A 2013 Perspective On The ATP GOAT Debate

By Aoun Jafarey

Picture this, you walk into a room to join the company of the greatest players ever to play the game of tennis. You are in their company and have been chosen to figure out amongst them who really deserves the honor to hold the crown of the greatest player of all time. Every tennis player that has ever completed the greatest ambition of a tennis player is sitting in that room, the accomplishment of winning a slam. Seeing how this is the most difficult task that can be lay forth in front of any objective and logical tennis fan, you decide you are going to reach a smaller group of contenders by running a few rounds of elimination. Everyone agrees and you decide that first and foremost everyone who is to remain in this room has to have been ranked the number 1 player in the world at some point in time. To your surprise, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andy Roddick and Carlos Moya all share smiles while a certain man of a short frame gets up to walk out. You look closely and you realize that you have just asked Rocket Rod Laver to exit this competition, Federer smiles at his box while Rafa has already collapsed on the floor in sheer disbelief that he’s ahead of Laver (“For me to finish ahead of Rod is a big illusion, no?”). You pause and realize that maybe this wasn’t the best way to start. You stop everyone and announce that everyone who has never won a slam should leave the room. Laver returns to his seat, a little more settled while a disappointed Marat Safin regretfully heads back to his seat at the table, he was already prepared to head out to the club down the road expressing his lack of interest in becoming the best. You see Gaston Gaudio walking back to his seat and you ask security to get rid of him anyway. All is settled again.

You now realize that you have 159 individuals left on this list, despite having thrown out Gaston Gaudio. This isn’t helping much, so you think and think and then decide that the individual must have done more than just win a slam, so you make it two. Two slams it is then to make it to the next round and then all of a sudden the smiles hosted by Ferrero, Moya and Roddick have turned into an acceptance of reality, they are greats no doubt but this is about a lot more than just being great. They exit peacefully. Safin is still pissed he has to be there, he could’ve slept with 3 different women by now or broken 37 rackets. Some say he might even prefer the latter. He’s visibly annoyed but a pat on the back from Pat Rafter with an exchange of few words reminds him that they aren’t going to make it to the next round. Sampras looks at them with a cocky smile, they both raise their U.S open trophies in return. Agassi chuckles and snorts a line with Wilander, but it’s time to get back to business the list is still too long and Safin still too eager to leave.  91 men have accomplished this arduous task, of winning a slam twice in their life. The number doesn’t help, it basically means that if you win a slam, based on history you have a pretty good shot of winning another (9/16 almost, yes I rounded a little bit). Enough is enough though, McEnroe is sick of this, you hear a signature “Are you serious?!!” and you know it’s time to step things up. There it is, to make things simpler and the process faster, 5 slams at the very least or back to back years as number 1. To Safin’s delight, he is allowed to leave. Pete escorts Rafter himself and Andre introduces Wilander to crystal meth. Borg is finally paying attention, Lendl not smiling, Federer reassuring himself and Rafa suffers another collapse because yet again it another big illusion for him to be here. Andy Murray has to leave, he feels more strongly about GTA 5 anyway and at this point no one in Great Britain is interested anymore. To the delight of Serbia, Novak Djokovic has emerged as a serious contender… at least so far. The list now looks like this:

Player NameTotal Slams
1 Roger Federer 17
2 Pete Sampras 14
3 Rafael Nadal 13
4 Roy Emerson 12
5 Björn Borg 11
6 Rod Laver 11
7 Bill Tilden 10
8 Andre Agassi 8
9 Fred Perry 8
10 Henri Cochet *8
11 Ivan Lendl 8
12 Jimmy Connors 8
13 Ken Rosewall 8
14 Max Decugis *8
15 Henri Cochet 7
16 John McEnroe 7
17 John Newcombe 7
18 Mats Wilander 7
19 René Lacoste 7
20 Richard Sears 7
21 William Larned 7
22 William Renshaw 7
23 Anthony Wilding 6
24 Boris Becker 6
25 Don Budge 6
26 Jack Crawford 6
27 Lawrence Doherty 6
28 Novak Djokovic 6
29 Stefan Edberg 6
30 Frank Sedgman 5
31 Jean Borotra *5
32 Tony Trabert 5

To your delight, that is exactly 32 men. Now think of this as a slam, this is basically everyone that was seeded in the tournament. For simplicity sake, you make a R32 draw with the number 1 facing number 32, 2 facing 31, 3 facing 30…. 16 facing 17.

So far all practical purposes.. Let’s skip to the last 8. I could go into more detail about who really should be in the last 16 with guys like Novak, Wilander and Don Budge ranked outside of it based purely on slam tally, but we aren’t here to figure the best 16. It’s about the GOAT and in all honesty, none of those guys really make a case to be the GOAT atm. Novak definitely has the potential with a lot of amazing tennis left in him (the guy has made 3 slam finals 3 years in a row, 9 of 12.. Ridiculous effort!), so Nole fans, please take this in your best stride and accept things as they are at the moment, perhaps this piece will need significant revision in a matter of 5 years, but we can come back here then. Not for now.

