Who’s Tennis’ GOAT?

Arguably, the three dominant players of today are 1-2-3.

While I grew up on John McEnroe’s epic battles with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, I’ve become, for whatever reason, only a casual fan of the game in recent years. I did, however, watch the final set of yesterday’s Wimbledon Finals showdown between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, which McEnroe, now a television commenter, repeatedly and correctly observed we were privileged to be watching.

The win by the 32-year-old Djokovic in the longest match in the storied tournament’s history, by virtue of a tiebreaker introduced only this season, over the almost-38-year-old Federer renewed the debate as to the greatest player in the game’s history.

The headline of Peter Bodo’s ESPN piece, “Why we should no longer doubt Novak Djokovic’s place among tennis’ GOATs,” is rather silly. I know of no serious analyst who doubts that Djokovic is among the game’s greats; the only dispute is where he ranks.

Chasing. It seems that Novak Djokovic has been doing it since he was an inexperienced teenager, forever fighting for the elusive rewards in the golden age of men’s tennis: the respect of his peers and the affection of a public that seemed to have eyes for only Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

He has pursued those two men through the Grand Slam thickets and valleys, a member of the Big Three but always a precious step or two behind.

After Sunday at Wimbledon, Djokovic chases no more.

He locked down a career-defining win that accords him equal status with the twin titans of the era, Federer and Nadal. Djokovic accomplished it by earning his 16th Grand Slam title, staring down two match points and besting Federer in a historic five-set final: 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3).

[…]

But now, Djokovic has actually caught up to and even surpassed those two players in almost every way that counts. Djokovic leads Nadal in the most prolific head-to-head matchup of the entire Open era 28-26. He leads Federer in the third-most contested rivalry 26-22. The only area in which Djokovic still trails them is the most widely publicized of them all: the total Grand Slam title count, still led by Federer’s 20. Djokovic, like Fed and Rafa, has won on every Slam surface.

Before the match began, ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said that if Federer won Sunday’s contest, he would probably think his Grand Slam title record is safe, but if Djokovic came through, it would make him think Federer’s record is within reach.

Djokovic, 32, is a year younger than Nadal. He is just two major titles behind Nadal and four short of Federer’s mark. Given Federer’s age (37), Nadal’s history of injury and Djokovic’s extreme dedication to fitness and holistic health, it’s easy to imagine the world No. 1 eventually surpassing Federer’s mark.

“It seems like I’m getting closer, but they are also winning Slams,” Djokovic said of the hunt for the record. “We’re kind of complementing each other. Whether I’m going to be able to do it or not, I don’t know. [But] I’m not really looking at age as a restriction of any kind, for me at least.”

Djokovic made a point of telling the Centre Court crowd during Sunday’s trophy presentation that he was inspired by Federer’s performance to seek greater longevity, which was either a great compliment to his rival, a shot fired across the bow or a combination of the two. “What I said on the court, I really meant it,” Djokovic said later. “It just depends how long I’m going to play, whether I’m going to have a chance to make a historic No. 1 or Slams.”

It’s debatable whether the number of Slams won is the sole measure of greatness but it’s the most obvious. Unlike team sports, where one needs support to win titles, the outcome is almost solely in the athlete’s own hands. By that metric, Djokovic is still third:

But I’d argue that the debate is between Federer and Djokovic (and maybe Rod Laver, whose dominance preceded the Open era).

All four achieved the career grand slam—having won Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open, and the French Open at least once. As great as he was, Sampras never won the French. That tournament, the only one of the Slams played on clay, has been the bane of Americans. McEnroe never won it. Neither did Connors. Neither won the Australian, either, for that matter. That pretty much eliminates them from the discussion.

Conversely, while he’s been an absolutely dominant player, I discount Nadal’s Slam somewhat because 12 of the 18 came on the clay courts of Roland-Garros. Indeed, he’s failed to win it just three times since first taking it in 2005. He’s rounded out his resume with three US Opens, two Wimbledons, and an Australian.

