I enjoyed reading this article by Andrew C. Smith in TennisWeek regarding discussing what "greatness" is as it applies to the usual suspects.
In the end, I agree with his assessment.....
In the end, I agree with his assessment.....
Who Is The Greatest Of All Time?
By Andrew C. Smith
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
The coronation of King Roger is nearly complete. After securing his 15th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in July, his reign at the top was again secure, and the September 2009 issue of Tennis magazine unequivocally hailed Federer as the Greatest Player of All Time. This of course was before his worst performance in a US Open final.
Given the many accolades accorded Federer this year, it is time for a sober look at the question of who, if anybody, is the GOAT.
The argument that Federer is the GOAT is usually constructed a couple of ways. One line of argument looks at sheer skill level — at mechanics, power, athleticism, execution — and compares this level with champions from previous generations. The other, more frequently cited line of reasoning simply looks at results in Grand Slams. Both arguments have critical flaws.
According to the first line of argument, if you simply look at criteria such as mechanics, speed, and power, champions of previous generations (say, all those competing earlier than 1990 or 1985) wouldn’t stand a chance against Federer. True. Nevertheless, the problem with the argument based on skill is that it starts to slip into the treacherous ground of implying that the GOAT, possessing a better game than previous champs, is an inherently more gifted and capable athlete than previous champs were. And that is bunk.
It is bunk because it leaves out the critical fact that each generation of players relies on the innovations of previous ones. Yes, Roger Federer can do things on the court that no one before him could. But Federer didn’t invent the wheel; he inherited a highly-advanced technique based on the innovations of generations of players before him. For example, no one dared hit a full-swinging, midcourt topspin forehand volley until Lendl; Agassi then followed with his own flashy demonstration. The rest of the gang talented enough for this stroke also caught on quickly and followed suit. While Federer has creatively added to tennis technique with his whipping forehand, there were others before him who helped pave the way.
To see the obvious flaw of the argument that says sheer skill and execution mean a player is greater, we can conduct a simple thought experiment. If you could transport today’s average Division 1 college player 50 years back in time, his level of play might just be good enough for Grand Slam tournament play as it existed in 1959. (And if you are not convinced of that, just watch film from that era and look at the speed, spin, and placement of shots.) But pitting today’s college player against the players stuck in the 1950s creates an unfair and rather absurd comparison. Racket technology alone makes meaningful comparison of skill difficult. And since today’s players have the modern game, with its mechanics already laid out before them as they learn to play, they start out with a huge leg up on previous generations. Those generations first had to create the wheel themselves.
You can safely say Federer is better than any before him in terms of what he can do on court. But that is different than saying he is the greatest, as that term implies an inherent superiority, talent or creative genius that eclipses all others.
So what then to make of the other argument, which looks at Federer’s record in Grand Slams? He has 15 Grand Slam singles titles, more than any other man in history, plus he has won on all four surfaces. If it were a simple matter of checking the record books and seeing who has won the most majors, the case would be closed. The record for most majors, by the way, is something that few people paid much attention to until Sampras emphasized it, by broadcasting that his goal (and measure of greatness?) was to surpass the record. The media picked up on it and has milked the concept ever since.
But one wonders if Laver doesn’t bristle at this unfair accounting, for those who use Slam victories as the benchmark for greatness would likely be calling the Aussie the GOAT if he had played in Grand Slam events from ’63-’67. During that span Laver was between 25-29 years old, in his prime, dominating the pro tour, and missed 20 Grand Slam tournaments due to the ban on professionals playing in them. Had he competed during those years, a conservative estimate would give him, say, one victory per year. This gives him an additional 5 Grand Slam singles titles, which would bring his career total to 16. But it is by no means far-fetched to assume that he could have won 10 majors during that span, which would bring his total to 21.
So for Federer to hold claim to the title of GOAT based on major titles, he would have to win, say, 18 at a minimum; equaling Steffi Graf’s 22 would be more convincing, especially given the depth of today’s global game. Until Federer reaches such totals, basing the argument for the GOAT on Grand Slam titles alone will remain unconvincing.
f Grand Slam victories alone are not a convincing means of comparison, then perhaps the best argument for Federer should look at his overall performance: multiple titles on all surfaces, a No. 1 ranking for 237 consecutive weeks, and an incredible 22 straight major semifinal appearances. But even here, Federer has garnered these stats in his era, and not another. While looking solely at statistics gives a veneer of objectivity, it is done so in the attempt to support the claim of the GOAT —which of course entails comparison with previous eras. But the stats from any one era are created under different conditions, against different opponents; thus we are again faced with the dilemma of how to make a fair comparison.
Federer's match against Juan Martin del Potro in the US Open final also might give pause to anyone who is leaning towards bestowing GOAT status on the Swiss.
One has a hard time imagining Sampras up two sets to one in a major final, against an untested Grand Slam finalist, and then letting his nervous opponent slip through the noose — no one had a stronger killer instinct than Sampras.
As he struggled in the Open final with the physical aspects of his game, Federer also displayed an inability or, worse, a stubborn unwillingness to change tactics. On this day he would not be able to get away with his game plan of pushing and slicing returns low to midcourt, with only moderate pace. Del Potro handled those shots clumsily for half the match; eventually, though, he caught on and in the end punished Federer's defensive play. It was del Potro, not the supposed GOAT, who made the proper adjustments on this day.
Granted, even the all-time greats struggle on occasion. Federer, thankfully, reminded us that he is human, that he too is subject to an off day — and that the GOAT is as much a mental construction as it is a reality.
So if there is still no GOAT, then what is there? Well, there is the more defensible category of GOAG — the Greatest Of A Generation. Federer claims this title easily, and he shares it with a most elite company — here’s my tentative list: Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl (just barely), Pete Sampras. And to be even fairer, we should qualify this category as the GSPOAG — the Greatest Singles Player of a Generation.
And what if we add doubles to the equation? Laver again is the candidate for his generation, with 20 major titles (11 singles, 9 doubles), and McEnroe now easily dominates his cohort, with 17 majors (7 singles, 10 doubles) and a total of 71 career doubles titles.
While it is indeed good fun to ponder the question of who is the greatest ever, we also ought to remember that the question is, in the end, unanswerable.
With twist on the words of Kipling, Present is Present, and Past is Past, and never the twain shall meet — nor compete!