The structure of the ATP tour has changed much over the years. Not only has the structure changed, but the significance of some of the tournaments has changed, as well. Masters events, the 1000s, for instance, are a bigger part of a player’s schedule than before. There is no question about this, which anyone can determine based-upon looking at numbers, Masters results, changes in formatting, and making some pretty basic inferences based off of this evidence.
We all know the big numbers used to gauge a player’s success (greatness) on tour (in the history of the sport) are Majors and Masters championships. World Tour Finals is a separate category, so we can add those numbers to the mix, as well. But the first two categories are especially important to this calculation of greatness and impact.
Here are the lists that should reflect what most people see these days:
- Federer 17
- Sampras 14
- Nadal 14
- Emerson 12
- Djokovic 12
- Laver 11
- Borg 11
- Tilden 10
- Rosewall 8
- Perry 8
- Conners 8
- Lendl 8
- Agassi 8
- Sears 7
- Renshaw 7
- Larned 7
- Lacoste 7
- Cochet 7
- Newcombe 7
- McEnroe 7
- Wilander 7. . . Etc.
- Djokovic 29
- Nadal 28
- Federer 24
- Agassi 17
- Murray 12
- Sampras 11
- Muster 08
- Becker 05
- Courier 05. . . Etc.
We make lists because we like clarity (I hope). We make them to organize, for our own assurance, our own claims about those things that interest us. Lists. Lots of lists with statistics and other seemingly authoritative metrics. The big question here is how representative or accurate are these numbers in terms of determining clarity or, in our case with the grand discussion in men’s tennis, greatness.
As we suggested above, the structure of the tour has changed a lot over the years. Different tournaments, even Majors, carry different levels of significance today than they used to.
The biggest discrepancy that affects that first list (this is obvious if you know much about the sport) is the rise of the Australian Open. It used to be played on grass, which changes things even more. But the point here is that this tennis tournament really hasn’t always been on players’ radars, so to speak.
The best example is Borg (sorry if I’m reiterating the obvious). He played the AO once. Conners played the AO twice. McEnroe played AO five times, missing ’78-9, ’82, ’86, which were part of his peak. This excavation could go deeper, but the point is the tour has evolved a lot over the years, meaning that one player’s “numbers” are incongruous with another’s.
The French Open had its issues, too. Conners skipped the major during his peak years, from 1974-78. He was later a semi-finalist there four times. Most interesting point here belongs to 1974. Conners won the other three majors, but, of course, skipped the FO. Can you imagine that happening today? No, you couldn’t. Conners missed a lot of majors (AO and FO) based on our current understanding of this sport.
The other part of the French is the difficulty of that major, how the contrast with the other surfaces made it that much more difficult in the past. Today, the understanding (the reality) is they’ve made all surfaces more similar, slowing down HC and grass, making adjustments to clay, all in order to make the change of surfaces more seamless. That’s part of another change, along with the equipment, nutrition, etc.
Once you open this can of worms, even slightly, you see how problematic it is to compare eras and make broad claims of greatness. In just looking at the numbers, one has to acknowledge these fundamental differences.
This French dis-connection plays massively into the case of Pete Sampras. Here’s a nod to that historical context I mentioned in the Introduction. Pete’s sense of tennis greatness, of dominating the world, did not have to include the FO. His predecessors, when faced with the FO, turned the other cheek, for the most part. Borg is the exception, of course. But Wimbledon and the U.S. Open were, at the time, the biggest venues on the tour. No question. His dominance of those Majors did not make learning clay a priority. And he had an historical argument to support this approach. Sure Lendl won the French, as did Wilander. But Conners ignored it, McEnroe struggled there, Becker and Edberg came-up short there. Keep in mind, Pete had success on clay (and could have revised his game to accommodate this surface; but he didn’t have to, according to that world view, if you will).
In the end, the men who ruled the tennis court in the 80’s and 90’s did not see the French Open or Australian Open the same way that the men see it today. There is no way around this fact. The AO has certainly become more significant, beginning in the 90’s for sure, but the lack of significance in the 70’s and 80’s adds to this incongruity between this past and present of the sport.
Here’s a glance at the past, a look at the evolution of the Masters tour: the Pepsi-Cola Grand Prix, The Commercial Union Assurance Grand Prix, the Colgate Palmolive Grad Prix, the Volvo Grand Prix, the Nabisco Grand Prix.
This accounts for the Masters tournament circuit of the ATP up through 1989. The ATP we more or less see today began in 1990, but there have been changes even since then.
