By In Stuff


Bill Tilden did not lose a single tennis match of substance for seven years, between 1920 and 1926. He was so dominant a player in his time that he would often purposely lose points and games and even sets just to make the matches a little bit more interesting. One of his favorite tricks, when he seemed in trouble, was to hold five tennis balls in one hand, serve four consecutive aces, and throw the fifth ball away disdainfully.

Don Budge was an American amateur tennis player who in 1937 and 1938 played in six consecutive grand slam tournaments — he won all six. He also led the U.S. to their first Davis Cup championship in more than a decade. He turned professional and, shortly after that, went to war.

Pancho Gonzalez was the No. 1 ranked player in the world for eight consecutive years, an unmatched record, and numerous experts including Bud Collins have said that if you needed someone to play a tennis match for your soul, you would choose the temperamental and brilliant Pancho Gonzalez.

Rod Laver won tennis’ Grand Slam in 1962 then turned professional, which prevented him from playing at any of the four — the Australian Championship, the French Championship, Wimbledon or the U.S. Championship — for five years. Then in 1968, those tournaments opened up to professionals (which is why we call them “Opens” now). One year later, Laver won the Grand Slam again.

Bjorn Borg won the French Open and Wimbledon — widely viewed as the two most prestigious and the two most different tennis tournaments — back-to-back in 1978, 1979 and 1980. No man or woman has ever even pulled that double two years in a row, much less three, Borg retired when he was 26 years old and had grown bored by tennis.

Pete Sampras won Wimbledon seven out of eight years and is widely believed to have the greatest serve — that uncommon combination or power, accuracy and consistency — in modern tennis history.

Andre Agassi was the first male tennis player to win the career grand slam — winning in the heat of Australia, on the red clay of Roland Garros, on the lightning fast grass at Wimbledon, and in the New York mayhem of the U.S. Open — since Roy Emerson 25 years earlier.

Still, most of us seem pretty sure that the greatest tennis player of all time is either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal who happen to be playing now. There seem to be a couple of major reasons for this.

One: Federer and Nadal are piling up grand slam championships in unprecedented numbers. Federer has won 17 of them, which is the record, and he reached the final of another seven. From Wimbledon 2005 until the Australian Open in 2010 he reached the final of all but one grand slam championship. Nadal, meanwhile, has a chance to win his 14th grand slam in Australia this weekend, that would tie him with Sampras for second place on the list.

Two: Federer and Nadal play in a time where the equipment — specifically the tennis rackets but it’s everything including shoes, training and so on — offer more power, precision and consistency than at any time in the history of the sport. Federer and Nadal (along with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) are visibly playing better tennis than all of their predecessors, including players of just a few years ago. If you match up the high-def video of Federer against the grainy color of John McEnroe or the black-and-white crackle of Ken Rosewall … it’s almost ridiculous. It’s obvious these guys today are hitting the ball much harder with much more spin and at angles that were simply unattainable with older tennis rackets.

But are these good reasons to declare today’s players the Greatest Of All Time? The grand slam numbers are clearly not a good reason. Federer and Nadal (and Sampras before them) happen to play in a time when the world is a lot smaller and the top tennis players go to every grand slam event all over the world. This wasn’t even close to true before. Rod Laver won 11 grand slam events but he missed TWENTY major tennis events in his prime because he had turned professional. When you consider he won the yearly Grand Slam on both sides of that, it seems all but certain that he would have won more than six of the 20 majors he missed (he won eight professional majors during that stretch). Laver, certainly, would have the record.

Borg only played in Australia one time and that was before he won his first Wimbledon. Jimmy Connors won the Australian Open the first time he played it in 1974, reached the final the next year, and never played there again — he also skipped five consecutive French Opens during his prime. John McEnroe routinely skipped the Australian and French Opens also. Bill Tilden entered only eight events we now consider grand slam titles in his prime. He won all eight.

This is not to downplay the amazing performances of Federer and Nadal. Heck, Federer set the record by reaching an almost unbelievable ten consecutive Grand Slam finals, and after that had another stretch where he reached eight consecutive finals. Nadal has lost one match — ONE MATCH — at Roland Garros and has beaten Federer nine of the 11 times they have faced at a major tennis championship. But to say that either one was better than Laver or Borg because they have more grand slam victories is silly.

The modern equipment question, though, is the one that really muddles the GOAT conversation. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Nadal or Federer, with current training and modern tennis rackets, would utterly destroy Bill Tilden or Rod Laver or Bjorn Borg using the equipment of their time. It would be like a first-round match against a qualifier. Pat Cash, the Wimbledon champion in 1987, has said that he could beat HIS YOUNGER SELF (he’s now almost 50) if he was using today’s equipment. One tennis pro told me that the difference between today’s rackets and rackets from just ten years ago is light years, forget about going back 25 years to the time of wood and steel. Tennis with today’s equipment is simply a different game than it was.

The same is true for golf, by the way, though probably not quite to the same extreme. Tennis technology is advancing so fast that the game probably resets every 10 or 15 years. The tennis players today ARE playing the game better than at any time in the history of the sport. And the previous generation was playing the game better than it had ever been played before that. And so on. That doesn’t mean the greatest players in the history of the sport are on the court now. Jimmie Johnson drives his car a lot faster than Richard Petty did. That doesn’t mean — and Johnson himself would never suggest — that he’s a better driver than Petty was. Times change.

The one thing that seems clear is that Rafael Nadal is better than Roger Federer. Rafa is five years younger and so the timing is a little bit off. Nadal was not quite ready to compete with Federer on anything but clay from 2004 to 2007 or so. In those four years, Federer won 11 grand slam championships:

2004 Australian over Marat Safin
2004 Wimbledon over Andy Roddick
2004 U.S. Open over Lleyton Hewitt
2005 Wimbledon over Andy Roddick
2005 U.S. Open over Andre Agassi
2006 Australian over Marcos Baghdatis
2006 Wimbledon over Nadal
2006 U.S. Open over Andy Roddick
2007 Australian over Fernando Gonzalez
2007 Wimbledon over Nadal
2007 U.S. Open over Novak Djokovic

It was a remarkable run. Nadal dominated him on clay, beating him three times at the French Open. But no one else could touch Federer on any other surface. And then, Nadal ascended. He utterly destroyed Federer at the 2008 French Open (losing just four games) and has not lost to Federer in a major tournament since. Nadal beat Federer on what had been his home court of Wimbledon in 2008. Nadal beat Federer at the Australian Open in 2009 — that was the loss that broke Federer and left him in tears. And since then, at grand slams, Federer has not even been able to push Nadal to five sets, much less beat him. They have played 33 times in total, and Nadal has won 23 of them. And Nadal has beaten Federer nine times in majors; Federer has only beaten Nadal those two times at Wimbledon before Nadal had figured things out.

