Why “Tennis GOATs” if there is only ONE true GOAT?

Why “Tennis GOATs” if there is only ONE true GOAT?


Please visit my new site/blog: The Tennis GOATs

Ok, ok, the title of this new blog cannot be right!

There cannot be multiple GOATs, that doesn’t make sense.

There can be only ONE player that truly deserves the title of THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME. This is a unique kind of glory, not to be shared, there can be no tie in this contest.

I couldn’t agree more.

There is & there can only be one GOAT sitting atop the Tennis Olympus.

HOWEVER – and this is a big however –, there can be multiple opinions as to who is THE GOAT.

And that’s actually the current case. Fans and tennis aficionados all over the world dispute and claim their right to elect the true GOAT, each group pretending to have the final answer.

Now, our problem is precisely this: we don’t want this “holy” discussion to be a simple matter of opinion based on personal preferences, like there were no solid criteria to help us judge who is the best player of them all.

In the current state of the discussion, opinions seem to be divided in “fan groups”. There is no true conversation and the only thing they agree is their right to disagree: “Nadal is my GOAT, Federer is your GOAT, end of discussion”.

Now, I think we can definitely do better than that. And the key word here is CRITERIA.

I do believe there is a way – if not to reach a perfect consensus – to lay down certain criteria as fundamental and, in doing so, we may lay down the foundations for a more reliable judgement as to who may rightfully deserve to be called the GOAT.

And, fortunately for all of us who love this debate, there are indeed very safe – and agreed upon – criteria to help us decide who is the greatest of them all.

One small proof of the existence of such solid criteria is that, no matter how much we disagree as to who is the GOAT, we rarely disagree as to who can be a legitimate GOAT candidate.

There may be people who defend Sampras to be the GOAT, or Federer, or Nadal, or Djokovic, or even Borg. But no one would dream to propose Murray, Edberg, or Wilander – let alone Wawrinka or Davidenko – to be true GOAT candidates.

And why is that?

Because even if we haven’t reached a consensus as to who is the greatest of them all, we have pretty much settled the main requisites, the main conditions the GOAT has to fulfill.

Generally speaking, a GOAT candidate must have accomplished in his career a number of things that nobody else did. More than that: a number of great things, of the greatest things a tennis player can aspire to achieve.

Now, what are those conditions, what are those agreed-upon criteria, what are those achievements that a player must have in his resume to be a legitimate GOAT candidate?

In a word: what are the biggest prizes in the tennis world?

Now, it happens that we can all easily agree on what the biggest prizes are.

  • Be the #1 player in the world & winning Grand Slam titles (not necessarily in this order);

Followed by:

  • Winning other “big titles” (like the Master Series and Tour Finals – some people may add the Olympics Gold and, in a stretch of imagination, the Davis Cup).

Indeed, there can be little doubt that the two greatest achievements for a tennis player are to win a Grand Slam crown and to sit atop the rankings, to be the best player in the world. Sure, there may be people who think that having more Grand Slam titles is more important than having more weeks as #1, or vice-versa, but no one will say that there are higher glories than those.

The same can be said about the next big prizes. There is in fact very-little-to-none disagreement as to which tournaments qualifies as “Big Titles”.

This may seem trivial to say, but this represents the basic and sole foundation upon which to build our arguments – our cases – as to who legitimately can be said the GOAT.

Straightforward, and useful, conclusions from this are:

  • No Grand Slam titles or no weeks/year-end as #1 = not a GOAT candidate.
  • No relevant records in terms of Slams titles, weeks/year-end as #1, and/or other big titles = not a GOAT candidate.

In other words, to even be mentioned in the GOAT conversation, the player has to show in his resume something unique, something no one else has achieved in those top categories. And I think we can ALL agree on that.

And by agreeing on that, we immediately and dramatically reduce our list of candidates to a handful: Federer, Sampras, Nadal, and Djokovic[1]. Not necessarily in that order.

Federer is the current leader in both Grand Slam titles and weeks as #1. To many, this should be the decisive criterion to elect him as the GOAT.

Sampras is the only player not only to have finished atop the rankings 6 times, but did so consecutively. That unprecedented dominance could well boost his case as the GOAT.

Nadal is the only player to have multiple Slam titles in all surfaces, as well as an Olympic gold. He’s also the current leader in Master Series’ titles, besides edging Federer in H2H. Some believe that this is good enough to make him the GOAT.

