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The wrong question: Who's the GOAT—Federer, Nadal or Djokovic?
The common adage in sports is that it’s hard to compare eras. So why bother? Why even ask the question about who is the greatest ever?
Published Jul 10, 2020
I have been engaged with tennis history for nearly 50 years. As a historian-at-large for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, I relish the chance to study the game’s many contenders and major moments. But there is one omnipresent aspect of the conversation I find downright annoying.
GOAT. I’ve found this notion fruitless and draining for a long time, back to the glory days of John McEnroe and, later, Pete Sampras, when the term “best-ever” was more common. McEnroe lit the world on fire in 1984, when he compiled a dazzling 82-3 record and appeared to be wielding a racquet better than anyone ever had. Stare in rapture at the comet. Sampras finished a season ranked number one a record six straight times, and earned what was then a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Kudos to longevity. Then there was the brilliant and enduring Martina Navratilova, who in 1983 went 86-1 and also became the first woman to win Grand Slam singles titles in three different decades. That latter feat has since been matched by the incredible Serena Williams, winner of an Open-era record 23 singles majors, including a record 10 past the age of 30.
These days, the GOAT concept surfaces most frequently in the world of men’s tennis, sparked by the mega-Slam resumes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. With social media providing a 24-7 forum, a barrage of evidence in support of each's candidacy is trotted out as if in a courtroom, propelled by all sorts of logic, be it sheer numbers, dominance, rivalries.
I find these arguments tiresome, boring, repetitive and, worst of all, scarcely edifying. Many cases are often fueled by personal and emotional desires to see a particular favorite prevail. Fine, tell me the ice cream you most savor. But don’t then argue why it’s the greatest flavor of all time.
Second, a chronological parochialism is also in play here. Those who talk to me about the GOAT contend that they are engaged by tennis history, and that I, a well-documented tennis history zealot, should surely find such dialogue fascinating.
But speaking strictly of a few contemporaries as the alleged GOAT is profoundly ahistorical. In the vast majority of cases, those who argue for Federer, Nadal or Djokovic have barely a fuzzy acquaintance with the careers of more than 100 years of champions who preceded the Big 3.
This hyper-present mindset reminds me of when I was 11 years old and made my case for Joe Namath as the greatest quarterback of all time. Little did I know then about the likes of Johnny Unitas, much less Otto Graham. No doubt there is currently a young and passionate Patrick Mahomes fan out there likely aware of Tom Brady, but not familiar at all with Joe Montana. As one of my favorite phrases goes, the golden age of sports ends when the athletes start getting younger than us. Until he drew his last breath, the great Jack Kramer dispensed far more compliments to his youthful hero, Ellsworth Vines, than he ever did in Rod Laver’s direction.
The term “GOAT” began to enter the lexicon in the early 1990s when Muhammad Ali’s wife, Lonnie, incorporated the term “Greatest of All Time, Inc.” to organize her husband’s business activities. “I am the greatest” had been a phrase the self-aggrandizing Ali had bestowed upon himself back in the 1960s. Those words also gained traction amid the worldwide respect Ali generated as a social activist. But also note that by the early ‘90s, boxing was far less popular than had once been the case. If Ali was the GOAT, was there extensive interest at that point in appraising the five, 10, or even 20 greats who had come before Ali? Alas, poor boxing, we knew it well.
Yes, I acknowledge that in absolute terms, today’s tennis players likely play the game better than yesterday’s. Billie Jean King would probably admit that if you plucked her out of her prime, she’d be challenged to withstand the pace of such powerful ball-strikers as Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters (though that doesn’t mean King said she would lose). Between them, those three won 10 Grand Slam singles, compared to King’s 12. Yet if you seek to invoke notions of GOAT and all-time rankings, only a fool would place any of them higher than King. The same holds true dare you rank Stefan Edberg and his six majors ahead of the remarkable Pancho Gonzales, who won two but was banned from Grand Slam events for nearly 20 years in the pre-Open era. Or, for that matter, Simona Halep versus Helen Wills. Start thinking like this and I wonder, what are we really talking about? Even more, what are we really learning?
Nor am I particularly inspired by the notion of giving past players current equipment, or having today’s players use a wood racquet. Sure, let’s give Shakespeare an Instagram account and make Stephen King use an ink quill. That will prove a lot, won’t it? What will it prove, that our cherished icon of the past would be even better and that the more recent dude has little? Again, the educational value is minimal, akin to those alternative histories that imagine if John Kennedy had never gone to Dallas.
The Amazing Race—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic:
The common adage in sports is that it’s hard to compare eras. So why bother? Why even ask the question about who is the greatest ever? It’s the wrong question. Sure, we can create a triage of sorts—of A-plus, A and A-minus champions. But once we’ve constructed those shelves, I prefer questions where I actually learn something and can enhance my knowledge of the game rather than deploy data and emotion as a cloak for curiosity.
A music critic once told me, “When people say things like, ‘The Beatles are the best band ever’ or ‘So-and-so is the greatest movie director in history,’ they are in large part admitting they don’t really care to engage with a topic in a rigorous way. Terms like ‘greatest ever’ short-circuit true, thoughtful, ongoing dialogue with the topic. They in certain ways even insult all the others that came before them, no matter how allegedly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ a particular artist is. My job as a writer isn’t to come up with lists. My job as a writer is to help readers think about music.”
Rather than frivolously ponder how Laver and Federer would have matched up, or King versus Serena, I’ve gained much more insight when I try to learn about what made a player particularly great in his or her own time.
It’s been interesting, for example, to talk with many legendary Australians and discover how it was to compete versus Laver and Ken Rosewall. While all concede that Laver was the better player, the majority of Australians dreaded Rosewall more. Fascinating. Or, on the women’s side, it was fascinating to learn about King’s emotional and tactical powers and how different it was to play her than the taller, more powerful Margaret Court. Ditto for the way Navratilova has assessed the various dimensions of her matches versus Chris Evert, Stefanie Graf and Monica Seles. In contemporary tennis, it’s been intriguing to learn about the contrasting styles of Federer and Nadal and assess how they affect their opponents. All of this to me is what studying the game is all about. These are the kind of insights I crave and the stories I try to tell.