Given the uncertainty of professional tennis during the pandemic and the advancing age of the Big 3, we may have seen the last great battles between Roger Federer and his two greatest rivals.
While Federer continued to play at the highest level last year at age 38, only one player has ever reached a Grand Slam final at age 39, and it was on grass. Sadly, Wimbledon was cancelled this year, so Federer would have to do the impossible, and he hasn’t reached the last round of the US Open since 2015, and the finals at Roland Garros since 2011.
Here’s a slightly different list of all-time players, using the following unusual metrics.
#1. If you needed to pay off your college debt by betting on a long shot, using you and your roommate’s rent money: Marat Safin.
In 2000 US Open finals, I watched Safin ignore every percentage play in tennis and destroy Pete Sampras  in straight sets. I remember saying “Safin just invented a new sport… it’s like the laws of physics no longer apply.” Then he beat Federer at his peak  an the 2005 Australian Open semis (9–7 in the 5th set) en route to his last Slam title. While some people think Ashe over Connors, Chang over Lendl, or Wawrinka over Djokovic are the greatest upsets of all time, the guy I would bet on to perform the impossible is Marat Safit. Because he did it twice.
#2. If you only received food and water by winning every day, regardless of the surface: Roger Federer.
The Swiss Army Knife of tennis produced a level of excellence that has never been seen and may never be duplicated: 36 straight Grand Slam quarter finals, 23 straight Grand Slam semi finals, 21 finals over 24 Slams,with 15 wins. Talk about bringing home the bacon!
#3. If your life depended on winning a match on grass: Pete Sampras.
He had perhaps the best serve and second serve combination of all time. What people don’t realize is that he also had the best topspin forehand low volley and half volley ever. I’ve never seen anyone turn a great return at his feet into a winner as many times as Sampras did. Up until Sampras, I didn’t think it was possible.
#4. If your soul depended on winning a match after your champion lived in hell for a year: Andre Agassi.
No other player has been #1, dropped off the face of the earth due to injury, personal loss and drugs, and then come back by playing on the Challenger circuit to eventually regain the #1 ranking. His personal journey and redemption stands out from any of the other great champions.
#5. If you could prevent a nuclear war by winning a match that was best of fifteen sets: Rafael Nadal.
Nobody has ever maintained a super natural level of play after subjecting his body to inhuman stress like Nadal. In the 2007 Wimbledon tournament, rain delays forced Nadal to play five sets in the round of 16 on Thursday, three sets on the quarters on Friday, and two and a half sets in the semis on Saturday before playing Federer at his peak, extending him to five sets.
#6. If you had to defend the planet against tennis racket-wielding aliens in a single match: Jimmy Connors.
Aside from Nadal, nobody has ever fought as well as Connors. But while Nadal’s psyche is based on his willingness to suffer through long matches, Connors seemed to live for and love the battle. Connors had perhaps the best return of all time because the court speeds on grass were super fast, and they were playing with white balls which are much harder to see. Finally, Connors could play on any surface, beating Borg on clay at the US Open, McEnroe on grass at Wimbledon and Lendl on hard courts at the US Open.
- Sampras broke the record with his 13th Slam earlier that year at Wimbledon and regained the #1 ranking in the world the day after this US Open finals.
- Safin spoiled Federer’s chance to win three out of four Slams for FOUR STRAIGHT YEARS.
- To be precise, Ashe-Connors (Wimbledon 1975), Chang-Lendl (Roland Garros 1989), Wawrinka-Djokovic (Roland Garros 2015)
For those of you who are interest in the question of the GOAT…
The Amateur Argument
First, there will always be the valid argument that if Laver had the opportunity to play the 21 Grand Slams he missed during his prime years (1963–1967), he might have won as many or more titles than Federer. Starting at the age of 22, Laver reached the finals in 10 out of 12 straight slams, winning six. Sounds eerily close to Federer, doesn’t it? Back then, three Slams were played on grass and the fourth on clay, so a dominant player could almost run the table just as Federer did from 2004 to 2009 (18 finals out of 24 Slams, winning 14). In addition, we can’t know how players from older eras would have played if they used modern rackets and training methods. We do know that modern players wouldn’t be close to playing their normal level if they had to play with wood rackets: All that racket: Players have appreciation of wooden past
The Competition Argument
Secondly, if we consider the great players during the golden age (Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Becker, Edberg, Sampras, Agassi), their Slam records are limited by the overlapping of so many amazing players, and by the wide variation in surfaces. If Pete Sampras played during Laver’s day, perhaps he could have matched his Wimbledon record on the grass at Kooyong and Forest Hills.
Third, there are a wide number of factors that people could use to determine a GOAT. The http://538.com website has done some amazing work using advanced analytics to determine how much a particular individual or team dominated their era and then correcting for differences in the strength of competition, rule changes, and other factors that change over time. They use the ELO system and focus only on Grand Slam matches, but I think there are flaws in the way they weight the factors: Djokovic And Federer Are Vying To Be The Greatest Of All Time. Another computer system found a very different result, ranking Connors #1, based on a player’s complete career, where the level of competition, domination of opponents and duration of career carried more weight: https://www.sciencedaily.com/rel...