Djokovic is the only player to have won every one of the so-called Big Titles, has a winning H2H against both Nadal and Federer, and may be said to have dominated the tennis world in its arguably most competitive era. One could claim that this outweighs his having less Slam titles than Federer and Nadal.

Disagreements apart, it’s very clear that each of those four players have achieved (great) things that no other player has. And because of that, they can be said legitimate GOAT candidates.

But let’s digress a little bit here and ask ourselves what exactly does it mean to consider them as legitimate GOAT candidates?

For starters, it means (1) that a solid case can be built for each one of them and (2) that it’s not easy (this in an understatement!) to reach a consensus, even after examining all kind of arguments and stats about their careers.

But why can’t we find a consensus, why is it so hard?

Because – and this is crucial – depending on the relative value we assign to each set of achievements, the verdict as to who is the GOAT might change.

Let’s break this down.

We all easily agree that winning multiple Slams and being #1 and winning other big titles is crucial for the GOAT.

But when no player is better than the others in every possible category, that’s when we have to start assigning relative value to each of their achievements, that’s when we have to start asking “what’s worth more, X or Y?

Being #1 or winning Grand Slams? Weeks or Year-End #1? Overall or consecutive? Being the first in Slams and having a losing H2H or being the second with a winning H2H record? How crucial is to have won the four different Grand Slams to be the GOAT? How valuable is to win all Big Titles? What’s the role of multiple finals, semi-finals and other lesser records when judging their overall achievements? Should we assign “points” to every achievement and the one who’s amassed more points is declared the GOAT? But how many points is a Grand Slam title worth? A final? A week as #1? As top 10? A Tour Finals title?

And what about the flaws? How bad is not having achieved something? Not having a winning H2H against all opponents? Not having won all Grand Slams? Not having won a Tour Finals? Not…?

As we can see, we can all easily agree on which achievements are the greatest and crucial in the GOAT’s resume. The trouble starts when we have to decide their relative merits!

And that’s why I decided for the “S” in the title.

Although there can be only ONE GOAT, and although we can all agree on the hard-core criteria the GOAT needs to fulfill, different people may end up reaching different verdicts depending on subtle divergences when assigning values to those most celebrated achievements.

So, the “S” is not to imply that they can all be simultaneously declared GOATs.

Rather, it’s to point out that, depending on how we finely interpret those hard-core criteria, each of them could – separately – be elected the GOAT.

The title of the blog is “The Tennis GOATs”, but it would perhaps be more accurate to say “The potential Tennis GOATs”!

But it would be less catchy, wouldn’t it? 😉

* * *

Please allow me to be somewhat repetitive and spell my conclusion out.

  1. There are hard-core criteria that the GOAT must fulfill:
    1. he must have a unique collection of the greatest tennis achievements;
    2. we can ALL agree on which the greatest achievements are.
  2. Within this primordial agreement on the greatest achievements, there might be disagreements as to their relative merits:
    1. These disagreements can lead to different verdicts as to who the GOAT is;
    2. However, based on (1), we can reduce our list of potential GOATs to as few as four candidates[1].
  3. Once a person commits to a certain interpretation, to a certain way of assigning values to the different set of achievements, he/she has no choice but to say: based on that interpretation, “X is the true GOAT” (and not Y, or Z);
    1. This implies that the four of them cannot be, simultaneously, declared GOATs;
    2. This also means that the verdict reached is not a “relativistic” one: declaring “X is the GOAT” excludes all the others.
  4. In the end, we may not reach a consensus as to who the GOAT is, but we can certainly hope to pinpoint, as clearly as possible, where our views diverge. And that is no small feat. I invite you all to this journey!

[1] Laver could be mentioned as the fifth. But as I wrote elsewhere, since many of Laver’s achievements were attained before the Open Era, I decided to leave him out of the main discussion and dedicate a special post/chapter to him.

A few nostalgic fans could also propose Borg as a legitimate candidate based on the premise that “if he hadn’t retired, he would have…”. I’ll address this kind of argumentation and try to show that not even using it would Borg be able to beat, for instance, Nadal’s resume. I feel confident that this will leave no controversy worth mentioning.

[2] What about the other greats, like Agassi, Connors, McEnroe, or Lendl? As great as they may be, upon close examination it’s not too hard to see that they clearly have a lesser set of achievements than the selected four, meaning by that that for every great thing they achieved, one of those four achieved more or better. I’ll extensively cover that base in other posts/chapters.

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