By contrast, Federer and Djokovic have each won the French only once (in 2009 and 2016, respectively). But Federer has won Wimbledon eight times, the US Open five times, and the Australian six times. And Djokovic has seven Australians, five Wimbledons, and three US Opens. Their sustained success across surfaces is just more impressive.

I’d give Federer the edge over Djokovic just because 20 is a larger number than 16 and he’s sustained his success longer. But, certainly, Djokovic is catching up and is four years younger.

But Kevin Craft makes a perfectly reasonable case as to why “Novak Djokovic Is the Greatest Player of the ‘Big Three’.” The crux of his argument:

While he still trails Federer and Nadal in terms of the most Grand Slam singles titles won, he has beaten Federer in all three finals the two men have played at Wimbledon, which is Federer’s best tournament. Djokovic is also one of two men to have beaten Nadal at the French Open, the major that the Spaniard has won a record 12 times. Djokovic’s ability to defeat his top rivals on their favorite surfaces speaks to the prodigious talent he possesses, and should be a factor when future pundits try to determine who from this marvelous generation of men’s tennis players should come out on top.

That’s a fair point, indeed. My counter is simply that Djokovic is simply younger, so some of those wins came against Federer and Nadal after their prime.

So, for example, if you look at the Connors-McEnroe rivalry it looks like McEnroe easily got the best of it:

  • All matches: McEnroe 20-14
  • All finals: Tied 7-7
  • Grand Slam finals: Tied 1-1
  • Grand Slam matches: McEnroe 6-3
  • Masters matches: McEnroe 2-0
  • WCT Finals matches: McEnroe 2-1
  • Clay court matches: Connors 3-1
  • Grass court matches: Connors 4-3
  • Hard court matches: McEnroe 6-3
  • Indoor matches: McEnroe 10-4

But here’s the thing: Connors dominated it for years before Father Time intervened.

So, Connors got off to a 4-0 start before McEnroe even got on the board and was leading two to one three years in—at which point Connors was 28 and McEnroe only 21.

But look what happens after that:

It’s essentially a rout, with McEnroe running off eleven wins in a row at one stretch.

I vividly remember that 1982 Wimbledon final, which was notable for two things at the time. First, it was an All-American championship on July 4. Second, everyone was amazed that Connors was able to pull it off just weeks before his 30th birthday—an incredibly advanced age for a tennis professional—four years removed from his last Slam win.

Djokovic, by far better now than Connors was then, is the youngster of the three current GOAT candidates. He’s 32.

Nadal and Federer are 33 and 37, respectively. Indeed, both have been written off as done many times going back years.

I don’t know how many more Slams Federer has in him. It’s absurd that he’s still competing at this level at 37. But I wouldn’t put it past him to add one or two more to his total.

Nadal may well win enough French opens to pass him.

If I had to bet, Djokovic will wind up with the most Slams and be considered the GOAT.

FILED UNDER: Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. al Ameda says:

    Roger Federer and Serena Williams are the two greatest I’ve seen.

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  2. Ray In Bowie says:

    Makes me wonder how much of the ability to continue playing at such a high level is training vs equipment vs natural ability vs nerves of steel. Remember the constant straightening of racket strings?
    Federer was the Wimbledon crowd favorite, which I ascribe at least in part to his longevity but also to his classic playing style (one-hand backhand, chip and charge) and personality.
    However, Djokovic is just as appealing a personality, and to me the fact that all three players are dominating the GS for so long is just as huge a story. Long live FedeRafaDjovak!

  3. EddieInCA says:

    Serena.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @al Ameda: @EddieInCA: Serena is arguably the most dominant player in any sport ever. She’s not the greatest tennis player, now or ever, though. She’s not in the top 200 players in the world.

  5. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    Agree to disagree.

