Passionate sports fans love nothing more than a lively argument. And no tennis topic these days is more thought-provoking or hotly debated than “Which player is the greatest of all time?”
The clear-cut leaders, the best, not just of this era, but in tennis history are the Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Conventional wisdom states that Federer is “the greatest” simply because he boasts the most Grand Slam titles, 20, with Nadal being a close second with 19. Novak Djokovic is the youngest of the trio, aged 32, and has been the most successful in the past decade, but he is the least accomplished with 16 majors — at least in terms of the most widely accepted and important criterion.
What should the criteria be? What weight should be attached to each criterion? And what should not be considered as valid criteria?
These questions are especially timely and relevant with the Australian Open, the first major of the new decade, going on. If either Roger or Rafa wins this title, his devotees will beat the GOAT drums louder than ever. If fast-charging Djokovic prevails, his supporters will undoubtedly protest. “Not so fast!” they’ll cry, and with good reason, because the Djoker has momentum, an age advantage, and a burning ambition. “There is no better way to make history of the sport than to win Slams,” said the Serb. “It’s no secret that I have a desire and a goal to reach the most Slams and to reach Roger’s record.”
Let’s review the GOAT criteria in what I believe to be the order of their importance.
Grand Slam events — The only undisputable point in this debate is that a major title is worth more than any ATP and WTA title. But all Grand Slam titles are not created equally.
In 1995, an Australian named Allan Kendall wrote an excellent book titled Australia’s Wimbledon Champions . However, it’s highly unlikely a British tennis expert would author a book about Britain’s Australian Open champions. As Mats Wilander, who won seven Grand Slam titles but never Wimbledon, said, “You can’t be considered a great player unless you win Wimbledon. That’s the way it is.”
No past or present player or tennis authority has ever made this assertion about any other major tournament. For example, until Federer and Nadal surpassed Pete Sampras in total majors, most experts still considered 14-major winner and 7-time Wimbledon champion Sampras “the greatest” despite his not winning Roland Garros. (Three noteworthy exceptions to Wilander’s dictum are Ivan Lendl, Monica Seles and Justine Henin, all consensus all-time greats who never captured Wimbledon).
The Aussie Open has considerably upgraded its status among the majors since the mid-1980s from a tournament that leading players often skipped to a can’t-miss event today. Yet it still doesn’t compare in prestige to Wimbledon. Would you rather win Wimbledon or the Australian Open? The answer is easy for sports fans around the world, except perhaps for some chauvinists Down Under.
As for the second-most important major, Europeans, who play mostly on clay, would certainly pick the French Open. In North America, where the surface of choice is usually hard courts, we would likely vote for the US Open.
A title breakdown at the majors shows Federer leading the trio at Wimbledon (8) and the US Open (5), Nadal way ahead at the French Open (12), and Djokovic slightly in front at the Australian Open (7).
Slight advantage Federer
The Olympic Games — No criterion is more undervalued in GOAT debates than the Olympics. In fact, Sports Illustrated writer Jon Werthiem, in his November 20, 2019 “Mailbag” column, ranked the Olympics an outrageously low No. 8 on his list — even behind two irrelevant criteria: “Longevity, span of majors” and “eye test/backstory.”
Olympic gold medals possess such great value partly because they are rare — 16 major tournaments are contested for every Olympics. Top-50 players may get only three or four chances to compete at the Olympics in their careers, if they’re healthy and are selected. Superstars know their resume is not complete until they win a gold medal. Among the Big Three, only Nadal has captured a singles gold medal, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Tennis events at the Tokyo Games, scheduled July 25 to August 3, are surely the last chance to fill this gaping void for Federer, who turns 39 on August 8. Djokovic, who will be 33 then and has been inspired by Federer’s extraordinary longevity, could have two more chances.
National pride and prestige also factor heavily in the equation for many players, tennis associations, fervent media and patriotic fans. When No. 133-ranked Jie Zheng stunned everyone by making the 2008 Wimbledon semifinals, the headline in a Chinese newspaper read: “Wimbledon semifinal greatly enhances your Olympics preparation.” Put differently, the message was: Nice going, Jie Zheng, but what really matters is the Beijing Games, and we expect you to excel there.
