By R.D. Ferman
Who is the greatest of all time (GOAT)? The ultimate question in sport. Most sports spur intense debate, but tennis is often the most over simplified. As a huge Roger Federer fan, I was thrilled with his 2017 rejuvenation that included grand slam titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, which increased his career total to a record 19 majors. Amazing! The record itself is a tremendous feat but that alone should not crown him the game’s GOAT.
The GOAT argument is more complex in tennis because the premiere accomplishments have changed with each generation. In baseball and football, by contrast, the ultimate milestones have remained relatively consistent. Winning the World Series and Super Bowl have been the top prize for several decades. So too have the individual accomplishments in these respective team sports: batting title, home run king, wins, rushing yards, touchdowns, etc. In tennis, a doubles title at Wimbledon or the US Open was once much more meaningful than it is today. Just as an Olympic Gold Medal in tennis continues to gain stature with each Olympiad.
As recently as the mid 1980s, several top players did not compete in the Australian Open. The reasons varied but the most common were an unwillingness to make the long trip down under for minimal prize money, family Christmas festivities (the event used to be held over the Christmas holiday), and the second tier prestige. Wimbledon and US Open titles carried more status to European and North American fans and pundits. Many tennis enthusiasts recall top players from the ’70s like Roscoe Tanner and Johan Kriek, but major title holder does not immediately come to mind. John McEnroe once modestly pleaded his case in his classic McEnroe fashion by arguing that on grass court surface, he had more talent in his right little finger than Guillermo Vilas had in his entire body. His argument was that he would have tallied more career major titles had he competed down under during the prime years of his career. It was during those years that clay court crusher Vilas won the Australian Open twice (’78 & ’79). In 1980, American Brian Teacher was the champion. Who is Brian Teacher? Well, he is a major tittle holder, which carries much more notoriety in 2018 than back when it actually happened.
In 1974, American tennis bad boy Jimmy Connors opted to play World Team Tennis knowing full well that a French Open ban would result. At the time, Connors was ranked number one in the world and the favorite to win the title. Jimmy Connors passed up the French Open to play for the Baltimore Banners of the World Team Tennis League. I will go out on a limb and say that Roger Federer will never skip Wimbledon to play for the Springfield Lasers nor will Rafa Nadal opt to play for the San Diego Aviators if there was any chance he would have to sit out the French Open.
Finally, throughout most of the game’s history, the Davis Cup was a marque event that was often held in higher regard than the four majors. The international team competition was the ultimate priority for most players during the first half of the century. Even up to the 1950s and ’60s, getting selected to represent their respective countries was a top achievement for most world class players. Since the open era; however, several top players compete in Davis Cup, but only when conducive to their tournament schedules. Participation tends to drop dramatically once a particular player wins one cup for his native country.
Considering the games evolution over the past several decades and shift in player priorities, let’s examine some of the often mentioned GOATs:
10 Major titles
7 Davis Cup team wins
Misc: 4 Doubles Major titles
Case for GOAT: Dominated tennis during the roaring twenties. Many refer to Big Bill as the Babe Ruth of tennis, but when you total his US Open, Wimbledon, US Davis Cup wins, and overall domination over his closest rivals, Babe Ruth is actually the Bill Tilden of baseball. Another measuring stick is impact on the sport. Yes, venues have been improved during the Roger and Rafa era, but new and much larger stadiums were constructed in New York and Paris to meet the increased fan interest that was brought on by “Big Bill.”
Case against GOAT: Competed in an era when several players had professional careers unrelated to the game. Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, etc never defeated a gym teacher, practicing attorney, or dentist in their quests for a major title.
11 Major titles
5 Davis Cup team wins
Misc: 2 calendar slams. 9 Doubles (majors).
Case for GOAT: In addition to his 11 major titles and stellar Davis Cup record, The Rocket is the only player to win two calendar year Grand Slams.
Case against GOAT: Like Bill Tilden, most of Laver’s competitors had serious careers unrelated to tennis. In addition, several formidable opponents were banned from competing in the major tournaments during his first calendar slam because they turned professional. Also, 3 of the 4 major tournaments were on grass at the time, which disadvantaged other players that were more accustomed to clay and hard courts.
11 major titles
1 Davis Cup Team win
Misc: Only played the Australian Open once (lost in 3rd round)
Case for GOAT: Dominated the European majors in the ’70s. Won 5 straight Wimbledons and 6 total French Opens. Only lost to one player at the French open, Adriano Panatta in ’73 and ’76.
Case against GOAT: Never won the US Open despite having chances on three different playing surfaces. Short career having won his major titles within a 6 year span.
14 Major titles
2 Davis Cup team wins
Misc. Never competed in the Olympic Games.
Case for GOAT: Dominated the pro tour over 12 year period that included the talent rich 1990s. Several experts have stated that the top 10 was never deeper than the 1990s. Had the French Open speeded up the red clay courts to accommodate fast pace players in a similar way that Wimbledon slowed down the grass courts, Pete would have likely won at least one French Open.
Case against GOAT: Never won the French Open. Plus, it was already established during Pete’s playing days that all major titles mattered; he has less than Rafa and Roger.
8 Major titles
3 winning Davis Cup Teams
Misc: Career Grand Slam, 1 Olympic Gold Medal in singles
Case for GOAT: When at his very best, he was practically unbeatable. Unfortunately for Andre, that level could not be sustained for long periods of time. He was the first career Grand Slam holder when 3 of the 4 major tournaments were not played on grass and when the Australian Open draw contained most of the top ranked players. He also won the singles Olympic gold in 1996 games.
Case against GOAT: He does not hold the most major titles during his era, Pete Sampras does. His overall record against Pete is 14-20 and 1-4 in major tournament finals.
19 Major titles
1 Olympic Gold Medal (doubles)
1 Davis Cup team win
Case for GOAT: Most career major titles (19). Career grand slam. Long span from first major title 2003. Has been winning at the highest level for a decade and a half.
Case against GOAT: Has a career losing record against rival Rafael Nadal. No Olympic gold in singles.
16 Major titles
2 Olympic Gold (1 singles & 1 doubles)
4 Davis Cup Team wins
Case for GOAT: Winning record against rival Roger Federer. Won Olympic gold in singles in addition to career Grand Slam. Won two Wimbledon titles compared to Roger’s lone French Open title.
Case against GOAT: Only won Australian Open once. Would likely not have won Wimbledon had he had to compete on the same type of grass that Borg, Sampras, and Agassi competed. Majority of his wins over Roger are on clay. He was often an early round loser on surfaces more favorable to Roger Federer, which enabled him to preserve his career win/lose advantage.