Why the GOAT Debate is Not About the Stats

By Nick Carter

I’ve been resisting throwing my hat into the ring for a while on this, but after Popcorn Tennis started this seemed an obvious time to talk about the big debate in tennis: who is the greatest player of all time? For the last 10 years or so, the topic has been whether it is Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic as they have dominated the game since 2004. No other players in history have been at the top of the game for as long as these guys, and the battle between them has captured the imagination of a generation of fans, such as myself. 

The debate becomes passionate — dare I say heated — on social media. This makes sense; if we choose our champion, our idol, we want them to prove themselves stronger than the others and we will defend them. After all, if we love something or someone enough, their status becomes part of our identity. Unfortunately, the title of greatest of all time (or GOAT for short) is not one easily given in our sport. 

The reality is, there isn’t a simple definition we can use in tennis. Now, the obvious answer here is who has won the most majors (in singles). This makes sense, they are the most important titles in tennis and the only events that throughout history have seen the very best players competing. All other events have gained or lost importance over time. In the men’s game, Masters 1000s are only a fairly recent addition (having started in 1990) but even then, there have been plenty that those at the very top have missed. Similarly, the Olympics only really started to matter to the higher-ranked players since the mid-2000s. So, the ‘Grand Slam Race’ naturally has had the most attention. 

Which begs the question: why can’t we use this simple metric? There are two reasons for this. First, at the moment there is a tie between Djokovic, Nadal and Federer for 20 each. (I am expecting Djokovic to take the lead by winning at least one more major in his career.) The second reason is historical context, which is where we need to look beyond the ‘Big Three’. Historically, many players skipped the Australian Open, either because of the travel issues, the court quality or the prize money available. So, the modern players have had and taken more opportunities to add to their tallies. Furthermore, tennis has only been a professional sport since 1968, and for many years before that the very best players couldn’t take part in the majors because of their lack of amateur status. Looking at their results across the professional game, it is highly likely that both Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall would be on more than 20 majors each had they had the opportunity. Statistics always have context, which makes it difficult to compare eras. That being said, I do believe that this may be the greatest era in men’s tennis, given that a group of players as a whole haven’t captured the imagination of the world in such a way as the “Big Three” (and Andy Murray) have. The closest equivalent was probably the late-70s/early-80s when it was Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors at the top of the game. Only someone who lived through the era at the time could confirm this though.

The issue of deciding a GOAT isn’t a tennis-only one. Other sports have the same issue. The biggest sport in the world is soccer (football for UK/European readers), and they have a similar issue. If you ask the question of who the greatest player of all time is, the mind goes to the goal-scorers, because they get the headlines. If you google the question, it actually seems to be a short list of contenders: Pele, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. However, it is not an easily settled question. Pele has the most career goals of the four, but most came in the Brazilian league. Now, I am not a football historian, but I’m not sure how high profile this league was when he was playing. So, the discussion then comes down to which goals matter, playing style and also the impact these characters have on their teams as a whole. All these are highly subjective.

My other favourite sport is Formula One (and most forms of motor racing), and similarly to tennis there is a heated GOAT debate. The leading names in this are Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is the record holder in most statistics, but he has taken part in more races compared to Fangio and Clark as F1 seasons are twice the length they were in the 1950s and 60s. Fangio could be called the greatest given he won 47% of the races he took part in. However, many still today would say Ayrton Senna because of the legendary status he has as a driver, which is purely down to his style and attitude. The way he captured the imagination of fans in the 1980s and 90s continues today with a generation of people who never saw him race live. Yet, he won ‘only’ three championships compared to the seven of Schumacher and Hamilton. World Championships are probably the most important statistic in the sport, as winning individual races doesn’t carry the same kind of weight. In a tennis sense, it would be the equivalent of year-end number ones mattering more than major titles. There are also contextual differences between eras, as not only are there more races held now, but the cars are very different to drive and far more reliable. Most of the drivers listed would win a similar number of races were they driving today instead of Hamilton. 

Let’s now look at a sport where there is a definitive GOAT: Boxing. This is a sport that Andy Murray, among others, has said is the most comparable to tennis, because of the nature of the one-on-one contest that is mental as much as physical. Boxing’s GOAT is Muhammad Ali, who is also regarded by many as the greatest sportsman of all time. Interestingly, this is not necessarily backed up by stats. He did ascend to the top of the world three times, seemingly defying the aging process for almost two decades. However, he did not retire undefeated in his career, which is heralded as the most impressive feat in boxing, or win as many matches as others who came after him. Now, some of these losses were due to some ill-judged fights at the end of his career, which adds some important context and shows he loved competing so much (much like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic now). What made Ali memorable was his charisma out of the ring, and the fact many of the fights he took part in (and won) are some of the most memorable in boxing history. In the ring, his fighting style made him iconic, with quick feet and strategic thinking and his bravery in taking on some of the other greats of the sport. Furthermore, Ali’s activism made his legacy even deeper, as he was a black icon and his success made a positive impact for other black fighters. Furthermore, his pacifism in the time of the Vietnam War made headlines, even if it impacted his career negatively. In many ways, there are no serious contenders to his status of boxing’s greatest athlete.

