It seems to me there’s been a awful lot of fear of the GOAT debate running around, and for the life of me, I can't understand why. After all, this is sports, and we do keep records: who won a match, who won a tournament and who won a slam. All of these elements are important to fans because it is this very context that gives meaning to sports that separates it from the arts. I may love dancing as much as the man standing next to me, but aside from a few technical arguments on the proper form of this step or that, we really have no context for discussing which particular dancer is better than another.
But that’s not the case with sports.
In sports, and in particular in tennis, it is precisely the context of determining who is the better player in a point, game, set, match, tournament, year and era, that makes it compelling for those who follow the game. After all, you can prefer the tenacity of Nadal over the artistry of Federer, over the pure power of Djokovic; but at the end of the day all those elements are merely means to an end of determining who is the better player by something that is indisputable – results.
Yet somehow results have become the least important element in the GOAT debate, and it appears to have become fashionable to invent new and improved ways to look past the obvious (i.e. results) to something else that is the truest measure of greatness. But in my opinion, and as they say in the south, this is a bit like reaching around your ass to scratch your elbow. Today, the GOAT debate, and more importantly, the fear thereof, has been rekindled by the exploits of one Roger Federer.
As often as the fearful argue against the concept of the GOAT, detractors today typically argue more specifically against Federer as the GOAT. Mostly, they don’t debate his results, although some try to (rather convolutedly I might add), but rather offer variations on the problems with the GOAT argument itself. There are so many variations on arguments against his results as the truest measure of greatness that it is difficult to address them all in a single post, but here are some of the more common ones that are currently a la mode.
THE GAME HAS CHANGED
The argument goes like this: tennis is played very differently in 2009 than it was in say 1929 or 1959 or even 1989, and as such it is not reasonable to compare a player in 2009 to a player from 1929 to determine who was the better player. I suppose if you’re asking if say, Bill Tilden went into a time warp and played Rafa Nadal today, who would win, I think the answer is obviously Nadal. After all, Tilden couldn’t hit 100+ mph winners from behind the baseline, or 140mph serves up the T. Enveloped in this argument is that equipment has changed the game fundamentally – and this is very true. Tilden’s shots probably spun, at the most, 500 times a minute, whereas Nadal’s do so at 3200 rpm on average, and peaks at 5000 rpm. And these changes certainly would make it difficult for Tilden to beat Nadal.
But what about the alternate argument: what if Nadal were transported to 1929 without his modern equipment? I would argue that Rafa would at the very least have to completely regenerate his game to play in full pants on grass (almost all the time) with a racquet half the size, twice as heavy and with strings that impart almost no unnatural spin on the ball at all. I'm sure in time he would figure out a way to beat Tilden...or would he? What about Tilden? If you transported him from say, 1925, and gave him modern equipment, nutrition and accoutrements for 5 years, I'm sure he'd still never figure out a way to beat Nadal...or would he?
The point - this is what makes this argument entirely moot - because who would beat whom is not the question the GOAT debate is trying to answer.
The GOAT debate is trying to determine, given their circumstances who more often emerged as the best player at the most important competitions in their respective careers. In that context, if (God forbid) Rafa’s career ended tomorrow you could hardly say his was better than Tilden’s – after all, the pinnacle of both their eras was winning slams and 10 slams is more the 6. But then again, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow and for all we know we have either already witnessed Rafa’s last slam, or the 6th of 20 to come, which in either case, the case would be closed.
So what matters is not whether Rafa could use a slice forehand effectively, or if Tilden ever came over his backhand. It doesn’t matter that Rafa takes 35 seconds between points, but Tilden only played 50 times a year. What matters is that when it mattered the most (namely at the slams) Tilden emerged the best player more often than Rafa, although I am pretty confident that in 5 years, that will no longer be the case. It is, in fact, a macrocosm of determining a tournament champion – we don’t care that my first round was easier than yours, or that I played with wind on one day while you played under the roof. What we care about is who won – and we would no sooner name Ivo Karlovic the Wimbledon champion because he hit more aces than Nadal, than we would consider Rafa the greater champion because he hits harder than Tilden.
At the end of the day, what the players do either in technique or in tactics, is a means to an end - to win as many of the most coveted titles they can, and it is that measure that makes different careers perfectly comparable by this measure, regardless of the fact that the manner in which they achieved that aim has changed.
