Since Roger Federer's assault on the record books over the last decade, tennis fans have become well-versed in discussing the idea of a G.O.A.T.—acronym for Greatest of All Time.
It's become both a glamorous and tiresome topic, one of those reductio ad absurdum debates mingling framed data with subjective conclusions, revealing only the level of a fan's devotion to either Federer or his great rival, Rafael Nadal.
The absurdity of this debate is that it cannot be resolved in this generation, let alone include accomplishments of past legends when tennis was played with various other conditions and styles.
The easy thing to do is dismiss the past.
Why bother trying to figure out where Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors fit in?
There is No G.O.A.T.
Maybe you are a tennis fan who extols the evolution of the sport—the athletes of the 21st century are bigger, stronger, quicker and better.
Therefore, the past does not matter, and yesterday's stars would be today's journeymen. There is no reason to consider the records before Federer or Nadal.
Maybe you're a traditionalist who has watched tennis for decades.
Your paradigm looks through magical lenses that neutralize conditions from all eras. You believe that if technology, court surfaces, knowledge of fitness and training techniques were leveled, we could identify the G.O.A.T. and rank the legends.
Most likely, you are somewhere in between this range.
And you are not alone.
Even tennis historians trip over their own statistics and stay loyal to their affinities for players they once covered.
Tennis fanatics are especially invested in the great debate. We can't help it.
But the reality is that there is no G.O.A.T.
It's a mythical label of hubris spread amongst radical members of the Federer and Nadal fan bases.
Even rational tennis fans often cannot make an adequate case for this G.O.A.T. label even though Federer and Nadal played against each other for Grand Slam titles and have the results of 31 matches.
Above all, it's impossible to have a legitimate G.O.A.T. analysis if it dismisses Pete Sampras.
A Pete Sampras Reminder
If you are not at least 30-something years old, it's unlikely you watched Sampras' prime years from 1993-97.
It's not adequate to watch match replays or YouTube highlights. That's like looking at a painting of an apple to decide if it tastes sour or sweet.
Sampras possessed a conservatively economic strategy, including an amazing serve, athletic instincts at net and subtle but fantastic all-court skills that rivaled any of the baseliners of his day.
Reciting the numbers is not enough. (It never is.)
Yes, he won 14 Grand Slam titles and was the most dominant grass-court player of the Open era, winning seven Wimbledon titles in eight years (1993-2000).
But you had to be there to feel his dominance.
It was almost hopeless for his Hall of Fame rivals to defeat him in big matches. He won 12 Slam finals in 13 attempts before his peak faded away through injuries and age.
So why does Sampras not receive more press when the G.O.A.T. topic turns into another screaming match between Federites and Rafaholics?
Perception Hurt Sampras
Even as Sampras lapped the field during his heyday, his accomplishments were often pockmarked by media.
Fans called him "boring." They complained he did not have the popular appeal or charisma of John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Andre Agassi.
Like his game, his simple white attire hearkened back to previous eras.
He was unglamorous and especially dull in comparison to the more popular Agassi, who dressed with garish and fascinating combinations.
To most casual sports fans, Sampras was the antagonist who clubbed Agassi's opportunities time and again.
Their rivalry was more hot air than substance, at least until Sampras' body began to break down and Agassi trained more seriously.
Even Sampras' dominant consistency was a kind of curse.
He steered away from controversy and emotional ups and downs. He just kept winning Grand Slam titles.
Many tennis fans were cavalier about his six straight years as the No. 1 player. Their boredom ranged from indifference to ignorance.
Years later, Sampras continues to be criticized when former players discuss the G.O.A.T.
His former rival Agassi said on huffingtonpost.com, "I think Federer is a class above (Sampras), quite frankly. I mean, you're talking about a guy who dominated pretty much on every surface, minus one guy on clay."
Agassi added that Nadal could eventually claim this honor.
Agassi's gracious comments about Federer and Nadal may also be another shot at Sampras in their uneasy post-playing relationship, which prompted ESPN to investigate in 2011. The article references the infamous charity doubles match at Indian Wells in 2010 in which both champions took jabs at each other.
Were Agassi's comments in praising Federer another example of his reluctance to praise Sampras?
Recently retired player Ivan Ljubicic gave the opinion last week that today's players play harder.
He said on tennis.com, "The difference between these top guys and the top guys back then are these guys are so unbelievably consistent. You can’t take off any point."
Ljubicic even fired shots at Sampras' generation, saying on tennis.com, "The thing with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic is that their goal is to win every single match, and that wasn't the case with the older generation."
Chalk up Ljubicic as one who believes that the current era of tennis is an evolution above the past.
Were yesterday's stars less committed to tennis? He thinks so.
Nearly three years ago, Mats Wilander said on insidetennis.com, "You have to say that the era when he (Federer) played was the worst of all time. That’s why he was winning so much… His era had the worst Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 we've had‚ the Nalbandians, Roddicks, Hewitts. That’s one of the reasons why Roger dominated so much."
Sampras reiterated this idea—and it's important to note that this was before Novak Djokovic's monster year in 2011—that his generation had the stronger players.
He told insidetennis.com:
What's happening to the game is that there's only a handful of great players. There's a lot of really good players, but there's only a number of guys who have won majors. In Mats' generation, in my generation, there were a lot more major winners — Becker, Edberg, Stich, Courier, Agassi, you can go down the list. With Rafa and Roger being so dominating over the years, there’s not anyone else who really believes they can win majors.
Were there more championship-caliber players in Sampras' day?
Certainly, there were more styles and ways of winning, which also made it extraordinarily difficult for a Grand Slam champion to win on multiple surfaces. The differences of speed and play from red clay to grass had more range of differences in conditions and players.
The competitive balance was certainly more fierce at the top, but was this because more players had belief and success in winning majors?
Sampras also believes he could win major titles in any era, as he told insidetennis.com:
My game would certainly hold up I believe in any generation, with the serve-and-volley game. Everyone talks about that game being extinct, but I still think it’s an effective way to play… The game has changed, technology has changed, but in my prime I felt unbeatable, as does Roger, as did Lendl, as did Laver. That’s the way we look at our decades. To say that one is better than the other? It’s hard to compare, but I felt I came out of a generation that was very, very strong, and I feel proud about that.
It should be further noted that Sampras has always praised the current generation of players and has often showed his admiration for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
On thetennisspace.com, he insists that Federer, not himself, is the greatest player, but that Nadal is now in the conversation.
Sampras, like everyone else, is trying to hypothesize from very different data contexts. A player can only play the matches and opponents that he faces, not mythical comparisons.
There is no way to determine a G.O.A.T.
The G.O.A.T. argument is intriguing conversation for tennis fans, provided it is academic and without name calling.
Yet, to claim it has anything to do with reality is pure fantasy.
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