February 18, 2017
In case were wondering GOAT=Greatest Of All Time
This was a question posted on the Quora Digest platform. It is a subject that is near and dear to me and thought Lon’s answer was one of the most well thought-out and appropriately detailed responses I have seen in just about any forum. I did not edit the content, not even for a few grammar gaffs.
I could watch Federer play anytime and be awed and entertained by how he makes difficult look effortless yet unique in its perfection. Ken Griffey Jr. swinging a bat or Simone Biles on the exercise floor. Nadal is like watching a strongman bust concrete with his bare hands. Rocky Marciano or Dick Butkus comes to mind. Djoker is Edwin Moses, never knocks down a hurdle or Jack Nicklaus who seemingly never missed a fairway. All three of these players always closes the deal – Feds in particular never ever takes a day off unlike the rare matches when Novak or Rafa don’t pin the effort meter.
-Mike Hotchkiss on post 2000 elite players
I have included my comment in response because this is my blog, I wanted to, and I can.
Unlike a lot of the pundits, I don’t think the Australian Open really changed Federer’s position as one of the greatest of all time. Short version, he is the greatest modern (post-2000) era player for the moment, unless Nadal or Djokovic do something extraordinary over the next five years. If you want to go into all the background information and statistics that led me to that conclusion, you can find it at the bottom of this article.
But I think you might enjoy my list of all-time players by using the following more unusual metrics:
If you needed to pay off your college debt by betting a longshot with you and your roommate’s rent money: Marat Safin. In 2000 US Open finals, I watched Safin ignore every percentage play in tennis and destroy Pete Sampras  in straight sets. I remember saying “Safin just invented a new sport… it’s like the laws of physics no longer apply.” Then he beat Federer at his peak  an the 2005 Australian Open semis (9–7 in the 5th set) en route to his last Slam title. While some people think Ashe over Connors, Chang over Lendl, or Wawrinka over Djokovic are the greatest upsets of all time, the guy I would bet on to perform the impossible is Marat Safit. Because he did it twice.
If your life depended on winning a match on grass: Pete Sampras. He had perhaps the best serve and second serve combination of all time. What people don’t realize is that he also had the best forehand low volley and half volley ever. I’ve never seen anyone turn a great return at his feet into a winner as many times as Sampras did. Up until Sampras, I didn’t think it was possible.
If your soul depended on a player winning a match after he lived in hell for a year: Andre Agassi. No other player has been #1, dropped off the face of the earth due to injury, personal loss and drugs, and then come back by playing on the Challenger circuit to eventually regain the #1 ranking. His personal journey and redemption stands out from any of the other great champions.
If you could prevent a nuclear war by winning a match that was best of nineteen sets: Rafael Nadal. Nobody has ever maintained a super natural level of play after subjecting his body to inhuman stress like Nadal. In the 2007 Wimbledon tournament, rain delays forced Nadal to play five sets in the round of 16 on Thursday, three sets on the quarters on Friday, and two and a half sets in the semis on Saturday before playing Federer at his peak, extending him to five sets.
If you only received food, water and oxygen by winning every day, regardless of the surface: Roger Federer. The Swiss Army Knife of tennis produced a level of excellence that has never been seen and may never be duplicated: 36 straight Grand Slam quarter finals, 23 straight Grand Slam semi finals, 21 finals over 24 Slams,with 15 wins. Talk about bringing home the bacon!
If you had to defend the planet against tennis racket-wielding aliens in a single match: Jimmy Connors. Aside from Nadal, nobody has ever fought as well as Connors. But while Nadal’s psyche is based on his willingness to suffer through long matches, Connors seemed to live for and love the battle. Connors had perhaps the best return of all time because the court speeds on grass were super fast, and they were playing with white balls which are much harder to see. Finally, Connors could play on any surface, beating Borg on clay at the US Open, McEnroe on grass at Wimbledon and Lendl on hard courts at the US Open.
- Sampras broke the record with his 13th Slam earlier that year at Wimbledon and regained the #1 ranking in the world the day after this US Open finals.
- Safin spoiled Federer’s chance to win three out of four Slams for FOUR STRAIGHT YEARS.