This one is most often cited when comparing Sampras to Federer – the argument is that Sampras' era was full of grand slam winners, and as such, he had more of them to overcome than Federer did, and as such, while they have the same number of slams, Sampras’ slams were harder (due to the competition), and thus he was the greater champion. On the face of it, this seems to be the most damning argument against Federer. After all, very few of his contemporaries have won slams so it seems to make sense that his era was weaker – of course there is a very big problem with this logic.
First, the measure you’re using is not abstract – tennis is a zero sum game – someone wins and someone loses every single unit of competition in the game – there are absolutely no ties in tennis. And when it comes to the measure that we use the most to evaluate players and their place in history, the number of slams won, it is even moreso a zero sum game (if that's logically possible) – because in this case one person wins a slam, and 127 other players who contended lose - hundreds more who didn't don't even show up on the books. And of course there are only 4 slams a year, so if you win 3 of them, your competition necessarily appears weaker because you’ve won more of them. But does this really speak to the quality of the contemporaries or that of the one who won more often?
Is Federer less of a champion because he won more?
His competitors necessarily won less often and by this logic qualify only as weaker competition? I would ask you this – which do you think Sampras would have preferred – to win 3 slams a year 3 times or 2 slams a year 4 times – I’m quite certain he’d prefer the former. Why? Not to sound condescending, but because in sports more winning is better. In the latter he'd have 8 slams, whereas in the former he'd have 9 - but his competition would be considered stronger in the latter because he, in fact, won less often.
That just doesn't add up.
There’s also another problem – using slams to measure the competition of a dominant player, but setting aside that same measure when evaluating the dominant player himself, creates two separate systems of valuation that are inconsistent, not to mention contrary to the idea of sports and competition. Furthermore, it assigns more value to a player for something that he didn’t do – in other words Sampras gets credit for Agassi winning more slams when he was a contemporary of Sampras. But isn’t there something Sampras could have done that he didn’t, (that Federer did) that would have made this argument moot? Of course there is; Sampras could have won the very slams that Agassi did; then he’d have more slams overall and Federer wouldn’t even be in the conversation.
At the end of the day, the competition is as strong as you let it be – never mind that Sampras never beat Edberg in a slam or Davis Cup, Edberg is still used to prop up the strength of Sampras’ competition. Another variation of this argument is that although Federer beat Agassi in slams, Agassi was older and weaker when Federer beat him than when Sampras beat him. So by this logic, was Edberg in 1995 better than Edberg in 1992 or 1990 for that matter? Was Becker in his prime in 1995 or in 1989? So why does Sampras’ competition get better, as they age, than Federer’s? For that you’ll have to ask those who support this argument - because I have no idea...well, I have an idea.
There are all kinds of variables on the competition even within a tournament – the Soderling that beat Nadal at Roland Garros was obviously not the same as the one who lost to Federer – but I give two arguments to the contrary – did Federer have anything to do with the quality of Soderling’s play in the final? Of course he did. And can anyone tell me honestly they think Acasuso, Haas or del Potro could have done in their first grand slam final what they did in the 3rd round, quarterfinal and semi-final? Probably not.
Wrapped up in this weak era argument is a microcosm thereof – Federer’s draws have been easier than his contemporaries. Because Federer always seems to wind up playing someone he’s beaten 10 times, you start to think that his draws are easy. But the rebuttal of this is so obvious that it’s easy to miss – if Federer’s draw is easy because he’s playing someone he’s beaten 10 times, doesn’t that speak to Federer’s greatness because he’s beaten so many players 10 times?
Is it a sensical criticism that you win too often to be considered that good?
It's more logical to say his draw is easy because he’s made it look easy, by beating his opponents over and over again in the past, and getting through the current one. At the end of the day, the draw is as easy as you make it look. Nobody thought Soderling would put up much of a defense against Nadal in Paris this year because Nadal had just beaten him in Rome 6-1, 6-0, and had lost to him 3 times. But suddenly his draw was harder in Paris – why? Because he lost. So in the aggregate, by winning more, your draw looks easier, and thus you’re not as good as you appear? But does that make sense?
Doesn't winning more often make you a better player?