I’m a Federer fan as is a good friend of mine, and we often try to come up with reasons to keep Federer above Nadal on the all-time list. We keep coming back to the age difference (Nadal didn’t really play Federer much in his prime), though we also both know that Federer’s prime stopped abruptly when Nadal came of age. We keep coming back to Fed’s edge in total grand slams, but we both know that’s pretty weak. We both know that Nadal will probably pass Federer on that list too.

Plus, if Nadal wins the Australian Open, he will become the first man in the Open Era to win the double career grand slam — that is, win each grand slam event two times. Even Federer could not do that.

Before Federer and Nadal played at the Australian Open this week, we kind of had some hope that Federer would pull this one out. Fed had played brilliantly up to that point and Nadal was having some trouble with blisters and his second serve. The Australian Open is on hard courts which seem to be Nadal’s weakest surface (though this is like saying that LeBron James’ jump shot is the weakest part of his game — true, but he’s still better than almost anyone else). We believed because we desperately wanted to believe that Federer had found his youth because he had changed rackets and had started working with the great Stefan Edberg and seemed so confident.

Nadal ran him off the court. Nadal has always been able to hit scorching and hopping topspin shots to Federer’s backhand and Federer — remarkable as he is — has never really able to handle that. Nadal did some of that but for good measure he also ripped backhand winner after backhand winner, leaving Federer looking all but helpless. It was a straight-set thumping, and Federer left with no illusions. He turns 32 this year and if he’s ever going to win another major championship, he will need someone to take out Nadal for him. Djokovic too, probably.

And watching Nadal play that kind of mind-blowing tennis, I thought what I’m sure many people think these days: Nadal is the best tennis player who ever lived. This might not be true. Give Laver these rackets and training, give Borg or McEnroe or Tilden these rackets, give Gonzalez or Sampras or Budge these rackets, and there’s no telling what would happen. But this much is certainly true: No one ever played tennis the way Rafa Nadal plays now.

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70 Responses to GOAT

  1. Bill Caffrey says:

    This is interesting. I wonder how many people think Nadal is the GOAT. I certainly don’t. The biggest reason to me is that the Wimbledon grass is simply slower than it has ever been. If Wimbledon played today like it played in the 90s I don’t think there is any chance that Nadal would ever have won it.

    Also, Borg “got bored” with tennis at exactly the moment he stopped beating McEnroe.

    • jposnanski says:

      Right. Of course, there would be those who say McEnroe started beating Borg just when he got bored with tennis.

    • Bones says:

      I agree, Bill. I think that Nadal, more than anyone else, has benefited from the current court surfaces. It’s not just the Wimbledon grass that is playing slower now – it’s hard courts as well. Check out this article by Brian Phillips at Grantland (from last summer):

      Faster grass and hard courts would have been a huge edge for someone like Federer who’s game is based on passing shots and some serve-and-volley play. Nadal’s reliance on defence, endurance and spin would not be helped by the faster surfaces of yesteryear.

  2. Alex Knobel says:

    As a Federer fan, I have to admit, we’re starting to get awfully picky in how we define some stuff. Like, we basically claim Federer’s prime ended right when he lost to Nadal in the ’08 Wimbledon final, and then excuse every loss after that as Federer being slightly over-the-hill playing against in their primes Nadal and Djokovic. Except, at this point, Nadal’s somehow stayed in that prime for about five years, which is actually longer than Federer’s ’04-’07 peak.

  3. I think what also played favorably for Roger through his “prime” was the lack of real competition around him. Sampras had just retired before Fed really came up, Agassi was already far on the wrong side of 30. And Rafa was a clay-only genius at that time. So Roger’s main adversaries were guys like Roddick, Hewitt, maybe a Safin… while they’re nothing to sneeze at, I don’t think they compare all that well to Nadal or Djokovic.
    I’m not trying to downplay his achievements, because I loved watching him during that time, just dominating everyone around him. But I think it also plays some kind of role that he had his prime at just the right time

    • Jake Bucsko says:

      @Michael, here’s why I don’t like that argument. I hear it a lot about Tiger Woods, that it was somehow “easier” for him to dominate because he didn’t have enough competition.

      My theory is that Tiger, and Federer, were so dominant in their respective primes that it only seemed like everyone else was lacking.

      Think of Andy Roddick. He won a US Open, he was once ranked #1 in the world, and he was a great player. But certainly nobody would even consider him as an alltime great, and why would they?

      Now imagine that Roger Federer were never born. How different does Roddick’s career look? Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick in the semifinals or later of a major SEVEN times (four finals). Would we look at Roddick differently if he had won, say, five majors? Almost certainly. Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker won six each.

      So I think that the talent pool in tennis was not any lesser than in other eras, there were very many great players in the last decade. But their names are lesser known because Roger stood in their way time and time again.

      • Robert says:

        But Tiger did have a distinct advantage over his early competition: Equipment. He was getting all the best, high-tech stuff, and only he was getting it (per his endorsement deals). Thus while he was indeed the best golfer on the tour, the game was somewhat tilted in his favour, so we’ll never really know how much better he actually was.

        • Andy says:

          So wrong – Tiger’s equipment was never better than his peers, and generally worse after he switched to Nike until they caught up after a few years. Phil went as far as to say that Tiger’s equipment cost him wins

          • Alex says:

            Sorry Andy, but you’re the one who is wrong here. Good friend of mine works at Tiger’s agency and he confirms that TW had a huge advantage early on.

          • Andy says:

            I’ll take your word for it but it flies in the face of everything I’ve heard from the pro’s that played alongside him in the late 90’s – including people I know personally

  4. Jake Bucsko says:

    I am also a Federer guy, and I admit it is getting harder and harder to argue his case. I woke up at 330 in the morning to watch this last match, and I think I have never seen Roger dominated like that. Even through the first set and into the 2nd…Nadal won by tiebreak and I believe they split the first four games, but I could tell Fed had no chance. Rafa just made it look so easy, and Federer had to work so hard to get his points. It’s a sad day.

    The only thing I can come up with is that their head to head record is skewed by Nadal’s dominance on clay. Through the 2011 season, Federer had beaten Nadal 7 out of 12 matches on hard or grass, Nadal went 12-2 on clay. If Federer had been a lesser clay player, he would not have faced Nadal as often, and had Nadal been a stronger player off clay, he may have faced Roger more often where his advantage was neutralized.

    This is a bit like faulting Peyton Manning for his poor playoff record when it was his greatness that allowed him to reach the playoffs and get 1st rd byes year after year.

    • Jesse K. says:

      Isn’t it funny? If Federer was not as good on clay, more people would think he was the GOAT. If, for instance, he lost in the quarters or semis all those times he played Rafa in finals on clay, the head-to-head would be something like 11-9 Nadal, instead of 23-10.

