Federer, Nadal, Djokovic. . .All-time Greats Going Head-to-Head. GOAT Debate Just Gets More Confusing


Rod Laver and Rafael Nadal. Who would have won?

Tennis’ favorite argument, the GOAT debate, is now, officially, a mess. Who is the Greatest Of All Time? Tennis might not have a best player ever.

At this point, for this second, and willing to change soon, I’m still going with Rafael Nadal as all-time best, though he’s not even the best now, having lost to Novak Djokovic Sunday in the Wimbledon final. He also hasn’t won nearly as many majors as Roger Federer.

It’s not easy making an argument that sounds ridiculous to yourself when you’re making it.

But I can’t take Federer, because he always loses to Nadal. And I can’t take Djokovic, because he has only been great for seven to 10 months.

In retirement, Pete Sampras is working his way back into this argument.

You can’t judge accurately through history. Would Rod Laver have beaten Bill Tilden?  I think so, but how do I know for sure? So you can only go on how well someone did against his own generation, and then try to decide how good that generation was. Or maybe you just use the eye-test.

The dream, in any sport really, is to see all-time greats actually playing against each other in their primes. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus coming up 18 together at Augusta, tied, or maybe Muhammad Ali against Joe Louis. Then it could all be settled.

Well, something close to that is happening now in tennis, and it’s just making things more confusing.

Clay courts, hard courts, grass courts, best of three, best of five, majors, minors, Europe, U.S. Whatever, whenever, wherever, Djokovic has beaten Nadal this year. That means he’s better than Nadal, right? Sure, in the same way that Nadal’s dominance over Federer meant he was the better player in that rivalry.

But here’s the problem: At the French Open, Federer beat Djokovic mostly because he figured out the gameplan. He mixed up spins and paces and through off Djokovic’ timing. In fact, in the past nine months, Federer has beaten Djokovic four of seven times.

I think Federer is going to keep beating Djokovic.

Roger Federer and Bill Tilden

Would that make Federer better than Djokovic? It is possible that Nadal is better than Federer is better than Djokovic is better than Nadal. Not only that, but I consider Juan Martin del Potro the favorite to win the U.S. Open.

I’m getting a headache.

Today, the top of men’s tennis might be all about matchups, how one player’s game fits against another’s. That’s just going to mess up the GOAT argument all the more. That argument centers around Federer, Nadal, Rod Laver and Sampras, though Bill Tilden, who won 10 majors, is forgotten because he played so long ago.

Federer has more majors than anyone, at 16. But counting majors is a new thing. For example, Bjorn Borg won 11 majors, but played the Australian Open just one time, as a 17-year old. People used to blow off the Australian Open. Rod Laver won two full Grand Slams – four majors in one calendar year — but missed a lot of majors because he turned pro before the open era.

Federer built up those numbers against a generation that wasn’t so great, overtaking its leader, Andy Roddick. And when Nadal came along he figured out Federer and passed him. Now, the generation is great.

That said, Federer has built up majors in an era when majors mattered, and has done it on all surfaces with incredible consistency and longevity.

Laver was amazing, too. But his first Grand Slam came as an amateur when all the best players were pros, and not allowed to play majors. In his second Grand Slam, three of the four majors were on grass, where he was particularly tough to beat. He dominated an era with a number of great players, but not much depth.

Sampras might well be the GOAT. Sure he has 14 majors to Federer’s 16, and he never won the French Open. But the clay was slower back then and the grass at Wimbledon was faster. It was more difficult then to have a game tailored to both surfaces, as they represented true extremes. Sampras dominated a strong era, too, with Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Boris Becker.

I’m sticking with Nadal for now, but I would write GOAT next to his name in pencil, eraser ready. He passed Federer during Federer’s prime. His 10 major titles leave him sixth on the all-time list, and climbing. At 25, he has won four of the past six majors. He has won all of the majors, and passes the eye-test, mine anyway. And he’s playing in an era with stars on top and depth beneath.