Before the 2012 London Games, Serena Williams said the gold medal she won playing doubles with her sister Venus at the 2000 Sydney Olympics is “my favourite thing I have” and the only award she shows off to friends. After trouncing Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 for the gold in 2012, ecstatic Serena did a little dance and gushed, “Winning Wimbledon is the best feeling in the world. Now that I won the gold medal, I didn’t think it could get better than winning Wimbledon.”
How important is a tennis gold medal?
Andre Agassi, who boasts a career Grand Slam and a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games, summed it up best: “To win a Grand Slam [title] is the greatest thing in the sport, but to win an Olympics is the biggest thing you can do in all sports.”
ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Premier Mandatory events — In terms of prestige, the Masters and Premier Mandatory tournaments are surpassed only by the Grand Slam events and the Olympic Games. A few irrationally exuberant journalists and publicists occasionally call the highly popular BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California, “the fifth major”; but this Masters and Premier Mandatory event, or any other, is certainly not that.
Rising stars often win one or more of these tournaments before capturing their first Grand Slam title, as Ashleigh Barty and Bianca Andreescu did in 2019. Unlike the four majors and the Olympics, however, none of these second-tier tournaments is played on grass. And again unlike the four majors, no Masters tournaments require three-of-five-set matches, as the men’s majors do.
On the other hand, Masters and Premier Mandatory tournaments are quite difficult to win in two critical respects. With 64-player draws for one-week events and 96-player draws for 11-day events, such as Indian Wells and Miami, there are fewer low-ranked players and fewer days off between matches, both of which make these tournaments an extremely demanding test of skill, will, and stamina.
Not surprisingly, the mentally and physically strong Djokovic is the only player to have won all nine Masters tournaments. After the speedy Serb defeated Federer 6-4, 6-4 in the final of the 2018 Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati to complete his career sweep, Federer lauded the feat.
“I think it’s extremely difficult to win a Masters 1000,” Federer said. “These tournaments don’t come easy. You saw my performance today. It’s just a long week. It’s tough, gruelling. The best players are playing. You play against tough guys early on in the draw, so you don’t have much time to find your rhythm and actually work on your game throughout the week. He’s done that maybe better than anybody. So it’s a great credit to him.”
At the end of 2019, Nadal had racked up the most Masters, 35, barely ahead of Djokovic’s 34, with Federer a distant third at 28.
Slight advantage Nadal
Davis Cup and Fed Cup — The Davis Cup is the oldest and most renowned annual international team competition in sports. It is also the largest; in 2019, 133 nations entered the Davis Cup. Yet, it is often, and erroneously, downgraded in “Who is the greatest?” debates. Wertheim listed Davis Cup a shockingly low No. 10.
Whatever you think of the Davis Cup format, which was radically revamped in 2019, this event has featured some of the most storied matches in history, especially in Cup finals. After Patrick Rafter dramatically came back from a two-set deficit to beat Cedric Pioline to help Australia defeat reigning champion France in 1997, he said, “They say you have the best and worst moments of your life in Davis Cup. This is one of the best moments of my life.”
On the other hand, a defeat in a crucial Davis Cup match has devastated many players. After costing Serbia the 2019 Davis Cup final against Russia by making five volley errors in the deciding set tiebreaker of the deciding match, a weeping Viktor Troicki, said, “I probably feel the worst ever. I let my team down, and I apologize to them…. God gave me once [a chance] to be the hero, maybe to win the Davis Cup in the deciding rubber. Now He took it away.”
Given the 20th-century political-military history of Germany, Boris Becker, a Davis Cup hero, complained about the hyper-nationalism the Davis Cup generated. “It almost means too much,” Becker once said. “It goes beyond the tennis match. They almost turn it into a war between countries, and I don’t agree with that.”
Becker may have overstated the point, but national fervor at Davis Cup matches surpasses the enthusiasm at any other tennis individual or team competition. In 2014, for example, 27,448 boisterous fans watched Federer carry Switzerland to its only Davis Cup title. It was the biggest crowd ever to watch a tennis match.
