Where's Your Wisdom, Roger Federer's Soap Opera Critics?

Donald MarhefkaCorrespondent IAugust 19, 2009

Lately, I’ve read many articles and responses to articles that refuse to admit that Roger Federer is the GOAT.  It’s almost like a soap opera. 


Before he won the French, the objection was that Roger never won a title at Roland Garros.  Before he won Wimbledon, the objection was he was only tied with Pete Sampras. 


Now that Roger has achieved the career grand slam and won his 15th major as well, I am hearing yet new objections. 


One objection was that until he proves he can beat a healthy Rafa Nadal, he cannot be considered the GOAT.  Many people have pointed out the 13-7 advantage that Rafa has in H2H.  The word “healthy” is what’s new here for the anti Federer-ites.  It’s not enough for him to just win; he must beat a “healthy” Rafa.


Another comment focused on the true Grand Slam, i.e. all four slams in the same year.  This is a new objection and is a clear reference to Rod Laver.

The soap opera is continuing.


Other objections focus on the competition.  The competition just doesn’t measure up, or so they say. 


Actually, we are only talking about a minority of the people.  About 75 percent have no trouble calling the Swiss Maestro the GOAT. 


In this article, I will attempt to clarify the issue on three fronts: 


  1. Perverse Opinion
  2. Head to Head
  3. Level of Competition




First of all, I wish to digress and talk about The Theory of Evolution.  It’s really not a theory at all; it’s a fact.  But, of course, not all scientists agree.  They say there is no way to prove it. 


The noted Harvard University Professor, Stephen Jay Gould said it was a fact.  I actually called him one day and asked him to define “fact.”  His answer was, “Confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold your provisional consent.” 


This begs the question of the meaning of perverse.  According to Merriam-Webster, the meaning is “obstinate in opposing what is reasonable or accepted.” 


One must look at the definition closely (i.e., what is the meaning of provisional?).  In my opinion, this means until and if new evidence is discovered. 


In the analogy to tennis, this would mean until someone “new” comes along.  Of course, someone “new” could already be on the scene. 


So, just as it would be perverse not to agree with the “fact” of evolution, it would also be perverse to say that The Fed Express is not the GOAT.  What more does he have to accomplish?


  1. He has 15 grand slam titles. (Bud Collins says that we must call these majors.)
  2. He has been to 21 consecutive semi-finals in major tournaments.  This is a record that might never be broken—except, of course, by him.
  3. His consecutive weeks string at the top of the rankings. 
  4. His winning the career grand slam. 
  5. His accomplishments in Paris.  I.e., four consecutive years in the finals.  This ties Nadal, Borg, and Lendl.   Also, five straight years in the semis.  Not even Nadal or Borg has accomplished this.
  6. His five straight wins in London as well as six in seven years.  Only Borg has also won Wimbledon five years in a row.  Sampras has seven titles, but Federer is still active.
  7. His five straight wins in New York.  This is unprecedented in the modern era.
  8. His Master’s wins and other ATP wins. 


To say that he is only one of the greatest does not require much deliberation.  Surely, no one would disagree with that.  I think his above achievements speak for themselves.





Rafa Nadal has a lead of 13-7 over The Lord of the Swings H2H.  Let me admit that The King of Grass does not match up that well against The Man from Majorca.  But he must play whoever is across the net from him and, many times, that is not Rafa.


Where was Rafa at the French Open?  For that matter, where was he at Wimbledon?  A much better statistic is Same Tournaments Entered – STE. 


If one wins a tournament that the other player is entered in, the first player gets one point STE.  Roger has a lead of 29-20 STE over Rafa. 


Actually, this subject has been addressed on Bleacher Report by Xeno-philous F. 


This article explains in detail why H2H just doesn’t cut it.  Xeno did a fantastic job with a lot of research.  It has received almost 5,000 reads, and counting.  So, I don’t want to overly dwell on it (H2H) here—it has been addressed very well by Xeno.  Probably anyone reading this article has already read the one by Xeno.




Tim Ruffin, also of Bleacher Report wrote an article called “15 Slams: What Does It Really Take?”  He did a great job of listing the achievements of Federer.  But, he claims it’s because the competition is lacking. 


Competition in any era is very difficult to quantify.  One reason is that eras tend to overlap. 


In what era would you place Andre Agassi?  Most people would place him in the Sampras era but he was in the U.S. Open finals in 2005 at the age of 35.  But, Andre at 35 was equal to other players at 25.  His conditioning was arduous.  So, although he was in the Sampras ear, he overlapped into the Federer era. 


The competition in Borg’s era was at first glance impressive.  But, I’m unsure about the depth.  Here are three current tennis players – none in the top 10.    


Robin Soderling, ranked No. 12

Tommy Haas, ranked No. 23

Phillip Kohlschreiber, ranked No. 25


I mention these to point out just how deep the competition is today.  What have they done lately?


Robin knocked out Rafa at the French Open. 

Tommy Haas bested Djokovic at Wimbledon.  He almost pulled off a much bigger upset at the French Open with a two set lead over Federer.

Kohlschreiber beat Djokovic at the French Open. 



This makes you realize just how deep the competition is today.  Also, it gives greater appreciation of The King of Tennis’ achievement of reaching 21 semis in a row at Majors.  This is not just the tournaments he entered; it includes every single major since the 2004 French Open.


Right now, six players are vying for the no. 1 ranking.  Each has produced consistent results on all surfaces.  Each has a legitimate chance of reaching no. 1; if not this year, then next year.   This further illustrates the depth of the field. 


