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.
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.
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.