Tennis GOAT: Why History of Sport Complicates Debate

Andrew Prochnow@@AndrewProchnowAnalyst IAugust 17, 2012

Rod Laver won the calendar Grand Slam twice in his career.
Rod Laver won the calendar Grand Slam twice in his career.Getty Images/Getty Images

Witnessing mastery of a sport, especially one that a person follows closely, is an amazing feeling. Seeing a person achieve the impossible in a moment of unthinkable tension and drama is literally the stuff dreams are made of.  

Who has played or followed a sport but hasn't imagined scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Finals, shooting the winning basket for Olympic Gold, or hitting an ace to win a Grand Slam? To conjure perfect execution one time is amazing, but to do so consistently is when reality turns to legend. 

In today's world, consistent mastery of a sport seems to almost always lead to the question: "Is this the best player to ever compete in this sport?" As fans of the game, this is our chance to be the best. If we are witnessing the "Best Ever" in a given sports discipline, then this must also be the best time ever to be a fan of the sport.  

In the world of tennis, Roger Federer's recent ascendance back to the Number 1 ranking has placed the "Best Ever" question back into the forefront of the game. Federer has had so much success during his active career that he is one of those select few in the history of sports to become a legend prior to his retirement. Federer's charismatic style of play, which combines fluid movement with extraordinary shot-making, has also built him a legion of vocal fans.

To date, most of the support for Federer's "Best Ever" designation usually appears to derive from his 17 Grand Slam titles. However, there are a myriad of other records that also support this claim.

It would take several extra mouse clicks to adequately highlight these other records, but some of them include: appearing in 24 Grand Slam finals, reaching the semifinals of 23 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, and winning the most men's Grand Slam matches in history (244 and counting).  

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Despite the numerous records, there are also several areas in which Federer has fallen short of some of his competition. Federer has never won the Davis Cup (nor has Switzerland), he has never won an Olympic singles tournament, and he has a losing record (10-18) to his primary rival, Rafael Nadal. Despite these few shortcomings, general consensus appears to be that Roger Federer has already achieved the "Best Ever" distinction in men's tennis.

Although such an opinion isn't wrong, the complex history of tennis makes career comparisons between players more difficult than simply looking at a list of total Grand Slam titles. The primary reason for this is that the game of tennis can be broken into two distinct historical eras. The current era, often called the Open Era, came about in the beginning of 1968.  

The big change that ushered in the Open Era was that professional tennis players were allowed to compete in the tournaments we now refer to as "Grand Slams." Before 1968, the only players that contested the "Grand Slams" were amateurs. Pre-1968, professional tennis players had a completely separate circuit that did not include the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open.  

This is a critical piece of tennis history, and a key to understanding the complexities of choosing a "Best Ever" tennis player.  Although the four tournaments we now call Grand Slams have extensive histories dating back more than 100 years ago (exact details vary by tournament), they were not always venues for the very best tennis players.

In the pre-1968 world of tennis, the only time a very good tennis player usually played in a "Grand Slam" was before that player "turned pro." That is the reason we see Rod Laver win the calendar Grand Slam in 1962 (as an amateur), and then wait 5 years before winning another Slam during the first "open" (open to both professionals and amateurs) Wimbledon in 1968.  

This gap represents a five-year period in which Laver wasn't allowed to compete in a single Grand Slam event.  Given that Laver won the calendar Grand Slam both in 1962 (as an amateur) and then again in 1969 (as a professional), it makes one wonder how many more "Slam" events Laver could have won had he played in any of the 20 Grand Slam tournaments that occurred from 1963 to 1967.

One thing seems clear: if the professional players weren't playing Grand Slams before 1968 (except briefly as amateurs, before they "turned pro"), then it seems inconsistent to state Roger Federer is the "Best Ever" because he won 17 Grand Slams. This creates an incongruent comparison between Roger and those players whose careers were completed before 1968, as well as those players whose careers straddled the two eras (like Laver).  

This doesn't mean it's wrong to call Federer the "Best Ever" in general, but it might be inconsistent to use only the total Grand Slam titles as the sole or primary reasoning.     

Further complicating the comparison across eras is the fact that before the Open Era, many professional players competed in what's now collectively referred to as the Professional Major Championships (also known as Pro Slam Tournaments). This was a set of tournaments somewhat similar to the modern day "Slam" format except they featured only professional players and thus had fewer rounds before the final. These five tournaments were the US Pro Tennis Championships, the Wembley Championship, the French Pro Championship, the Tournament of Champions, and the Wimbledon Pro.  

It should be noted that the Professional Majors originated in different years, were not played consistently every year (due to war or other reasons), often changed geographic location within the country they were played, and varied in importance from year to year (depending on who indicated they would play there and prize money). Additionally, the pre-1968 professional tour was completely different than the modern tour beyond just the Professional Majors.  The circuit was much less organized as a whole and primarily consisted of head-to-head matches between professional players and special exhibitions.      

A closer look at Rod Laver's career reveals some of the difficulties in comparing players across eras. The Rocket (Laver's nickname) won 11 Grand Slam tournaments and nine Professional Major tournaments, giving Laver a total of 20 "major" tournament titles in his career.  If winning two calendar Grand Slams wasn't enough, Laver also won the "calendar" Professional Major, taking four of the five titles in the circuit—one wasn't contested—in 1967.  

With three entire years in which Laver took every piece of important tennis hardware available to his level, it's not surprising that Rod Laver is himself considered one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. His career, because it straddles the two eras of tennis, also illustrates why it is difficult to make "apples-to-apples" career comparisons between players from different eras in tennis history. It's difficult to measure Laver's 20 "majors" against Federer's 17 Grand Slams because the environment of professional tennis was so different in each era.  

