GOAT: Flawed or Beautiful?

Following our latest GOAT vs GOAT in a major final, with the outcome having significant statistical and theoretical consequences that fuck with people’s emotions, thoughts, and arguments, let’s take a dive into this GOAT discussion that revolves around the Big 3.

Remember that this is mainly a conversation had by fans who mostly come to their conclusion based-off of their desire to see their guy on top (analysis of tennis, a real curiosity and love of tennis really rarely accompany this kind of fanaticism). We’ve talked about this ad nauseam. Fangirls and fanboys dig-in their heels and resort to playground antics to claim that their favorite player is the GOAT.

This superficial analysis is made only more ignominious by the media blowhards who are either glorified fans, have a commercial angle, and/or are paid to fan the flames of this heated GOAT debate culture.

There are many examples of biased journals, articles, blogs, etc., that litter the interwebs and news stands. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

But a big point in my view on all of this is buyer beware. Many sources of information, commentary, knowledge, etc. are ignorant, biased, and/or just plain bad though many might think otherwise.

A recent example of bad “journalism”:

This article is a preview of this year’s Roland Garros final.

The Tennis.com writer picked Nadal in the final, which is the safe and correct pick, we know. Bravo on that. Here’s how he ended his article:

Djokovic has beaten Nadal on clay seven times. He has all the tools to do it an eighth time, but any analysis of their next battle must include this reminder: Nadal is 99-2 at Roland Garros. The Spaniard on clay is like Michael Phelps in water and Wayne Gretzky on ice.

If you google ‘most dominant athletes of all time,’ a list pops up that includes Phelps, Kelly Slater, Floyd Mayweather, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Martina Navratilova. Who’s at the top of the list? Nadal at Roland Garros. He’s a perfect 12-0 in French Open finals, and should improve to 13-0 on Sunday.

This is a professional tennis journo working for Tennis.com (affliated with Tennis Channel — “legit” source, right?). Look at that reference to a Google search that renders one of those shit internet lists. You’ve seen thousands of them. They are enticing wastes of time and full of irrelevant horse poop.

If you go to that list (it’s a particular list, one of many), where Nadal is allegedly recognized as the most dominant athlete of all time (of all sports, all athletes), guess who is # 9 on that list? Joey Chestnut — the hotdog eating champion. Federer is #11. Secretariat, the horse, is #6. This is how he concludes his article, adding “valuable” reasoning to his pick for the winner of the FO final?

No big deal? That’s about as inconsequential, lazy, misleading and fundamentally misguided as one could possibly be approaching that huge match, representing an allegedly legitimate source of tennis insight.

The worst part here is you, or one, might not think this is that big of a deal, this dumbed-down tennis commentary.

Steve Tignor, of the same publication, tries to add some commentary at the conclusion of the tournament, putting the Swiatek and Nadal wins in perspective. In short, he says the women’s and men’s results, victories by the young Pol and the Spanish veteran, remind us of two things going forward: “Where Swiatek’s win signaled the rise of a new generation, Nadal’s signaled the return of an old one—the Big 3 generation, the greatest generation. Just two weeks after Dominic Thiem ended their long streak of major titles in New York, Nadal and Djokovic reestablished their positions at the top of the ATP in Paris.

Sorry, but I like to focus on the details, the small fibers of fact, reality and argument in order to make sense of the world. That point there completely misrepresents what happened in NYC and Paris; suggesting that Nadal’s win at RG is the old guard reclaiming their dominance is patently inaccurate. Fedal didn’t even play in New York and Novak was defaulted in the R16.

Thiem won the U.S. Open not by overcoming the Big 3; and 2020 Roland Garros does not represent the Big 3 reclaiming their control of the field.

These two articles (not the worst of the bunch, not really that bad, to be fair) nonetheless foment ignorance, inaccuracy, embellishment, and bullshit.

This is much of the basis for the GOAT debate.

We know how bad the media hinders our thought processes. The American political catastrophe is largely a media-born apocalypse. We often think we’re reading the “news,” or becoming more informed throughout our day, throughout our lives. Unfortunately, we all live in certain echo chambers, the pawns of algorithms, living our lives on the basis of codes written to control our behaviors.

The GOAT debate comes from that kind of crowdsourcing. The algorithms influence our habits and our points-of-view; then, in-turn, we, this rag-dolled population of “informed” people, have all of these bright ideas that form different tribes who have almost drunken shared beliefs.

Add to this toxic media inebriation and control the nationalism at the heart of an international sport like tennis and there you are: Nadal, Djokovic, or Federer is the GOAT!

