GOAT Flaws

With Novak winning another major, his 11th, in such dominating fashion, again, people are all over the GOAT debate. On the one hand, this is a very flawed and, practically, meaningless discussion because of the obvious difficulty in comparing such productivity (rife with nuance and context); on the other hand, the GOAT discussion encourages people to follow and tally almost obsessively their player’s successes and so forth. The obsession advances heavy interest, an almost raw devotion to a fan’s side in the debate of, in this case, who is the greatest tennis player of all time. Haha ahaha. Sorry. But such a claim seems so absurd, even on the surface.

Right off the top: many of the current discussions seem to only include Roger, Rafa and Novak. If you don’t see this as an inherent problem, good luck.

Comparing players across eras, you and I both know, is very troubling. How people still manage to include Borg, and not other past greats, in their top 5 must have something to do with his stoicism and headband. McEnroe and Sampras, even Lendl and Becker or Edberg probably get a short stick, too, with out much explanation. You can’t seriously make these arguments about greatest players of all time and somehow arbitrarily eliminate some of these past players who showed considerable greatness, but don’t have the currency of “now” in our imaginations nor the clear advantage of current equipment, nutrition, training and coaching.

I’m going to acknowledge the incredible levels of tennis over the past 17 years or so, but still, I’m not terribly convinced. Too many questions. Too many unknowns. Total opinion and preference and argumentative skill. Good luck with whatever position you have established in this heated, yet terribly flawed GOAT debate.

The numbers are a good source of evidence for people in said debate. Majors are important, as are rankings, Masters, WTFs, H2Hs, etc. The numbers are there for us all to analyze. These can be very helpful in establishing a kind of quantitative analysis. In the end, this may be the best indicator since such analysis factors in wins, which often includes longevity, consistency, etc. Production is key. So we’re not too secluded in our tennis bubble, we use the same kind of standards for other sports. Why isn’t Messi considered the greatest futboler of all time? He needs a bloody World Cup. What makes MJ such a convincing GOAT? Six for six although the eye-test as well pretty much sealed that case, signed, sealed and delivered.

Before we do consider our three musketeers of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in this ridiculous GOAT debate, I want to reiterate how flawed the discussion is by leaving-out some of those past great players, having not even mentioned Laver, Emerson or the amazingly prolific Conners. These players were dominant under different circumstances with decidedly less developed sport protocol (tools, languages, standards and objectives). In other words, making this only a Fedalovic debate is flawed beyond repair for reasons I’ve mentioned and others. Think about it.

John McEnroe played the Australian Open only five times. Conners played that major only two times. Borg played it once. You see my point, I hope. Interesting point with Conners: he won the AO, USO and WB in 1974 but did not play the FO that year because of some kind of contractual conflict, I believe. He did not participate in the French during his peak years of ’74-’78.

You understand that this kind of micro analysis of the sport could go on-and-on to underscore some of the differences in eras, the flaws is these kinds of comparisons.

I do understand the value of the eye-test; I trust it whole-heartedly and, therefore, I can at least listen to the “Novak is playing the best tennis of all time” kind of claim. Indeed, I understand the value of the first-hand witness.

But do understand that the numbers across eras/generations are comparatively fucked-up. Different times, different values, different cultures. You understand this.

The three musketeers have been putting-on quite a show of late (at the majors), since 2003 to be exact. That’s when Federer won his first major. Nadal won his first in 2005 and Djokovic won his first in 2008. One can see that Federer has a big toe in that previous era; he’s an older player to be sure.

Fun fact: Federer had 12 majors before Djokovic won his first major at the Australian Open.

Not sure if that makes much of an impact on this discussion. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know where I stand on Roger. In my last post I advised, consistent with where I’ve been on Federer for. . . ever: this is his last year (2016) of major-competive tennis. Folks, Roger is on fumes at this point.

I think the fun fact above might help with that understanding.

Let’s do this: let’s look at the opponents each of these greats have beaten in their major wins.

Before we do this, let’s admit that the big perception floating around is Roger accumulated his majors during a weak era and Djokovic during, according to this popular perception, the golden era.

People might not find many flaws (none) in the Djoker’s tennis at this point, but I would argue that, like Federer and Nadal, he has flaws to his own GOAT case already, not to mention he still has a lot of work to do. His ’15 and ’16 form looks simply record-breaking. He will add a lot to his case for those making it for him; but it looks to be pretty inconclusive for the time being. And we probably wouldn’t want it any other way. For argument’s sake.

