I shouldn’t be surprised or at all annoyed by the constant talk of G.O.A.T. in tennis that permeates many tennis conversations these days. We’re at the tail end of a great era of tennis. The Roger era has been historical, was complicated by the play of Nadal and Djokovic, and has given way, definitively, to the Djokovic era. The vast accumulation of majors by those three along with the level of tennis to the naked eye, with the help of better equipment, training, etc., has no doubt helped define an incredible golden age of tennis over the last 12+ years.
There are so many odd ball conversations and debates going on in-and-around this bigger GOAT conversation. As people debate Roger v Djokovic (as premature a comparison as there is), one of the debates is strength of era. Roger’s era was weak goes one perspective. I suppose they mean the 2004-2008 era? This same perspective then does a somersault and tells you that Roger has been playing his best tennis ever, in 2015. So, he’s playing better now than during his era? Because his era was so weak? Hunh? You see the problem here. More on that in a minute.
Go look at some major championship draws from the mid eighties to the early nineties. Lendl, Wilander, Edberg, McEnroe, Conners, Becker. If you wander back to the early eighties, late seventies, you add Borg and Gerulaitis, youth to Mac and Conners, etc. Among others. In other words, I know the tennis of the last ten years has been incredible, but we are, as I and many others have said, prisoners of the moment. We not only easily forget; we also over value our own. Makes us feel better about our own experience. Imagine Jonny Mac or Sampras or Conners, et al., with today’s equipment/science. In reality, the GOAT conversation is pretty silly. When the talk gets heated, it gets even sillier. See? Even the language to describe the GOAT hot air sounds playful, cute, and a little past its bed-time.
Those were some badass seedings in those tournaments of old. Sampras was a 12th seed in his first U.S. Open win, when he was 19 in 1990. The top seeds? Edberg, Becker, Lendl, Agassi. Chang #11, Courier #14, Ivanisevic #15.
Is today’s field, 2015, deeper and more talented than those fields? Okay, go back to 2010-2012. Tough to say, but I’m certainly not calling it a foregone conclusion.
Back to this argument that today Federer is playing his best tennis of his entire career. If you are at all an athlete, have spent more than a few years following sports, that you actually have a little experience with the way the physical body performs athletically, especially in a sport like tennis, or soccer or football, track, etc., one which requires speed and strength, agility and endurance (among other qualities), then you absolutely know that father time is undefeated. To say that Roger Federer, who played some of the greatest athletic tennis ever over ten years ago, is playing better now, is to say that you have an agenda, an ulterior motive, or you’re really not very smart. Who says that? How is Roger better now than he was in 2006 or 2007?
That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.
But let’s play along. Who is cracking such buffoonery? Who needs Roger to play his best now? That’s what this feels and sounds like. The claim is made not for Roger’s sake. The guy has won 17 majors, but hasn’t won one since 2012. Yet he’s playing better than he ever has? Granted, he is giving this perspective a chard of support by making two major finals in 2015. But who gathers these whiffs of success and says he’s peaking, as in playing better than he ever has?
He who makes such a claim is doing so to prop-up someone else’s achievements. Think of the alternative. Roger, a guy well past his prime, 34 years-old, is basically #2 in the world right now (I’m sure Andy would even agree with that). He’s #2. He’s 34. He hasn’t won a major in three years. Yet he’s playing better than he ever has. Is this a joke?
The confused making this case will say, I think, that Roger’s dominance ten years ago was against a field so weak that. . . he’s finally playing better because he’s learned so much . . . but he’s getting spanked by a much deeper field now. . .
One can’t follow those lines of reasoning. If they concede that their reasoning is pathetic, they play their ace: Roger said he’s playing better now than he ever has. We love Roger. He is a confident tennis player playing so well at this point in his career. I have called this his extended farewell tour for months. It’s really been years now. But not even Roger can make this true.