    I’d argue that Nadia Comaneci is the greatest gymnast of all time.
    I’d argue that Yuna Kim is the greatest figure skater of all time.
    I’d argue that Lindsey Vonn is the greatest skiier of all time (with Bode Miller second).

    And…

    I’d argue that Serena is the greatest tennis player of all time.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: I think it’s possible for a woman to be the best in a given sport through sheer dominance—particularly if it’s a judged sport like gymnastics, figure skating, or downhill skiing. But, not only would a top female tennis player or golfer not be remotely competitive against even a decent male pro but the level of competition is simply different. As remarkable as Federer, Djokovich, and Nadal are in their own right, what’s more impressive is that they’ve won as much as they have while the others were active.

    In golf, for example, Phil Nickelson is an all-time great. He might well be in the GOAT conversation were it not for Tiger Woods being his contemporary. How many more majors would he have won were it not for Tiger winning 14 in his prime years (and another since)?

    Federer has an amazing 20 titles. He’d have at least 30 were it not for Nadal and Djokovich—that’s just counting head-to-head loses in the Finals.

  7. SKI says:

    I love Novak but I have trouble putting him ahead of Lavar. It is is tough to age-normalize to account for equipment, training and nutrition and the other modern conveniences that extend careers and eras.

    @EddieInCA:

    I’d argue that Lindsey Vonn is the greatest skiier of all time (with Bode Miller second).

    You’d be wrong. I love both but Ingemar Stenmark is the GOAT on skis. The fact that he still holds the record with 86 alpine wins (Vonn is second with 82) and also holds the longevity record with wins in 13 different seasons despite competing in the 70’s and 80’s and without the benefits of today’s athletes is awe inspiring.

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  8. PJ says:

    @SKI:

    Ingemar Stenmark is the GOAT on skis

    Username checks out.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Agree to disagree.

    I’d argue that Nadia Comaneci is the greatest gymnast of all time.
    I’d argue that Yuna Kim is the greatest figure skater of all time.
    I’d argue that Lindsey Vonn is the greatest skiier of all time (with Bode Miller second).

    For now, the GOAT hasn’t even been born yet. (And may never be born yet either.)

  10. Pylon says:

    Over a career these guys have the edge, but at the top of their respective games I’d argue no one had more dominance over the competition than Borg. He also didn’t compete in a lot of Australian OPens because counting Grand Slams wasn’t as much of a thing then. And his French/Wimbledon combo three times in a row just couldn’t be done today, IMO.

    ETA: all in a career which was really only about 8 years, since he retired at 26.

  11. DrDaveT says:

    When Federer had double championship point on his own serve, somewhere around 6-5 in the final set after having broken Djokovic at last, I figured he had it. And then somehow he lost 4 straight points to let it slip away. At that point, I figured his 37-year-old legs had finally given out on him… But it took another 12 games and a tiebreaker for Djokovic to finally cash in.

    Djokovic is the champion, no doubt — but Federer won 36 games to Djokovic’s 29. Djokovich won all the tiebreakers, which might be a special skill or might be dumb luck. I frankly thought Federer’s was the more impressive performance; it’s a pity it didn’t result in another record-breaking grand slam title.

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  12. Sanjeem says:

    Saying Djokovic is younger, works if you look at his rivalry with Federer, but you use that as a counter for his rivalry with Nadal, given that Nadal is just one year older. Also, Federer being older meant he was able to rack up majors plenty against opponents who were not at the level of Nadal or Djokovic. Most of Djokovic’s majors had to be battled against Federer, Nadal and Murray. While Federer was past his prime when Djokovic kicked into gear, same cannot be said about Nadal and Murray. And a post prime Federer still provides a more difficult opponent than the ones Federer had to face before the Big 4 emerged. Case in point is the fact that when Novak was injured/unmotivated/out of form for 2017 and half of 2018, it was Federer and Nadal who pretty much picked up all the majors in that absence, so Federer and Nadal were still the men to beat when Novak was back in form.

