The Great Debate
There’s no doubt you’ve heard this argument more than once.
“Federer is the greatest of all time, 20 Grand Slams is all I have to say,” says the Fed-Head. “But Nadal has 19 and he dominates Federer in head-to-head,” shouts the Rafael Nadal superfan. “Just wait a year and they’ll both be looking up at Djokovic,” remarks the Djoker Fan. “Yeah, but none of them would’ve lasted when the rackets didn’t swing for you,” mumbles the elderly man.
Well, maybe that exact argument was a figment of my overactive imagination.
Still, therein lies the reason no one will ever agree on the greatest male tennis player of all-time. No matter how unbiased you think you are, everyone has either conscious or subconscious biases.
However, in a desperate attempt to end the never-ending debate, here’s the case for why there is not a greatest of all-time in tennis.
Bigger Is Better
The Great Grand Slam Race
Alright, I figure we ought to deal with the elephant in the room first. The Great Grand Slam Race, or something like that. The constant dispute over whether or not who has the most Grand Slams is the best tennis player.
So, for time’s sake, we will only look at the 5 players with the most Grand Slams. These players are Roger Federer with 20, Rafael Nadal with 19, Novak Djokovic with 17, Pete Sampras with 14, and Bjorn Borg with 11.
But, the first issue we run into is that not all of these players have played in the same number of Grand Slam championships. Federer has played in 31, Nadal in 27, Djokovic in 26, Sampras in 18, and Borg in 16. Although this could be seen as the player has had more chances and be held against them, this could also be seen as the player has been more dominant in reaching Grand Slam championships. The connotation is in the eye of the beholder.
Regardless, the most common sub-argument of the Great Grand Slam Race (I will be copyrighting that) is that Roger Federer has only won the most because he has had the easiest path. So, naturally, in pure curiosity, I set out on a quest to determine which of the 5 previously mentioned players had the “easiest” path to their Grand Slam victories.
After brainstorming the best way to determine this “statistic”, I decided to take the average of the year-end ranking of each of their finals opponents in Grand Slam victories. For example, in Federer’s case, I found the year-end ranking of all 20 of the opponents he beat in a Grand Slam final, added them together, and divided them by 20. In this statistic, the lower the number is the better. We will call this championship difficulty, or cd for short.
The table below shows the players cds’ from best (hardest) to worst (easiest).
*side note: Djokovic’s 2020 Australian Open victory was not included due to the lack of year-end rankings
As you can see above, Roger Federer actually has on average played a year-end 5th ranked player in Grand Slam finals. Surprisingly, considering it is often Nadal devotees making these claims against Federer, Rafael Nadal is below Roger Federer. Once again, I will leave this knowledge for the reader to decipher. Even so, I believe one must now understand how just having the most Grand Slams doesn’t tell the whole story.
The Total Titles Race
In relation to the Great Grand Slam Race is the Total Titles Race (remind me to mail in the copyright for this one too). Just like before, I will list off only the 5 players with the most titles, but this time it will include all singles titles. These players are Jimmy Connors with 109, Roger Federer with 103, Ivan Lendl with 94, Rafael Nadal with 84, and Novak Djokovic with 78.
A decent note to add to this would be that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are collecting titles like trading cards right now so it would be fair to assume these will not be their final title counts upon retirement.
Be that as it may, we have now made an argument for why 3 different players could be considered the greatest of all-time. Federer has the most Grand Slams, Djokovic has won the hardest Grand Slams, and Connors has won the most singles titles.
How Much Do Rankings Really Matter?
Now, beyond the idea of just counting titles to determine a champion lives the World No. 1 ranking. However, with this comes another major flaw to poke in any greatest of all-time argument. That is, the ranking system the ATP uses is very complicated and not exactly a direct reflection of who the best player is. To save virtual trees, below is a video explaining the ranking system.
As the reader, it is likely now understood that the ATP’s ranking system causes plenty of room for debate. These flaws negate most arguments on the importance of ranking No. 1 in the world. Although it does matter, it is by no means a firm ground to base the greatest of all-time argument upon.