Anyone who knows sports, who has watched Roger play, who has some experience with the rise and fall of the human body, knows without a flicker of doubt that this truth is an impossibility. This argument is not about Roger. This is fanatical. There is an agenda behind these words. No one with an ounce of knowledge of the game and/or the world believes such lunacy.
And the irony is this: whoever is making this claim, doing so for another player’s benefit, is adding to the case of Roger Federer.
Take the infamous case of Rafael Nadal. Some consider him one of the greatest. He’s 29. He is all but done with his legitimate competitive relevance in the sport. Done. In a typical world, that’s pretty easy to swallow. He has 14 majors, several other claims to fame (pretty impressive on the Masters 1000 front) and he’s 29. In tennis years, he’s had a great career. It’s almost a wrap.
Roger at 34 is ripping through 1000 and major championship draws. There’s some pretty spectacular tennis coming from the wily veteran who has flirted with #2 in the world, really has been the only player to challenge Novak at this point. I have said it before and will say it again: he’s pretty much done winning majors, and has been for a while. This is his ambassadorship. Other than that great run in Cincinnati, Roger is playing uphill against Novak. Hate to state the obvious again, but he’s 34 years old. Again, he’s six years older than Djokovic.
Roger can beat Novak. But it’s going to be quite an upset in 2015.
Objectively speaking, what he’s doing at his age is continuing to separate him from the crowd. I’m sure if you ask the elders, the oracles of the sport, they would say Roger has simply done things on the court better than anyone ever has.
His play at 34 is more evidence of this. Indeed, the people saying he’s playing better than he ever has are actually making this point. They’re foolishly trying to bolster the achievements of the next era, trying to give it class I guess (beating Roger adds to the legacy). But, in reality, they are only clarifying what so many in tennis know. That Roger has graced the sport (and continues to) like no one ever has. His impact is mind-boggling.
If Novak wins another 4-5 majors, he enters the conversation with Roger and Pete (and Borg and Laver, among others since this is all so subjective).
I am not arguing Roger is G.O.A.T. The debate, interestingly enough, borrows language from another use of the same term with an entirely different meaning. I say give it a rest. The bias and herd mentality of it all can be interesting to a point, but some of these debates are just silly.
Enjoy the tennis.
My point is you could be doing more damage to your cause than you realize. I have looked, as you know, at the Federer Nadal numbers, patterns, etc. Not a good look for the Spaniard. On top of all of that, no one gives a shit about H2H other than those with an agenda. These arguments, GOAT, best era, etc., are all flawed with bias, logical fallacy, you name it.
As for the strength of era argument, in reality (I’m not going to argue this here and now), today’s ATP might be the weakest it’s been in years. Roger Federer is 34 and Rafael Nadal is narrowly escaping embarrassment around every turn, or not. Del Potro is gone, Stan is very inconsistent, Andy is a mess, Cilic . . .Nishikori?
Nadal almost lost to Rosol tonight in Basel. In the end he won, but it wasn’t pretty. With Nadal, it never really is. I covered this a bit in my Tennis Excellence post. Do you think the game is beautiful, that style and grace are qualities we value in this sport? Of course. That’s why Roger and Pete or Borg or Laver are generally names people turn to for tennis excellence, tennis greatness. Nadal has never really been that pretty in terms of his tennis (in terms of marketing, the sex appeal, sure, but not in terms of ball striking, north/south movement, etc.). Granted, Nadal’s fighting spirit and his remarkable clutch gene are all-time, but he’s just not on that upper echelon with those other greats, imho. Is it a coincidence that Roger and Pete are considered the best to have ever played and they have a single FO between them?
Novak is in this same model of tennis excellence, being coached by one of the true greats of the game, having had to play one of the greats H2H for years (Roger). Novak’s game is incredibly easy to watch, to marvel at its efficiency and grace (the net game is coming along frighteningly well). He’ll get his FO, he’ll end-up in the same conversation as those other greats.
The best part is we get to watch and talk about it.