    • Tom Wright says:

      This was exactly my thought. Did you know that Nadal has never faced Federer in the US Open? How fair is it to use head-to-head if they never even played the grand slam surface where Federer probably has the greatest competitive advantage?

      The head-to-head is also skewed by the fact that Federer has played long past his prime. Let’s face it, in tennis, 30 is old, and 33 is downright geriatric. Before Fed had turned 30, Nadal led the series 14-8, which broke down to 10-2 for Nadal on clay and 6-4 for Fed on everything else. Since Fed turned 30, Nadal has basically run up the score, going 9-2 against Federer.

      The other issue I have with head-to-head is that Nadal is a player whose game is probably uniquely suited to counter Federer’s, but that’s not the same thing as saying that he’s a better player. When Djokovic went nuts and won everything in 2011, he played more competitive matches against Federer (even at the advanced tennis age of 30) than against an in-his-prime Nadal. In fact, the only major Nadal won that year came when Federer knocked out Djoker in the semifinals; Nadal lost all six matches he played against Novak that 2011, as well as the first match they played in 2012.

      I suspect that if Nadal, Federer, and a 2011 version of Djokovic had come into their respective primes at the same time, we would (more often than not) have seen a rock-paper-scissors of Federer beating Djokovic, Djoker beating Nadal (except on clay), and Nadal beating Federer (except perhaps on Queens/Flushing hardcourts). I have no idea what this means for the GOAT debate.

  5. Jesse K. says:

    I love Federer, and like you, Joe, I try to come up with excuses to keep Federer ahead in the debate. For instance:

    1) During Federer’s brilliant peak (2004-07), Roland Garros was the only major that Nadal won. During that stretch, he lost both times to Federer at Wimbledon, and never played him at the U.S. or Australian Opens–because he was eliminated earlier in the tournament. Had he gotten far enough to face Federer at those tournaments, perhaps the head-to-head would not be so unbalanced.

    2) Nadal holds the record for Masters Series tournament wins with 26–Federer has only 21–but 18 (!) of those are on clay, including eight at Monte Carlo and seven at Rome. There are three Masters tournaments on clay, but none on grass. If there were three on grass and none on clay, Federer would surely have more–probably by a good margin. If there was even one Masters tournament on grass, it is safe to assume Federer would at least be tied with Nadal at 26.

    Alas, with each depressing time they play, and with each major Nadal wins, I have to admit that Nadal is building a superb case as the GOAT. Watching Federer play Nadal is probably my most helpless feeling as a sports fan. Even when it was 7-6, on serve in the second, it felt like is was 6-3, 6-3 in Nadal’s favor. A few years ago, when people first started suggesting Nadal is better (citing the head-to-head record), we could at least point to the huge gap in majors. But even that is shrinking uncomfortably fast. Nadal will be heavily favored tonight, and heavily favored at Roland Garros. If he wins both, suddenly he is only two majors behind Federer.. Gulp.

    One of my favorite of many great Federer stats: the GAP between his time at Number One and Nadal’s time at Number One is greater than the *combined* weeks at Number One of Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg, and Boris Becker. But this gap will be shrinking considerably too. Since Nadal did not play the Australian Open last year, he is going to make a huge jump in the new rankings Monday (while Djokovic, as the defending champion, is going to lose a lot of points.) It will be tough for anyone to catch Rafa this year in the rankings.

    • Robert says:

      My question is, are we leaning more toward Federer because of personalities? I like Federer better, and I think it’s because I would actually like HIM better. I see him as thoughtful, calm, intelligent. When I see Nadal, whether this is right or not, I see more of a passionate player, one of brute force, not necessarily one of depth, and a playboy.

      When it comes down to it, I like Federer more, but I’d rather be Nadal!

  6. aweb says:

    You shouldn’t use the head-to-head dominance of Nadal over Federer as a strong indicator either – It’s obviously a terrible matchup for Federer. They also changed Wimbledon drastically with the different grass surface during this period. Nadal’s game simply wouldn’t have worked there in the 80’s and 90’s and even parts of last decade. Now that the ball bounces higher and sharper, it’s again well suited to him. Sampras wouldn’t have dominated there with the modern surface (oh, and it’s probably a good thing overall to minimize surface differences, but part of me misses the serving contest that WImbledon usually was).

    Nadal’s game (get everything back with massive power by staying deep and hitting hard with as much spin as possible) is best suited to the modern equipment as well. That’s not a reason he’s not better either, as noted the equipment changes drastically all the time, so someone is always better suited.

    • “You shouldn’t use the head-to-head dominance of Nadal over Federer as a strong indicator either – It’s obviously a terrible matchup for Federer”

      This was like saying the 85 Patriots were great, but obviously the matchup against the Bears was a terrible matchup. It’s a bad matchup because Nadal is better.

      • Artie says:

        No, head-to-head is a bad matchup for Federer because those meetings happened disproportionately in settings favorable to Nadal: on clay or when Fed was out of his prime. Had Nadal been a better player on other surfaces earlier in his career, he would’ve reached more finals where he would’ve then lost to Federer, balancing the career H2H record.

        The better football analogy would be saying the Army has a better football program than Michigan because the Knights have a winning record when the two teams played. They’re not better overall: the games just happened to occur at times when Army was better.

        • Daniel says:

          Nadal won their first meeting, when he was 17 and Roger was 21, on hard court. Yes, they didn’t play more on hard when Rafa was younger, but that doesn’t mean Fed automatically would have won those matches.

          Also, I like that when Nadal got good enough to consistently get deep in slams outside of RG (say, 2008), Fed left his prime, but earlier, it’s Rafa’s fault for not getting as deep in slams when that was before Rafa hit his prime.

          Prime or not, Federer has lost to Nadal on every surface, in 9 of their 11 slam meetings (4-2 outside of RG). He’s lost early in his career, late in his career. This isn’t exactly a small sample size. Sure, it is a matchup issue, but they had a chart in this match showing that Federer, because the courts were quickened, was hitting his backhand seven inches lower than in their 2009 final, and Rafa still ran him off the court.

      • Weebey says:

        “This was like saying the 85 Patriots were great, but obviously the matchup against the Bears was a terrible matchup. It’s a bad matchup because Nadal is better.”

        This analogy breaks because the Bears were also much better against non-Patriots teams than the Patriots were against non-Bears teams. Federer, especially at his peak, was significantly better against non-Nadal opponents than Nadal was against non-Federer opponents. For example, in 2006 Federer was 90-1 against players not named Nadal.

      • Byrne says:

        I know Joe’s readership is generally liberal on PED users, but c’mon folks, let’s not be daft. TennisVal/Dr. Fuentes and Nadal’s silent ban in 2012. . Nadal and Ferrer are both on the gas. Perhaps Fed is as well, but his stamina isn’t in the ballpark of the Nadal/Ferrer/Djokers and that despite the guy spending all winter training in the desert of Dubai. I’d take Laver as the GOAT, but if someone said Tilden or Fed from the modern era I wouldn’t argue with that.