But you can’t be the best of all time if you can’t beat the big rival in your own era. That’s the argument against Federer and it’s the test for Nadal. He has beaten Djokovic more than Djokovic has beaten him so far, but Nadal’s story isn’t finished yet. If Djokovic keeps rolling him, then Nadal can’t be best-ever, either.

At this point, retirement might be the best place to build your case. Laver and Sampras are climbing. Tilden might get back into the running yet. If only we could see him play Federer in their primes with the same equipment. Nah, that would just make it worse.



About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

One response to “Federer, Nadal, Djokovic. . .All-time Greats Going Head-to-Head. GOAT Debate Just Gets More Confusing

  • Kyle Hoegh

    To evaluate GOAT the performance measures need to be over a long period of time and with a large sample set. There are too many ups and downs in each player’s games to make judgements any other way. To put it in math terms, the players performance has a sinusoidal trend in addition to the parabolic “career arc.” When people imagine or if they were to draw the career arc of great players it is generally simplified to be a gradually increasing line holding at the players “peak” then decreasing as the players skills decline with age. This is a good model, just oversimplified, as the model needs to account for smaller scale peaks and valleys within career arcs. We can keep that same model, but by adding a sinusoidal shape as we move along this trend it can help explain a lot. Adding the sinusoidal model the higher frequency lower amplitude peaks and valleys within the larger “career arc” trend account for these smaller scale fluctuations in a players career such as playing through relatively minor injuries or just “losing the feel” for a period of time on the valley end and “seeing the ball well/getting the feel,” feeling completely healthy, etc. on the peak end. By adding the sinusoidal trend, oversimplifications such as player X beat player Y when they were both in their primes (peak of career arc’s), so player X’s best is better than player Y’s best. By accounting for short term fluctuations with the sinusoidal trend, it is possible and even probable that a player with a higher peak on their career arc will lose for short periods of time to players with a lower career arc peak even when both are in their relative primes depending on how significant the difference in career arc peaks is from the smaller scale sinusoidal peak and valley amplitudes of the players. If the career arc peaks are not different by a large amount (such as Nadal, Djok, Fed) and the sinusoidal trends are out of phase enough so that one player’s sinusoidal peak corresponds to the other players sinusoidal valley the lesser player can win for short periods of time. That is why larger sample sizes over longer periods of time are necessary (to account for small scale peaks and valleys and evaluate larger scale trends). Basically, what Novak Djokovic needs to prove now, is that his dominance over Nadal the last 7 Months is part of a larger trend (he has a higher peak on his career arc) and not simply a short term term trend due a phase difference between his small scale peak coinciding with Nadal’s small scale valley. This is the same question people were asking about nadal when he first started beating Federer on a regular basis. He answered that question with 17-8 over 7 years to show that his career peak is higher than Fed’s. Djokovic/Nadal on a micro-level? Despite the 5-0 + 2 of 3 majors in 2011 success, we can’t forget that it was less than a year ago Nadal beat Djokovic on Nadal’s worst surface/balls to win his 3rd straight major. Djokovic/Nadal on a macro-level? Djokovic has a much bigger hill to climb than Nadal ever had with Fed before we can start calling his recent dominance part of a larger trend. Macro-scale measures such as his current 12-16 record vs Nadal, Nadal holding 4 of the last 6 Majors, 1-5 career mark in major championships vs. Nadal. These are the type of “big picture” measures that need to be used when evaluating GOAT. It will be extremely interesting to see if he can continue on his current path and start pointing to these larger scale measures to prove it vs Nadal like Nadal did vs Federer. To me, he has a long way to go.

    Of course I didn’t even get into the “how player’s games matchup” issue that Greg touched upon. Well, matchup considerations can be accounted for by using superposition to add a player vs. player dependent step functions to the trend equations. Maybe we can get into the details of that another time. . .

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