Another good example of the difficulty in comparing players across different eras in tennis history involves the Australian Open. Today, the Australian Open is one of the four Grand Slams on tour and is approximately equal to the other Slams in terms of ranking points awarded and prize money. In today's game, it would be almost unthinkable for a healthy player to skip the Australian Open.  

However, this was not always the case. Before the Open Era, and even well after, many players chose not to travel such a long distance for the tournament in Australia. The age of technology and transportation that we live in today is a far cry from the standards that were prevalent in the 20th century.

A glance at the career of John McEnroe shows evidence of this trend.  During his 14-year career, McEnroe played in the Australian Open on only five occasions, with three of them falling during the last four years of his career (1989, 1990, 1992).  Given that McEnroe was one of the greatest competitors of his era, his reluctance to travel "down under" illustrates the prevailing sentiment towards such a long trip for one tournament.  

When looking at the career of Pete Sampras, we see a similar trend.  During the first five years of his professional career, Sampras played in the Australian Open only twice (1989, 1990).  But starting in 1993, he played it every year until he retired in 2002.  

If these two examples don't provide clear enough evidence, consider the fact that Bjorn Borg only played the Australian Open once during his entire professional career.  Borg reached the US Open final four times during his ten year career, so one can only wonder what his career totals might look like with more Australian Open appearances.  If anything, these notable absences further highlight how the professional tour has evolved and changed over the years.

In discussing cross-era player comparisons, it is also essential to consider the different playing surfaces that were prevalent in each era. Today, we see three distinct playing surfaces on a tour segmented to prepare players for each upcoming Grand Slam event.

However, there was a long period of time before the Open Era (and somewhat after) that grass was much more prevalent.  Prior to the modern era of tennis, three out of the four tournaments that we refer to as Grand Slams today were played on grass (the exception being clay at the French Open). A full and complete analysis of the different surface considerations between tennis eras and the ramification on player comparisons is a bit broader than the scope of this article.  

Suffice it to say, when Rod Laver won the calendar Grand Slam in 1969 during the Open Era, he won it on only two different surfaces (grass and clay). The introduction of hard court as a Grand Slam surface, and subsequent broadening of surface types from two to three, might be one of the reasons the calendar Grand Slam hasn't been repeated since Laver.

Although falling short of the full calendar Grand Slam, Rafael Nadal did become the first and only male player in history to win three Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces in a calendar year.  He accomplished this calendar "Surface Slam" in 2010 when he captured titles at the French Open (clay), Wimbledon (grass), and the US Open (hard court).

The nuances of comparing the careers of players across different eras certainly hasn't stopped it from occurring. For example, the Tennis Channel released a list they called the "100 Greatest of All Time" in 2012. The Tennis Channel chose Roger Federer as their number one male player of all time, with Rod Laver ranked just behind him in second place.  

The compilers of this list at the Tennis Channel are certainly entitled to their view, but as mentioned earlier, this is a subjective debate. Rod Laver ended his career with a men's record 200 singles titles, a hefty sum even as compared to the 75 titles that Roger Federer has accumulated to date. But one must also consider that the format of the tournaments was different during the time Laver played, and in many cases, Laver would have required fewer rounds to win the title.

Another Australian player that illustrates the nuances of comparing across eras is Roy Emerson. During his career, Emerson won 12 Grand Slam singles titles and 16 Grand Slam doubles titles and remains the only male player to win both a singles and doubles title at every Grand Slam event (he actually has at least two titles in each event from every Slam). In fact, Emerson still holds the men's record for combined singles and doubles Grand Slam titles with 28.

In today's world, where players seem to focus on singles or doubles (not both), Emerson's results seem like a stratospheric achievement and a potentially unbreakable record. However, Emerson claimed much of this hardware before 1968, so he was competing primarily against amateurs. Also, nine of Emerson's titles were won at the Australian Open, which we know wasn't always attended by the full spectrum of available talent. Given the historical differences in the game before the Open Era, it's possible that Emerson's ranking on the Tennis Channel's list as the 11th best male player of all time is accurate.

Considering the complex history of tennis, it seems clear that any analysis regarding the greatest player of all time should account for differences between the two eras. Whether this affects anyone's ultimate opinion on the matter is another question entirely.

Due to the subtleties that exist in comparing players across eras, I find myself most interested in what the best players with an excellent vantage point of both eras have to say on the "Best Ever" topic. A person such as Rod Laver, who has played the game at an extremely high level and also witnessed first-hand the development of the sport, must be amongst the most qualified to rank players across generations.

Interestingly, Rod Laver recently sat down with John McEnroe for an interview on BBC Sport at the 2012 Wimbledon to chat publicly about this very subject. Laver, clearly a humble person, selected Roger Federer as his best of all time, but quickly added that Rafael Nadal is right there with him.  Laver said the following: "Roger Federer certainly is my claim to be the best of all time if there is such a thing."  

After selecting Federer as his number one he continued: "But at the same time, I look at Rafa Nadal and what he's done to win seven French Open titles and Wimbledon. Being able to play with somewhat of a suspect knee, his way of motoring around the court and tracking shots down is quite uncanny."

Laver summed up his view on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal saying, "They're very close.  Are they great champions and do they have equal abilities?  I'd say 'yes', they're pretty much equal."

The only person that Laver forgot to mention at the top of the all-time list was himself.  For a person with as much class as the Rocket, it would be foolish to expect anything less.  

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