        • Andy says:

          Robin Soderling is the guy people often talk of as having received a silent life time ban. Would they dare to let Nadal come back if he had been caught?

          However I do admit Nadal missing the olympics where the blood was supposedly frozen down for future testing when new methods had been invented seemed suspicious to my Federer loving friends.

          Its all rumours and I somehow doubt the ATP could keep it all under the radar so until proven otherwise I think Nadal (and Soderling) have to be viewed as clean

          • Byrne says:

            well the ATP kept Agassi’s positive test for recreational use quiet (until he outed it in his book) so yeah, of course they could bury Nadal’s as well. Nadal is the second most popular player. Tennis draws lower ratings than bowling….granted bowling is on one day per week, but they’re not going to ruin his draw power over PED use, when I’m sure the ATP knows the majority of players are on something whether it’s EPO/endurance drugs or testosterone or HGH or most likely a combination of those 3 for a handful of top players. Anyone who follows the well known tennis steroid website can see the ATP/WTA’s testing is a complete joke (especially out of competition testing) only paralleled by the NHL’s “Theraputic Use Exemption” ie go ahead and use whatever you want. As for Soderling, I guess it all depends on what Soderling is being banned for. It’s long been rumored it’s multiple test failures, so it could be aggregate or maybe he was like A-rod and on everything included with some obstruction or uncooperation or something. One thing for certain, if you follow his Twitter feed, that “mono” isn’t holding him back from being active.

  7. Lawhamel says:

    Tennis and golf suffer from the technology. Golf maybe more so. Having said that, I would love to see Laver with today’s technology. The tennis arguments may be the most difficult. Watching a 1974 John Newcombe-Jimmy Connors match doesn’t seem that much different from watching two of the guys playing at my Club. And that is NOT fair to the legacies of Newcombe and Connors. The game was exponentially harder back then. It just was.

    • Hitting winners and passing shots was way more difficult, so players could come to the net more or sit back and play “wait for the mistake”. It was an entirely different game then with completely different tactics. It’s very hard to say how players from the 70s and 80s would do because they would have had to use different tactics, be great at different tactics than they were. McEnroe served wide angles and came to the net frequently, and often behind his serve, for the gimme volley. Today, that return of serve is wizzed down the line for a winner. Serve and volley is therefore an almost extinct tactic.

    • Thank you for mentioning two of my favorite players-Jimmy Connors and John Newcombe. I would add Ilie Nastasi and Arthur Ashe to that list. I was a regular at the U.S. Open when it was played in Forest Hills.

  8. Andy says:

    Let me point out that it is GOAT not BOAT (Best of all time) or GOOE (Greatest of open era)

    We therefore must take seriously all the names above – BUT

    Budge, Tilden and Gonzales simply did not win enough of the Slams – mainly because they couldn’t or wouldn’t start – you can not get credit for things you might have done. To get into the discussion you need to win 10 slams at least in my opinion.

    Sampras never dominated the way some of the others did – he was just very good for a very long time. From the first win to the last win 1990-2002 he started in 45 slams and won 14 – 31%

    Agassi won a lot of different tournaments but from first win until last win (1992 until 2003) he started in 36 slams and won 8 – 22%.

    Borg 1974 – 1981 played 21 slams and won 11. That is 52% – and he won on a super slow RG and on a super fast Wimbledon.

    For all who’d say I penalise Sampras and Agassi for long careers – if you take out Sampras 2 outliers 1992 and 2003 and go with 1993-2000 he won 12 out of 27 – 44% good but not amazing.

    Rod Laver 1960-1969 won 11 out of 18 – 61%. Won on all surfaces. 1962-1969 he won 10 out of 13 slams he started 77%

    Nadal (assuming he wins AO 2014) 2005-2014 14 out of 32 – 44% but shortening it to 2008-2014 you get 11 out of 21 – 52% same as Borg

    Federer 2003-2012 17 out of 37 – 46%. But the win in 2012 really makes him look bad – 2003-2010 he won 16 out of 27 – 59% a figure that only Laver can beat.

    You didn’t mention Roy Emerson who 1960-1967 won 12 out of 26 – 46%. However a 18-49 record against Laver and 10 out of 12 slams coming when Laver wasn’t allowed to start makes it easy so great but not greatest.

    The only four names that are relevant in my mind are Laver, Borg, Federer and Nadal. Looking at peak numbers rather than career numbers is interesting: Laver needed 13 slams to win 10, Federer needed 14 slams to win 10, Borg needed 18 slams to win 10 and Nadal 20 to win 10.

    Borg – 52% and 11 slams is enough to get into the discussion but not to win it.

    Federer is close but his numbers really aren’t better than Laver’s. His record against Nadal is a blemish and even if you weight it 1/3rd clay, 1/3rd grass and 1/3rd hard court Nadal is ahead and Federer never had an edge even 2004-2007.

    Nadal, his numbers are like Borg’s – better on total wins, worse on percentage, he has that head to head advantage over Federer so he’s almost certainly the BOAT and possibly the GOOE but not the GOAT.

    Anyone who thinks that Babe Ruth is the baseball GOAT should readily accept Laver as the tennis GOAT.

    • John Gale says:

      You know, I hadn’t looked at Laver’s career all that closely before, but you have persuaded me that he is the greatest. Given his dominance before he turned pro and after the Open Era began, I thought it was fair to assume that he’d win half the majors in those five years if he had been eligible. The one thing that gave me pause was that those eight professional majors Joe cited made it seem like he hadn’t won half of the professional majors from 1963-1967. But that’s because I just assumed that there were four professional majors (8 of 20 = 40 percent) when there were only three (8 of 15 = 53 percent). So yeah, I’d say he’d have a minimum of 20 majors, and that’s probably conservative. As many as 25 seems possible.

  9. Chris M says:

    I know you can’t really make an argument for Sampras as GOAT, but he’s still my all-time favorite, and if I needed someone to win a match to save my life, I’d take him at Wimbledon. Plus, he should get bonus points for being the least intimidating looking great athlete of all time, just ahead of Greg Maddux, and 845,329 spots behind Ray Lewis

    • Andy says:

      Nadal is currently 59-1 lifetime at RG – Sampras was 56-1 at Wimbledon going into the 4th round 2001 so Sampras at Wimbledon or Nadal at RG look like two good alternatives.

      However what is Nadal comes up against Borg who has a live 46-1 streak at RG?

      What if Sampras comes up against Federer who once had a 52-1 streak at Wimbledon?

      Oh, btw – Borg is also on a live 41-1 streak in Wimbledon.

