Wednesday, March 08, 2023

The Tennis "GOATS"

My friend Josh of Josh's World and I collaborated on this post about the best modern male tennis players. This all stemmed from Novak Djokovic winning his 10th Australian Open and his 22nd Grand Slam and Cory Giger, the Penn State University beat writer for DKPIttsburghSports, to post this tweet:

While I'll give Cory the benefit of the doubt that he means the best men's player, it's the last sentence that bothered both me and Josh. Is Djokovic the GOAT? Maybe. Probably. To unilaterally declare him the GOAT and write that it's silly to deny this is in my opinion, silly. Rod Laver won all four Grand Slams in a single year twice, but since he's before our time, I guess that means he's automatically out of the conversation. I mean, it's absolutely silly to consider anyone from the 60s better than modern-day players. I'm sure that's why people say that Bryan Reynolds is better than Willie Mays. What about Rafael Nadal? He has the same amount of Grand Slams as Djokovic, but what makes Nadal unique is that he's a clay-court specialist. Clay-court specialists aren't supposed to win 8 other Grand Slam events. Nadal is also the younger player in the Open Era to win all four majors and has two gold medals, one from the 2008 Olympics in singles and a second from the 2016 Olympics in doubles. On the topic of doubles, Nadal has 11 career ATP doubles titles while Djokovic has just one more doubles titles than Cory. Oh, Djokovic is 30-29 all time against Nadal. Yeah, that's clearly one-sided and makes him the GOAT, right? Why don't we get really silly here and say that Carlos Alcaraz is the GOAT since he's undefeated against Novak? Sure, it's only one win, but Djokovic has never won against arguably the best young player in the world.  But who is the GOAT? Josh and I decided to settle this debate once and for all. Naturally there are caveats. As I wrote, Rod Laver won all four Grand Slams in the same year, twice. He played in the 1960s. Tennis was a totally different sport then. If you sent Jack Sock (currently ranked #141) back to that era, he probably dominates. Players now are just bigger, stronger, faster than back then. Plus the equipment is incredibly better. That means we have to break this into time periods. We are looking at the top ten greatest players of the modern era. We did not have a specific year, but it felt like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Björn Borg were the last players from the pre-modern era (also it may be fun to do that top ten list sometime). Sean’s Note: I just want to share my objection that McEnroe and Conners aren’t on this list for being considered a different era!
Honorable Mention There are three players who are so close to being in the top ten, but they just did not have the resume. -Goran Ivanišević-He won one Grand Slam, while being runner-up three times. He played evenly with many players in the top ten, minus Pete Sampras. He has also been Djokovic's coach since 2019. -Andy Roddick-Another guy who just played during the wrong time. One Grand Slam, five time runner-up. He just never fared well against Roger Federer (3-21), but at least he had a winning record against Djokovic (5-4). -Michael Chang--The youngest to ever win a Grand Slam. He was 17 years 3 months when he won the French Open. Chang was runner-up three times, and like the other two, he just could not win against the other guys on the list.  #10 - Boris Becker

Josh: Boris Becker is probably the guy most fans hated back in the day. It was always nice to root against him when he faced off against Agassi or Sampras. He probably helped kick off the youth movement that ushered in a few of the other guys on this list. He had a powerful serve, and always seemed to be everywhere on the court.
#9: Jim Courier

Sean: I remember hearing a story about a US Olympic athlete being at the opening ceremonies right by the Dream Team. He was going to share his amazement at being next to legendary basketball players like Jordan and Bird to another Olympian, only to discover that that Olympian was Jim Courier. This story might be completely made up and I don’t know who it was, but it’s still fun. #8: Andy Murray

Sean: Andy Murray is fascinating. If he played 10 years earlier, he might have 8+ Grand Slams. Instead, he seemingly could never beat Djokovic, Federer, or Nadal in a big match. He also hasn’t been able to stay healthier than his compatriots. He’s exactly one week older than Djokovic and one year younger than Nadal, but he seems much older and doesn’t come close to threatening to win a Grand Slam. #7: Stefan Edberg

Josh: The only think I remember about Stefan Edberg is that he did not have the hardest serve, and that he played an older style with more spin. But he was athletic and managed to be all over the court after he served.
#6: Ivan Lendl 
Josh: Much to Sean’s chagrin, I made a decision to include Lendl and a few others, but cut off McEnroe, Conners, and Borg. My weird cutoff was players born after 1960. Lendl played against those guys, and he had a great record against them, and then was still good against the guys after him. Probably why he is called the “Father of Modern Tennis.” 
#5: Andre Agassi
Josh: Andre Agassi was my favorite back in the day. My uncle is the one who got me into tennis, and he was an Agassi fan. Oddly enough, my parents also loved Andre Agassi. I felt like back then that it was a fairly even match between him and Pete Sampras, but looking at the stats, it is clear that I was fooling myself back then. #4: Pete Sampras

Sean: Sampras was my favorite. While Agassi was flashy and exciting, I gravitated to Sampras who just went out there and won. Josh: I think you can figure out who the top three are, and honestly, I think you can make an argument for any of them to be number one. 

#3 Rafael Nadal

Josh: I have always loved watching Nadal play. I think it is the fact that he wears gym shorts and cut-off shirts, while Roger would be rocking a sweater polo. I also love how dominant he is on clay. He has won the French Open four times without losing a set. He is 112-3 there, so impressive. Sean: Nadal is my favorite of the top 3. I would put him at #1 just because I like him more than Federer and a lot more than Djokovic. #2: Roger Federer
Josh: There was a period of time where I barely watched any tennis, I would say it was when Agassi and Sampras were waning in their careers. The only event I watched each year was Wimbledon, and I remember seeing the rise of Federer, and after he won five in a row, I just assumed he was the best in the world. A few years later I started watching more and realized the men’s circuit was at another level.  #1: Novak Djokovic

Sean: I think Djokovic is a jerk. He got disqualified from the US Open for hitting a linesperson with a ball. I know it was an accident, but that’s not going to happen to anyone else on this list. He got deported from Australia for breaching the country’s border rules. He called out Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles after their open mental health challenges during the Tokyo Olympics, and then had his own meltdown throwing and breaking a racket in the bronze medal match (which he lost). Yes, he’s the best ever, but I don’t have to like him. Josh: Djokovic has a winning record against Nadal and Federer. He can win on any surface. In 2021, he even beat Nadal at the French Open, something that seemed almost impossible. Sean is correct, Novak is a jerk, but this is not a list of top ten nicest guys in tennis, Sean's final note: Josh really did the heavy lifting on this post. He did significant research looking at head-to-head match-ups, career titles, and made the rankings. (There's data to show his work if you really want to see it.) Josh also got all of the pictures (free photos via wikicommons) and put together all of the graphics. I really just shared the introduction and added occasional thoughts.

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