  13. Sleeping Dog says:

    @EddieInCA:
    I’m old enough to remember the dominance of Jean Claude Killey in skiing.

    In tennis, I’m voting for Rod Laver.

  14. Dan says:

    @James => „My counter is simply that Djokovic is simply younger, so some of those wins came against Federer and Nadal after their prime.“ My counter is Novak is only 1y year younger than Rafa and Roger’s wins came when Novak was far too young and inexperienced. To me Novak is playing the best tennis and Roger the most beautiful one.

    I guess this discussion could be endless but as well ended with Novak winning the most GS. However I can see young players upcoming e.g. Tsitsipas, Khachanov, Auger-Aliassime or Shapalov who could take-over in 1-2y not allowing Novak to win more than 18-19 GS. But honestly I do hope he will get to 22-24 GS…curios to see what the majority will say by then.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Pylon:

    ETA: all in a career which was really only about 8 years, since he retired at 26.

    Borg was phenomenal but there’s something to be said for longevity. It’s true the Aussie was less a thing in his day. But he also never won a US Open, losing twice to Connors and twice to McEnroe.

    @Sanjeem: @Dan: My argument with respect to Nadal is that he’s racked up almost all of his Slams on the clay of Roland-Garros, a specialty surface. So, I think it’s down to Federer and Djokovic.

    Federer being older meant he was able to rack up majors plenty against opponents who were not at the level of Nadal or Djokovic

    He won seven Slams between 2003-2006 before Rafa’s dominance of the French kicked off. Two of those were over Andy Murray and another over Andre Agassi, both all-timers. The others came against Mark Philippoussis, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, and Marcos Baghdatis. With the exception of the last, all were top players for years but I concede they’re not of the Big Four level.

  16. wr says:

    At this point it comes down to a matter of which metric you’re using to measure “greatness.” Even if Djoker surpasses Federer in majors, Fed will still hold all sorts of other astonishing records. Which means ultimately we have three of the greatest players of all time, and which one we single out really comes down to personal preference. For me it’s Federer, because of his grace and beauty on the court and off, but I wouldn’t reject either of the others.

    As for Serena, I continue to find it odd that one of JJ’s weird blind spots is his “boyz rule, gurlz drool” attitude about sports. I’m sure I have plenty of my own unexamined prejudices just like this, but fortunately I don’t publish a blog seven days a week so the world will never know…

  17. James Joyner says:

    @wr:

    As for Serena, I continue to find it odd that one of JJ’s weird blind spots is his “boyz rule, gurlz drool” attitude about sports.

    I fully acknowledge Serena’s greatness.

    Ditto Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Billie Jean King, and other great women players.

    As big a fan as I was of John McEnroe as a kid, all of those women were greater players than he was—and he’s an all-timer. But, while they were greater players, he was the better player. Which is to say, he would easily have beaten them in a match.

    That’s hardly a weird prejudice. The whole reason we have men’s tennis and women’s tennis is because otherwise women would be all but excluded from competition.

  18. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    As big a fan as I was of John McEnroe as a kid

    John McEnroe had fans? Who knew…?

  19. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    John McEnroe had fans? Who knew…?

    From my more mature perspective, he was a whiny brat and a poor sport at times. But he’s probably the most popular American tennis player ever. And he’s the most popular tennis commentator, too.

  20. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But he’s probably the most popular American tennis player ever.

    While he was playing, he was less popular than Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Andre Agassi. When did that change? (I agree that he has been an excellent commentator, once he eventually grew up.)

  21. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: I don’t have polling data to go on but McEnroe was an incredibly polarizing player who moved the needle and demanded attention. He almost certainly was less well-liked than any of those players (although Agassi was mostly regarded as a punk until later in his career). But he pulled in people to watch the game–at a time when the game was considerably more popular than it is today.

