles and other kind of (measurable) achievements.
So, here’s thefirst and crucial move by means of which we may somewhat escape the pitfalls of the more subjective discussions and criteria: instead of talking about a player’s multiple qualities, we’ll talk directly about what he (has) achievedbecause of those qualities.
Instead of talking about style, beauty of play, separate strengths such as observed in his backhand/forehand/footwork/mind-set… we are going to talk about his feats and triumphs, namely his titles, records, and awards.
So we will not worry or speculate about why a player achieved what he achieved. We will talk about and reason on the fact that he did. We will list and count what he did accomplish, how many titles he won, how many weeks/years he spent as #1, how many records he’s got to his name. And then and only then rightly conclude that he achieved that much because he was incredibly talented. The more success, the more talent (and work ethic).
Obviously, we may want to mention or talk, here and there, about certain specific attributes and qualities of a player – Federer’s beautiful footwork or Nadal’s incredible mental strength – but if and whenever we do that it’ll be only to illustrate or complement the scenario, never as part of the underlying criteria.
What about comparing players of different generations?
This first move – achievements as the ultimate proof of talent/efficiency – is key to our purposes. However, this does not mean that we don’t have challenges ahead of us. We still have to answer some tough questions, and one of the most difficult is:
Are the achievements within a generation really comparable to the achievements within another generation?
This is a tricky and fair question to ask.
Indeed, we all have the right to wonder why or if merely listing the achievements of a particular player is a good way of measuring his (relative) success among players of different generations.
Now if, by “really comparable” you mean an “absolute” criterion to reach an “absolute” conclusion, then the answer is, obviously, “no”.
But then, I guess, you are the kind of guy who should rather be in the metaphysics business, not here. In metaphysics, you can wonder whether Achilles will overtake the tortoise in a race, but in real life, the tortoise always finishes second!
Jokes aside, if you are the “absolute” kind of guy, for whom it’s “either perfection or nothing”, then surely this book is not for you, and I’m really sorry for that.
It’s not our intention – or pretension – to have the final and absolute word on the matter.
Instead, this book is for those (like myself) who think that we can reach a reasonable, educated conclusion – even if not perfect – when we base our reasoning on solid evidence and judicious, practical criteria. That’s our aim here.
Let’s not close this parenthesis quite yet, for it is very important to clarify things so nobody gets frustrated in the end.
For that matter, as important as saying what I do intend to accomplish here is saying what I donotintend to accomplish.
– I’m not comparing backhands, forehands, footwork, service, or beauty of style.
– I’m not comparing or speculating about athleticism, mind power, under or over-achievements, sheer talent, or artfulness.
– I’m not taking into consideration speculations about what could have happened if… he hadn’t retired, got injured, married or had children…
It’s not that those facts and factors are not important. They are. Very.
But a crucial premise in this book is that, for all their subtle complexity, those facts and factors will inevitably be reflected in a player’s global achievements. And global achievements, of course, translate themselves into titles and records, into numbers and stats!
So our strategy is that, instead of engaging in those complex, multi-faceted, and subjective-tainted debates, we’ll try to simplify and “cut to the chase”.
So instead of discussing and debating, as separate topics, the different qualities a player may or may not have, we’ll discuss the consequences, the result of all those qualities putinto action, that is, how those qualities and characteristics transform themselves into titles, finals, weeks as #1, etc.
By analysing how they translate (or not) into numbers – and most importantly into the big numbers (e.g. Grand Slams titles, weeks/year-end as #1) – we may be able, in the end, to build up our evidences as to how dominant a certain player is/was over the adversaries of his own generation.
I do apologise if I repeated myself here, but when I talked about this project to friends the misunderstandings about what I didn’t intend to do sometimes robbed their attention and prevented them from analysing and judging what I do intend to do.
Parenthesis closed, back to our question.
Are the achievements within a generation really comparable to the achievements within another generation?
Leaving aside the stubbornness of the “absolute-seekers”, I do believe we have very good reasons to answer positively to that question.
And the main reason I vouch for that is:
Whenever a player wins a title, it means that he was better, at that tournament, than all his adversaries of the moment.