In the all-time Masters list above you don’t see the names of McEnroe or Lendl, among other greats. They were playing an entirely different tour in their day. Some of you might even have a problem with my list above. You might find different versions of it, some that do include the tournament wins of the Volvo GP, for instance. But one thing is certain: you will see those same names at the top, our three amigos.
But again, those numbers (29, 28 and 24) reflect a different tour. I hope that is pretty clear.
Why is this ignored? The racquets, shoes, nutrition, court surfaces, tour scheduling, tournament importance – the sport has changed so much through the years.
When we hear someone say GOAT, we should understand that they are actually bleating like a goat.
To take a somewhat closer look at the Masters list above, the case of Sampras seems especially intriguing and, again, a solid illustration of the differences between the tour then (as early as the mid to late 90s, even early aughts) and now (since 2009, especially, when the ATP made its most recent Masters change).
Sampras’ Masters history really begins in 1991 (again, the new ATP was introduced in 1990 though still changes have been made to its overall structure). His efforts are hardly noteworthy in 1991 with several 2R losses, skipping Indian Wells and Monte Carlo though reaching a final in Cincy and Paris. In 1992, he skipped Hamburg and Toronto, won Cincy, but again was pretty insignificant in the other 6 Masters tournaments. In 1993 he got a win in Miami, missed Monte Carlo and Hamburg (again) and was fairly pedestrian in the rest. Having said that, he did win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon that year (1993). Here we see Pete begin his consistent run at the majors, but continue a pretty weak approach to these Masters tournaments.
In 1994 he won WB and AO, but missed four Masters tournaments. At the same time, he won three Masters: IW/MI double and he spanked Becker in the Rome final 1 1 and 2. On clay.
Pete is an interesting case. I glanced at some scheduling and numbers here, but look at the Masters all-time list above. You can see there that one of the all-time greats has less Masters than our friend Andy Murray. You may think that just speaks to Murray’s greatness, the depth of today’s ATP. I think you’re greatly mistaken, if that’s your opinion.
Those Masters numbers reflect two and even three different tours, essentially. Back to the historical context: if Sampras had come into a tour with that kind of Masters accumulation as a driving force of dominance, you’d have seen a different Sampras, I suspect. Ultimately, he was going out in early rounds, or skipping events. But winning majors in those same seasons.
Oh, and another kicker: the finals of these Masters events? They were best-of-five format. The wear-and-tear of the tour was different, and players’ priorities were different. The scheduling, the format and the history influenced all of this.
I think it also helps to see that these draws were anything but thin. Here’s your general seedings for these tournaments in the early-mid 90s. Feel free to take a gander yourself: Lendl, Sampras, Becker, Agassi, Edberg, Courier, Chang, Stich, Bruguera, Ivanisevic, Muster, Krajicek. The late nineties added Rafter, Kafelnikov, Kuerten, Haas, et al.
As we moved to the aughts, the tour evolved. Look at some of the results of the 2000 ATP Masters Series (the name then): Corretja won IW in three; Sampras beat Kuerten in Miami with this line — 6–1, 6–7(2–7), 7–6(7–5), 7–6(10–8). No wonder Pete was ready to retire. That’s a Masters tournament. Brutal five-setter against a three-time major champion. Kuerten beat Safin in a Hamburg five-setter though Safin did pick-up two wins that year at Toronto and Paris.
That’s 2000 and the tennis is tough both from a competitive stand-point (the field) as well as a tough match format; we know the difference between a Bo5 and Bo3. Can be night and day, especially with a championship on the line. If you think this is like the tour today, sure there are similarities – Ha! It’s the ATP! But to say that our three amigos play the same tour as McEnroe, Lendl and even Sampras is such an overstatement. It’s false, practically speaking.
We’ll turn to post-2000 and what happened when the Swiss Maestro took the stage and the tour turned, finally, to its most current state-of-affairs.
I hope you’r enjoying the reading. I hope you appreciate the difficulty this proposes in making these broad statements about players and the sport.
Let me know what you think. That’s the best part, inviting more investigation, complication and spirited debate. That’s the point, folks; there is no certainty in trying to declare a BOAT or GOAT. But I admit that the arguments can be enlightening. As I have said before, as futile as this GOAT debate really is, the conversation/argument encourages study of the sport.
With Federera, we’ll see how the shit hit the fan, how the Maestro done messed-up the place.
The shame. 😉