THE “BIG NUMBERS” AND THE “TIEBREAKERS”

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?

thetennisgoats@gmail.com

Criteria, criteria, criteria

As it 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.

The “catch” obviously is to find criteria we can ALL agree… But one step at a time!

Stating the obvious

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 situation:

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 quick.

And how about even trickier questions… 2 Grand Slam titles + 8 finals versus 3 Grand Slam titles + 3 finals? What’s more valuable?

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 is really to 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 player’s legacy.

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.

* * *

My 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

  1. Super-Heavyweight achievements;
  2. Heavyweight achievements;

TIEBREAKERS

  • Middleweight achievements;
  • Lightweight achievements.
  • THE BIG NUMBERS

The 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.

They can be divided in two subcategories: super-heavyweight and heavyweight.

(1) The SUPERHEAVYWEIGHT 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.

They are:

  • Winning (multiple) Grand Slam (GS) and
  • Spending (multiple) weeks/year-end as #1.

Failure to have a strong performance in those two immediately disqualifies the player as a legitimate GOAT candidate.

(2) the HEAVYWEIGHT achievements comprise the other so-called “big titles”: the prestigious Tour Finals (TF)[1] and the Master Series (MS)[2]. One could add Olympics and the “Alternative Tour Finals”[3] here, but one may wonder whether they would be a better fit in the TIEBREAKER/middleweight category.

In every case, they are also super relevant achievements, but, being somewhat less important, they kind of gravitate around the former, super-heavyweight, achievements.

The basic difference between the super-heavyweight and the heavyweight is this:

If a 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.

HOWEVER, 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” subcategory.

In 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.

In more concrete terms:

Nadal never won the Tour Finals, but that flaw alone doesn’t necessarily destroy his candidacy.

Sampras 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.

On 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 category.

Attention for the ASYMMETRY:

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 least two 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?

I personally 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.

However, there is a line of argument that may downgrade if not its importance, at least its decisiveness to the GOAT discussion.

The 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?

One could also add that it’s a tournament with restrictions as to the participation of the athletes.

For the 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 country.

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?

Similar 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/) .

  • THE 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:

Middleweight achievements

  • 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.

The 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.

What 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 GOAT discussion.

In 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.

Bottom line is:

That those “smaller” numbers and stats are important and that can be used to boost/damage someone’s candidacy, there can be little doubt about.

As 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

H2H 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 “transitive property”.

In 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.

It 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!

During 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.

Incidentally, 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.

I 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 discussions.

For 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.

* * *

One 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.

And 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.


[1] Former Masters Cup.

[2] Or Masters 1000.

[3] Dallas WCT, hold between 1971 and 1989 and Grand Slam Cup, hold between 1990 and 1999.

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