      Lets just ponder that Borg has a live streak of 41-1 at Wimbledon and a live 46-1 (and 28-0) streak at RG… Maybe he has a pretty good stake as GOAT after all…

      • Andy says:

        PS I’d take Borg 1978 at RG – didn’t drop a single set

        Lost 3 games in round 1
        Lost 1 game in round 2
        Lost 4 games in round 3
        Lost 12 games in round 4 – against Roscoe Tanner – possibly the best server in the history of the game
        Lost 6 games in the quarterfinal
        Lost 1 game in the semifinal
        Lost 5 games in the final

        That is a 79%+ win rate of games played (127 out of 159).

        He was almost as dominant over a longer period – over 1978-1981 he won 534 out of 739 games played at RG – 72%

        Of course a slow RG court meant the serve was not as important (unless you played Roscoe Tanner) but only losing 7 games on average per match – or 2.3 games per set over a 4 year period is pretty amazing

        • John Gale says:

          Interesting. On the women’s side, Graf 1988 French Open seems like the equivalent of Borg 1978 French Open. To wit:

          Lost 4 games in the Round 1
          Lost 1 game in Round 2
          Lost 1 game in Round 3
          Lost 4 games in Round 4
          Lost 1 game in quarterfinal
          Lost 9 games semifinal (Sabatini did take her to a tiebreaker in the second set)
          Lost 0 (!) games in final

          Add it all up, and that’s 84 out of 104 games won or 81%.

          Hmm…Evert won 60 of 73 games (85%) in the 1976 US Open, though she only had to play six matches while Graf played seven. She won every set at 6-3 or better, so she was never in any danger of losing a set.

          And then there’s Navratilova at the 1983 US Open. She won 85 of 104 games or 81 percent (though still a game better than Graf). Like Evert, she also won every set at 6-3 or better and beat three players seeded in the top seven, including No. 2 Evert (6-1, 6-3) in the final. By way of comparison, Evert beat three players seeded in the top 13, including the second seed in the final, and Graf beat two players seeded in the top 13, none higher than No. 4 seed Sabatini.

          Hard to decide between those three. Considering that Navratilova faced a bit better competition (in terms of seeds) and had to play an extra match, I think her 1983 US Open performance is the winner, followed by Evert and then Graf.

  10. Chris H says:

    In almost any sport, modern training – conditioning, weight training, coaching and the duration of coaching, video, etc. – makes imagining head-to-head competition absurd. In basketball, you might have an argument for Jordan vs LeBron, but can anyone seriously suggest Oscar Robinson in his prime would have measured up to either of those guys? I can’t. I think you can say the same about football, baseball, everything.

    But at least there have been some restrictions on equipment in the other sports. Tennis is a different sport entirely than it used to be, and to its detriment, I think. I’d much rather watch the more frequent finesse shots of a McEnroe or Borg than Sampras or Federer blasting away. The raw power is both more impressive and less interesting.

    But then, I’d rather watch bunts and stolen bases than long home runs all the time. I don’t claim this as anything other than my opinion.

    It would be interesting to have a wooden racquet tournament to stand alongside the tournaments that use different surfaces, though.


    • Ed says:

      I don’t agree with the conflation of Federer and Sampras as raw power players — if anything, Federer is the exception to that. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen/heard people say something along those lines. I think the fact that Federer ISN’T a pure power player is why he has so many fans who love him… I know he’s been the biggest reason I’ve enjoyed tennis over the past 10 years.

      That’s not to say he doesn’t have power — he’s been an excellent server and has a phenomenal forehand. But he doesn’t blast away on serve like Roddick or Isner, nor does have the absolutely ferocious forehand of Nadal or Del Potro. He has the most variety/finesse of any of the top players… until this year he was playing with an outdated racquet that required more precision than what the vast majority of his contemporaries used.

      His game is more elegant; in some ways it’s a throwback. That doesn’t mean it’s better (and it’s been proven inferior to Nadal’s style over the years, although Nadal’s style would be nearly impossible for anyone else to replicate). I’m roughly 99% sure that if all the current players were dropped into the late 70s and had to play with wooden racquets, etc. that Federer would do much better than most.

      • Chris H says:

        Probably a fair point. As you might have guessed, I don’t watch as much tennis as I used to, and I shouldn’t have painted with a broad brush. But it’s certainly harder to win playing a finesse game in an age of power, in any sport.

  11. Alejo says:

    strongly recommend this interview of Rafa. It was ran recently in the Financial Times

  12. Rudy Gamble says:

    While I prefer Federer’s game to Nadal’s, I concede that Nadal is the superior player. I play a lot of tennis (at a decent level) and truly appreciate Nadal is about the TOUGHEST matchup one could ever devise for a right-handed player. Heavy lefty topspin to a righty’s backhand is brutal – especially with a one-handed backhand like Fed’s. Couple that power/spin with the best defense and stamina and mental toughness, there is no contest. The only player to solve Nadal was Djoker for his amazing year and I think Nadal turned the tables again.

    One more plus for Nadal is that I think he has faced more elite competition in his prime than the other players. Federer+Novak+Murray is better than any trio of competitors.

    I don’t know if Nadal’s power/spin would have translated to yesteryear technology and I am too young for Connors and Borg’s time but I see Nadal as those baseliners but stronger and fitter. I think he’d dominate any era. So would federer (if Nadal wasn’t in the same era of course).

    • Andy says:

      I think Connors, McEnroe and Borg is a pretty special group as well and I don’t think Murrey warrants inclusion in the Nadal, Djokovic, Federer group. The latter is probably better but not by a mile

      • rudygamble1 says:

        I was stating that near-prime Fed + prime Novak + prime Murray as Nadal’s trio of competition trumps any other GOAT candidate’s competition. Borg had prime Connors for much if his career and some Mac prime. Vilas was solid clay competition. But Nadal’s gauntlet feels tougher to me.

        • Andy says:

          Don’t disagree but it’s not a big difference. Also, it’s the perennial problem – if you dominate too much your contemporaries are seen as weak, if you don’t you’re not good enough to be the GOAT. You could argue that Nadal’s best argument for being the GOAT is Federer and that the only reason Djokovic is mentioned by some people whereas Becker, Wilander, Lendl and Edberg are not is that people have seen that Djokovic for a time was better than both Nadal and Federer – two out of four (in my opinion) GOAT contenders

  13. invitro says:

    On the women’s side, is Graf a consensus GOAT? I was a big fan of the WTA for many years, but not a historian, so be gentle.

    • EnzoHernandez11 says:

      I’d have to go with Bobby Riggs. (Just kidding!)

      Seriously, Graf, Navratilova, Evert, and Serena Williams would be your final four, I think. Hard to say who’s the best,and Serena has some more time to work on it.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        And if it was a battle for my immortal soul, I’d go with Martina.

      • Andy says:

        Good choices all – I’d probably go with Williams or Navratilova – Graff was being fading into second best when Monica Seles got stabbed, and could only continue her rule due to that terrible incident. I think Navratilova dominated Evert too much for Evert to be a real alternative.