While we are still on the topic of rankings, I thought I would mention my favorite alternative to the current system. This is the Universal Tennis Rating, commonly known as UTR. I believe this is the best way to rate and rank players efficiently and does the best job of accurately assuming who should win a match. If you are not familiar with the system, I will continue my effort to save virtual trees and leave a video below.
Has Tennis Gotten Easier?
Here we are, the moment every seasoned fan has been waiting for, the moment I tell them tennis used to take more skill. Well, I hate to rain on your parade, but I’m not going to do that. To be fair, the courts did use to play faster and the rackets and strings were not as developed as they are now.
For every long-time fan, this might be enough to say that it used to take more skill to play tennis hence those players were better. But, not without a word from the devil’s advocate.
Since the courts are slower and the equipment is better does it now take more to win a rally?
Everyone has great equipment now so every player you play is automatically great, right?
Maybe so for the first one, but the second one is obviously not true. And, because it isn’t true it would be hard not to conclude that the equipment doesn’t make the player and most of your skills come from you alone. If anything, the developments surrounding tennis have forced players to become superior athletes to compete at the highest level.
Head To Head Headaches
This leads to my next point, head to head records are complex and don’t paint a complete picture. If you are looking at head to head records as some sort of greatest of all-time tiebreak, look again.
Here’s the issue, not every player is born at the same time or is in their prime at the same time as other players. Although Federer is widely regarded as the greatest of all-time, a look at his head to head records versus Djokovic and Nadal would say otherwise.
Djokovic is 27-23 versus Federer and Nadal is 24-16 against him. But, in their first 20 matches from 2006-2011, Federer was 13-7 against Djokovic. This was during Federer’s prime. Since then, Djokovic has won 20 out of their last 30 matches. Arguably, this is because Federer is about 6 years older than Djokovic and is no longer in his prime.
A similar case could be made for Federer’s lackluster head to head record against Nadal. 14 of Nadal’s 24 victories have come on clay courts. This accounts for more than half of his wins against Federer. If you disclude grass matches (Federer’s specialty) and clay matches (Nadal’s specialty) Federer is 12-9 against Nadal.
The only fair comparison would be Djokovic and Nadal since they are only about a year difference in age. However, this doesn’t make choosing the greatest of all-time any easier because Djokovic is leading the head to head by a narrow 29 to 26.
An interesting side note to the head to head debate is that Djokovic is 14-6 versus Federer in finals and Nadal is 14-10 against Federer in finals. Plus, in Grand Slam titles Djokovic is 4-1 versus Federer and Nadal is 6-3. But, against each other, Nadal and Djokovic are 4-4.
Don’t Argue The Greats, Just Appreciate
So, after reviewing the numbers, Federer is the greatest of all-time if we go by Grand Slam titles but if we go by strength of Grand Slam finals matches it is Djokovic. On the other hand, Connors is the greatest of all-time if we go by total singles titles but probably not for long.
By ranking, it could be considered a plethora of players but I believe we have disproved the validity of ranking in the greatest of all-time argument. In addition to that, we disproved the “tennis used to be harder” myth.
Still, if we look at head to head maybe Djokovic is the greatest of all-time, but what if Federer & Djokovic were in their primes at the same time? Maybe it’s Nadal though because he is up on Federer in head to head, close with Djokovic, and has more Grand Slams than Djokovic.
See the problem? There are a million different angles to look at the greatest of all-time debate. Even so, none renders a completely justifiable answer. But, what does this mean to you? How does this help you in your next heated exchange?
Here’s the thing, don’t argue with anybody until you’re blue in the face about the greatest tennis player of all-time. You won’t get anywhere because frankly there is not one.
My final plea to you the reader is that you just appreciate the great tennis you once saw and/or the great tennis you are currently seeing. Every single one of these players works their whole life to become great tennis players and everyone mentioned in this article and many more have certainly reached that goal.
Several players have taken the tennis world to new heights and in my humble opinion, several more will in the future. For now, let’s just cherish what each of these players brings to the game. Be that my wish, sadly, we never fully appreciate what we have until we no longer have it.
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