Let’s celebrate Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka who have won three Grand Slam titles each. Also Andy Roddick, Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin, Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev. Starting with Wimbledon 2003, the Big Three — Federer, Nadal, Djokovic — have won 61 of the 74 Slams, leaving these nine men to pick up the remaining.
Many fine players will finish as footnotes to the era.
An era which might have produced the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT), that favourite talking point of generations. Nadal’s was a magnificent comeback and he deserved to win the Australian Open and claim his 21st Grand Slam title. But is he the greatest ever?
Apart from Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Nadal faces competition from Rod Laver, Don Budge, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg. Only two men — Budge and Laver — have won what is now inelegantly referred to as the ‘Calendar Slam’, all four titles in the same calendar year. And Laver did it twice! Since he last won it in 1969, no player had won four in a whole career till Andre Agassi won the French Open in 1999.
Elements that go into an individual’s idea of GOAT are: record against contemporaries, amazing victories, the belief that the athlete has raised the level of his sport giving us its best representation, temperament, behaviour, personal bias, style and more.
Beauty is not the aim of competitive sport, but at the highest level it is an important accompaniment. Federer had what David Foster Wallace calls in his essay (‘ Roger Federer as Religious Experience’ ) “kinetic beauty”. For some, the GOAT must stand at the intersection of “art, accomplishment and decency,” in the evocative words of Rohit Brijnath.
So there you have it — why, for me, Federer stands alone. Nadal has power, grit and the ability to chase down apparent winners and startle his opponent by returning them. Djokovic has the consistency of clockwork, every part moving in sync with every other, bringing the textbook alive. It is craft at its height, just as Nadal’s is athleticism at its best.
Yet for that combination of art, accomplishment and decency (which is what the GOAT must have, by definition), it has to be Federer.
For years as a young reporter, my choice was Laver. He too had the three qualities in abundance. But he didn’t have two other near-equals dogging his every step as the Big Three have had for a decade and a half. InOn Being John McEnroe, Tim Adams wrote, “Great tennis players cannot exist in isolation. They require a rivalry, an equal to allow them to discover what they might be capable of.”
Wallace begins his essay with, “These are times, as you watch the Swiss (Federer) play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” The greatest — Ali, Pele, Sobers, Bolt — cause jaws to drop and eyes to protrude. That’s how you know.