Don’t get me started on the Jordan vs Lebron debate. Apparently, there’s a reassessment going-on as-we-speak since Lebron and the Lakers just won the NBA Championship. Some are claiming Lebron is definitely the GOAT now. My goodness these people are bored.

Oh, which reminds me — and you recall this part of my HRFRT dissertation: another element that blurs all sorts of definitions and ultimate clarity and truth is the role that presentism plays in these debates/discussions. Unless you are a historian (value history), the present (most recent) is the most valuable and meaningful, i.e., the best. I don’t want to get sideways here, but the rise of Lebron and Trump share in this presentism phenomenon.

One last question to Lakers fans: who is the greatest Laker to don the purple and gold?

In the end, the biggest problem I have with the GOAT debate is the people having the debate. My two cents: let’s hear people make sense of the nuance, analyze some sport and history, find some perspective (perhaps even some concession), instead of sounding like a kid in line to order your favorite flavor of ice cream.

Let’s talk men’s tennis GOAT.

Nadal’s Claymation Domination

The result of the Nadal vs Djokovic 2020 Roland Garros final reads like this for me in terms of the GOAT.

Reaching 20 majors is a huge accomplishment. He ties Federer. His ability to continue to win at this level speaks for itself. The numbers are massive.

For his legacy, reaching 20 is an unmistakable result and take-away.

For me, #20 also reinforces his clay prowess. #13 is not that much more incredible that #12 (I know he surpasses Navratilova as having won more titles at a single event — she won 12 at a Chicago tourney, but who really cares?). He dominates RG. Winning his 100th extends the statistical dominance (is a nice round number, for now), but this only reiterated what we already new: He owns RG.

There is certainly an element of the H2H aspect of beating Novak in a final, in very decisive fashion. He crushed the Serb. He moved ahead of the Serb in their major finals H2H 5-4. He improved his H2H against Novak overall at the majors.

So, this win improves the major H2H, and the general H2H, but Novak still leads that 29-27.

You know with me (and a lot of tennis aficionados) the over-reliance on clay is a very real consideration in terms of his overall dominance.

Put it this way, his 4th U.S. Open win in 2019 is much more meaningful than is his 13th French Open in 2020 (other than #20, which he probably would’e reached via RG anyways). Indeed, you might point-out that #13 gave way to #20, but overall, multi-surface dominance is more important to me.

Rafa may win two more French Opens and end with 22. Let’s say that’s his final major tally. That’s not that much more, for me, than who he is now. The record books and the conversation surrounding him will always lead with “22” and let’s say that’s the most of all, in the end.

For me, 22 with 15 French titles is not that much better than 20 with 13. There’s significant context here to consider and plenty of debate.

Again, the fog horn fanboy or media kook gloms onto 22 and, I concede, 22 is massive. But reading between the lines here, this is just running-up the score on his clay dominance. We knew this level of Nadal 8-10 years ago.

Is the continuation of dominance important? The length of championship caliber tennis a factor? Of course. I’m even caught here in possibly contradicting myself because longevity is inherent in greatness, sustainability, consistency, etc.

Where I reconcile or avoid this possible contradiction: my reasoning surrounding clay. This is, for me, an inferior game of tennis. I have made this argument over and over on this blog (some think clay is the best surface, yields the best, most athletic style of tennis). I disagree.

Focusing just on the French Open, here are title counts from the top guys i in the sport, all-time (multiple winners, multiple major winners):

Nadal: 13
Borg: 6
Lendl: 3
Wilander: 3
Kuerten: 3
Laver: 2
Năstase: 2
Bruguera: 2
Courier: 2
Vilas: 1
Kefelnikov: 1
Agassi: 1
Federer: 1
Wawrinka: 1
Djokovic: 1
McEnroe: 0
Connors: 0
Becker: 0
Edberg: 0
Sampras: 0
Hewitt: 0
Safin: 0
Rafter: 0

This very simple analysis says a lot to me about the French Open in particular and clay in general. Most of the best players over the last 50 years in this sport have done poorly on this surface and at this major.

The French, for the most part, is nonrepresentative of the highest form of tennis according to the history of the sport, based on the results of the best players of all time.

Let’s look just at the Big 3 even though you can see this from the list above:
Nadal: 13
Federer: 1
Djokovic: 1

This might be a better list for you since we are talking about the Big 3 and this eliminates all of that distracting data from other players.

As I have said, the French wasn’t really part of the significant competitive landscape for the top pros for years. Connors didn’t even participate in the French during his peak years (74-78). The numbers above speak for themselves.

Nadal’s dominance does play a big part in the French titles not won by Novak and Roger, but the Serb and Swiss look just that much more at home with the rest of the men’s field. The French has been almost an after-thought in the men’s game. That’s what those numbers say.