More important than the total number of Davis Cups a player’s team has won is the player’s singles record, particularly in finals. All of the Big Three have demonstrated their greatness when the pressure and stakes were highest. Nadal boasts a near-perfect 29-1 record and led Spain to five Davis Cup titles—in 2004, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2019. Djokovic guided Serbia to the 2010 Davis Cup title and racked up a 34-7 record, whereas Federer amassed a 40-8 record.
Big advantage Nadal
ATP Finals and WTA Finals — These two season-ending tournaments don’t climax the tennis year—unlike the Super Bowl, World Series, or the NBA Finals, which always determine the champions in football, baseball, and basketball. In sharp contrast, tennis has four peaks, the majors, and five during Olympics years. The last major, the US Open, is staged in September, whereas the WTA Finals and ATP Finals come in October and November, respectively.
The ATP Finals and WTA Finals take on greater importance when the season-ending No. 1 ranking hangs in the balance. On the other hand, when the No. 1 ranking has already been clinched, these two events are anti-climactic. Therein lies the problem with the pro tennis schedule.
Only the top eight-ranked players qualify for these two season-ending tournaments. That alone makes them prestigious. However, their value is diminished somewhat because of the flawed tournament format. The four players with the best round-robin records qualify for the semifinals. That means a player can win these tournaments with not just one loss but even two losses.
Federer leads Djokovic 6-5 in ATP Finals titles. Nadal has yet to win this title, making it the only major void in his career record.
Slight advantage Federer
Career titles — Even though tournaments vary enormously in terms of prestige, rankings points, prize money, and degree of difficulty, all other things being equal , the more tournaments you win the better.
Let’s make this postulate using three key criteria. Both Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati captured three Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal. But, if career titles were the sole tiebreaker to determine which player had the more successful career, Davenport would easily prevail because she won 55, compared to only 14 for Capriati.
“Winning titles is the thing that I am working for,” Stefanos Tsitsipas told the ATP website, after he defeated Mikhail Kukushkin 7-5, 7-6 (5) to win the Open 13 Provence last February. “It’s the biggest satisfaction and the biggest joy in tennis.”
Tsitsipas understands that winning titles, especially major and Olympic titles, is how a player makes history. It may be preferable to defeat three top 10 players to win a major title rather than none, as Marion Bartoli and Ashleigh Barty did during the past decade, but that is irrelevant. In tennis, the object is to win titles; though, of course, one has to beat several players to accomplish that. (Byes at some non-major events unfairly benefit higher-ranked players, but that’s another issue.)
Federer enjoys a huge advantage here with 103 career titles, with Nadal a distant second at 84 and Djokovic third at 77.
Big Advantage Federer
Year-end No. 1 rankings — Let’s first thrash out the mini-debate within this criterion. “Given the rolling rankings, isn’t weeks at No. 1 far more important than year-end No. 1?” Wertheim asserted.
The short answer is no. The best analogies here come from the four biggest pro sports in the U.S. Basketball, football, baseball, and hockey pick the Player of the Week (POW) throughout the season. But the POW the most times isn’t always the annual Most Valuable Player (MVP). Most important, however, the MVP award is far more coveted, honored, and remembered than any weekly award. Finally, ask this question: In tennis, would you rather rank No. 1 for more weeks during a given year, or be No. 1 in the year-end rankings? I strongly doubt any player would pick the former.
For example, when Simona Halep needed a win over Karolina Pliskova in the 2019 Miami Open semifinals to regain the No. 1 ranking, Halep said, “It doesn’t mean everything to get back to No. 1 tomorrow, or the next week. It’s more important to finish the year at No. 1.”
While the year-end No. 1 ranking is a valid criterion, it ranks near the bottom in importance. That’s because both the ATP and WTA ranking systems are seriously flawed. They don’t count results at the Davis Cup, the Fed Cup, and the Olympics. The ATP overvalues their ATP Finals, giving its champion 1,500 ranking points, only 500 less than the champion of the four majors. No player would consider four ATP Finals titles equal to three major titles, or probably even one major title.
Equally wrong-headed and most damning, neither the ATP nor WTA even count all of their own tournaments in the rankings. The year-end ATP Rankings is based on calculating, for each player, his total points from the four Grand Slams, the eight mandatory ATP Tour Masters 1000 tournaments and the Nitto ATP Finals of the ranking period, along with his best six results from all ATP Tour 500, ATP Tour 250, ATP Challenger Tour and Futures tournaments.