The other sporting icons listed here, such as Lionel Messi or Ayrton Senna, have a similar aura about them. Something about the way they mastered the sport captured the imagination and earned the respect of fellow competitors and fans of their disciplines, as well as being noticed by those who didn’t follow their sports closely. Occasionally the greats also make an impact in the way they act off the pitch, out of the ring or off the court. Yes, they need to win more than anyone else, to beat the opponents and prove they are the best of their generation. But being the greatest requires them to have something intangible. 

This brings us back to tennis, and I have to say in the men’s game there isn’t a clear leader in this respect. Who captures your imagination depends on what it is about the game you love. I think Novak Djokovic is unquestionably the best player of the 2010s, Rafael Nadal is the best clay court player of all time and Roger Federer was the best player of the 2000s. If you love physicality, then for you I suspect Djokovic is the greatest of all time. If it is fighting spirit of a player, of course one is drawn to Nadal. If it is style and creativity, then Federer is likely the one you would prefer. That’s if you want to restrict your options to the current era. I want to go and review matches from other greats of the game, such as Laver, Borg and Sampras, to see how they impact me (provided there is enough footage out there). This is another issue of the GOAT debate: there tends to be a lot of recency bias involved. 

The thing is, I don’t know if there is a male tennis player in history who seems to have that aura that draws people to them off the court as well as on it. Even if Novak Djokovic tops the stats tables, I don’t see him winning over many people who don’t follow the sport closely. Rod Laver is not a name that people mention outside of tennis circles; for whatever reason he isn’t known in the same way. Bjorn Borg was to an extent, his ice-cool demeanour on the court won many fans, but I suspect his physical attractiveness did also play a part. The closest of the modern era is probably Roger Federer. Everyone was impressed by his dominance in the mid-2000s, even non-tennis fans knew who he was. He’s managed his ageing body through the 2010s to be able to still push Djokovic and Nadal, who are significantly younger. The brand Federer has built is huge, and he has won the ATP Fan Favourite award 19 years in a row since 2003, which shows the following he has built is still substantial. What is lacking for me is his off-court charisma, but this is down to personal taste. 

If you want to call Djokovic the greatest male player of all time, I won’t say you’re wrong. However, I will also say the same to fans of Federer and Nadal. If you’re reading this, and you remember Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi, and still think them the greatest, I won’t argue with you either. I honestly can’t pick one for myself. My favourite player is still Federer, and I think there is still a case to call him the greatest, but I am not sufficiently convinced. 

Serena Williams lifts the Venus Rosewater dish after winning Wimbledon in 2002. Photo is a screenshot from a Wimbledon highlights video.

Honestly, I think the greatest tennis player of all time is found in the women’s game. Serena Williams successfully bested two generations of players and is arguably one of the greatest athletes in any sport. Martina Navratilova pioneered a similar level of athleticism in the 1980s despite her age, whilst also escaping a controlling communist regime and being one of the first prominent LGBTQ+ athletes. Billie-Jean King won battles off the court as well as on it, leading the promotion of the women’s game and setting the foundations of the modern game, as both male and female athletes now share centre stage. Then there is Suzanne Lenglen, who dominated the game in the 1920s, only losing seven matches in her amateur career, and was known as “La Divine” such was the fascination with her playing style. She was the first celebrity tennis star, and it could be argued she is the reason the sport has retained such a high profile for so long. I’d also dare to suggest Monica Seles as a potential candidate, given what could have been in her career having had so much success so early. The story of her comeback from being stabbed on a tennis court is inspirational. Again, which of these athletes you choose as the greatest is subjective (for me at this moment in time, I’d lean towards Lenglen but again I need to review footage of other players). They all fit the criteria of being the clear best of their generation, serial winners and also capturing the imagination of the world beyond tennis. I don’t want to sell short the achievements of Helen Wills, Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf or Justine Henin by the way, I just need to do a bit more research into their stories.

If this piece has a conclusion, it is this: There is no definitive GOAT in tennis. A lot of what makes a GOAT in any sport is intangible, perhaps even subjective. Statistics do matter, they are vital in comparing players within a generation, in a single moment in time. Statistics show us who the candidates for the very best ever are, but they only have value in the context they were collected. However, if we were to insist on exploring the question of who is the greatest of all time, the best candidates can be found in the women’s game rather than the men’s. 

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