A Preface to All GOAT Arguments

Earlier this week, The Economist published my piece about Rafael Nadal’s and Roger Federer’s grand slam counts. I made the case that, because Nadal’s paths to major titles had been more difficult (the 2017 US Open notwithstanding), his 16 slams are worth more–barely!–than Federer’s.

Inevitably, some readers reduced my conclusion to something like, “stats prove that Nadal is the greatest ever.” Whoa there, kiddos. It may be true that Nadal is better than Federer, and we could probably make a solid argument based on the stats. But a rating of 18.8 to 18.7, based on 35 tournaments, can’t quite carry that burden.

There are two major steps in settling any “greatest ever” debate (tennis or otherwise). The first is definitional. What do we mean by “greatest?” How much more important are slams than non-slams? What about longevity? Rankings? Accomplishments across different surfaces? How much weight do we give a player’s peak? How much does the level of competition matter? What about head-to-head records? I could go on and on. Only when we decide what “greatest” means can we even attempt to make an argument for one player over another.

The second step–answering the questions posed by the first–is more work-intensive, but much less open to debate. If we decide that the greatest male tennis player of all time is the one who achieved the highest Elo rating at his peak, we can do the math. (It’s Novak Djokovic.) If you pick out ten questions that are plausible proxies for “who’s the greatest?” you won’t always get the same answer. Longevity-focused variations tend to give you Federer. (Or Jimmy Connors.) Questions based solely on peak-level accomplishments will net Djokovic (or maybe Bjorn Borg). Much of the territory in between is owned by Nadal, unless you consider the amateur era, in which case Rod Laver takes a bite out of Rafa’s share.

Of course, many fans skip straight to the third step–basking in the reflected glory of their hero–and work backwards. With a firm belief that their favorite player is the GOAT, they decide that the most relevant questions are the ones that crown their man. This approach fuels plenty of online debates, but it’s not quite at my desired level of rigor.

When the big three have all retired, someone could probably write an entire book laying out all the ways we might determine “greatest” and working out who, by the various definitions, comes out on top. Most of what we’re doing now is simply contributing sections of chapters to that eventual project. Now or then, one blog post will never be enough to settle a debate of this magnitude.

In the meantime, we can aim to shed more light on the comparisons we’re already making. Grand slam titles aren’t everything, but they are important, and “19 is more than 16” is a key weapon in the arsenal of Federer partisans. Establishing that this particular 19 isn’t really any better than that particular 16 doesn’t end the debate any more than “19 is more than 16” ever did. But I hope that it made us a little more knowledgeable about the sport and the feats of its greatest competitors.

At the one-article, 1,000-word scale, we can achieve a lot of interesting things. But for an issue this wide-ranging, we can’t hope to settle it in one fell swoop. The answers are hard to find, and choosing the right question is even more difficult.