        • John Gale says:

          This isn’t quite accurate. It is true that from 1990-1992, Seles was the better player, but that had at least as much to do with Graf as it did with Seles. Graf was battling injuries and even had to deal with a sex scandal involving her father. She was losing to a lot of people in those years, not just Seles (who at any rate was just 3-2 during those seasons against Graf and was absolutely crushed by Graf 6-2, 6-1 in the 1992 Wimbledon final).

          And even in her “down” years, Graf won a major every year. If not for the stabbing, Seles might have kept Graf from a major or two. Maybe. But I think Graf would still have at least 20 no matter what Seles did. Graf won at least one major every year between 1987 and 1996. She won three majors in a season *five* times, which is absolutely absurd. She won the Grand Slam in 1988, with an Olympic gold medal to boot (aka the “Golden Slam”).

          Serena Williams got a lot of attention for the so-called “Serena Slam” (four straight majors over two years), but Graf had already done that *in addition* to her Grand Slam. From 1987-1996, she won 21 majors. In other words, she won more than half of all the available majors over a full decade (and if we exclude 1987, it’s more than 55 percent over nine years). She won all four majors at least four times, so she didn’t have a weak surface.

          Williams hasn’t quite matched Graf in either peak dominance or career dominance. Williams won Wimbledon in 1999 at the same age Graf was when she won the French Open in 1987. But while Graf won at least one major every year until the last couple years of her career (she was basically done winning majors at 28–remember, tennis players age extremely rapidly), Williams didn’t win a major in a full year five different times at basically every point of her career (2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2011–I’d give her a pass on 2011 based on her age if she hadn’t won four in the next two years).

          Also, while Graf didn’t have a weak surface, Williams is clearly weaker on clay. Two French Opens is very impressive for just about anyone, but it still stands out for a player like Williams, who has won the other majors five times apiece. And while Graf won more than 50 percent of the available majors over a full decade, Williams’ best period of dominance over an extended period of time is her eight majors over a five-year stretch from 2009-2013. That is 40 percent of the available majors, which is very, very impressive. But Graf was significantly more dominant over a period that was twice as long.

          Honestly, I don’t think it’s *that* close, though Williams still has a bit more time to win some more majors. But at this point, Graf is clearly superior. The one thing I’ll give Williams is that she’s been a much better “old” (28 and later) player, as she has won six majors since turning 28, while Graf won just one. But for both peak and overall career, Graf has the edge.

          Since I’ve gone over Graf and Williams, I’ll take a look at Navratilova and Evert (with apologies to Court, who won about two thirds of her 25 majors prior to the Open Era–though she did win seven of the first eight majors of the Open Era, so maybe she deserves more credit than she gets).

          Navratilova’s career as a dominant player began later, as she won her first major at Wimbledon in 1978 at the age of 21 (Graf and Williams were both 17 when they won their first majors). She was mostly dominant at Wimbledon, winning half (9 of 18) of her majors there. She won the French Open just twice.

          Navratilova didn’t become a truly dominant player until she was 25. Over a six-year period from 1982-1987, she won at least two majors every year, though she was never able to win all four in a season (she did win a non-calendar Grand Slam from 1983-1984). Overall, she won 14 of the 24 (58 percent) available majors in that time, which is the most dominant six-year stretch for anyone. I still think Graf winning 55 percent of the available majors over a much longer period of time is more impressive, though.

          Finally, let’s look at Evert, who is probably the most consistent player of the four. She won her first majors (the French Open and Wimbledon) in 1974 at the age of 19. Over a 13-year period from 1974-1986, she won at least one major every season but never more than two. She was also much more dominant at the French Open and US Open (seven titles apiece) than she was at the Australian Open and Wimbledon (two and three, respectively).

          Unlike the other thee, she didn’t have a stretch where she thoroughly dominated the rest of the competition over a period of five years or longer, though she did win 16 of the 44 (36 percent) available majors over an 11-year span from 1974-1984. And again, she’s the only player who won a major in basically every year of her prime (Navratilova was shut out in 1980).

          Looking it all over, I think Graf is a pretty clear No.1. Not consensus, maybe, but definitely the correct answer in my view. After that, I think the other three all have a good case for No. 2. Considering that Navratilova and Evert each have about 100 more WTA wins than Williams does (and Graf has about 50 more WTA wins than Williams), I’d probably rank them in this order: 1. Graf 2. Navratilova 3. Evert 4. S. Williams. But if Williams wins a few more majors over the next couple of years, I’ll obviously reevaluate.

          • Bill Caffrey says:

            Personally I would rank the women all time thusly:

            1. Navratilova
            2. Graf
            3. Serena
            4. Evert

            The gap between 3 and 4 there is fairly big, and the gap between 4 and whoever you want to put at 5 is a chasm.

          • Mark says:

            Graf was incredible and, in my opinion, has at least as strong a claim to GOAT as anyone. But it’s very difficult to agree with your view that, if not for the stabbing, Seles “might have” kept Graf from winning a major or two, “maybe.”

            At the time of the stabbing, Seles was *clearly* the dominant player in the women’s game. She had won an absurd 7 of the previous 9 grand slam singles titles. AND she was 4.5 years younger than Graf. In early 1993, there was absolutely no question as to who the single dominant force in women’s tennis was, and who looked to own the game for several years to come. And it was not Steffi Graf.

            Despite Graf’s superiority on the Wimbledon grass, it’s hard to come up with any rational reason why Seles wouldn’t have won numerous majors over the coming years, doing a helluva lot more than “maybe” preventing Graf from 1 or 2.

            Unfortunately, the tragedy occurred, and the rest is speculation. We judge by what actually happened, and Graf gets my vote as best ever (narrowly over Navratilova). But minimizing the likely effect of a non-stabbed Seles on Graf’s career from 1993 onward feels terribly biased and therefore detracts from your argument.

          • John Gale says:

            Ok, I’ll elaborate a bit further. Seles did beat Graf in the final of the 1994 Australian Open, but it wasn’t in straight sets. Similarly, in the 1992 French Open final, she beat Graf 6-2, 3-6, 10-8. The only time she beat Graf in a Grand Slam in straight sets in her entire career (until 1999, when Graf was at the end of the line) was the 1990 French Open, and even there, she didn’t display the kind of dominance that Graf displayed over her at 1992 Wimbledon.

            Assuming that the stabbing didn’t happen, I give Seles absolutely no chance of beating Graf at Wimbledon in 1993. Perhaps they split the other two. But Graf was clearly regaining her form. I really don’t think she loses both. Graf only won one major in 1994, the Australian Open, but that was her fourth straight Grand Slam win, and she didn’t drop a set the entire tournament (including a 6-2, 6-0 win over No. 2 Sanchez-Vicario in the final). Hard to argue she wouldn’t have won there.