  22. Tyrell says:

    I seldom watch tennis on TV now unless it is my nap time. I liked Connors – he seems like a nice guy. I watched it when I was younger. My favorites are Rod Laver and J.D. Newcombe. Roscoe Tanner had a mean serve. McEnroe tried to get an edge and had that act down pat. Chris Evert is my favorite lady tennis player.
    Tennis is more of a participant sport. It is not very exciting to watch.

  23. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    although Agassi was mostly regarded as a punk until later in his career

    Hmm.

    Let me suggest that there are some interesting cultural filters operating here. In my neighborhood, McEnroe was the punk and Agassi was a refreshing rebel. Arthur Ashe was a class act and Jimmy Connors was almost-too-brash-to-root-for.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Let me suggest that there are some interesting cultural filters operating here. In my neighborhood, McEnroe was the punk and Agassi was a refreshing rebel

    Maybe. And, granted, I viewed them at different ages and was a bigger tennis fan in McEnroe’s heyday than Agassi’s. My fuzzy recollection, though, is that McEnroe was always viewed as a dedicated tennis player who threw tantrums whereas Agassi was viewed as a similarly talented player insufficiently dedicated to his craft until later in his career.

    Arthur Ashe was a class act

    Ashe had passed from tennis star to social icon by the time I was paying attention but I’ve never heard anyone suggest otherwise.

    and Jimmy Connors was almost-too-brash-to-root-for.

    Connors was starting his slide by the time I started paying attention but that was my impression as well.

  25. Kalsa says:

    As most tennis experts have stated, Sunday’s Wimbledon match statistics were overwhelmingly dominated by Federer, except for a handful of moments. On any given day, top players can beat themselves by having a few too many unforced errors which can hand the win to their opponent, or they can simply have an off day. Countless players have experienced it.
    Technically/tactically/physically and mentally, Roger’s statistics continue to edge out rivals in the GOAT discussion, even after taking second this past Sunday – which leaves him still holding the GOAT at 38 ..for now.
    At 33 and 32 y/o, Rafa and Djokovic still must continue at this level for another 5 and 6 years respectively to also attain the longevity statistic.
    The top players are all so talented, inspirational and a joy to watch. As a recreational player and avid tennis fan, I feel fortunate to be witnessing the exceptional play of all of them as they try to catch the goat.

  26. Tyrell says:

    @James Joyner: I agree that Arthur Ashe was class and sportsmanship, which is not often seen.
    John McEnroe was an act. His antics and contortions served to divert attention
    and to get the umpires to give him the close calls. That is done in other sports too.

  27. @James Joyner:

    But he’s probably the most popular American tennis player ever.

    He was definitely the most famous. I am not sure if he was the most popular (but this may be a battle of semantics).

  28. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    He was definitely the most famous. I am not sure if he was the most popular (but this may be a battle of semantics).

    Probably. He certainly wasn’t the most beloved. But I think he generated more interest from people who weren’t otherwise tennis fans than any player, ever. In that sense, he was like Tiger Woods in golf. People who wouldn’t watch Wimbledon or the Masters otherwise tuned in to see them.

  29. John says:

    @Kalsa: Federer at 37 is playing better than Djokovic at 31 and Nadal at 33. Although he didn’t win it, Federer came really close and actually had better stats. Tennis has never seen someone this good for so long. There are two reasons why Federer doesn’t have a better head-to-head against Djokovic and Nadal: 1. He took too long to switch to a larger racquet, and 2. He took too long to improve his backhand. But since he’s done those 2 things, Nadal cannot beat him outside of clay, and Djokovic can but he has to give it his all to deafeat a man who is 5 or 6 years older. This is the reason Federer will always the the FOAT (favorite of all time): because no one has ever swung a racquet like him. He is a natural on the court and hardly sweats.