The range of variation from stroke to stroke versus from era to era is immeasurable. What remains the same is this – whoever Sampras played in his grand slam final victories, whether it was Andre Agassi or Cedric Pioline, they won 6 matches in a row, but couldn’t win the 7th. And whoever Federer played in his grand slam finals, whether it was Marcos Baghdatis or Rafael Nadal, they won 6 matches in a row, but couldn’t win the 7th. After all, isn’t 7 wins in a row what everyone was trying to do all along? Does the rest of it really matter?
THE #1 RANK
There is no doubt that earning the #1 ranking is a measure of consistency over the period of time the rankings are calculated. Therefore, how many years you’ve finished #1 seems to be a good measure of greatness. I wouldn't entirely disagree with that and would use that as a tie breaker between two players on equal terms in majors won. But give any great player a choice between being #1 or winning slams and they’ll all choose slams. That’s because there are so many variations from one tournament to the next, in terms of effort, tours, commitment, etc., that the #1 ranking has a lot of holes in it in determining greatness. Slams, on the other hand, are the only pure competitive pursuits in the game of tennis - everyone covets them equally, and everyone comes to play. But there are other problems with the #1 ranking as compared to slams.
First off all, you can be ranked #1 without winning a slam – the list of players who have been ranked #1 without winning a slam is short, but damning nonetheless - Ivan Lendl in 1983, Carlos Moya in 1997, Marcelo Rios in 1998. Lendl and Moya eventually justified their ranking, but have the rankings always reflected accurately the relative value placed on various titles? If so, then how could the non-slam winning #1 be possible? At best, even though it often convenes with winning slams, the #1 ranking is a calculated reflection that has only existed since 1973, and has always been heavily weighted in favor of ATP events - even to this day (you could win the calendar slam, but if another player wins 6 Masters 1000s and 4 500s, by the ATP ranking you're on equal terms - that doesn't make sense).
Before the ATP rankings, rankings were arbitrarily determined by various individuals based on a myriad of considerations that included foremost the number of the most important tournaments won but also included factors that changed as the game changed - namely before the game was unified under the single umbrella of the ATP organized tour in 1990.
Even so, there have been cases of players who have won fewer slams than their nearest rival, but still somehow finished the year ranked #1: Jimmy Connors in 1978 won the US Open – it was his only slam that year – Bjorn Borg, on the other hand won Wimbledon and the French Open – guess who finished the year ranked #1.
And on January 3rd, 1983 John McEnroe, who hadn’t won any slams for more than 12 months, somehow usurped Jimmy Connors to the #1 ranking despite Connors having won Wimbledon and the US Open in the previous year. Nobody considers the anomalies as problematic because the second best player at the time and since retained considerable gravitas – but the rankings made little sense then and as such, are not a reliable measure of greatness in the aggregate, because the ranking system has been so clearly flawed and more importantly inconsistent. The same cannot be said of the majors.
HEAD TO HEAD AGAINST HIS GREATEST RIVALS
This one goes like this: at the end of his career, Sampras had winning records against all of his major contemporaries, whereas Federer appears to have a losing record to many of his major contemporaries – so how can you be the greatest of all time when you’re not even the greatest of your own era?
To this I give two names – Richard Krajicek and Michael Stich. Both players had winning records against Sampras over the course of their careers, and both played him often enough for those records to “matter” in the abstract (10 and 7 times respectively). So who was the better player Sampras or Krajicek? Sampras or Stich? Nobody in their right mind would argue the latter in either case and the reason is because they both won 13 fewer slams than Sampras did. In other words, when it comes to Krajicek and Stick, although their head to heads against Sampras were considerably better, clearly the measure of greatness was slams. But when it comes to Federer, somehow the measure of greatness turns to head to head versus Nadal, and Murray (of all people). So why use slam totals to propel Sampras past those whom he lost to more often than he beat, and not do the same for Federer?
In the case of Murray there is no good explanation. In the case of Nadal there are only two good ones – first Nadal has 6 majors himself, and thus is considered an all-time great. But Federer has 8 more majors than Nadal, and if he were the better player in this era, shouldn't he have more majors? That brings us to the other argument: that Nadal will eventually surpass Federer. Well, then when Nadal surpasses Federer, he will necessarily be the GOAT – until then SPECIFICALLY AS COMPARED TO THE CAREER OF FEDERER he’s just like Krajicek and Stich to Sampras - he just happens to have a few more slams to his name.
