Is Andy Murray the Fourth-Best Male Player of All Time?

By Nigel Graber

At the age of 55, it suddenly hit me that ‘The Beatles’ was a play on the word ‘beat’. Yeah, I’m perceptive like that. It’s one of those game-changing, lightbulb revelations that fells you like a girder. Like discovering an 18-inch pizza has more pizza than two twelve-inchers.

A recent tweet by US tennis pro Reilly Opelka belongs squarely in this round hole. Let’s wind back to January’s Aussie Open. I’m watching Andy Murray’s frankly ludicrous five-set victory over Thanasi Kokkinakis, a couple of days after his frankly ludicrous five-set victory over Matteo Berrettini.

Shortly after the frank ludicrousness stopped, Opelka tweeted something about Murray being all-time number four. I blinked hard. Bloody hard.

Yeah, all-time number four in men’s tennis. Ahead of Lendl, Connors, Rosewall. Ahead of Borg and Mac. Ahead of Laver and Sampras, for Gawd’s sake.

Now, history’s weapon of choice in deciding greatness is slam titles. And Murray has only three of those, against Sampras’ 14 and Laver’s 11. In this metric, Andy’s 21st in the Open era. The ATP site’s Performance Zone has him at 14th overall on win-loss. (But given that Kent Carlsson is 16th, you might want to sprinkle that with salt.)

And yet, and yet… Reilly, mate, I’m kinda with you. Even with your post-match ultra-recency bias.

All right, all right. I should show my hand. From the moment a gawky Scottish kid who looked like the dweeb from Gregory’s Girl lifted the US boys’ title in 2004, I was in Andy’s corner.

For a decade, I wrote match reports on a well-known fan site. I penned an April Fools piece that drew a retaliatory press conference from the man himself and a comment from Petch on Sky Sports. And another that caused the entire Spanish-speaking press to believe he was playing Rome for the ladies’ prize money.

I was there in Ghent when he lifted that lob in the Flanders Expo and rolled in the dirt in ecstatic abandon. I stole a selfie in the Monte Carlo sunshine and grinned like a Lotto winner. I followed Andy to Wimbledon, Queen’s, and Glasgow. I was a mini-roadshow.

So I declare an interest. Hey, if they sold shares in the guy, I’d have played FTSE right from when he was a startup.

In the Big Four era – and it was, prior to The Metal Hip – Andy was a standout number four. And yes, sure, I know the drill. He was d’Artagnan, Ringo Starr, Donatello. But he scratched his way to three slams, two Olympic gold medals, 14 Masters 1000 titles, the ATP Finals trophy and a Davis Cup win from under the noses of the three finest players of all time. So who’s laughing now?

But all-time number four? All-time?

This is where you expect me to apply an algorithm to each specific era of men’s tennis to establish base-level probability from which we can safely draw mathematical conclusions.

That’s not happening, for reasons of personal idiocy. But what we can do is examine the eras in which his rivals for that fourth spot competed. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll look at the highest scorers. 

Sampras (14 major titles)

One man’s weak era is another’s mega-strong-across-the-board talent, but Sampras went years without being challenged by a consistent number two. Agassi? In between his wigs, his fluffy pandas, his star-crossed dalliance with Brooke Shields, and his alleged hatred of the sport, Andre dipped in and out.

Beyond that, Pete caught the fading tail-lights of the Becker, Edberg, Wilander, Johnny Mac era, challenged intermittently only by a bunch of what we’d call regular top-tenners: Rafter, Goran, Stich.

Aside from all that, there’s not a pundit alive who would say Pete had a complete game. His lack of a world-class backhand glowed in the dark and deprived him of anything beyond a semi at Roland-Garros. 

No. 4 credentials: 7/10

Borg (11 majors)

Swede Bjorn Borg’s 11 slams have to come with an Abba-sized asterisk – in his favor. At the time, the Australian Open was reserved for marsupials. A guy would go down there only if he’d won the other three and was chasing a grand slam. And Borg never troubled Qantas. 