On another level, I considered how to quantify level of competition.  The bottom line is it can’t be quantified, at least not very well. 


But I thought about a concept whereby if you lost to a legend or near-legend in a grand-slam final, you would get one point.  Of course, naming one a legend of near-legend is subjective.


So, Borg won 11 Major tournaments and lost five times. All of his losses were to either Connors or McEnroe—both legends.  So, Borg would have a total of 16 ILL (Including Losses to Legends.)


Sampras has four losses in finals of a Major.   He lost to Edberg, Safin, and Hewitt at the U.S. Open as well to Agassi at the Australian Open.  I rate all of these as legends so Sampras would have 18 ILL. 


Using similar logic, we arrive at the following:


Connors  15 ILL (Gave him the benefit of doubt in including Orantes)

McEnroe 12 ILL


Federer has 15 victories at Majors and five losses.  All of his losses were to Nadal.  So, we would give him a score of 20 ILL.


I was in the middle of this analysis when I realized the ILL just doesn’t cut it.  One reason is that every loss in a final of a Major is to a legend or near-legend.  It’s easier to just count the no. of times a player reached the final of a major.  In this scenario, we award two points for the champion of a major and one point to the runner-up.


The totals come out as follows:


Federer       35 MM (Marhefka Model)

Sampras      32 MM

Lendl           27 MM

Borg            27 MM

Agassi         23 MM

Connors       23 MM

McEnroe     20 MM


So, Lendl jumps to a tie for third place with Borg.  Is this acceptable?  Well, he was a finalist runner up 11 times on top of his eight victories.  Why so many losses?  It’s the level of competition.  His losses were to:


Wilander (3)

Becker     (3)

Connors   (2)

Borg         (1)

McEnroe  (1)

Cash         (1)


All legends, so it is definitely acceptable for Lendl to be considered third place is lieu of his score of 27 MM.  While this is not definite proof that this model works for level of competition, I feel it does have some relationship. 


Actually, one could easily argue that Roger has had the most competition—i.e., his three consecutive losses to Nadal at the French Open.  I would rank Nadal as stiffer competition than Agassi, or McEnroe. 




Before I conclude, let’s talk a little about Roger’s main contenders for the title of GOAT. 

“PISTOL PETE” Sampras.  He comes in second by any measure you wish to use.  His serve is probably the best ever, as well as his volley.  The biggest criticism of Pete is that he never won a slam event on clay—The French Open.  His best performance there was in reaching the semifinals in 1996. 


Before 2009, Roger had reached the semifinals in Paris is 2005 and then reached the finals in three consecutive years from 2006-2008.  Based on these performances on clay, I had rated him as one of the best clay-court players of all time.  Of course, in 2009, he finally won the French Open; so now, there is no denying has clay court legacy.

“ICE” Borg.  He won 11 Majors and comes in with 27 points MM.  His backers will state that he didn’t bother to go to Australia.  Also, he retired at an early age of 26.  At least he was 26 when he announced his retirement.  He effectively retired at the age of 25 after losing the 1981 U.S. Open. 


Regarding Australia, the Open was played on grass in those days.  Clay was Borg’s best surface but grass has to have been a close second.  He certainly could have won two, maybe three more Majors if he had gone to Australia.  Would have, should have, could have, but he didn’t.


If Nadal wasn’t around, the Swiss Clock might have won four more French Open titles.


So, Borg is only one of the all-time best.  We cannot credit him for tournaments he didn’t participate in.

Ivan “THE TERMINATOR” Lendl.  Lendl won only eight Majors but reached the finals 19 times.  If we include his performances at the Grand Prix Masters, we can add nine more appearances in finals.  But, Ivan never won at the world’s premier tennis tournament, Wimbledon. 


To his credit, he tried very hard and came close—two finals appearances as well as two semifinals appearances.  His losses to Jimmy Connors at the 1982 and 1983 were heartbreaking and mostly because he was intimidated.  Ironically, later in his career, he dominated Connors. 


As much as I like Lendl, I cannot call him the GOAT, just one of the greatest.

Rod THE ROCKET Laver.  I simply don’t take him seriously in any discussion for the GOAT.  For one thing, he didn’t have the advantage of today’s technology—the super large rackets composed of space age materials.  This is not his fault, of course, but he just could not compete, at least not very well, against, say, Philipp Kohlschreiber.


How would he fare against opponents who stood 6 foot 6 and could serve him off the court?


It is my understanding that in those days, Laver was, at times, receiving a bye into the semifinals.  Otherwise, how could we explain that in 1965, Laver met Rosewall a total of 18 times? 



To conclude, let me talk about underdog vs. over dog.  Ok, I admit I am for the over dog.  I cringe whenever thinking about Jack Fleck besting Ben Hogan in an 18 hole play-off for the 1955 U.S. Open. 


But, I’m not a bandwagon jumper.  I became a Federer fan long before he became the King of Tennis.  Probably, it was at the 2004 Wimbledon final vs. Roddick that I became a fan of Roger.  It was because of his smoothness and his arsenal of shots as well as his coolness and composure on court.


Here is a man who does not grunt, does not pick his rear while on court, does not bounce the ball umpteen times, and does not fake time-outs.  He does not retire when losing and does not withdraw from a major due to illness or being unprepared. 


So, go ahead Federer critics.  Come up with yet new reasons why he is not the GOAT.  You’re entitled to your opinion, no matter how perverse it may be.


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