- To be precise, Ashe-Connors (Wimbledon 1975), Chang-Lendl (Roland Garros 1989), Wawrinka-Djokovic (Roland Garros 2015)
And now back to the question of the GOAT…
First, there will always be the valid argument that if Laver had the opportunity to play the 21 Grand Slams he missed during his prime years (1963–1967), he might have won as many or more titles than Federer. Starting at the age of 22, Laver reached the finals in 10 out of 12 straight slams, winning six. Sounds eerily close to Federer, doesn’t it? Back then, three Slams were played on grass and the fourth on clay, so a dominant player could almost run the table just as Federer did from 2004 to 2009 (18 finals out of 24 Slams, winning 14). In addition, we can’t know how players from older eras would have played if they used modern rackets and training methods. We do know that modern players wouldn’t be close to playing their normal level if they had to play with wood rackets:
Secondly, if we consider the great players during the golden age (Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Becker, Edberg, Sampras, Agassi), their Slam records are limited by the overlapping of so many amazing players, and by the wide variation in surfaces. If Pete Sampras played during Laver’s day, perhaps he could have matched his Wimbledon record on the grass at Kooyong and Forest Hills.
Third, there are a wide number of factors that people could use to determine a GOAT. Thewebsite has done some amazing work using advanced analytics to determine how much a particular individual or team dominated their era and then correcting for differences in the strength of competition, rule changes, and other factors that change over time. They use the ELO system and focus only on Grand Slam matches, but I think there are flaws in the way they weight the factors: . Another computer system found a very different result, ranking Connors #1, based on a player’s complete career, where the level of competition, domination of opponents and duration of career carried more weight:
For those reasons, I don’t think we can ever determine the one true GOAT.
What we can do is consider the greatest player of the modern (post-2000) era. I don’t give match scores a lot of weight because of how much the results are skewed by surface. On clay, where every point is a battle and the steadier player eventually wears down his opponent, two closely matched players can play a three hour match where every game goes to deuce, but the match score ends up 6–4, 6–2, 6–1. On the other hand, matches on grass are generally decided by one break a set because it is so much easier to hold serve. (That’s why I dislike the computer systems mentioned above.)
Let’s look at the following factors: total Slam wins; level of competition; dominance by surface; dominance in head-to-head; consistency/longevity.
Slams: This one is obvious: #1 Federer, #2 Nadal, #3 Djokovic. The fact that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic join only five other players to win career Grand Slams (Perry, Budge, Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi) is not only a testament to these once in a generation players, but also to the uniformity and slowing down of the game.
Level of Competition: In 2004, as a 17-year-old, Nadal beat Federer in their first match, and at age 20, Nadal had already won two French Opens and been to the finals of Wimbledon. People tend to forget that there is less than one year separating Djokovic and Nadal. Djokovic is a Hall of Fame player, and showed his stuff early on. For four years, from ages 20 to 23 (2007-2010), Djokovic was #3 in the world, winning his first Slam at age 21. So the argument that Federer was winning all his Slams against weaker competition (such as Safin and Hewitt who were former #1 players before being displaced by Federer) is complete nonsense. He won nine Slams with Nadal ranked #2 and nipping at his heels the entire time. In addition, Andy Murray was a consistent tormenter of Federer at the tender age of 19, and rose to #4 by 2008.
Dominance by Surface: Let’s use Djokovic’s best seasons (2011–2013) as a frame of reference, because he was at his absolute peak, while Nadal was still in his prime. In 2011, Djokovic lost in the semi-finals at Roland Garros to Federer (two months shy of 30), who went on to lose his fourth French Open final against Nadal. From 2006–2009, Nadal was 8–0 on clay against Djokovic, winning 18 out of 21 sets. Djokovic finally won matches on clay against Nadal during his 2011 peak season. Between 2011 and 2013, Nadal was 4–3 against Djokovic on clay, winning French Open titles #6, #7 and #8. I think the only way you can rank them on clay is in this order: Nadal, Federer, Djokovic.
On fast surfaces, Federer in his prime lost only one Slam final to a player other than Nadal (Del Potro). During this time, he was 5–3 in Slams and 14–9 overall against Djokovic. He won five straight Wimbledons and five straight US Opens.
In their prime, Nadal and Djokovic were 3–3 in Slam finals on fast surfaces. But Nadal is much worse for the wear due to his bruising style of play, and had large holes in his record in 2009, 2012, and pretty much the entire time since he won the 2013 U.S. Open, his last year at #1. He has become vulnerable to many players on fast surfaces, lost early in Slams and been absolutely owned by Djokovic, losing 11 out of 12 matches. He was hurt and lost the 2014 Australian Open finals, limped through the clay court season, and somehow won the 2014 French Open on fumes. Amazingly, he bounced back to reach this year’s Australian Open finals, but was fortunate to avoid playing Djokovic, who was on his side of the draw.