The main contenders:

You have 8 men left in the room now. Their names are:

Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer, Jimmy Connors, Roy Emerson, John McEnroe and Rafael Nadal.

There are a couple of guys you feel the need to carve out an explanation for and you start with Andre Agassi after noticing some white stuff all over the floor. He’s a great, perhaps a top 10 of all time for now, but he doesn’t make it into the exclusive club. The other guys ask why? Particularly when Andre is the only man amongst all of them who has held all 4 slams, the WTF’s and the Olympic gold medal, an explanation is needed and that is exactly what you end up presenting. Andre’s career has a lot of ups and downs, for one he made the mistake of not playing the Australian open to celebrate Christmas at home instead, something Borg is guilty off too in this group but he has other accolades to defend himself. What he lacks most was the ability to finish strong when finally made it all the way to the finish line, he converted only 8 of his 15 slam finals, a conversion rate that is not good enough when Sampras pulled out 14 of 18, Borg 11 of 16, Federer 17 of 24 and Rafael 13 of 18. Even in arguably his best year, his slam wins came over guys who are not in contention of this title (Medvedev at the French and Martin at the U.S), while he was brushed aside in the Wimbledon final by Sampras in straights. To be the G.O.A.T you have to face up to your biggest challenges and make the most of those situations, and this is precisely where Andre falters compared to the men remaining in this room. Much like Rafa, he had a challenge of beating one of the greatest grass courters ever to win Wimbledon but he didn’t. He did end up winning one lone title there earlier in his career, but the bitter truth is he was never really the best on any particular surface and even his record at the Australian is at the mercy of Novak winning another one. Andre, never possessed the sort of dominance that the very best did at some point in their career, and some of them were able to maintain it for a period that is remarkably long. Sampras and Federer exchange a few smiles while Emerson and Laver feel like they’ve been screwed due to no proper ranking system established while they were playing at their best. Rafael is in pure disbelief that he’s still here while Connors and McEnroe are still noticeably uncomfortable that this race hasn’t ended.

…just incase you were wondering which Medvedev Agassi lost to…

Then there’s the case for another absolute legend, Ivan Lendl. He walked out with no smiles as well, but for some reason he didn’t seem to care. His expression was very similar to when the man he coaches won Wimbledon relieving the British (only when he wins is he British) of a 77 year drought of a “home bred” champion at Wimbledon. You couldn’t tell what Lendl was feeling. But that’s okay, some say he celebrates and mourns with the same expression. Some even go on to say that the Mona Lisa was actually an early sign of the coming of Ivan Lendl; you just can never decipher what he actually feels like. Lendl is a slightly different case than Agassi though. True that they both entered club 100 (100 weeks or more as number 1) and Lendl is actually 3rd in the category of most weeks at number 1. He was annoyingly consistent; he made 8 U.S open finals in a row. He made 19 Slam finals. He had a forehand the U.S army tried to use in the Gulf war, but despite all this he only ended up winning 8 of his 19 slam finals (Kind of like the French at actually winning the war). Shocking to say the least for a man with 270 weeks at the peak of the sport, with 3 years where he ended with staggering numbers of 84-7, 74-6, 74-7 (1985-87). He spent 9 years being ranked in the top 5, 10 straight in the top 10. Then he made the mistake of becoming American and it was a slippery slope from their onward. On a more serious note though, his 3 years were great but the fact of the matter remains that even in those 3 years, his losses were more noticeable. He lost the big matches. The one’s that define careers and greatness, 3 of 8 U.S open should ring a bell. Never being able to win Wimbledon was another problem he couldn’t solve. He was and is to date probably the best example of the man who was good enough to be the best according to the system, but not necessarily the best in a manner other players defined their best years and those are the best men that still remain seated before you for the final few rounds.

Good But Not Good Enough To Be The GOAT: Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker battle at Wimbledon

Emerson has numbers that stand the test of time against anyone, the only issue is that most of them came at a time when the slams were only open to amateurs and that 6 of his 12 were in Australia at a time when people didn’t travel to Australia because it was inconvenient. He also never won a singles major in the open era, which says a lot, unlike his compatriot Rod Laver who actually ended up winning his second calendar slam during the open era. He still holds some ridiculous records that have him as a standalone. Only man apart from Laver to win every major at least twice (Nadal needs an Australian, Federer needs a French to match this) and the only man to have won the calendar slam in doubles and singles. No doubting his credentials, but a couple of wins in the open era would have suggested a lot more about his overall greatness.

4 down and 4 remain. You are now left with Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. There are a couple of things they all have in common, but the most important one is that each of them is the best of his own generation while holding double digits for slams. It is no surprise then that they are also 4 of the top 5 in overall slams, that said it is important to identify that slam wins are the in fact the greatest measure of a players overall greatness, however now that we have them narrowed down it is time to get into the details to actually separate them and figure out the G.O.A.T (for now).

