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Sunday, 29 August 2021


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GOAT should not be about 'mere' statistics.

Rod Laver is probably the best male tennis player of all time. Billy Jean King the greatest female player.

Jack Nicklaus, the best golfer of all time and I saw him play, and win, many times.

Jim Clark is the best Formula 1 driver of all time, ( I once saw him race; I was a small boy). Both Fangio and Senna thought so.

The only tennis player to achieve a Golden Slam (the 4 Majors and Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year)was Steffi Graf in 1988. “I'm not in touch with Steffi, but if you can connect her, I would be delighted to ask her how she did it,” Djokovic said, recalling how he briefly worked with Graf's husband, Andre Agassi.

Eastern Europeans often get underrated by Americans. Maybe it is something to do with the difficulty in pronouncing their names when they are read in print, or they have an appearance that doesn't equate to the appearance that Americans find attractive (i.e. Ivan Lendl who was #1 203 280 weeks - non-consecutive). There seems to be a bias when it comes to eastern Europeans. On the female side how many recall Hingis, Seles, Wozniaki - with the exception of Navratilova who exiled to the U.S.? While tennis fans consider Djokovic among the greatest of all time (and maybe THE GOAT), he doesn't have the name recognition in the U.S. that one might expect).

[That's ironically rather a bigoted claim itself. Scott was a big fan of Martina's and I was a big Hingis fan and Nastase as well. We followed Lendl as closely as any other great player. I've liked Novak since before 2011. And it's been noted many times that New York crowds at the Open are very generous with their applause to the opponents of American contenders. I get tired of anti-American generalizations. Yes, I know we're a big target. --Mike]

Truly an extended golden age of tennis we are living through.

I agree with you on Djokovic. Plus, he's still got a few more prime years ahead.

What about women's GOAT?

Chris Evert agrees on D'joker as GOAT, and on Serena:

"Many consider Williams the GOAT including Evert but with a caveat.

'If you put all the best tennis players of all-time I would say Serena,' Evert told FanSided’s Da Windy City podcast. 'If you said most accomplished career, I would say more Steffi (Graf) and Martina (Navratilova). They have better numbers. They have a better percentage of winning, they won more tournaments they just won a couple of less grand slams but they are better in all the other categories.'

Evert has the numbers correct. Navratilova has 167 tournament wins, Graf 107 while Williams is 8th all-time with 73. Both Navratilova and Graf have slightly higher win percentages as well."


I will still go with Rocket Rod Laver.
Aussie Power and drive as big as his heart.

You’re right, of course - Novak probably is the GOAT, although Federer’s achievement in the same era as Novak and Rafa, at his age, is also extraordinary. But I’m a Brit, and I’ll be always an Andy Murray fan. Sadly he only won 3 Major titles; there were also 8 defeats in Major finals, all to either Roger or Novak. Ranked 4th (just behind the big 3) at year-end eight times.

On a really, really good day he could beat them; two of his Major finals were victories over Roger and Novak, and on his way to the finals he lost, he generally beat one of them in the semis. In any other era he would have won much more, and he did finally reach world ranking #1 at the end of 2016.

But sadly I have to agree - Novak Djokovic may well be the greatest tennis player ever. What’s certainly true is that tennis fans have been privileged to have seen the matches over the last 20 years.

Here's that stat you were looking for, courtesy of the NYTimes: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/12/sports/grand-slam-novak-djokovic-us-open.html

"Aside from Budge, Laver and Djokovic, only two other men, Jack Crawford in 1933 and Lew Hoad in 1956, won even the first three Slam events. (Both did nearly get their Slams in the U.S. Open, losing in the final, Crawford to Fred Perry and Hoad to Ken Rosewall.)

"Since Laver’s last Slam, only three men won even the first two events before Djokovic this year, Mats Wilander in 1988, Jim Courier in 1992 and Djokovic himself in 2016."

Thanks for the great sum-up of what's at stake. I knew about it, but not so neatly and completely.

For those looking for more spice, the official website usopen.org is hosting a bracket challenge and a fantasy league.

Re players pushing each other to be better: I used to think Federer and Nadal had robbed each other of even more titles and greatness (e.g., for a number of years Fed was the best clay court player in the world, except for Nadal; and eventually vice versa for Nadal on fast courts). But now I believe Djokovic is right--none of the Big Three would have been nearly as great without the others. And not just as rivals to beat--I suspect they inspire each other as much as they inspire the rest of us, even if not from the same perspective.

Interesting writeup. I have followed tennis since the McEnroe and Connors days. Its popularity seems to come go in the US depending on whether or not there is a successful American tennis player (male mostly) currently playing, and right now it does seem to be on one of the downswings in the US.

Anyway, random thoughts – I'm a Federer fan, and if, I know, a huge if, the all time best clay court player hadn't come along at the same time as Federer, he would have what? maybe another 5 majors under his belt. One of the rare players who is good on all surfaces. Most of them have their bugaboo surface. Sampras couldn't do anything in the French, Borg never won a US Open, Lendl couldn't break through at Wimbledon, etc.

If you think of what it means for 3 players who are contemmporaries to have won 60 majors, and it doesn't quite work out this way of course, but if they were all compressed into consecutive years, that's 15 years of only 3 people winning the majors. Amazing to have that concentration of talent.