Whenever a player is the #1 in the rankings, it also means that he was better, or more consistent if you prefer, than all his adversaries during the past 52 weeks.
So titles, records, rankings, and other numeric achievements are, all of them, a pretty good way of keeping track of how dominant a player is/was in his own time, in his own generation. So the more dominant a player is/was, the more titles and records and weeks as #1 he will have written in his resume, in his CV.
In a word, the better, the more dominant a player is, the better numbers he will have compared to his peers.
So what else, what better could we ask from the GOAT than to have the best resume among all the players that ever played the game?
Comparisons and uniformity of data
Before we proceed, we have to face one more problem, a big one.
As a sine-qua-non prerequisite for any comparison to succeed, we’ve got to have someuniformity along the period studied.
If we are to use titles and records of the players as our basic evidence, it is crucial that a title, say, of a Grand Slam, obtained in 1920 involves as much difficulty as a title obtained in 1980 or 2010.
The question that concerns us is:
Do we have such uniformity along the different generations, along the different eras?
Now, I do think we have very, very good reasons to assume that this “uniformity requirement” is satisfactorily met in the case of the Open Era, that is, the period that started in 1968 when the distinction between amateurs and professionals ceased to matter, meaning that the participation at any tournament was from then on permitted – open – to any player.
After the Open Era, especially after ATP started the computerised rankings, we have indeed reached a sort of “standardisation of the game” – in terms of tournaments, rules, rankings, competition – so it seems to be a fair assumption that all achievements within this era are very much “comparable”.
So when a player wins a Grand Slam, it means that he won one of the four most coveted tournaments of the year. It means that he prevailed where the other players – the very best competition at that moment– failed, despite all their desire and effort.
So if a player won a Grand Slam in 1980, or 1990, or 2000, we are well supported in assuming that those titles have the same symbolic value, that is,the value of having triumphed among the best competition available at the time. And the same reasoning applies to other titles and achievements, respecting, naturally, their respective importance and difficulty.
It’s in that sense that winning a Grand Slam will obviously have more importance than winning a Masters Series or an ATP500/250 (I’ll get back to that), as well as (if less obvious) being the #1 shall have more importance than winning a Grand Slam (I’ll also get back to that).
Now, if a player did that – if he won Grand Slams etc. and was ranked #1 –, not only once, but multiple times; and not only multiple times, but more times than his peers, we might well be tempted to say that he was not only a great player, but the greatest.
* * *
Now the tricky part: what about the pre-Open Era, about the period we could call the Pro-Amateur Era?
Do we find a “smooth-enough” continuity of standards from that era to the Open one?
And here the answer unfortunately is: not quite.
As the name suggests, the Pro-Amateur Era (before 1968) is a time when the field was divided between amateurs and professional players, meaning that there were Grand Slams to be played only by amateurs and Grand Slams (the so-called Pro-Slams) to be played only by professionals.
Or, that immediately makes one raise an eyebrow for it entails that (1) the best players at a certain point may not be contesting the same tournaments, in which case (2) the overall level of the competition/difficulty of the tournaments concerned is consequently and proportionally lowered.
Surely that wouldn’t be a true problem if, say, the professional players were always and indisputably the best of the field, or vice-versa. But that was not the case, not at all.
There were too many situations where some of the biggest names of the game were professionals whereas some other big names played as amateurs.
So we have this situation where the best players in the world were split between the two categories and, as a result, often the very best players were not competing at the same time, at the biggest and most important tournaments.
But let’s not speak in the abstract, let’s give concrete examples. And I think the perfect example is this:
Three of the biggest legends of the sport – Rosewall, Emerson, and Laver – never competed (at their prime) at the same tournament, not at least until the Open Era began!
Or, if we are reminded that the three of them, all combined, account for 55(!) Grand Slam titles (in 83 finals), we may have a pretty good idea of what was at stake.
So the problem of taking into consideration the data before 1968 is not as much a matter of being Amateur versus being Pro; it’s a matter of answering the following question: when a player won his biggest titles, did he play against the best possible adversaries at that time?
And in the case of the Pro-Amateur Era, the answer is, unfortunately, “no”.