For these reasons, I don’t think we can ever determine the one true GOAT.
What we can do is consider the greatest player of the modern (post-2000) era.
I don’t give match scores a lot of weight because of how much the results are skewed by surface. On clay, where every point is a battle and the steadier player eventually wears down his opponent, two closely matched players can play a three hour match where every game goes to deuce, but the match score ends up 6–4, 6–2, 6–1. On the other hand, matches on grass are generally decided by one break a set because it is so much easier to hold serve. (That’s why I dislike the computer systems mentioned above.)
Let’s look at the following factors: total Slam wins; level of competition; dominance by surface; dominance in head-to-head; consistency/longevity.
Slams: This one is obvious: #1 Federer, #2 Nadal, #3 Djokovic. The fact that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic join only five other players to win career Grand Slams (Perry, Budge, Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi) is not only a testament to these once in a generation players, but also to the uniformity and slowing down of the game.
Level of Competition: In 2004, as a 17-year-old, Nadal beat Federer in their first match, and at age 20, Nadal had already won two French Opens and been to the finals of Wimbledon. People tend to forget that there is less than one year separating Djokovic and Nadal. Djokovic is a Hall of Fame player, and showed his stuff early on. For four years, from ages 20 to 23 (2007–2010), Djokovic was #3 in the world, winning his first Slam at age 21. So the argument that Federer was winning all his Slams against weaker competition (such as Safin and Hewitt who were former #1 players before being displaced by Federer) is complete nonsense. He won nine Slams with Nadal ranked #2 and nipping at his heels the entire time. In addition, Andy Murray was a consistent tormenter of Federer at the tender age of 19, and rose to #4 by 2008.
Dominance by Surface: Let’s use Djokovic’s best season and the following two years (2011–2013) as a frame of reference, because he was at his absolute peak, while Nadal was still in his prime. In 2011, Djokovic lost in the semi-finals at Roland Garros to Federer (two months shy of 30), who went on to lose his fourth French Open final against Nadal. From 2006–2009, Nadal was 8–0 on clay against Djokovic, winning 18 out of 21 sets. Djokovic finally won matches on clay against Nadal during his 2011 peak season. Between 2011 and 2013, Nadal was 4–3 against Djokovic on clay, winning French Open titles #6, #7 and #8. I think the only way you can rank them on clay is in this order: Nadal, Federer, Djokovic.
On fast surfaces, Federer in his prime lost only one Slam final to a player other than Nadal (Del Potro). During this time, he was 5–3 in Slams and 14–9 overall against Djokovic. He won five straight Wimbledons and five straight US Opens.
In their prime, Nadal and Djokovic were 3–3 in Slam finals on fast surfaces. But Nadal is much worse for the wear due to his bruising style of play, and had large holes in his record in 2009, 2012, and pretty much the entire time since he won the 2013 U.S. Open, his last year at #1. He has become vulnerable to many players on fast surfaces, lost early in Slams and been absolutely owned by Djokovic, losing 11 out of 12 matches. He was hurt and lost the 2014 Australian Open finals, limped through the clay court season, and somehow won the 2014 French Open on fumes. Amazingly, he bounced back to reach this year’s Australian Open finals, but was fortunate to avoid playing Djokovic, who was on his side of the draw.
On fast surfaces in their primes, Federer reigns supreme, followed by Djokovic and Nadal.
Head to Head Dominance: Federer is 12–10 vs Nadal on fast surfaces, 16–24 overall, and 23–27 overall with Djokovic, 14–11 vs. Murray, and 23–3 vs. Wawrinka, and dominant against everyone else.
Nadal is 26–29 against Djokovic, 17–7 vs Murray, 19–3 vs. Wawrinka, and dominant against everyone else.
Djokovic is 25–11 vs Murray, 19–6 vs Wawrinka, and dominant against everyone else.
A very slight edge goes to Djokovic overall, but if we look at the players in their primes, the picture looks very different: Federer under the age 30 led him 14–9, and Nadal was up 22–15 before he started to break down physically after the 2013 US Open.
Consistency/Longevity: After Federer turned 30 (August 2011), he no longer had the stamina to win best of five matches against Djokovic, going 1–7 in Slams against Djokovic. However, in best of three set matches, over-30 Federer was 7–8 against Djokovic at his absolute peak (ages 24–28). Over-30 Federer dominated Murray (8–3), Wawrinka (10–2), and narrowed the gap with Nadal (8–7). His effortless style is one of the reasons he has been able to maintain his level of play. (Agassi, Connors and Rosewall are the only other players who sustained an elite level of play at the age of 35, but Federer is the oldest player in history to earn the #1 ranking.)
We still have a few years to see how Nadal and Djokovic end their careers, but for now the overall modern GOAT has to be Federer.