Borg also retired at 26, an age when today’s Big Three were barely hitting their stride. His career is as unfathomable, unknowable and unimaginable as the enigma himself. But in another golden era, when McEnroe and Connors hunted him to the ends of the Earth, he arguably, marginally, edges Sampras.

No. 4 credentials: 8/10

Emerson (12 majors)

Aussie Roy Emerson pulled 12 slams but nobody, nobody anywhere, considers him an all-time great. But hey, the guy has 28 slams, singles and doubles. Emerson was quick, fit and tall for his time. But his record was heavily skewed by vulturing six Aussie Opens, at the time by far the weakest of the four slams. 

Emerson also stuck to his guns as an amateur when rivals such as Laver turned pro and forfeited slams. For the record, Roy’s head-to-head against Rocket Rod was 3-22. I rest my case.

No. 4 credentials: 6/10

Laver (11 majors)

Another coulda, shoulda, woulda. The Rockhampton Rocket won 11 slams and two calendar grand slams. For the five years that preceded the Open era (aged 25-30), Laver was banned from playing slams. How much damage could he have done?

In an era of Rosewall, Hoad, Emerson, Roche, Newcombe, Santana and Ashe, the competition wasn’t too shabby. Laver has a strong case.

No. 4 credentials: 8/10.

Which brings us to Andy. 

Andy, Andy, Andy… what are we going to do with you?

Did Murray mix it in the toughest era of all time? Inarguably. Did he make it to world number one in this era of all eras? Yes, for 41 weeks. Did he make the final of every slam event? Yes. Who did he face in his 11 finals? Djokovic or Federer in all but one (and Nadal in a bunch of semis). Does he have an impressive Masters record? Fifth of all time, ahead of Pete.

On the ATP site’s Performance Zone and on Tennis Abstract, Murray sits at the top table for every stat. He’s fifth all-time after winning the first set. He’s converted 43.15% of all of his break points (Novak clocks in at 44.31%). He’s seventh on the all-time Returns in Play stat (way ahead of Djokovic).

From 2008 to 2016, the final pre-metal hip year, Murray finished year-end top four in all but one year (2014, when he was once more returning from rehab). As one of the Big Four, he was one quarter of an elite club that occupied all four semi-final spots at majors four times and three of the four spaces on nine other occasions. 

In 2011, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray hijacked 14 out of the 16 slam semi spots and 13 out of 16 the following year. Murray is the only player, male or female, to have won two Olympic golds in singles tennis. At the end of 2016, Andy put together a senseless run that included two Masters titles and the year-end ATP Finals.

It’s perhaps at Masters level that Murray’s at his most gobsmacking. Fourteen titles, with only Monte Carlo and Indian Wells of the nine missing from his résumé, is far from shabby in any era. 

And there’s the rub. We can pore over stats from dawn to dusk, but everything we look at has to be through a prism of three small words. In. This. Era. In this era where three men combined to win an insane 64-majors-and-counting and Murray managed to win as much as he did anyway. What would Murray have achieved had he been born ten years earlier? Or later?

Unquestionably, if we accept there was indeed a Big Four era, it was one of three kings and a prince. But it was at the high court of the most imposing empire in tennis history.

We can’t compare generations. Laver can’t play Murray at their respective peaks. You can simply look at the evidence and make a best guess. Or just defer to a seven-foot, bearded American pro for jolting your consciousness a degree or two and forcing you to examine history a little more forensically.

Thanks, Reilly. 


One thought on “Is Andy Murray the Fourth-Best Male Player of All Time?

  1. Definitely tennis is getting better over the years and so are facilities available to players. The facilities available to Nadal or
    Djokovic weren’t available to Margaret Court or Borg. So you are left with the grand slams to compare greatness ( in the hope that the best players of those years would have competed in it) between the eras. And by no yardstick will Andy Murray fit that bill of 4 th greatest. Sure he is a good player but there are others elbowing for that spot.


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