Let’s take a quick look at the table below so you can draw your own conclusions.
First of all, we can immediately notice that these three greats didn’t quite compete for the big prizes simultaneously, at least not in their prime years (prime years = at least a grand slam final reached).
Let’s break this table down and get some startling facts.
Emerson: he won 12 Slams, all as an amateur, but in 10 of those (1963-1967) he did not have to face neither Rosewall nor Laver. In the other 2, he didn’t face Rosewall.
Rosewall: In 8 of his 15 major titles as a professional (1957-1962), he didn’t have to face neither Laver nor Rosewall. He never played against Emerson in his (Emerson’s) best years.
Laver: he won 6 majors as an amateur without having to face Rosewall and in his 9 titles as a professional he didn’t play Emerson.
To grasp the full dimension of this, it may suffice to add:
Without facing neither Emerson nor Laver, Rosewall went undefeated in majors’ finals;
The 3 finals that Emerson lost, he lost to Laver;
The 2 finals that Laver lost, he lost to Emerson.
The duo Laver-Emerson won 7 of the 8 Slams of that period (French Open 1961 was the exception).
Without facing neither Rosewall nor Laver, Emerson went undefeated in Grand Slam finals, amassing 10 of his 12 GS titles;
The 5 finals that Rosewall lost, he lost to Laver;
The 6 finals that Laver lost, he lost to Rosewall.
The duo Rosewall-Laver won all 16 pro-majors of that period (Wimbledon Pro was held only in 1967, hence 16 Pro Slams in that period, not 20).
What is to be made up of this?
That those three are among the greatest players of all time, there can be no doubt.
Nevertheless, it’s also indisputable that some of their greatest titles were achieved without some of the best competition then available.
Now it does not take a genius to conclude that if the three of them were competing at the same time at the same majors, their final tally of titles would be less than their actual numbers.
So what I am saying is:
Whereas in the Open Era we can assume that:
(1) all the best players are competing against each other and, therefore;
(2) to win a Grand Slam a player has to beat the best of the best at that time;
the same does not hold true in the case of the Pro-Amateur Era.
Now, two important consequences from that:
Winning a Grand Slam in the pre-Open Era – be it a pro-major or an amateur major – cannot have the same value than winning it in the Open Era.
In other words, it would, then, be a crucial error of judgement to take the Slam titles obtained during the Pro-Amateur Era at “face-value” and give them the same status/difficulty as they’ve come to have during the Open Era.
And because of that, we decided that the pre-Open Era data should be analysed separately from and interpreted under a different light than the Open Era data.
* * *
A silly thought experiment
If we want to extend this reasoning, we could try a little “thought experiment”.
Let’s imagine that something of the sort happened during the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic rivalry during the period between 2003 and 2018.
In that period:
Federer amassed 20 titles and 10 more finals. Of those 10 lost finals, he lost 9 to either Nadal (6) or to Djokovic (3).
Nadal amassed 17 titles and 7 more finals. Of those 7 lost finals, he lost 6 to either Federer (3) or Djokovic (3).
Djokovic amassed 14 titles and 9 more finals. Of those 9 lost finals, he lost 5 to either Federer (1) or Nadal (4).
Now, let’s imagine that Federer was an Amateur from 2003 to 2005, a “Pro” between 2006 and 2011, and Amateur again from 2012 to 2018.
Let’s imagine that Nadal was an amateur from 2003 to 2015 and a pro from 2016 to 2018.
And let’s imagine that Djokovic was an amateur from 2003 to 2008 and a “Pro” from 2009 to 2018.
We would then have a table like this:
Here, for the sake of the argument, we are assuming that a final lost to either of the rivals would be converted to a title.
So, for instance, during the period 2006-2008, Federer won 7 titles and made another 4 finals, all of them lost to Nadal (3 in Roland Garros, 1 in Wimbledon). Without Nadal in his path, we could speculate that Federer would have 11 titles in that period.
Applying this reasoning to the whole period (see table above), where Federer doesn’t face Nadal during 2006-2011 and doesn’t face Djokovic in 2006-2008 and 2012-2015, Federer would jump from 20 to 28 titles !
