GOAT: Beauty Flawed

This image says it all

Flaw and beauty are in the eye of the beholder.

That’s how life works; that’s how this men’s tennis GOAT debate works.

Imagine that: the knucklehead you’re arguing with on Twitter about who is the GOAT is right. And so are you.


Yesterday we looked at Nadal and Djokovic; you can see I focused on that 2020 Roland Garros final. Pretty consequential match for both, but I would say especially Djokovic. He had an opportunity to make a very powerful statement against Nadal on the terre battue of Roland Garros that would have gone beautifully with his win in the 2019 WB final against Federer.

One might argue that I skipped-over a bunch of numbers, statistics, other criteria of this GOAT calibration.

I guess, as far as I’m concerned, the rest is pretty simple at this point.

First, there will not be a definitive GOAT in men’s tennis; certainly not for the intelligent follower of the sport with some historical perspective.

If there is one guy who can best rise above, you have to say it’s Djokovic, unless Nadal can win the Australian Open and another U.S. Open or Wimbledon. He needs something other than the French at this point.

And Nadal doesn’t have a single WTF. That’s a tough pill to swallow for the more objective assessment.

Djokovic will likely win another Aussie, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. Can he win another French? Tough to say if Nadal is still playing. Doubtful, right?

But Djokovic has 3-4 more, comfortably. Can he win another 5-6? That’s a bit of a stretch, but possible.

But he will have the most year-end #1s, and he will surpass Federer on weeks at #1, a fairly big criterion in this “greatest” discussion. His work on the Masters series is already a huge advantage for his case.

Then we have the H2H numbers. I think these are all pretty much a wash. Novak has an edge over Nadal and Federer in career H2H. But in Federer’s case, the Swiss isn’t in the best position to wage that battle, given that he’s still playing in his late 30s, coming-up on 40. The Serb leads that H2H 27-23; Djokovic has certainly gotten to him, no doubt, but these numbers are fairly balanced and not that compelling for me in terms of catapulting one guy over the other, on that basis.

Even the Federer vs Nadal H2H is not very convincing for the Spaniard at this point. The ATP lists the H2H at 24-16, but I’ve already addressed the tiny error. Some sources do recognize the walkover at 2019 Indian Wells as a loss for Nadal, a win for Federer. They were set to play in that SF. Nadal pulled-out to protect himself for the impending European clay.

That’s a loss. Period.

So even Nadal and Federer at 24-17 isn’t as one-sided as some people still think it is. And Federer has moved ahead of him on their HC H2H. As you can imagine, their H2H is hugely affected by the clay results. Imagine more grass tennis was played or if earlier in their careers, Nadal played more USO or WB tennis, reached deeper into the draw and played Federer?

I’ve been over this particular H2H already. And that was before 2017 and 2019.

All of this to say: the H2Hs amongst the Big 3 don’t spark much interest for me. Certainly not as much as the results of some particular matches.

The main criteria for tennis greatness and dominance are Majors, WTFs, Masters to a lesser extent, and time at No. 1. The Masters is a 21st century development, especially amongst the Big3, especially amongst Nadal and Djokovic; this tally, of these Masters events, didn’t exist prior to ~2008. Masters used to be Bo5, btw, prior to ~2008. Again, I’ve been over all of this before.

Federer was long considered the leader in this whole discussion mainly because of his Majors count, his WTFs count and his time at No. 1, both year-end and weeks at #1.

Djokovic will likely tie and maybe surpass the WTF number (Federer 6 to 5), add to the year-end No. 1 count (they both have 5) and surpass Federer’s weeks at No.1 (310 weeks); Djokovic is currently, I believe, at 290 weeks and counting.

Throw in the 3-4 majors that Djokovic will add and voila.

Where the debate goes, of course, is to some of the other numbers and statistics that help define these gents and the comparisons.

Federer’s clan will focus on weeks at No. 1, Wimbledons, WTFs, total Majors and some of the prolific numbers that define his dominance early in his career. For example, here’s part of an article from an AP writer, Paul Alexander, written in 2008: “[Federer] had reached 10 straight Grand Slam finals, and won 19 matches in a row at Melbourne Park. That all came to an emphatic end when he lost to No. 3 Djokovic 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5) in the Australian Open semifinals Friday.”

Federer’s dominance early in his career reads much like the first part of that quote. He’s won a lot, consistently reached QF/SF/F at majors, especially early in his career. If not for Nadal, Federer might have 1 or 2 Calendar Slams.

That’s the nature of the Federer argument.

Unfortunately for him, he’s getting caught in the bigger categories, especially, as we all know, total Majors and weeks at No. 1, with his WTF lead likely to disappear this year in London.

Nadal and Djokovic will continue to add to their totals in the next few years. The H2Hs won’t favor a 40-something Federer if he stays on tour, nor will the rest of the comparisons.

But here’s my take on a fading Federer, perhaps a reminder to all of the vermin Novak and Rafa fans piling-on, feverishly ravaging a Federer carcass (despite their heroes showing class and respect toward their older tennis brother — Federer is 5 years older than Nadal and 6 years older than Djokovic).

The fact that Federer started this entire ruination of the sport is an important consideration, for me. What I mean by that is he reached first this otherworldly level of dominance that Novak and Rafa followed.

Am I arguing that if there was no Federer, there wouldn’t have been a Nadal and Djokovic? I’m not going to go that far. But you are absolutely defined by your historical context. Think of how kids today will be affected by Covid. We are products of our environment, as much or even more than we are products of our genetics.

Federer’s assault on the sport’s records was staggering.

Sampras retired, officially, in August 2003; his final match played was his last U.S. Open win vs Agassi on September 8, 2002. With that win, he reached a seemingly unreachable mark of 14 majors and he tied Connors’ record of 5 U.S. Open titles. This was in 2002 (though he officially retired about a year later).

By 2008, only six years after Sampras’ last match, securing his 14th major and 5th U.S. Open title, both historical marks, Federer had won his 5th U.S. Open title (he won five straight) and his 13th major.

Sampras retired a tennis god. Five or six years later and the tennis world was in awe of this unthinkable and incomparable force of tennis excellence and dominance.

Enter Nadal and eventually Djokovic. Their bar was elevating into the clouds as they tied their cute little tennis shoes.

So, the power of Federer’s legacy will remain intact, pretty much. His fans will continue to make their case, though a flawed (beautiful) case it will be.

But I certainly do recognize the trailblazing element of Federer’s legacy.

You have to acknowledge the former greats who set the standards. Federer’s influence is massive. Michael Jordan’s is similar. He blew past Magic and Bird. Guys like Kobe and now Lebron chase MJ.

Chasing standards and numbers is different from setting those standards.

But my goodness Federer’s legacy is flawed. Some of his losses to both Nadal and Djokovic, in big matches, early and often in his career only emboldens those other tribes.

I need to get into some St. Petersburg tennis, look ahead to what we have remaining in 2020 and actually talk a bit about other RG take-aways.

Oh yeah, though Medvedev only survived his match vs. Gasquet yesterday in St. Petersburg, he fell to Opelka today. I got-in early on shorting the Medvedev stock, no? Right after his loss in a major final: Sell!

No doubt he is struggling.

Talk to you soon.

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