Federer Majors:

AO: ’04 Safin, ’06 Baghdatis, ’07 Gonzalez, ’10 Murray

FO: ’09 Soderling

WB: ’03 Philippoussis, ’04-’05 Roddick, ’06-’07 Nadal, ’09 Roddick, ’12 Murray

USO: ’04 Hewitt, ’05 Agassi, ’06 Roddick, ’07 Djokovic, ’08 Murray

Nadal Majors:

AO: ’09 Federer

FO: ’05 Puerta, ’06-’08 Federer, ’10 Soderling, ’11 Federer, ’12 Djokovic, ’13 Ferrer,                 ’14 Djokovic

WB: ’08 Federer, ’10 Berdych

USO: ’10 Djokovic, ’13 Djokovic

Djokovic Majors:

AO: ’08 Tsonga, ’11 Murray, ’12 Nadal, ’13 Murray, ’15-’16 Murray

WB: ’11 Nadal, ’14-’15 Federer

USO: ’11 Nadal, ’15 Federer

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The flaws with each case:

Several of Federer’s wins, seemingly, came against players below the highest championship quality, whatever that means. Granted, Roddick was limited. Gonzalez did make a nice run that year at the AO, beating Del Po, Hewitt, Blake, Nadal and Hass before losing to Federer in the final. His Safin AO win and Hewitt win at USO are solid. But we aren’t overly impressed with that line-up. I’ll say this is the flaw in Roger’s case, not to mention his several missed opportunities. Good Lord.

Nadal’s case has massive flaws. Mainly the dependence upon clay and his inconsistency. Those are enough to really short-circuit his claim to be amongst the very top. Not enough of a well-rounded game to consistently compete like some of the other major works of the  tennis canon. His current form is not helping his case at all, either.

Finally, Djokovic. The big piece of fruit most are quick to pick on his behalf is that he won all of his majors against the big four. Here’s my reply to that: Murray is just not that impressive, at all. Djokovic gets a lot of credit for the Murray wins, but that’s no more impressive than some of Federer’s weak era wins. Murray, my friends, is an under-achieving klutz of a star. He may have snuck into some headlines, found his way into enough finals to be granted a shred of supremacy, but he’s a Roddick-type to be sure. Furthermore, Nole’s ’14 and ’15 wins against Federer are against an aging 33-34 year-old. I put those wins in with Roger’s win over Agassi in ’05. The opponent is past his prime.

To continue to mix it up with some of the Djokovic die-hards, another flaw in his case comes by way of his missed opportunities. His French SF losses to Federer ’11 and Nadal ’13 are big upsets (he was massively favored against Federer and against Nadal we recall the “net” incident). The other thing I hold against Novak (I’ve said this for years) are his losses to Murray. I held those against him because I have always felt that Murray is not the class of the Serb. Those are Murray’s two majors. The shame. Novak’s two losses to Nadal at the USO F are unfortunate, as well, but that’s tennis.

All three of the cases are less than super human. Each has its flaws. Ironically, Nadal has some of the biggest quality wins, over Roger at the AO, WB, and of course his FO run vs. the Swiss, and those two big wins vs. Novak at the USO are huge. How he dominated hardcourts like that is beyond me.

Novak’s win over Nadal at the AO ’12 was absolute beauty. I discount Federer’s and Djokovic’s wins over Nadal on grass because I just don’t see Nadal as the big grass threat though he was certainly a beast every other year for a stretch.

In the end, folks, none of these guys has a fool-proof case. And, again, in my humble opinion Djokovic beating Federer now is simply not that epic.

As we have said many times before, Roger is past his prime, yet he’s the only genuine threat to Novak right now. I have suggested that Novak hasn’t necessarily beaten world-beaters on his way to 11; now he’s really primed to take advantage of a weaker field. There is no reason he shouldn’t have is way for another couple of years.

Novak’s tennis is incredible at this point. We are lucky. Let us enjoy the moment and let history tell its sloppy story, one we all get to follow, picking-up the pieces, sometimes frantically, so we can tell our own story. The beauty and flaw of it all.

4 comments

  1. Another Good balanced Post Matt….Well explained about flaws in GOAT argument..As you said people wanted to see what helps them in argument rather than realizing how difficult to compare these players with so many factors around…

    PS: With Injury reported this morning, it is likely more evident that 2016 might be his last Major year as you pointed out…

    1. Thanks, Nambi. Could have been more thorough, spent a little more time on it. But that’s sorta the point: this isn’t brain surgery. No one is perfect, especially these guys’ resumes.

      The Roger injury I just learned about. Not good for his tennis prospects.

  2. Thanks Matt for very well researched post, but i personally think each player you mentioned here are legends in tennis and with comparison with each other is not fair as they all are best in there game at there era.

    1. Rayan, thanks for the read and the comment. I agree on the legendary status. All I’m doing is adding a little balance to the nutty (but healthy) GOAT debate in which people sometimes abandon reality, get carried away, lose their minds, get lost in the woods, etc. 😉

What say you?