Similarly, Nadal would jump from 17 to 22, whereas Djokovic would jump his tally from 14 to 19 titles!
In this surreal scenario, it’s not difficult to imagine that any of them — Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic — would have many, many more Slam titles if they didn’t have to face each other in certain key years or tournaments.
Now… Does it sound a little bit far-fetched? It most certainly does! But in a way, that was precisely what happened in the Rosewall-Laver-Emerson years, when they were not competing against each other at the same time!
This — certainly silly — thought experiment has only one, and easy, point to be made.
Without your main adversaries on the battlefield, having (many) more titles in your resume would be the natural consequence.
Or, that’s precisely what happened in Laver, Rosewall and Emerson’s careers.
Although that cannot be used to prevent them from being among the greatest, it’s a plausible enough reason so as not to take all their Pre-Open-Era numbers and titles at “face value”.
Mind you, I amnot here saying that we should consider that Federer has 28 GS titles instead of his actual 20, or Nadal 22 instead of his actual 17. Not at all. But I am saying that the titles — and other records — obtained in the so-called “Pro-Amateur Era” should have less weight than the ones obtained after the Open Era. And that’s basically why I decided not to include Laver (or Rosewall) as GOAT candidates here (although, later on, I shall dedicate a special chapter/post to Laver’s feats).
* * *
SUMMING THINGS UP…
make things simple.
GOAT is not about some absolute measure or standard. There’s none.
The GOAT is very simply about who’s got the best resume, about who was the most dominant player within his own time.
let’s add: the best resume in the history of tennis until this present moment. So,
at any point, a player who was once considered the GOAT might lose his title.
why is that people cannot agree on who’s got the best resume in tennis?
simply: because there’s no player with a flawless resume.
Federer has a terrible H2H against Nadal; Sampras never made a final in Roland Garros; Nadal spent far less weeks atop the ranking; etc. etc.
So, what’s the real job here?
and get our priorities – the main criteria – clearly stated.
Which aspects of one’s resume shall be more valuable?
flaws counts more or less against each player?
In other words: our main task here is to discuss and establish the main criteria after which we are going to assess each player’s resume. Does it sound a good strategy?
do hope so.
those who also agree and are curious about it, please follow along!
A quick reminder:
This is an open, live work.
By that I mean not only that every year I may have to update the relevant numbers and stats of the players here concerned, but also that I may be persuaded by some of you that the criteria here used are not quite as sound or all-encompassing as I first thought.
So let me here and now thank you all who are willing to give me feedback!
Should any one want to criticise, comment, or eventually make a compliment 😉 about any of these posts/chapters, please write to email@example.com and I’ll be more than please to answer your questions or discuss your arguments with you.
And last but not least: I hope you’ll all enjoy. I did!
 Maybe with one unfortunate exception: Monica Seles, who was stabbed by a coward man. I have no words to express my anger related to this episode.
 In the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, Achilles is in a footrace with the tortoise. Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 meters, for example. If we suppose that each racer starts running at some constant speed (one very fast and one very slow), then after some finite time, Achilles will have run 100 meters, bringing him to the tortoise’s starting point. During this time, the tortoise has run a much shorter distance, say, 10 meters. It will then take Achilles some further time to run that distance, by which time the tortoise will have advanced farther; and then more time still to reach this third point, while the tortoise moves ahead. Thus, whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has farther to go. Therefore, because there are an infinite number of points Achilles must reach where the tortoise has already been, he can never overtake the tortoise.
Whoever is passionate about sports has most certainly spent dozens of hours talking, arguing – fighting! – over who’s the best in their respective fields. Pelé, Maradona, or Messi? Schumacher, Prost or Senna? Tom Brady or Patrick Manning? Sometimes, the discussion is not even about who’s the best of them all. Sometimes, we spent hours discussing about who’s the best of the decade, the best you had the luck to watch, or just who’s the better one of two players…
The sheer love for sports makes us engage in those endless, pointless discussions where no agreement can be ever reached… But wait a minute… Endless, pointless? That’s much too pessimistic!
True, reaching a consensus in such passionate matters is like finding the Holy Grail, but why is that, why should that be? At least this is a question for which there’s a simple and straightforward answer: lack of common and trusted criteria.
