Tuesday, August 21, 2012

THE GOAT DEBATE

Disclaimer - if reading about the GOAT debate would be considered hazardous to your emotional well-being, please STOP READING THIS POST IMMEDIATELY.

I've been trolling the blogosphere lately getting into all manner of the GOAT debate. Let me tell you, there is something visceral about the debate that makes it the kind of thing that, if you want to enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner, you just don't bring up. The level of vitriol coming from debaters of many different perspectives on the topic is staggering.  Having said that, I'm not going to pretend I don't understand why there is so much emotional involvement in something as, in the grand scheme of things, benign as the GOAT. At its core, the emotion is really just a deep love of the game - and honestly I can't argue with that.

But apparently, in the course of forging one too many times into the breach, a few people have been more than mildly irritated with the "majors won" argument as the only measure of greatness we need to consider, the conviction with which I make it and the conviction with which I dispute all other measures argued.  Like everyone else who debates the GOAT, obviously I do love the game. I play it, I watch it, and I study its history for no other reason than I love it. The majors constitute the backbone of the tradition in the game, and the tradition is the only thing that links current players with the history, and as a result, I believe we can compare players across the history of the game by counting majors won. It is an imperfect measure - I never said it wasn't - but so too are the crowned jewels of the game, but because we love it, we accept those limitations.

To argue that head to head record, or proficiency on multiple surfaces, or talent, or any other specific measure of greatness is more important than majors won strikes me as both revisionist and cynical. A little bit like when Lucy yanks the ball away from Charlie Brown at the moment he's about to kick it. Everyone involved in tennis, from the players to the fans and everyone in between, follows the majors because they are what everyone follows. At its core, the most basic argument for the tradition of the game is, indeed circular, but somehow, it doesn't make that argument any less compelling.

All these other measures of greatness are either (1) encompassed in winning majors, (2) subordinate in value to the majors, (3) a means to achieving majors or (4) completely arbitrary.  As such, I don't think it makes any sense to bother with any other measure of greatness than majors won. But one of the arguments that I find the most pernicious is that somehow there is something wrong with seeking to identify a GOAT, or even the possibility that a GOAT can be determined.  

I mean, if you follow tennis, and the game is even remotely important to you, then you obviously have no problem with determining mini-GOATs like the best player in a match, the best player at a tournament, the best player over the course of a year, and ironically, the best player in an ill-defined period of time so fashionably referred to these days as an "era". I have no clue what an era is, but if you do, and you accept there can be a best of it, isn't it just a little disingenuous to somehow conclude that for the ultimate era (all time) the best cannot be determined? Why is that? If you use the same tools used to determine all these other mini-GOATs, which you accept, what on earth is the problem with determining THE GOAT?

Of course, that's a big if - and strangely, it seems the only way to dispute the most obvious candidate for the GOAT, is to dispute the validity of the measure used to determine it. My question is, in exchange for what measures? What measures are superior to those measures which we know, accept and already use for nearly every other competitive evaluation in the game?

What I have tried to guard against more than anything, in arguing majors won as the best measure of greatness, is the introduction of measures of greatness that contradict those that are already established by the game's traditions, because doing so would do the one thing that, as a tennis fan, I admit I simply can't bear to do - invalidate precisely that which makes me love the game. 

If that happens, then what the hell is the point? If you're wondering, that's why it's so important to me.
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