The greatest of all time (GOAT) debate is fascinating. It’s the ultimate pub time conversation. You sit down with your mate, order a beer, look up at the TV and ask: “Is Lebron/Federer/Ablett the GOAT?” and it’s almost guaranteed you’ll lose the next half an hour exploring the debate far and wide.
So how do we evaluate men’s tennis and will this year’s edition of Roland Garros be determinative for who we consider the GOAT?
In short, this tournament might change everything as Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic vie for another grand slam.
In the interests of full disclosure, this writer is not old enough to have seen the greats of generations past. So I will limit this discussion to what I know and what I’ve seen.
Moreover, comparing generations is fraught with danger. Recency bias can heavily factor into decision making and those with fond associations of yesteryear can underrate what is unfolding before them.
In saying that, it would be remiss of me to bring up such a topic and not at least mention Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg.
Laver, universally considered the greatest of all time until Federer came along, won 200 singles titles including 11 grand slams and 9 pro slams.
The only reason his grand slam count is not higher is due to the fact Laver turned professional at the end of 1962 – the year he won the first of his two calendar grand slams – and, due to his professional status, was banned from playing grand slam tennis until the open era began in 1968.
Upon the commencement of the open era, Laver returned with a runner up performance at the 1968 French Open losing to Ken Rosewall, before winning the 1968 Wimbledon and taking home a calendar grand slam in 1969. His amazing feats otherwise need not be repeated.
Like Laver, Bjorn Borg also won 11 grand slams with six French Open’s and five consecutive Wimbledon trophies from 1976 – 1980. Surprisingly, Borg made the final of the US Open on four occasions without success and only once made the trip to Australia.
In describing the greats of clay court tennis, Australian great Paul McNamee (who is allegedly the only player in professional tennis history to switch grips, changing from a one-handed backhand to a two-handed backhand in 1979) said that Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay courter of all time, Borg second, and daylight third.
Nonetheless, despite his dominance, Borg retired aged 26 leaving us to wonder what could have been.
Now, let us turn our attention to the big 3. Depending on who you ask, most would agree that one of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic is the GOAT in men’s tennis.
For those reading that believe you cannot compare era’s and one of Laver, Borg, Sampras or the like should be considered the GOAT; I tend to agree that eras cannot be compared, but hey, let’s thrash this out anyway.
At present, Federer, and Nadal each have 20 grand slams and the most dominant player of the last decade, Djokovic, has 18.
However, if the world stopped right now most would say that Federer is the greatest of all-time while Nadal is, obviously, the greatest clay courter of all time.
The distinction helps many sleep at night while Nadal chips away at Federer’s success.
Equally, if Federer and Nadal are so great, what does that say about Djokovic’s success?
As far as numbers go, Federer has won more titles (103), a record six end of season finals and holds the record for the most grand slam finals (31), semi-finals (46) and quarter-finals (57).
Djokovic holds the most weeks at number 1 (321 and counting). Nadal and Djokovic have each won 36 Masters 1000 events to Federer’s 28. Djokovic also has a winning head to head over both Nadal and Federer (29-28 and 27-23 respectively).
Similarly, Nadal leads his head to head over Federer (24-16) and is the only one with an Olympic gold medal in singles. Nadal has also led Spain to five Davis Cup titles to Roger and Novak’s one.
When it comes to grand slam finals, Nadal has a 5-4 record over Djokovic, and a 6-3 record over Federer, who also has an unfavourable 1-4 record against Djokovic.
What’s more interesting is that, although Federer did most of his best work before 2008, since Novak’s first grand slam at that Australian Open, Federer has won eight grand slams (which would still have him level with legends Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall), while Nadal and Djokovic have both won 17.
In sum, you can currently make a very compelling case for any of the big 3 to be the GOAT.
With all that out of the way, let’s look ahead to how this year’s Roland Garros may define the GOAT debate.
For the first time in history, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are all in the same half of the draw – meaning only one can make the final.
While it takes a brave man to rule out Federer, the Swiss maestro has only played two tournaments since the 2020 Australian Open for a 1-2 record including a first round loss in his hometown of Basel on clay earlier this month. Although stranger things have happened (see: Federer’s 2017 Australian Open victory) it is not a stretch to say Roger has never looked less likely to contend in Paris than he does now.
Let’s consider the following three scenarios.
1) Nadal wins Roland Garros.
If Nadal wins Roland Garros he will have collected his fourteenth (!!) French Open and 21st grand slam title leapfrogging Federer and therefore making him the most successful men’s player in history. What will follow is that every news outlet from here to Mallorca will be asking the question, is Nadal the GOAT?
Personally, Nadal winning another French Open doesn’t really change much with respect to his status against Federer. If you don’t already consider Nadal the greatest of all time, him winning a tournament he’s already won 13 times is hardly the new information required to change your mind. If he were to win Wimbledon again that would be a very different story.
Nonetheless, you can’t argue with 21 grand slams. It’s hard to see how Federer could catch that.
Importantly, what a 21st slam also does do for Nadal is put three slams between him and Djokovic. Although this is by no means an insurmountable lead, you just never know what the future holds. It could just be one too many for the Serbian to chase down.
2) Djokovic wins Roland Garros.
Now we’re talking. Ignoring the likelihood of this actually happening, Novak winning his 19th slam in Nadal’s house of pain would be a major statement and leave him only one behind his rivals.
Questions will then arise as to whether Nadal has the ability to add to his collection again and, barring injury, Djokovic will be the odds on favourite to win this year’s Wimbledon and the US Open – which may be the case anyway.
From Djokovic’s perspective, this could very well be the tournament that swings the debate in his favour.
3) Someone else wins Roland Garros.
If anyone else were to win this year that would favour Djokovic and Federer fans. Of the big 3, Djokovic seems the most likely to be able to add another handful of slams to his resume; so staying within 2 of Nadal and Federer is probably a good result (unless of course, he loses in the final).
Neither Djokovic or Nadal winning is also a win for Federer, who you can’t help but feel would long be retired if he didn’t have the Spaniard and the Serbian breathing down his neck.
In fact, this would likely be the worst result for Nadal who needs to keep Djokovic at arms-length and misses a golden opportunity to surpass Federer.
For what it’s worth, if it’s going to be anyone else this year (which I doubt), I’m backing Tsitsipas – the leader in the 2021 race to Turin.
All in all, the GOAT debate is a fascinating discussion in men’s tennis and what may be the case now could be flipped on its head by years end, and again in the years to come.
We are so fortunate to be able to witness what many believe to be the three greatest players of all time play at the peak of their powers simultaneously. Has any other sport ever had such a luxury?
Regardless, what unfolds on the Parisian clay will go a long way to defining who is men’s tennis’ greatest of all time.
For the record, when it’s all said and done, I think Djokovic will be the one.