After Rafa Nadal’s incredible win at the Australian Open, he now leads with the most grand slam titles of any (*able-bodied) man in tennis. So Tennis Abstract decided to take on the age-old question: who’s the GOAT now?
For some people, leading the all-time grand slam race is enough to cement a player as the greatest of all time. A different crowd considers this year’s Australian Open tainted because Djokovic was not allowed to play. Still others think that Federer played some beautiful tennis, and they considered the matter concluded at least five years ago.
I belong to a fourth camp, which I can summarize with two positions:
1. The grand slam race isn’t everything.
2. If you do focus on grand slams, you must adjust the major count for the quality of opponents each player faced.
[…] When I checked in 18 months ago, Nadal’s 20 majors were worth a bit more than Djokovic’s 17, which were themselves more impressive than Federer’s 20. The margins have always been slim between these three, and properly adjusting for quality of opponents makes things even tighter.
Now, I’m very biased because I’m a huge Federer fan and I make no secret of it on this site (check how full Roger’s tag page is). Seeing Nadal take that 21st grand slam smarted a little but not as much as if it had happened a few years ago and I was glad it was him over Djokovic (who I don’t mind saying that I don’t like). But, to add my two cents: I don’t care for this GOAT debate and I don’t care if that sounds like I’m bitter because Federer is no longer leading this “race”. It was inevitable that he’d be overtaken when the other two were so dominant, especially Djokovic who was 3 sets away from a Grand Slam of slams and is still 1 away from 21 himself. But Federer still has more pro titles than both of them. Don’t they count? Or Djokovic’s Masters titles? They can all make claims to that moniker but what we should really be saying is: we’ve been in a GOAT era for well over a decade now. 61 slams between three players in 19 years. We may never see something like this again and we’re closer to the time when all three players will be gone than we are to the start of their respective careers. So let’s cherish that instead of deciding who the male GOAT is (as we all know the GOAT is Serena).
As for the able-bodied comment at the start, may I draw your attention to Shingo Kunieda. The Japanese wheelchair player is 37, the current world #1, and holds 26 grand slam singles titles. In total, he has won 101 pro titles in singles and doubles (he has also won 21 grand slam doubles titles). He’s won gold medals at the Paralympics in singles and doubles as well. He has a load of other records to his name but you get the picture. I never hear his name in these conversations. Do his achievements not count because of his disability? Even if you were to side-step that ableism, does this not show how arbitrary this conversation is if you’re going to ignore a player with that level of prestige? And that’s not an attack on Tennis Abstract but a wider indictment of tennis and sport in general. We neglect everyone who takes part in a sport to make it what it is, for the pursuit of a single person we can call the greatest, who is often a man, often able-bodied, and always human.