Ten years ago, Federer had 16 majors, one of which was a French. He was considered the GOAT though Sampras was still in the discussion. The American has exactly zero French titles.

You’re telling me that the two greatest players in the sport at that time (Laver has 2 French Opens) had 1 French title between them?

All this to say that the over-reliance on the French Open has always been a flaw of Nadal’s resume.

What I will acknowledge, I said this above, is that #20 does eclipse #13. I can be critical of this dependence on clay, but 20 is a big accomplishment that takes into account his work to stay healthy, his smart coaching changes, his lazer focus, and his impressive character and class, on and off the court.

Djokovic: A Swing and a Miss

Here’s what happened to Djokovic when he lost that RG final to Nadal last Sunday. He lost a huge opportunity to take a monster step towards claiming that he dominates the sport, defined by recent significant wins over his two close rivals.

This match is maybe as consequential as the 2019 Wimbledon final.

My argument following that WB final took this route: if Federer had beaten Novak in that final, he would have accomplished three distinctive marks, again, according to my tennis imagination.
1. He would have claimed #21.
2. He would have claimed #9 WB, what many refer to as the most cherished major championship.
3. He would have beaten Nadal (SF) and Djokovic (F) in the process, putting a pretty significant stamp on the, at the time, almost 38 year-old’s year and career.

Novak had 15 majors at the time. Similar to Nadal beating Djokovic here at the French 2020, Federer would have widened the gap. But really the optics here for Roger would have been bigger. Beating the world #1, beating both his rivals and reigning supreme again at The Championships would have been such a statement of championship tennis greatness and class.

Having the MPs on his racquet make this worse for the Swiss. Brutal choke. Biggest choke I have ever witnessed, especially given what I described above.

Instead, Novak wins. Beats Roger again in a WB final (that’s three WB finals over Roger). The count on WB titles, if Federer had won would have been 9 to 4. Instead, the difference is 8-5. Roger gets so much credit as the greatest grass court player, and he might be, but Novak certainly has something to say about that.

Federer stays at 20, Novak moves to 16 (gap of 4 vs 6), so that was pretty significant, as well. Just a brutal loss for Federer and a genius win for the Serb.

If Novak had beaten Nadal last Sunday, he would have this to say: I beat in-form Roger on Center Court and in-form Rafa on Philippe-Chatrier.

The latter, winning last Sunday, would have had other serious repercussions: he makes the move to 18 (to 19 to 20). And he accomplishes the Double Career Slam, winning all four majors twice.

Needlesstoday, Novak missed this opportunity. It’s a very tough loss.

But you know what? This only reinforces one very important point to all of this GOAT gas (and I made this case in a GOAT post I wrote years ago): each player’s case is fundamentally flawed.

Or we have the beauty of it all, that each player is different, athletically brilliant and incredibly successful.

To be honest, I think Djokovic’s case could end-up being the strongest, if you had to finally pick one. But look at last Sunday’s result. And I had a very real feeling about that match (other than history and common sense) that Nadal would prevail, partly because so many times in life this is what we get: uncertainty.

Novak winning the 2020 French, I suspect, would have been a massive blow to the debate: Double Career Slam, along with his Double Golden Masters, 18 (to 19 to 20) majors, and taking-out his two biggest rivals on their most prized courts (their virtual home courts).

But that’s not how things went exactly.

I will turn to Federer’s “case” next (where he stands at this point) and then wrap-up this particular phase of this discussion in my next post.

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “GOAT: Flawed or Beautiful?

  1. Alex

    Hi Matt – your point about the prominence of recency bias I think is an important one in this context. Two names stand out to me in this regard: Laver and Borg. Laver won 11 grand slams and achieved the calendar slam twice. His two calendar slams were achieved something like 7 seven years apart, during which time he didn’t compete in the pro tournaments at all. I wonder how many more slams he may have won? It’s not fanciful to suggest it could’ve been a fair few, given he achieved a 2nd calendar slam when he returned to the pro tour in 1969.

    Borg is another interesting one. He won Wimbledon five years in a row and the FO six times overall, but never bothered to compete in the AO, and he retired at 26 or something. Surely he gets an honourable mention in this debate too? If Federer, Nadal and Djokovic had each retired at 26, their slam counts would’ve been 12, 11 and 6 respectively.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said, Alex.
      Sampras is another example.

      As for that contrast in career-length, a profound change, among many, between eras,
      here’s a quote from Becker I used in a post years ago to underscore this difference.

      “In 2012, Becker described his approach to retirement. ‘I had won so much by 22, a number of Wimbledon titles, US Open, Davis Cup, World number one. You look for the next big thing and that isn’t in tennis.’”

      Ha ha.

      Liked by 1 person

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