The GOAT candidates – the Fab Four

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In the previous post – Direct Elimination – we reduced our list of GOAT contenders to 10 players. They are the ones who have: (1) won 5+ GS titles; (2) spent 52+ weeks as #1; (3) finished at least once as #1.

My idea for this section – the knock-outs – is to make a quick one-to-one confrontation based especially on their performance on the big numbers, resorting to both super-heavyweight and heavyweight numbers, and see if we can reduce – without any shadow of controversy – our list of true GOAT candidates.

Here are our ten selected players and their main achievements[1].

The numbers are formatted in a way to make easy to spot who’s who: the greener, the better; the redder, the worse.

Legend: W#1 = weeks as #1; YE#1 = year-end finishes as #1; All GS = career Grand Slam; GS = Grand Slam titles; TF = Tour Finals (former Masters Cup) titles; MS = Master Series titles; Big Titles = GS+TF+MS titles; Overall = total number of titles, big and small; Davis = Davis Cup titles.
TABLE UPDATED: End of 2018

As we said, the idea behind this session is to see whether we can come up with another set of “clean”, “clear-cut” eliminations and reduce still further our GOAT contenders.

The reasoning used here has also to be explicitly stated.

Simple criteria to be used in the knock-outs.

  1. If a player leads any one of the big categories (#1 + big titles), he is safe;
  2. If a player loses in every big category to another candidate, he is out.
  3. If a player loses in most big categories to 3+ candidates, he is out.

So, at a quick glance, we have already 3 players that are safe – Sampras, Federer, and Nadal – since each of them leads at least one of the big categories. The others must play the knock-outs.

Let’s start!

STEFAN EDBERG

Agassi is the clear winner here, leading in most categories, but Edberg wins in a very important one – year-end finishes – and so he is not yet out.

Against Borg, Edberg stands no fighting chance. His best result is a tie in the year-end finishes. That could be considered a clean elimination, but let’s have Edberg compared to another player.  

McEnroe has a perfect score here. Edberg is definitely out.

***

ANDRE AGASSI

Tighter contest here. Borg does win in most categories, but Agassi has one big advantage: he completed the career Grand Slam, that is, he won each one of the four most coveted prizes, whereas Borg didn’t.

Against Nadal, Agassi has almost no place to hide and cannot use the “career Grand Slam” card. But Agassi wins in the Tour Final category, so he survives to fight another day.

Here, Agassi finds his doom. No fighting chance against Djokovic, who wins in every possible big category. Agassi is out.

***

BJORN BORG

The much-celebrated Bjorn Borg loses to McEnroe in most categories, but leads in the crucial Grand Slam titles category.

This could be considered a clean win in favour of Sampras, who fails to win only in one big category – Master Series. Strike two.

Once again, Djokovic imposes a total defeat. Borg is out.

***

JOHN MCENROE

Nadal wins in all but one category. Strike one.

Here, it’s not so clear the outcome. I’d say Connors has slightly the edge, but this cannot be considered a clean victory to either side. Still strike one.

Clean victory for Lendl, who wins in every big category. The fact that Lendl didn’t participate in a Davis Cup winning team doesn’t change this fact. McEnroe is out.

But should one complain…

… we could use Federer’s resume to complete the elimination!

***

IVAN LENDL

No clear winner here. Most people (including myself) will consider Nadal the winner of this knock-out, but Lendl does have two important wins here: more weeks as #1 and (much) more Tour Finals titles (5 vs. 0).

Here, Djokovic leads in most big categories, but Lendl has a small edge in weeks as #1. Strike one.

Here too, Lendl is on the losing side, but with twice as many Master Series titles, he lives to fight another day. Strike two.

Clean sweep. Lendl doesn’t find a shadow to hide: he is also out.

***

JIMMY CONNORS

I would say that Lendl wins this battle, but Connors does have an important win over the year-end finishes and they are tied in Grand Slam titles. Let’s not create controversy, so no strike here.  

Djokovic can be said to be the uncontroversial winner here. But as Connors has more weeks as #1… strike one.

Almost a perfect victory for Sampras. But as Connors has more Master Series… strike two.

Federer wins in every big category, and the fact the Connors has 10 more overall titles has no impact on the verdict. Connors is out.

***

NOVAK DJOKOVIC

Currently, Djokovic doesn’t lead any big category, but he’s second in four of the six most important categories – year-end finishes, tour finals titles, master series titles, and total count of big titles –, making his resume one of the strongest ones. But let’s not jump to conclusions and see how he fares at the knock-outs.

Above, we already saw him collecting victories against Agassi, Borg, Lendl, and Connors.

