Tennis: The Hall Of GOATs Debate

ThaiDiamond Correspondent IFebruary 5, 2009

I’m really growing bored of speculation that if Federer could somehow tie Sampras at 14 Grand Slam victories—let alone surpass it—Roger would be crowned The Greatest Of All Time (GOAT).

Well…who says Sampras was the greatest?

The rationale behind such talk is that obviously the proof is in only one place—Grand Slam titles.

I agree...somewhat…kind of...a little! Grand Slam Titles is a very important stat. Everyone who’s not injured and who qualifies shows up. Unlike regular tournaments, which draw a more limited group of the game’s top players. And of course the competition is top level as the world’s best players bring their best to the game’s most prestigious and rewarding tournaments.

But can one “single” statistic provide the GOAT answer—no matter how important that single stat is. Statistics in isolation can be skewed.

First, if you’re sick or injured during the time of any of these “four” tournaments are held…well, there goes a bit of your chance at tennis immortality.

More importantly, there is the Open Era factor.

Younger readers may wish to know that, prior to 1968, you used to need a day job – or be very well off – to support your tennis career.

Imagine Federer’s record if he had to “keep the books” at some corporation 40 hours a week…and manage a full playing regimen? In today’s game, being professional is a full time job. Players need to get paid for their expertise. And that’s made tennis a much better game.

Now consider greats like Rod Laver who spanned the amateur and pro eras? He won the calendar Grand Slam in 1962. The next year, smelling the money, he turned pro and continued winning on this “parallel” tennis circuit where he won five pro US championships alone.

With the dawn of the “open” era, professional players were allowed back to compete in Grand Slam events. When an older Laver came back in 1969 he again won a second calendar Grand Slam.

No one else has done this.

But from 1963 through 1968—six long years—he was barred from the Grand Slams. So Rod ended up with only “11” Grand Slam titles…short of Pete’s 14 or Roger’s 13.

Yet some talking heads on my Telly wants me to believe the GOAT competition is just between Sampras and the Fed. Huh?

How many Grand Slam titles would Laver had if he was allowed to compete in these amateur tournaments?

A hypothetical question to be sure, but in 1967 alone, Laver won 19 titles, including the Wimbledon Pro, the U.S. Pro Championships, the Wembley Pro Championship, and the French Pro Championship, which gave him a clean sweep of the most important professional titles.

But if the Grand Slam stat skews Laver on the downside, it may have skewed Roy Emerson’s to the upside.

Emerson’s won 12 Grand Slams—he’s third on the all time list! Yet 10 of his trophies were hoisted from 1963 through 1967, when he didn’t have to compete with Laver and other pros.

Is Roy Emerson as great as Borg, McEnroe or Connors? Or even a Becker or an Edberg? These greats can’t match Roy’s Grand Slam total?

Don’t get me wrong—though many tennis experts have, I’m not making a case that Laver is the GOAT or even that Emerson wasn’t great (he was). The salient point is that that in using the Grand Slam Title stat alone—as the end all, be all—leaves us with some real serious shortcomings.

Even someone as "recent" as Jimmy Connors is affected his exclusion from the French Open in 1974 possibly prevented him from winning all four Grand Slam singles titles in one year.

How about Borg who refused to go Down Under playing in only one Aussie Open (1974)? He’s got 11 GS’s, but walked away at a young 26 years.

Perhaps it may be important to also factor in some other key criteria.

Like total weeks at number one. Clearly, to be considered the GOAT, playing consistently well against your competition for a substantial period of time is a factor. Younger readers may have never heard of Poncho Gonzales. He's only won two slams. Yet he was number one for an unequalled eight years in the 1950s and early 1960s. He too would have had a lot more Grand Slams if his pro championships were factored in.

And how about the total number of titles? Laver's got a whooping 196 titles (40 listed by the ATP). Or Jimmy Connors with 147 titles. Even Lendl’s got 144 tournaments. Ever heard of Jaroslav Drobny? He was the first lefty to win Wimbledon who ended up with 136 titles.

Federer's 57 or Sampras's 64 titles pale a bit by comparison.

Both these stats give us an idea of a player's performance at a number of different tournaments in diverse locales against a wide range of players. Again, over the longevity of their career. Isn’t performance over a player’s entire career what we are trying to determine when we look at who may be the greatest.

Another very important stat, which broadens the field to how well these guys played against the entire universe of tennis pros—is to look at is their win/loss percentage career singles record. Nadal at (344–78: 81.5%) and Roger at (626–151: 80.6%) are relatively close.

You get an idea of how great both Nadal and Federer are when you throw in past greats like Borg 603–127 (82.6%); Conners 1241–277 (81.8%); Lendl 1,071- 239 (81.8%); McEnroe 875–198 (81.5%); Rod Laver (392–99: 79.8%) or Sampras (762–222: 77.4%).

But the way, I agree with my source (, that, at least for this statistic, you need a minimum of 700 matches. Nadal, at 22, hasn’t been around long enough to really compare him in the Hall of GOATs. (Though he should be included in any conversation of the greatest clay court players ever.)

And for those who argue for the overriding importance of Grand Slams, perhaps we should also look at stats within these four tournaments. Like the win/loss Grand Slam stat. Borg look impressive here at 141-16 (89.8%) with Roger second at 168-26 (86.6%) and Pistol Pete fifth at 203-38 (84.2%).

And since professional tennis is played on three distinct services, winning Grand Slams on all three is pretty indicative of some greatness. At least in my book. Sampras and the Fed have never won on clay. Nadal—after Connors, Wilander and Agassi—are the only men to win in “open”  Grand Slam titles on all three different surfaces.

So if we're trying to determine the greatest ever—arguably, an impossible task anyway—we need get away from simplistic sound bite analysis and look a bit deeper at the game.

And that may be good for tennis.

And perhaps it’ll help us get away from the modern phenomena of “part time” players like the William sisters who avoid many lesser titles to "specialize" on the Grand Slams...hoping to stay fresh and injury free.

I prefer a game where we get to watch Roger and Rafa going at it all year long.

That’s good for me. And if we’re watching, that too is good for tennis.