            By 1995, Seles was good enough to get back to the US Open final, where she lost to Graf. And again, I give her zero chance of winning Wimbledon over Graf that year. Perhaps she wins the French Open. In 1996, Seles actually won the Australian Open. She lost the US Open in straight sets to Graf in the final and had no chance at Wimbledon. As for the French (which took place *after* Seles had already won a major again), Graf didn’t drop a set until the final against No. 2 Sanchez-Vicario. I think Graf probably still wins that one as well.

            After that, Graf’s only major win was the 1999 French Open, and she beat the top three seeds (including Seles in the semifinal). So the only majors in my view that are in dispute to any degree are the 1993 French and US Opens, the 1994 Australian Open, the 1995 French and US Opens and the 1996 French and US Opens. Granted, if Graf doesn’t win *any* of those, she’s down to 15 majors and not the GOAT.

            But remember, Graf won three majors in 1993, 1995 and 1996 and was easily the best player in the world. Given how well she was playing, I just don’t buy that Seles was going to limit her to just Wimbledon, even if she was 100 percent the entire time.

            As I’ve outlined above, Graf was playing so well at the 1994 Australian Open that I don’t think she loses. And given that Seles won the Australian Open in 1996, I think Graf would still have won the US Open that year (she didn’t drop a set the entire tournament) and probably the French as well. So that leaves the other four.

            Worst case, Graf is down to a tie with Navratilova and Evert and tied with Serena Williams. Best case, she wins all four anyway. The most likely outcome in my view is that she wins two and Seles wins two, and she ends up with 20 and a narrower grip on GOAT status.

            By the way, Graf regaining her form and winning her majors is not mutually exclusive with Seles continuing to win majors as well. She easily could have won majors Graf didn’t win during those years. I could easily see Seles winning the 1994 US and French Opens or the 1995 and 1996 Australian Opens. If Seles had a Nadal-against-Federer-esque record against Graf during that period or any other (it’s actually 10-5 Graf overall), I’d be more inclined to agree with the argument against Graf. But there just isn’t a lot of evidence there.

            I think it’s possible that Seles would have dominated the next several years. I also think it’s possible that it would have played out exactly the way it did (again, Graf’s troubles in 1990-1992 weren’t about Seles as much as people like to pretend). I think what would have actually happened is that Graf gets 20 majors and is still the GOAT. Obviously, it’s educated speculation, but unfortunately, there’s nothing else.

            Honestly, I was a Seles fan growing up in the early 90s, so I’m not biased against her, let alone “terribly biased.” But the evidence is what it is. I just don’t see a way to start deducting more than a couple majors from Graf without engaging in a lot more unsubstantiated speculation than I’m comfortable with. And I’ve just gotten a bit annoyed when people reflexively dismiss Graf because of what happened to Seles when I don’t think that’s accurate.

          • John Gale says:

            A couple of corrections to my previous post: I said if Graf had lost the four most in-dispute majors, she’d be down to a tie with Navratilova and Evert, but I also said she would be in a tie with Williams. She’d be one ahead of Williams. Also, Seles beat Graf in the 1993 Australian Open, not the 1994 Australian Open.

  14. Mark says:

    Am I the only one who noticed that the first paragraph has sentences that are nearly identical to those about Tilden in Bill Bryson’s latest book?

  15. For women, check out Margaret Court. She won 24 majors singles titles, 19 majors womens doubles titles and 21 majors mixed doubles titles. Yes, that’s 64 majors titles!!! She was also the first woman to win a Grand Slam in the Open era and retired at #1. I know it was a different time, much like with a Rod Laver, but she dominated like no other.

    • Ed says:

      I’m not sure why Court is so often overlooked. Yes, I personally find her political views abhorrent, but that has nothing to do with her tennis.

      I also know people tend to dismiss her 11 Australian Championships/Open titles since almost no one traveled to Australia to play in that era, but that’s still 13 other major titles at Wimbledon, the French, and the US. Plus she won the calendar year Grand Slam in 1970.

      • Bill Caffrey says:

        Competition. I think Court is viewed as having had, essentially, none. I think it’s that simple.

        • Ed says:

          But at the end of her career (in her 30s) she was beating people like Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley to win Grand Slams. Won 3 Grand Slams in 1973 and beat EGC twice and Evert once in the finals.

          I get the argument against her, but I don’t think she gets nearly the credit she deserves — I don’t think people should consider such a huge gap between her and Evert, for example.

        • Ed says:

          As an addendum, she probably would have won at least 2 or 3 more GS titles (and possibly more) if she didn’t take off so much time for pregnancies/birth of her children. Didn’t play in a single GS in 1967, played while pregnant in 1971, and missed the first 3 in 1972. She won 7 of 8 majors from 1969-1971 (before playing while pregnant) and then won 3 more in 1973.

  16. John says:

    Full disclosure – I’m also a Federer guy. That said, I think it’s important to remember that courts were systematically made slower in Federer’s prime in order to make rallies longer, and make the game more exciting to a wider audience, a huge disadvantage for Federer and major advantage for Nadal. That’s at least part of the reason you no longer see serve-and-volleyers anymore. It also has to be part of the reason Nadal began to see so much success on hard courts.

    Here’s just one article that happened to come up in a Google search documenting the change.

    • Bones says:

      Wow, what timing. I posted this comment higher in the thread as a reply about a minute after yours, John.

      “I agree, Bill. I think that Nadal, more than anyone else, has benefited from the current court surfaces. It’s not just the Wimbledon grass that is playing slower now – it’s hard courts as well. Check out this article by Brian Phillips at Grantland (from last summer):

      Faster grass and hard courts would have been a huge edge for someone like Federer who’s game is based on passing shots and some serve-and-volley play. Nadal’s reliance on defence, endurance and spin would not be helped by the faster surfaces of yesteryear.”

      I am also a Federer guy, by the way.

      • John says:

        Great timing! And a great article, much more informative than the one I provided. I’m glad you posted it. I do wish this issue got more attention. I wonder if it would change Joe’s analysis at all, too, but maybe that’s a column for another day.

  17. Jake Bucsko says:

    Did you know that Nadal has actually played Novak Djokovic more than Federer? Rafa holds a 22-17 career lead over Novak…but again, it’s boosted by his dominance on clay. Rafa leads 13-3 on clay, Novak leads 14-9 on all other surfaces.

    Since 2005, Rafa’s W-L record on clay is 268-12. That is not a misprint. For his career he’s won 93% of his clay court matches, 78 and 79% on hard and grass. Federer is 82 and 87% on hard and grass, 77% on clay.

    It seems clear that any claim that Nadal has to being the greatest ever predicates highly on his being the most dominant clay court player ever. Is that enough? I don’t know. It’s interesting to think about, though. Not that he’s not great on all surfaces, of course, but he doesn’t appear to be better than either Federer or Novak (whose age is much closer) when they aren’t on clay.