He also gets clean victories against both Edberg…

… and McEnroe…

…  remaining to see how he fares against the three big-categories leaders: Sampras, Federer, and Nadal.

***

For the following bit, I updated and included Djokovic 15th Grand Slam title, recently obtained in the Australian Open.

For the previous part, that title didn’t have an impact on the outcome of the comparisons, so I left the data from the end of 2018.

Here, there is no clean winner. Nadal has the edge in Grand Slam and Master Series titles, but Djokovic has more weeks and year-end finishes as #1, not to mention a big advantage in Tour Finals titles.

Here, it’s the opposite. Sampras has the edge in year-end finishes and weeks as number 1, but Djokovic has definitely the edge in the big titles’ categories.

As far as this table is concerned, Federer comes out as the winner here, since he loses only in the Master Series category. But as Djokovic gets only one strike, he gets to pass to the next stage, when we will have a more detailed analysis of their resumes.

Lucky for him, lucky for us, as in the more detailed analysis we will see other strengths of Djokovic’s resume that are not immediately apparent in this more generic table like his being the leader in Australian Open titles and his being the only one to have won ALL different big titles!

***

RAFAEL NADAL

Nadal leads the Master Series category, so we considered him “safe”. But let’s see how he fares against Sampras and Federer.

Against Sampras, Nadal has the edge in Slams and Master Series, but loses in weeks and year-end finishes as #1, as well as in Tour Finals titles. No clear winner here.

Federer leads in all but one category, so that would be strike one. But it’s Nadal’s only clear defeat as far as this table is concerned.

As in Djokovic’s case, we need a deeper analysis of Nadal’s resume to pinpoint his strengths, like his being the only one to have won multiple Slam titles in the three different surfaces.

***

PETE SAMPRAS

Sampras also leads one big category, making him “safe”. But let’s see how he would fare against Federer.  

Once again, Federer leads in all but one category, clearly making him the winner.  But that’s the only strike Sampras has against, so he survives the knock-out stage.

***

QUICK CONCLUSIONS

Our idea here was to see whether we could use our main criteria to reduce still further our list of GOAT contenders so we could really concentrate our efforts in a more detailed exam of the remaining selected few “true candidates”.

Obviously, we are fully aware that there are many other aspects to be considered in a player’s resume, and that’s why we proposed that only a total defeat in the main categories or a three-time-clear-defeat would be enough to disqualify a player.

In this respect, I think that the knock-out stage gave us a pretty good look at who the true contenders really are!

Indeed, we could see that Edberg, Agassi, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, and Connors – the new eliminated –, not only did they clearly lose at least three times, but each of them also experienced a total/clean defeat.

In contrast, our remaining four – Sampras, Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic – bravely survived the test as none experienced a total/clean defeat and none was defeated more than once!

Now, it’s impossible to be indifferent to the fact that Federer is the clean winner in every single knock-out. Having this table the most important categories represented, shouldn’t we use this fact and declare Federer as the GOAT, unequivocally?

 Many people and most Federer’s fans think that yes, that this simple table would be more than enough to make Federer’s case as the GOAT.

HOWEVER, and this is a BIG however, it’s precisely at this level of achievements that the discussion gets heated up and subtleties and nuances have to be weighed in before we make our final call.

And that’s also precisely why I was prudent enough to use this “knock-out strategy” only to achieve “clean eliminations”, that is, uncontroversial eliminations.

Indeed, up to this point, my main and sole mission was to establish a solid ground upon which we can ALL agree. And I am confident that, as much as we can disagree on the GOAT discussion and final criteria, WE CAN ALL AGREE that FEDERER, SAMPRAS, NADAL, AND DJOKOVIC ARE OUR VERY BEST GOAT CANDIDATES: let’s call them the Fab Four.

Yes, there may be some who think that Sampras or Djokovic shouldn’t be here at all. There may be some who cannot understand how Federer can be the GOAT with a losing record against Nadal. There may be some who think that winning all big titles is a must for the GOAT. And so on.

But I would be really, really, really surprised if any other name was seriously mentioned to challenge the claim[*] that Federer, Sampras, Nadal, and Djokovic are our four best GOAT candidates, each of them having achieved incredible things that the others haven’t. They could be said to be the tennis GOATS in the sense that each of them may present a good – a formidable – case to defend their case, their respective unique greatness.

And that’s our job in the next chapters: to exam in detail what makes each of them unique and to try and see who may emerge victorious in the end.


[*] Always remembering that Laver and Rosewall are not included in this analysis.


[1] I included “overall titles” and Davis Cup titles only as an added curiosity.

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