The GOAT candidates – The best 10

SELECTING THE GOAT CANDIDATES – DIRECT ELIMINATION

thetennisgoats@gmail.com

updated Jan/2019

According to our proposed division, there are 4 types of achievements:

  1. 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 #1);
  2. HEAVYWEIGHT: achievements that greatly boost a player’s candidacy (big titles);
  3. MIDDLEWEIGHT: achievements that provide a subtler nuance to the discussion and, in case of close contenders, make break the tie (tiebreakers);
  4. 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 elimination

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 knock-outs

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.

NUMBER-ONE FILTER

  • First cut: from 1973[1] 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 52 weeks atop the ranking.

They are: Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Courier, Sampras, Agassi, Hewitt, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.

Combining both filters, only 10 players[2] managed to (1) win at least 5 GS titles; (2) finish as year-end #1; and (3) spend at least 52 weeks as #1.

They are: Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Sampras, Agassi, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.

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 of candidates.

  • 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).


[1] 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.

[2] 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” strategy.

WHO IS THE G.O.A.T – the short introduction

WHO IS THE G.O.A.T – THE SHORT INTRODUCTION

Updated Dec-2018


 thetennisgoats@gmail.com  

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:

  1. Each of those legends has succeeded in achieving things that the other contestants haven’t;
  2. Each of those legends has failed in achieving things that the other candidates have;

Therefore:

  1. 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 huge flaw/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-flaws in Federer’s resume comparatively 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: thetennisgoats@gmail.com

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.

Etc., etc…

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!