  30. David B. says:

    Djokovic is also the only player of the three to hold all four majors at the same time, even though it wasn’t within the same year. He’s also far ahead of Nadal in terms of weeks as the number one player in the world–261-196. Federer still holds that record with 310 total weeks as number 1. But that number no longer seems inviolable.
    Additionally, besides owning an overall winning record against Federer, Djokovic also has a 11-5 winning record against Federer in majors. On paper, Djokovic already seems like the GOAT.
    But there is one defining element that will always be in Federer’s favor (besides the fact that he is also the FOAT) and that is, this Golden era of tennis really began with him beating Sampras in 2001. He was the dominant player by far in the 2000s. The other two had to catch up to him, which they did. But he set the bar incredibly high, and he’s often managed to set it even higher. It’s just that he’s got some pretty tenacious rivals who keep rising to the occasion.

  31. Jim Lee says:

    I get a little annoyed with all of the Federer fanaticism. First off, he has certainly not been a class act his entire career. He has grown up (I like him quite a bit at 37), but he spent the bulk of his career giving arrogant interviews with hidden insults to his rivals, starring in tasteless ads, wearing tasteless clothes, unable to gracefully accept defeat, etcetera. It amazes me that everyone just ignored his faults, but were so quick to judge Nadal, and especially Djokovic. Secondly, many Fednatics put almost zero effort into giving a fair assessment of anything having to do with him. The Wimbledon final is a perfect example. Yes, Federer dominated the second set/Djokovic tanked, but Djokovic actually statistically won the 1st and 5th sets, only arguably stealing the 3rd, though he only lost by a few points which just means Federer won a few more meaningless return points over the course of the entire set. Basically, if you toss out the second set, the stats tell a story of a very close match with one player serving very well, playing a very aggressive high-risk high-reward style of tennis against someone mostly serving rather poorly and playing a consistent, defensive style of tennis. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what the match looked like. 3rd, there haven’t been any on this thread, but people love to accuse Djokovic, and Nadal of doping, but come on, just look at Federer. He won one single slam from age 29 or so until 35 with a sudden career resurgence…really, it’s the racket? The man was barely sweating during the longest men’s Wimbledon final. If we are going to say Federer isn’t doping, let’s say the other two aren’t doping either. 4thly, I really don’t think Federer figured out Nadal, I think that at 37, he’s significantly biologically younger than Nadal at 33. Nadal is no where near the player he was. His game depended on getting to every ball with enough time to counter attack, suddenly turning a defensive point into offense with very aggressive shots. He is now only able to do that on clay where the ball slows up nicely for him. Let’s not knock Nadal for aging normally/naturally and praise Federer for aging suspiciously.

    Anyway, sorry for the rant. I think Federer is a great player, the most beautiful player. I absolutely understand why he’s many people’s favorite to watch. But, like my favorite sports teams, that doesn’t mean he’s the best. He was/is definitely the most consistent, and if I needed one player to bludgeon a lesser player, it would undoubtedly be Federer…but his prolific numbers are rather hollow when analyzed in comparison to those of Djokovic and Nadal. The real rivalry was always Nadal-Djokovic. For the record, my favorite player is Del Potro… I’ve never seen anything like that forehand when he’s healthy and dialled in… But, just because he’s my favorite doesn’t mean he’s the goat.

  32. Jim Lee says:

    Without having watched Graf, why is Serena so regularly considered the greatest female athlete when on paper she’s arguably (if not definitely) not even the best female tennis player in history? Graf had achieved all of her success before retiring at age 30. She had almost all of her success before chronic injuries set in at 28 years old. Serena has played into her late 30s and just barely beat Graf’s records. Again, I wasn’t around during that era, but it seems strange that Graf isn’t even mentioned…

  33. David B says:

    @Jim Lee: As much as I love Graf, and dislike Serena as a person, I would argue that Serena is greater. Serena’s dominance is over a much longer period, against every great player of that period of course. Graf’s greatness and her record is somewhat questionable because of one terrible anomaly of history: the stabbing of Monica Seles. Seles was clearly the next great player in history and pretty much had taken over the top spot from Graf, and certainly would have won more majors if she hadn’t been stabbed. That would have cut into Graf’s major collection, I believe.