Yes, it’s that simple. Because/when people don’t agree on which criteria should be the most important to judge the competitors, how could they possibly agree on who’s the winner?
Normally, there are so many different aspects and talents and qualities involved in each sport that no wonder we get a bit lost midway the conversation!
Tennis is certainly no exception to that.
Well, we certainly don’t want get lost going back and forward, from one argument to another, where each person seems able to nitpick their favourite aspect to make a case for their favourite player.
Nowadays – and I mean 2018 –, it may be hard not to pick Federer or Nadal as the GOAT, but one could also try and make a solid case for Djokovic and Sampras, not to mention Laver (if we want to complicate matters and extend our time-frame to before the Open Era). Whichever the preferred player, though, the answer always comes with a lot of passion and no argument seems to be able to settle the matter.
So, precisely to avoid that, we shall start by “cleaning the area” before we start to build anything up: we shall start by defining and setting the main criteria that will hopefully help us reach a more sensible, “common-ground” decision.
But hey, listen, I’m not naive – or arrogant – enough to intend to settle the discussion for good, but I do have an ambitious goal: establish a set of parameters or criteria to guide our discussion in such a way that, in the end, two people may still not agree with each other, but they will know (more) precisely about what and why they disagree. And that is no small feat.
* * *
So, the first important thing is to know just what the discussion is about:
What does it mean to be the GOAT?
What does it mean to assert that a certain player is the best tennis player of all times?
There are people who say that the discussion is useless and argue that it’s impossible to compare players from different generations. Well, if you are one of those people who think that way, I’m sorry, but this book is not for you. This book, instead, is for all of us who think it’s fun to try and compare the different players from whichever generation they belong to. It’s especially for those who want to find a (more) solid common ground on which to build their case for their favourite player.
Basically, we’re here assuming that (1) we can do such comparison if we choose well our criteria and (2) it’s super fun to do it!
A few guidelines will be useful for us.
Ideally, the GOAT would be the best in every possible criterion one can come up with. But as we all know, that’s not the case. Federer has more slams; Sampras has more #1 year-end finishes; Laver completed the Grand Slam twice; Nadal has less slams than Federer, but has an Olympic Gold and a better head-to-head; Djokovic has less slams than Nadal and Federer, but is the only player to have won every Big Title available and may be said to have achieved his success when the competition was (is) at its toughest, with all Big-Four in action.
So… how to decide? Which criteria should prevail, which amazing feats should weigh more in our verdict?
To achieve clarity in how to support one’s particular verdict as to who is the GOAT is our main goal here.
If we succeed in that, then when two people disagree, each one will be able to say something like: “I think X is the GOAT, and not Y, because X has the more accomplished resume of the two, given the weights I attribute to the possible/examined criteria”.
In the end, they could see where their differences really stand. Here’s a small (and simplified) sample:
– I think Federer is the GOAT because the biggest achievements in tennis are GS titles and weeks spent atop the rankings, Federer being the leader in both categories. And that far outweighs the flaw of having a losing record against Nadal and Djokovic.
– I think Sampras is the GOAT because there is nothing more difficult in tennis than having a constant and uninterrupted dominance over one’s peers. Be #1 is the ultimate goal of sport, and Sampras won the year-end race for unprecedented six straight times, which hugely offset his less-than-remarkable clay performance.
– I think Nadal is the GOAT because, besides achieving the Career Golden Slam – a honour only shared with Agassi –, he’s the only one to have won multiple Slams in all surfaces. He’s also the leader in Masters 1000 titles and the only player to have won 10+ titles in three different tournaments. That, – plus a superior head-to-head – should outweigh the fact that Federer has more Slam titles or more weeks as #1 and make up for his lacking of a Tour Finals title.
— I think Djokovic is the GOAT because he’s the most well-rounded player of them all, and that should be a decisive criterion to judge who is the greatest tennis player of all times. Not only is Djokovic the sole player to have swept all Big Titles, but achieved the feat in arguably the most competitive era, when the so-called Big Four are/were simultaneously playing. He attested his dominance in this “Golden Era” holding simultaneously all four Grand Slams and reaching the most points ever in a season (2015: where he won 3 Grand Slams from 4 finals and a record 6 Masters 1000 titles from 8 finals). And that – plus a winning record against both Nadal & Federer – should outweigh the fact that he’s not the leader in GS titles or weeks atop the rankings.