First thing I’d like to explain before I go deeper into this, athletes today are better than they were before. Sport today is much bigger than it was before, competition has grown stiffer exponentially over the decades, and therefore tennis players today are also more complete than they were before. To give you an example, look at the record time for a 1 mile run. It was 4:30 seconds plus in the 1930’s and now it’s down to 3:43 seconds. Think of what that means, and see the improvement that has taken place. It basically says that a man who once held the world record 8 decades ago would not even be in the picture today, can you blame it all on the shoe technology? Or do you accept that athletes are just better in this day and age? That’s up to you, I prefer to accept the latter. The reason I wanted to clear the air about this is because I wanted to simply explain why Laver is 4th on this list, despite the 2 calendar slams. Was he the best of his generation? Absolutely, no one can deny that, but the greatest of all time is not a title that he can hold. Compare this to cars, if we’re trying to measure the greatest track car of all time, Laver would be the original Ford GT, but where does the GT stand today? The numbers it once possessed are now beaten by a Mustang Boss 302. A car you can buy for around $45K. Does that mean I don’t marvel at how amazing the GT once was? No, that would be incorrect. I have a very deep sense of appreciation for it, but when it stands behind the current competition by so much, it would be unfair to call it the greatest of all time. Lastly, yes this isn’t a one to one analogy but I hope it explains what I’m trying to get to, tennis has evolved and winning today is harder than it was ever before. I am not the only person who feels this way, many of the pros do too, notably John McEnroe and Rod Laver. I can’t base any of this as a fact, but it can’t be denied factually either.

Sampras is the other semi-finalist, his 14 slams and 6 year end number 1 trophies are about as good as it gets but with Pete there was always a hole in his career. His performance on clay, his accomplishments on grass and hard courts are so great that the rest of the playing field can’t match him, even if they have a more balanced inventory of trophies. The problem is though, that we’ve seen other players who have done well enough on all surfaces to be considered ahead of him at the moment. All of this isn’t just based off trophies because you could always argue that Federer only has 1 more French than Sampras and between the two of them that’s one slam on clay. Here’s what Federer also has that Sampras doesn’t, 2 semi’s and 5 finals at RG (including a four final streak, 06-09) and he has the second most wins recorded at RG after a very obvious Rafael Nadal. This is just Federer’s portfolio on clay, if you take everything else out of the equation and just look at his performance on clay, he has 1 slam and 2 masters along with a plethora of finals and semi-finals. That by itself is a career better than that of your current world number 3 and 5, David Ferrer and Juan Martin Del Potro. On the other hand it’s not like Pete made the French quarter finals consistently, in fact he has multiple exits before the 3rd round there. Meaning he didn’t make the round of seeds, or the round of 32. That’s how weak he was on a particular surface, which is why there will always be that hole. Think of it as an exam with three parts of equal weightage, his grass score would be 98/100 along with about 95/100 on hard courts, but what about the red dirt? He fails there in comparison to Federer, and while he’s clearly ahead of Rafael at the moment on both grass and hard courts, the gap isn’t anywhere near as wide as that between Rafa and Pete on clay. To put it simply, Pete didn’t need to run into a top 10 or even 20 opponent to be beat on clay, it could’ve been anyone, even during the prime of his performance. Which is why he stalls at number 3.

Pistol Pete: Pete Sampras in his Prime

The last two are quite predictable, in fact I could’ve saved about 7 pages by jumping straight here and no build up, but that would have been disrespectful toward the other 157 players that have won a slam (I’m not a fan of Gaudio, he got lucky that Coria injured himself that match).

So then, how do you separate these two? Put together they hold 30 slams, or 7.5 years of grand slam tennis. That’s slightly less than the life of an English Bull dog or Boxer. They are both quite frankly remarkable athletes and the sort of specimen that you may not see for another couple of generations. Federer for his mastery of the game, there isn’t a shot in the book he can’t play, in fact his book of tennis is denser than anyone else’s. Rafa has evolved like no other player before him, he has faced obstacles throughout his career but not one of them has proved to be big enough to stop him on his way to his 13 slams and 3 year end titles. In a perfect world, I would never separate these two because they each have a very strong claim to the title, but in that statement I admit there is bias to myself being a diehard fan of Rafael, I have followed him on tour since 2004, before he had ever even stepped foot at RG as a professional. So without any bias, the award does belong to Federer (at the moment). Here’s why:

1. 5 year end titles

2. 17 slams

3. 302 weeks of holding the number 1 ranking

4. 24 Slam finals

5. 36 Slam quarter-finals in a row (9 straight years, every slam printed his name on the quarter final cards)

6. 20 straight Slam semi-finalist appearances (5 straight years)

7. 21 Masters Titles

8. 4 WTF Titles

9. Joint holder of longest streak at Wimbledon

10. Longest winning streak at the U.S Opens

11. Joint holder of most Australian Opens

12. 4 straight finals at RG

13. Greatest clay court winning percentage if you take Rafa out of his losses, in other words he’s the second greatest clay court player of this generation

…I can go on, but there’s no need.

The GOAT?: Roger Federer shakes hands with Rafael Nadal after defeating the Spaniard at Indian Wells 2012. Screenshot: SkySports Youtube Channel

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