  18. Paul Gilden says:

    Head-to-heads are always flawed, often deeply flawed, and cannot and should not be used to determine who the better player is, and certainly not who the GOAT is. Obviously Davydenko is not better than Nadal (6-5 Davydenko) and Murray is not better than Federer (11-10 Murray).

    However, for those who persist in using it, here is the ultimate paradox: The more Federer loses to Rafa, the deeper his status as GOAT becomes.

    The reason is simple: Over the last four years (2010 through 2013), Rafa has been in the prime of his career, whereas Federer has been on the decline. Thus, it is not fair to look at these matches and condemn Federer for losing. Instead, it is appropriate to praise him for continuing to go deep in tournaments and have the opportunity to play Rafa, four, five, and now six years into his twilight.

    Let’s take this scenario: Federer retires after the 2010 Aussie Open with 16 Grand Slams, two ahead of Sampras. His record at that point versus Rafa is 7-13, though no one really cares because the numbers are neither that large nor skewed. Most of the matches have also occurred on clay, on which Rafa has already proven GOAT status. While certainly Rafa will win more Grand Slams and potentially alter the conversation, the head-to-head is a non-issue, and Fed is proclaimed overall GOAT.

    Instead, Fed decides to do something that, for many, tarnishes his legacy. He plays four more years (and counting), which happen to be the best four years of Rafa’s career. Meanwhile, Fed’s best years were 2004 through 2007. Logically, he loses 10 of the next 13 matches to Rafa, and fans start to question his GOAT status because how can you be the best ever if you’re not the best of your generation? The answer: Because generations do not exist in tennis; primes do.

    The 2014 Australian Open semi-final perhaps hits the point home. Fed’s plateau and slow decline began in 2008. In other words, he is six, yes six, years into his twilight and still competing with the best in the world. When he loses, we irrationally criticize him and question his GOAT status rather than commend him for reaching yet another major semifinal six years after his prime. Fed is the victim of the insanely unrealistic expectations he created for himself.

    Let’s assume that right now Rafa is where Fed was four years ago. He is about to begin to plateau, and then decline. He will likely win a few more slams along the way, but can you really imagine him in January 2020 making the semi-final of the Aussie Open to compete with the #1 player in the world? And if he did, and lost, would you criticize him or commend him? Rafa very well might have 20 Grand Slams at that point, make it that far in the tourney, and win the match, thus totally meriting GOAT status. But until he does, let’s not question Fed’s current GOAT status.

    It would have been simple for Fed to retire in 2010 and not give the haters so much flawed fodder to hate. Those of us who know better, however, are ecstatic that he continues to cement his legacy by going deep into tournaments and facing the best in the world, year after year after year.

  19. Andy says:

    Big news to a lot of people commenting on this thread:

    Clay Tennis is a significant part of tennis….

    Clay tennis is 30-50% of all tournaments on the tour for any of the last 40 years.

    I’m not sure you can be the GOAT without having a good track record on clay – you don’t have to be the best but you have to hold your own.

    Disregarding clay is like saying someone was the best hitter of all time in baseball except that they couldn’t handle curveballs, sinkers and sliders.

    So what if Nadal’s record against Federer is largely based on his clay dominance – its like saying that Miguel Cabrera is a great fastball hitter. It’s a fact but it doesn’t make him any less great overall hitter.

    Someone earlier made the point that if Federer hadn’t played clay (or not as well) his record against Nadal would look better which is true, but he would also have disqualified himself from the GOAT discussion. As it is he has 5 finals and 1 win at the FO – certainly not GOATOC (greatest of all time on clay) but highly respectable whereas McEnroe and Sampras never won on clay.

    McEnroe is an interesting parallel to Federer. H2H against Borg looks pretty good at 7-7 but when you realise that of the 14 matches ZERO where played on clay, Borg’s best surface you, realise that McEnroe might have been MTOAT (Most Talented of All Time) but not in question for GOAT.

    The main argument for Federer which somehow has gotten lost in all of this is 2004-2007 he won 11 out of 16 slams and was the best in the world on hard court, the best in world on grass and the second best in the world on clay. If he had been no 1 on hard court and clay but no 20 on clay a la McEnroe it would have been a lot less impressive because…


    Clay is much more important than grass. I would probably suggest weighting all H2H 40% hard, 40% clay and 20% grass to get an appropriately adjusted H2H. Like an H2H+. We can debate the weights but clay is at least 30% and grass should be no more than 25%

    This is really an argument for Laver, Federer, Nadal and Borg over Sampras, McEnroe, Tilden etc. Yes I know Borg didn’t win on hard court but he won on grass and clay which is good enough for me given that those are the extremes. For me thus:

    1) Laver
    2) Federer
    3) Borg tied with Nadal since Nadal lost the 2014 AO final

  20. urosian says:

    A lot of people leave out Pancho Gonzales, who was arguably as great as Fed or Laver. Rosewall too.

  21. washerdreyer says:

    Fed turns 33, not 32, this year. Easy to keep track of when he’s exactly one week older than you are and unimaginably more successful at many things than I’ll be at anything.

  22. jpdg says:

    I watched a lot of tennis in the 90’s and loved Sampras but I’d describe my interest since as lying somewhere between passing and moderate. I just want to say that aside from it being a fun post, this is one of the great comment threads I’ve ever read. Some of the posts were extremely long but brought great info and perspective to the table. Great read from start to finish. Hats off to the BR.

  23. Ryan says:

    I’m by no means a tennis guy, though I do enjoy it from time to time, but I think the reason so many people love Federer and want him to be the best is that he played such beautiful tennis on his best days. Rafa may be better, but he strikes people as bigger, stronger, faster rather than more skilled.

    Federer sliced up the competition with a scalpel, Rafa did it with a cleaver.

  24. tombando says:

    Jimmy Connors is John Elway–the numbers are somewhat fugly and you can always find someone else ‘better’, but man he could beat anyone anytime, and if your life depended on him winning a match–no one better.

    Plus he had Pete Rose’s hair.

  25. Dave Fred says:

    Any mention of the 2008 Wimbledon match has to be followed with “The greatest match ever played.” Even by old scoring methods this still holds true, nothing remotely compares.

    Let them eat rackets.

  26. Tom Bell says:

    Fine article, and all the more interesting in that you never even named as a candidate the actual greatest tennis player of all time: Jack Kramer, whose revolutionary serve-and-volley style (“The Big Game”) invented modern tennis.

  27. […] We’ll never know how Old would have broken down the modern game: He didn’t chart matches or analyze numbers regularly after “Tennis Tactics” appeared. But there’s a fascinating passage in the Talbert and Old singles book in which the authors consider how former greats would compare to contemporary stars. Many analysts today use the same line of reasoning. […]

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