It feels like the question, “Who is the Greatest of All Time?” (in the men's game) has been going on forever. Probably because it has, even before Federer broke onto the scene, many would argue over who was “greater”, Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, Laver or possibly Borg? People would bring up the number of slams Sampras had won, but people would say that didn’t matter, Agassi had a great impression on the world of tennis with his style and personality. It becomes almost impossible to say who is definitively the greatest, because how do you measure a metric like greatness? Who is right and who is wrong?
It looks like after Nadal’s stunning comeback to defeat Medvedev in the Australian Open Final the GOAT conversation has been reignited. Nadal now has one more slam victory than his two rivals, Federer and Djokovic, although few doubt that will remain the case. Djokovic still looks fit and healthy and capable of his best tennis. If he can gain entry into France, England, U.S.A. and Australia for future slams there is no doubt he will be a contender and one of the favourites to win more. Nadal has a golden opportunity to extend his lead of slam victories to two, with his favourite slam, Roland Garros next on the calendar. He just needs to forget about the shocking 4-set defeat to Novak from last year’s semi-final. Then there is Federer. Struggling with injuries, Roger pulled out of last year’s Roland Garros before a scheduled 4th round match with Berrettini so he could focus on Wimbledon. But a humbling straight sets defeat to Hurkacz in the quarter finals that finished with a bagel had everyone wondering if Roger was finished? That doesn’t appear to be the case as Federer is working on getting fit to play in Wimbledon, for what you would assume is one last hurrah to win Wimbledon an incredible 8th time. The likelihood is that Djokovic will end his career with the most slam victories, but it’s not a guarantee.
But does it matter which player has won the most slams? Does that really make them more of a GOAT than their rivals? In a sport like Formula 1 for example, Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher hold the most championships, but many still regard drivers like Senna, Fangio and Clark as the GOAT. Or what about basketball? Few people mention players like Bill Russell over the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James (Bill won the championship an insane 11 times, compared to Jordan at 5).
There are other factors at play, one of which is legacy. It’s the thing that some sports stars have, that others don’t, which makes someone the face of a sport. Growing up as a child of the 90’s, when I thought of golf, I thought of Tiger Woods. When I thought of basketball I thought of Michael Jordan and when I thought of boxing it was Muhammad Ali (granted Ali had since retired, but his legacy as a boxer never stopped). How do we use this for tennis? I would argue that Federer edges this contest, helped partly by the fact he had a head start on his rivals to cement himself as the face of tennis. A good indicator of someone’s fame and stardom can be seen by looking at their sponsorships and endorsements, Federer has had sponsorship deals with the likes of Rolex, Gillette, Mercedes Benz and Moet and Chandon to amass a wealth that is believed to be more than Nadal and Djokovic combined and create a following that is global beyond any other tennis star to date. Ofcourse, Nadal and Djokovic have both made strides marketing themselves and earning large fortunes themselves, as Nadal, like Federer, has his own clothing line and a racket and is sponsored by the likes of Richard Mille, Santander and Kia. Djokovic too has had big brands like Hublot, Peugeot and Jacob Creek support him.
What if neither legacy or slam wins is the correct metric to measure greatness? After all, someone can have a great legacy and not be a grand slam winning tennis player (see Kournikova (that photo) and Henman (a hill named after him at Wimbledon)). What is fair? Well what if each player, in their prime, competed in a group stage against each other And they played each other 3 times each on a different surface each time? Who would come out on top? For me that would be Djokovic. Not only has Djokovic beaten Nadal on clay and Federer on the grass, he has the edge over both athletes in head-to-heads. Love him or loathe him, he might not be everyone's favourite tennis player (he isn’t mine), but he knows better than anyone on how to win a tennis match.
So here we are with three different metrics, all of which have a different player as the GOAT of tennis. Nadal has the most slams and therefore arguably the most successful. Federer has built a legacy and made himself the most recognisable tennis player of all time. Djokovic has proven he can beat the other two and therefore is the best at playing tennis.
So who is the GOAT!?
I hate to say it. But I don’t believe there is an undisputed GOAT in the men's game of tennis, like there can be for other sports. All three players have won so much at around the same time and have become defined by their rivalries with each other. Like Ronaldo and Messi pushed each other to new heights. So have Federer, Djokovic and Nadal.
It is also far too subjective a question. Each person places their own value on certain qualities such as the number of trophies a player has, or their fame, or their win percentages. My personal favourite player is Federer, because I love watching him play. It is like watching beautiful renaissance art being made and each Federer forehand, backhand and volley is like a brush swiping the canvas making the match a greater spectacle and thing of beauty. And that makes him my GOAT. But I also have friends who disagree with this and love Nadal or Djokovic for similar and different reasons. Am I wrong for thinking Federer is the GOAT? No. Are my friends wrong for thinking Nadal or Djokovic are the GOAT? No.
The GOAT is whoever you want it to be.