Notable sidebar to the Grand Slam conversation is the history of the Australian Open, which for decades was a smaller, low-paying event that many non-Australians considered not worth the time or expense. On top of that, it took place during the winter holidays (it didn't move to mid-January until the mid-80s).

Borg entered once, when he was 17. Connors competed twice. Agassi didn't bother until late in his career. Evert skipped it more often than not during her best years. She also skipped other Slams. They just weren't what they are now. During the first decade of the Open Era, pros didn't take them as seriously. There was more money and prestige available elsewhere, and I suspect some hangover from the amateur era ban as well.

I have never paid much attention to tennis, but now I feel I am "up to speed". Superb article, thanks!

Looking forward to the Open! Growing up, my idols were Pancho Gonzales and Rod Laver. Both belong in a top five of all time discussion. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are certainly moving up in the rankings!

Exciting (tennis) times indeed, and thank you for the vegan joke. I hadn’t heard it and I have a niece-in-law it fits like a (non-leather) shoe.

Also – I am sorry for your loss of Lulu. She was such a constant presence in your blog, I can only imagine how much more of a constant presence she was in your life.

Thing is, a sport like tennis is not only measured in numbers.

Djokovic might well get many more Grand Slams, but he will never have the talent and grace of Federer, nor the power and grit of Nadal. He is winning so much simply because he has robot-like consistency: Where others will tire and falter after 5 hours of tennis, his physical condition allows him to play at full speed.

For me (and that will always be subjective of course), Federer is the GOAT, followed by Nadal, simply because he took tennis to a different level during his prime. His Wimbledon matches against Nadal are pretty much over half of the top-10 tennis matches of all times, and that alone should give credit to my claim for those two.

[My personal feeling is that the best tennis players are those who dominated their eras--so for me it's Tilden, Laver, Borg, and Sampras so far, with the inclusion from the Big Three still to be made after they are all retired.

In pool there is a player named Efren Reyes, from the Philippines. He is called "The Magician," and he legendary for the brilliance of his play--he sees things other players don't, he makes shots other players can't, and he is amazingly inventive and audacious. Federer is the Magician of tennis, and I agree that he wins on these kinds of criteria--grace, style, improbability, elegance, finesse. Who but Federer can hit a *winner* between his legs, or a *backhand* leaping overhead? He's amazing. But he might not come out on top by the numbers as the leading player of his era when all is said and done. --Mike]

I didn't know Rod Laver was still playing competitively.

Mike. He's an anti-vaxxer.
An incredible athlete he may be. But his choices on life issues,which include diet, are tainted by his anti-vax stance.

"and not everyone likes sports at all." I have trouble reading that.

And a rule I learnt in primary school 60 years ago:

Each is singular; every one is singular;... none is plural, and so on. Sorry to be pedantic.

Steffi Graf actually accomplished something even rarer, winning the golden slam, with all major titles plus the Olympic gold medal.

[Yeah, but that only became a thing because she did it. The Olympics only come around once every four years. It's not viable as a "fifth major." --Mike]

And how about their respective favorite DSLR-brand?

I just dislike Djokovic antics so much... But then, you can't argue with the numbers. Allthough, coming from football (the real one), where is never entirely what you do but how you do it that matters, I have to say that, as an avid fan (I once watch a next day repetition of a whole Nadal-Federer Australia final with a friend, and we both already knew the final score) for me Federer will always be number one: the beauty, the fluidity of his game, gliding like some artistic ice skater, hiting all kinds of balls, seemingly effortlessly. Nadal for me was always his unique talent for the clay and a relentless heart, all effort and strong mentality. DJokovic must be the most resilient player ever, with the best deffence skills and a mentality even stronger than Nadal's.

I didn't know about that hiatus in Rod Laver's carreer. Being excluded from grand slams during six of his prime years certainly makes a strong case for him as the GOAT.

I especially admire how he refined his game over time, not just relying on natural talents. This sums it up…

Hard to explain Djokovic's complete collapse at the Olympics. But yes, we've seen a remarkable span of greats in the last 15 years.
I still kind of miss the elegance of Roche, Laver, Emmo, etc.

A footnote: Apparently sales of tennis equipment in the US boomed during the pandemic--up 40% according to one source, and still up. That's no surprise, of course: tennis has always been a socially distanced yet social activity, and good outdoor exercise, and tennis courts are pretty ubiquitous in the US.

Nadal and Federer are class acts. No comments on Djokovic.

If he were to win this year’s Grand Slam, I think Novak might always wonder what would have happened had two and possibly three of his greatest threats been healthy… Rafa, Roger and Dominic.

Great article... but I take exception to one small passage:

"Djokovic has... lost fewer finals too—he's six for seven while Roger's record is eight out of 12."

That's not at all a positive for Djokovic. It's basically saying that you're better if you lose early, rather than lose in the final match, because then your record in the final match will look better. Getting to the final match is always better than not getting there.

If they'd been to the same number of final matches, then sure, their records would be directly comparable. Otherwise having "less final matches lost" is not a logical thing to use as a positive attribute.

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