The funny thing is, the one player who loses out in this discussion despite years of dominance that exceeds just about any other player in history, is Pancho Gonzales – whereas slam totals is the basis for Sampras’ and Federer’s GOAT candidacy, it is entirely head to head competition that is the basis of Pancho Gonzales’. But that doesn’t do anything for Sampras, who is most often cited as a more worthy claimant to being the GOAT than Gonzales. In fact you won’t get any argument from me if you suggest that Gonzales was greater than Federer – but you will if you say Sampras was – for now they are even, and if Federer gets #15, that’s one more than Sampras and in my view that makes him greater...by 1 slam.
NOT EVERYBODY PLAYED ALL THE SLAMS
It is historically ironic that the championship of the country that has produced more great champions in the history of the game than probably any other (with the exception of the United States) was for so long considered the red-headed step-sister of the slams. There are a lot of reasons for this that are not germane to the GOAT question, so I'll leave that to another post. What is germane is whether this matters to the GOAT argument.
Basically it goes like this - if all the greats always played the Australian Open, they would have won more slams and thus would look better historically. Ironically, one of the other legitimate GOAT candidates, Laver, played every Australian Open he could, so that argument is not necessarily applicable to him (more on that later). But what about Connors, Borg and McEnroe - since they won so many slams on grass, they would surely have won the Australian Open more often, right?
Well, if that's the case, then Sampras and Federer should have won 5 Australian Opens, since they've both won 5 US Opens - oops...they've only won 2 and 3 respectively. In fact, Connors won 3 slams in 1974, and then proceeded to reach the final in 1975 of each slam he won in 1974 - the result - he lost all 3 finals all to players that he had easily beaten the year before, and generaly bettered in his career.
The point? There are no guarantees in tennis, so you can't argue that a player who won Wimbledon 5 times would have won the Australian 5 times, just because the surface was the same - why did Laver go 4, 3 and 2 in Wimbledons, Aussie's and US Opens? They were all on the same surface when he played, so he should have gone 4, 4 and 4 for that argument to hold.
There's another side to this argument - all the slams that were not available to professionals would have added to their career totals. This is mostly an argument to pad the accomplishments of those that suffered the most during the schism between amateur and professional tennis before the open era began. The most common example given is usually Laver, who finished his career with 11 slams, but supposedly would have had a lot more if he had been able to play as a professional. But there's a problem with this argument - if Laver had been able to play majors after turning professional, so too would Hoad, Rosewall, Gonzales, Trabert, etc. Thus they would all have been in a position to add to their totals as well, and more importantly prevent Laver from winning more. At the very least, we must discount Laver's total of 11 by the 6 he won as an amateur and start from there in this hypothetical slam total. He may very well have won 10 more majors, but it would have to be added to the 5 he won as a professional, rather than the 11 people normally use as the jumping point to arrive at his hypothetical total of 20+.
In fact even if he won half the majors from which he was banned from 1963 to 1967 he goes from 5 to 15. Speaking of which, Laver won 9 out of 15 of the 3 biggest professional tournaments he entered during that period (those tournaments considered the professional slams), which takes his total from 5 to 14.
We measure who is the best player on a surface by how often they win the biggest titles on that surface. Vilas may have a better record on clay, but few consider him greater than Borg because of their starkly contrasting records at the French Open. We measure who is the best player in a year by how often they win the biggest titles in a year – Connors may have amassed more arbitrarily assigned points in 1978 than Borg, but would anyone say he was the better player that year? No. Why? Because of Borg’s results in slams – 2 wins and a final, versus 1 win and 1 final for Connors. We measure who is the best player in an era by how often they’ve won the biggest tournaments in the game – so nobody considers Connors a better player than Borg even though he won 30 more titles – why? Because many of those were rinky-dink titles contested by rinky-dink opponents. But when everyone equally pursued the same title, Borg won more – namely 3 more.
So the question is – why are so many afraid to anoint the player who wins the most slams ever as the greatest player ever? One thing is for certain – it has nothing to do with results. And isn’t that more than mildly ironic when it comes to sports?