On fast surfaces in their primes, Federer reigns supreme, followed by Djokovic and Nadal.
Head to Head Dominance: Federer is 10–10 vs Nadal on fast surfaces, 12–23 overall, and 22–23 overall with Djokovic, 14–11 vs. Murray, and 19–3 vs. Wawrinka, and dominant against everyone else.
Nadal is 23–26 against Djokovic, 17–7 vs Murray, 15–3 vs. Wawrinka, and dominant against everyone else.
Djokovic is 25–11 vs Murray, 19–5 vs Wawrinka, and dominant against everyone else.
A very slight edge goes to Djokovic overall, but Federer under the age 30 does lead him 14–9.
Consistency/Longevity: After Federer turned 30 (August 2011), he no longer had the stamina to win best of five matches against Djokovic, going 1–6 in Slams against Djokovic. However, in best of three matches, over 30 Federer is still 8–9 against Djokovic at his absolute peak. Over 30 Federer has dominated Murray (8–3), Wawrinka (10–2), and narrowed the gap with Nadal (4–6). His effortless style is one of the reasons he has been able to maintain his level of play. (Agassi, Connors and Rosewall are the only other players who have sustained an elite level of play at the age of 35.)
We still have a few years to see how Nadal and Djokovic end their careers, but for now, the overall modern GOAT has to be Federer. Unless Djokovic eventually wins 19+ Slams, there are too many factors that point to Federer as the modern GOAT.
That was one of the best replies to a Quora question I’ve seen. At 53 and life long tennis aficionado, I have played at an NCAA level and watched avidly my whole life. Not only do your weighted stats bear out, your opinions are even better IMO.
Using five senses as my measuring stick for the post-2000 era, Feds is tops in all five – he smells better, sounds better, feels better, tastes better and (apologies to Nadal’s lady fans) looks better. Djoker is a close second and Nadal a close 3rd despite having Roger’s number (with dirt skewing it more heavily than the difference in ability). Why? Rafa is a pure clay giant beast – kind of like a better Thomas Muster with all court capabilities who stayed that good for 4 times longer. Feds plays the “beautiful game” like none other. Pele and Messi combined. Smooth and relentless. Novak has the most consistent ground strokes on all surfaces. Honorable mention of the post-2000 era goes to Murray who is the best defensive player of the lot, but with the worst head.
I could watch Federer play anytime and be awed and entertained by how he makes difficult look effortless and yet unique in its perfection. Ken Griffey Jr. swinging a bat or Simone Biles on the exercise floor. Nadal is like watching a strongman bust concrete with his bare hands. Rocky Marciano or Dick Butkus comes to mind. Djoker is Edwin Moses, never knocks down a hurdle or Jack Nicklaus who seemingly never missed a fairway. All three of these players nearly always closes the deal – Feds in particular never ever takes a day off unlike the rare matches when Novak or Rafa don’t pin the effort meter.
Thanks for your more detailed analysis, it made me feel good about my gut assessment of the GOAT.
A quick note about pre-2000. It is impossible to compare eras. The power game that dominates on grass today was more attributable to spin and guile in the wood racket era (and the fact that the ball didn’t bounce). That is why the serve & volley game is no longer a viable strategy. Pete got away with it because he was so good at effectively handling low returns. Sampras was Nadal on grass, but only on grass and not nearly as good on clay as Rafa is on grass. They were on a par on the hard courts.
Other greats pre and post 2000 include Agassi Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Murray, Lendl, Tilden, Rosewall, Emerson and Perry. Apologies to Edberg, Becker and a couple of older era players. You have to have more than 6 GS’s or played in a more relevant period to make the 2nd tier list.
No one else except, perhaps, Laver was as good overall as Roger. The other players in the GOAT discussion fall shy of the super-uber elite games of Laver & Federer. Mainly due to inconsistencies over their entire bodies of work on all surfaces for their entire careers. Too bad the “Rocket” played so much on grass with wood rackets and lost chances at more Grand Slams during the transition to the Open era. He could have won on beach sand with a ping pong paddle – so could Roger Federer.
My Final Assessment, “Mount Rushmore” if you will:
1.) Roger Federer; 2.) Rod Laver; 3.) Novak Djokovic; 4.) Rafael Nadal
The best thing about this list and arguing the order is that you can make reasonable cases for the order to be altered as well as including the likes of a Sampras or if you’re real old school, Bill Tilden.