That means the worst results of Tour 500 and smaller tournaments are thrown out for players ranked No. 4 through No. 25 (except for No. 13 Kei Nishikori) in the year-end 2019 rankings. Specifically, that ranged from two tournaments for Stan Wawrinka and John Isner to 15 tournaments for Benoit Paire. The Big Three each played 17 tournaments, so all of them were counted.
When all the results are not counted — in any sport — the rankings are inaccurate and thus unfair.
In any event, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are all tied with five year-end No. 1 rankings.
Head-to-Head records — Among the valid criteria, this is the most overrated and least important. Even some of the most knowledgeable TV tennis analysts pose this rhetorical question: “How can Federer be the GOAT if Nadal has a winning career match record (now 24-16) against him?”
The simple and obvious answer is that tennis matches have different values. The more important a tournament is, the more important the match is, and thus the more important the victory is. Yet another variable is the round—the final round has the most weight and the semifinals second most, and so forth.
If we break down this historic rivalry, we find that Nadal boasts a 10-4 advantage over Federer at Grand Slam events—3-1 at the Australian Open, 6-0 at the French Open, and 1-3 at Wimbledon. These are the matches that mattered most, and by a significant amount.
But what if Federer, not Nadal, had a 24-16 head-to-head advantage, and Nadal had the same 10-4 advantage at the majors? I bet both Federer and Nadal eagerly would take that 10-4 advantage, regardless of their overall head-to-head record.
Contemporary opposition — Many GOAT pickers, including Wertheim, completely overlook the quality and depth of contemporary opposition, despite the fact that this criterion is not only valid, but particularly pertinent in our discussion. Reigning in a strong era clearly carries more weight than in a weak era.
Federer always bristles when reporters rightly note that he was fortunate to rack up 12 of his record 20 Grand Slam titles from 2003 to 2007, an especially weak period in men’s tennis. Why? The only elite opponent the Swiss superstar had to face then was Nadal, who was superb on clay, rapidly improving on grass, and only modestly successful on hard courts.
Agassi, after capturing the 2003 Aussie Open, was injured and over the hill. Solid-stroking but one-dimensional David Nalbandian upset Federer at the 2003 Australian and US Opens, but never again at a major and retired without a top-5 year-end ranking. Huge-serving Andy Roddick suffered from defective technique and bad tactics and steadily declined after winning the 2003 US Open. The underachieving Marat Safin, powerful but neither dedicated nor consistent, won the 2005 Australian title and reached the 2004 final, but did little else at the majors. Lleyton Hewitt’s lightweight counterpunching left him vulnerable to power players, and he failed to win a major during this five-year stretch.
Starting in 2008, though, Nadal emerged as a complete player, dethroning Federer at Wimbledon, and Djokovic broke through, grabbing his first major title at the Australian Open. That year marked the start of a Golden Era that lasted throughout the 2010s. Then Federer had to regularly face Nadal and Djokovic, also in their primes, and he usually lost to them. In sharp contrast to Federer, Djokovic always faced formidable opponents, as did Nadal by 2008.
And let’s not forget Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. This formidable duo whipped the Big Three a combined 41 times (29 by Murray) and also helped make the 2010s the greatest decade. Murray, an aggressive counterpuncher at his best, collected three Grand Slam titles, two gold medals, 14 Masters titles, and earned the No. 1 year-end ranking in 2016. Wawrinka parlayed his powerful serve and groundstrokes to capture Australian, French, and U.S. titles.
Advantage Djokovic and Nadal
The Verdict — All valid criteria considered, Nadal barely edges Federer for the GOAT accolade at the dawn of the new decade.
If Federer wins the Australian Open, however, he’ll regain the treasured GOAT status he owned until late 2019. And if Djokovic reigns Down Under, he’ll continue to close the gap against both Nadal and Federer. A triumph by any of the Big Three will hold off the surging young trio of Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Stopping these and other Next Genners may prove the toughest challenge for the ageless Big Three in their quests to win the GOAT battle and make even more history in the early 2020s.
Where do you stand in the great GOAT debate?
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