— I think Laver is the GOAT because he is the only one to have won the Calendar Grand Slam – and did so twice! –, besides winning multiple “Pro-Slams” when he was not allowed to play the regular Slams, and this attests how dominant he was at his prime, and that should outweigh the fact that he officially won less Grand Slams than the other candidates.
* * *
From above, we can reach three very important conclusions:
Each of those legends has succeeded in achieving things that the other contestants haven’t;
Each of those legends has failed in achieving things that the other candidates have;
It’s imperative that we analyse their resumes comparing not only (i) their greatest achievements but also (ii) their biggest “flaws” (or “non-achievements”).
The second item proves crucial in more than one way.
As no player has the perfect resume, what we are looking is the player with the “best ratio” between the biggest achievements compared to the biggest “flaws/stains” in their resumes.
Both – successes and failures – should be analysed together.
Let’s see the example above-mentioned.
It’s common to hear people asking: How can Federer be considered the GOAT even when he’s got such an inferior head-to-head against his biggest rival? True, that’s a hugeflaw/stain in his resume, no doubt about it. But that’s not the right question to ask, is it? I mean, that would be the right question to ask if we found another player with a flawless resume. But that’s certainly not the case. EVERY player has flaws in their resumes.
So the right question to ask seems to be something like: which player has more-achievements-and-less-flaws than the other candidates?
In other words, besides comparing their biggest achievements, we should not forget to compare their biggest flaws.
What is worse:
Federer’s not having an Olympic Gold or Nadal having zero titles in the ATP Tour Finals?
Federer’s having an inferior H2H against Nadal or Nadal having far less weeks atop the rankings than the other GOAT candidates?
We could maybe try here a thought experiment?
— Would Nadal trade his positive head-to-head against Federer for having more Slam titles or more time as #1 or a Tour Finals title? What would he prefer if he was given the choice?
— Would Federer trade a Wimbledon title for a gold medal? Or for a better H2H against Nadal?
– Would Sampras trade his sixth year-end finish as #1 for a title in Roland Garros?
– Rhetorical question: what would Davidenko prefer, to have a Grand Slam title to his name or, as it’s the case, a wining head-to-head against Nadal?
What would you – fan of Federer, Nadal, or Sampras – choose for your idol to have?
What achievement would you sacrifice to compensate a certain shortcoming in your idol’s resume?
Many questions in a similar vein could be asked and they’re not only rhetorical questions. They’re at the very heart of the discussion because – passion aside –, what we are looking is not the best possible resume, but the best actual resume among the candidates.
Choosing who the GOAT is simmers down to decide:
Which resume would you rather have?
Which set of achievements (relative to the non-achievements or “flaws”) would make you prouder?
As I like to say and repeat: the discussion about the GOAT is not about some absolute measure or criteria. There’s none. The GOAT is a comparative matter, based on values attributed to certain criteria.
And also, let’s not forget: the GOAT is an ever-in-progress matter!
Meaning that even if we reach an agreement today about how the GOAT is, that is the verdict based on the facts and achievements up to that moment.
Obviously enough, in the coming years, new facts happen and another player could gather enough achievements to challenge that former verdict.
We may, perhaps, agree that Federer should be considered the GOAT today – end of 2018 –, but should Nadal or Djokovic increase their list of achievements, one of them could then be proclaimed the GOAT. Until a next genius comes along and gather enough accomplishments to maybe surpass them all.
A final word before the fun really begins.
It’s my intention to write five books:
Why Federer is the GOAT: the best-case defence.
Why Nadal is the GOAT: the best-case defence.
Why Djokovic is the GOAT: the best-case defence.
Why Sampras is the GOAT: the best-case defence.
Why X is the GOAT: the author’s pick.
In each book, they are to be compared against each other and also against the other “Greats” of the Open Era, like Borg, Lendl, McEnroe, and Connors. In every case it will become clear why the latter weren’t considered a “true GOAT candidate”.
