I don’t recall when ‘Greatest of All Time’ first infiltrated men’s tennis. As a long-standing tennis fan, though, I’ve frequently cursed the day it did. Today, through tedious overuse, Greatest of All Time (with its egregious acronym in tow) is as hateful as it is inescapable; the microplastic debris polluting the ocean of tennis conversation.
This GOAT debate resurfaced recently, following Roger Federer’s decision to call time on his glittering 24-year career. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, duelling suitors to the title of men’s GOAT, have both lately surpassed Federer’s Grand Slam record. Federer’s retirement is confirmation that he’ll no longer
add to his number. Some are now asking whether Federer, once the consensus GOAT, should be a power at this table anymore.
Even set against the absurd claims that are commonplace in tennis debates, this is extraordinary. On it, I’ll say two things.
One is that greatness doesn’t respond solely to the language of accolades. By whatever name called, the GOAT discussion has always shadowed men’s tennis. For much of its history, the Grand Slam titles won — the flagship GOAT yardstick inflicted on us in the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic era — has been but a tiny part of it.
Jack Kramer, for example, thought Ellsworth Vines was the GOAT. Rod Laver grew up in the Kramer GOAT era but he, for all his magnanimity towards modern players, once viewed Lew Hoad as the GOAT. Those within Laver’s gravitational field reckoned he was the GOAT, until those within a ten-year radius of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe insisted one of those two was the GOAT. Pete Sampras claimed GOAT by induction, as the best men’s player of the best generation yet. Then, Federer took that mantle. Today, you can assess Nadal and Djokovic similarly. In doing so, however, you’d be no more convincing than anyone who has taken a stab at this question in the past hundred years. Besides, if you don’t know everything worth knowing about Vines, Kramer, Laver, Hoad, Connors, McEnroe and Sampras, you’re likely worse informed than those who came before you.
GOAT, then, is not so much a discoverable truth as it is a timestamp.
The other thing to say, on Federer specifically, is that his claim to greatness isn’t much about accolades. Federer followed a generation of Americans that had utterly dominated men’s tennis before him. His early rivals bore similar styles, but with the advantage of all-surface proficiency. The prevailing zeitgeist prioritised several ‘controllables’: drilling, conditioning, shot selection, and footwork, together with an almost self-defeating emphasis on tactical play. Inventiveness was good, but only if it delivered under pressure. Showing personality was tolerated, but quirks were coached out of players who exhibited it. This generation played to win, but, far too often, played only to win. If they had thrived, their approach might well have killed mainstream interest in men’s tennis.
We tend to forget this crossroads now because Federer blitzed through them but, in doing so, he effectively reset men’s tennis on his own. He didn’t do that just by winning. Federer was special because he, as much through courage and intelligence as through talent, normalised skills considered too risky to succeed when he arrived.
He did this with centre-to-out hitting. He demonstrated a sustainable way of turning half-volleys into offensive and defensive options. He figured out how to consistently return low balls without drastically upping the risk of injury. He used a one-handed backhand his entire career. He revolutionised the right-handed wide serve. He brought back drive volleying. He once won an entire tournament by resurrecting the chip-and-charge. You could keep going for hours and come no nearer to safely closing this list.
Federer dragged men’s tennis up to his level in a way that hadn’t been seen since the athleticism revolution brought Connors, Borg, and McEnroe. You had to develop challenging new parts to your game because Federer had them. Even if you beat everyone else without them, Federer would beat you with them. It’s a contribution that will far outlast his tenure in the sport. With Federer, perhaps more than any male player ever, you’ll watch tennis ten or fifteen years from now and think: Federer used to do that.
This is the core of Federer’s GOAT case. Notice how it has nothing to do with how many Grand Slams he (or anyone else) has won. It has everything to do with how he changed tennis and what he contributed to it. He would’ve had this impact having won ten Grand Slams or fifteen or eighteen. He’ll have had this impact if his record is overtaken by one player or two or three.
It’s quite simple, really: If you believe Federer is not the men’s tennis GOAT, no final outcome of the Nadal-Djokovic Grand Slam race will change your opinion. If you believe he is, the outcome of this race should be gloriously irrelevant already.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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