Speaking of that, I decided not to include Laver as a potential GOAT for two main reasons. Not only is much harder to obtain good and complete data previous to the Open Era, but comparing achievements obtained pre and post-Open Era would complicate matters unnecessarily. However, I intend to include in the fifth book – the author’s pick – a special chapter on Laver, showing how he should/could stand in the competition with the other four.
* * *
For the first book of the series, I’ll start with Federer. It seems to be the (more) obvious choice, for no other reason than the fact that he’s got the biggest collection of the biggest prize – 20 Grand Slam titles – as well as more weeks as #1. But it doesn’t really matter who I start with. I’ll try and make the best-case defence for each of the four candidates and only in the last book will I reveal my personal choice as to which set of arguments and criteria should be (more) decisive.
Disclaimer: by no means does starting with Federer imply that he is my personal pick as the present-day GOAT. Although he may be! 😉
* * *
Basically, then, I’ll analyse all factors and criteria commonly used to judge a player’s career and try to build the best argument I can to show that the best-qualities-versus-worst-flawsinFederer’sresumecomparatively outweigh the best-qualities-versus-worst-flaws in his adversaries’ resumes.
In the other books I’ll do the same for the other candidates, every time specifying what has to be interpreted differently – which criteria have to weigh more/less – in order for the verdict to change.
For example, it’s obvious enough that if for someone to be #1 is the single most important achievement, a sine-qua-non condition to be the GOAT, there would no point in arguing in favour of Nadal or Djokovic (up to Dec-2018). Only Sampras (with his record 6 year-end finishes) and Federer (with his record 310 weeks) would remain in the contest, each one with unprecedented records in that particular criterion.
Alternatively, if a superior (or close-enough) head-to-head against your main rivals is considered to be a necessary (even if not sufficient) condition for someone to be the GOAT, then Federer’s candidacy would suffer accordingly.
Bottom line, the final verdict as to who is the GOAT is a complex “trade-off”: depending on the criteria adopted, some achievements will reflect more/less positively on one’s resume and, conversely, some flaws will reflect more/less negatively.
So for any potential GOAT:
– On the positive side: you have to show some great things that nobody else has done and/or to show that the great things his rivals have done are comparatively less worthy.
– On the “negative” side: you have to show that the things that were not achieved are comparatively less damaging to his resume than the things that his rivals have not achieved.
Knowing all too well that a perfect consensus is impossible, it’ll be nevertheless a great thing if we are able to clearly establish where two people part ways. As I said before, we don’t all have to agree, but we should at least know why we don’t!
* * *
Finally, I would like you all to know that this is a live work. By this, I mean two things:
– Every time a candidate adds a major achievement to his resume, things may have to be reassessed and the final verdict may change. In the perfect world, an updated version every year would/will be nice. I’ll try my best to do that.
– I’m very open to criticisms and contributions from any of you. That’s only suitable, because if our intention is to find a “common ground”, what could be better than try and incorporate contributions from people interested in the same subject?
I thank you all in advance for any suggestion that may be used to improve this endeavour! You can write directly to me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Now, let’s start. I hope you’ll all enjoy reading it. I certainly enjoyed writing it!
* * *
SUMMING THINGS UP…
Let’s make things simple.
The GOAT is not about some absolute measure or standard. There’s none.
The GOAT is very simply about which player’s got the best resume.
And let’s add: the best resume in the history of tennis until this present moment.
So, at any point, a player who was once considered the GOAT might lose his title.
Now why is that people cannot agree on who’s got the best resume in tennis?
Quite simply: because there’s no player with a flawless resume.
Federer has a terrible H2H against Nadal.
Sampras never made a final in Roland Garros.
Nadal spent a bit more than half the time as #1 than Federer or Sampras.
So, what’s the real job here?
Try and get our priorities – the main criteria – clearly stated.
Which aspects of one’s resume shall be more important?
Which flaws counts more or less against each player?
In other words: our main task here is to discuss and establish the main criteria after which we are going to assess each player’s resume.
Does it sound a good strategy?
I do hope so.
For those who also agree and are curious about it, please follow along!