Stylish Roger Federer close up tossing ball for serve

All the ways you can look at the GOAT debate in tennis

by Alan April 23, 2019

The debate about who holds the ‘GOAT’ (Greatest Of All Time) title in the men’s professional tennis game is recurring and contentious. The current golden era of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray (to a lesser extent) has made for epic rivalries and spans of dominance such that each of these three players have passionate proponents for their claim to the ultimate distinction. That said, this shortlist misses some names that perennially come up in the GOAT conversations: Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Ken Rosewall and John McEnroe.

There is a lot commentary on this topic, so we wanted to take slightly different angle to the most frequent takes floating around the internet. There is a variety of viable methods (or combinations of them) one can use to analyse who is the best of all time in the sport, so we will list and expand on them in turn. Maybe we will convince you to back another player for the crown or perhaps we will just harden your current views, but either way, we are aiming to provide you with an informative, thought-provoking read.

*Spoiler alert*
Our two cents after pouring over all this data? Federer has the edge and holds the most consequential records in relation to GOAT status. He has won the most important titles, has the most impressive array of titles across ALL surfaces and holds the record related to number of weeks at #1.

Both Nadal and especially Novak are in the vicinity of some of his records but that assumes that they both stay healthy, motivated and hold off both Federer himself as well as the next-gen stars that are finally becoming a threat each week on the tour. What Federer has achieved early in his career and most strikingly (pun intended) in the last three years is unlikely to be matched nor surpassed. 


Tally of the most important tournaments won

Premise behind the argument

The Grand Slams, Masters Series events (especially the 1000 point events) and ATP Tour Finals attract the strongest contingent of competitors and have the highest stakes attached. The Grand Slams also have the biggest draws, so claiming victory at one of tournaments requires sustaining an incredibly high level for two weeks. Further, best of five sets matches even the playing field to a degree because matches aren’t won via catching fire and steamrolling an opponent in 40 minutes.

GOAT contenders on this basis

ROGER FEDERER

Performance at Grand Slams -

  • Federer has won an all-time record 20 Grand Slam singles titles and has reached a record 30 Grand Slam singles finals (10 consecutive, and another 8 consecutive —the two longest streaks in history), 23 consecutive semi-final appearances, and 36 consecutive quarter-final appearances.
  • He has reached the most finals (30), semifinals (43), and quarterfinals (53), and has participated at the most tournaments (75).
  • He has won the most matches at these tournaments (342). He is the only man to reach each final at least five times, to win three tournaments five times each, and to win two of these tournaments five consecutive times.
  • He is one of eight men to have won a career Grand Slam (winning all four majors at least once) and one of four players to have won a career Grand Slam on three different surfaces, hard, grass, and clay courts.

Performance at ATP Tour Finals -

  • In the ATP Tour Finals, Federer has won six titles in 10 finals, both Open Era records. He has qualified for the tournament a record 16 times, including a record 14 consecutive years from 2002 through 2015.

RAFA NADAL

Performance at Grand Slams -

  • Rafael Nadal has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles which ranks him second on the all-time list only to Roger Federer.
  • In 2017, by winning his tenth French Open title, Nadal became the only male to win ten major titles at a Grand Slam event.
  • Nadal has appeared in 25 Grand Slam finals which is second only to Federer’s record of 30 finals.
  • He has appeared in at least four finals at each major and has won multiple majors on hard, grass, and clay courts, the latter of which distinguishes him from his contemporaries as Federer and Djokovic have both managed only one French Open win each.

Performance at Masters Series Events -

  • Nadal has won a record 33 Masters Series 1000 titles.
  • He won at least one Masters 1000 title for ten consecutive years from 2005 to 2014 and is the only player to achieve this type of consistency in the Open Era.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC

Performance at Grand Slams -

  • Novak has won 15 Grand Slams and like Federer and Nadal, he has won all four events at least once
  • He has reached 24 Grand Slam finals and played the final of each Grand Slam tournament at least four times
  • In a 10 year span he made 35 quarterfinals, 30 semifinals and 20 finals at the Grand Slams he played.
  • He is the only player in the Open Era to hold all four Grand Slams on three different surfaces at once.

Performance at ATP Masters Series Events -

  • Djokovic is the only player to have won all ATP Masters Series 1000 events at least once.

Performance at ATP Tour Finals -

  • He has won 5 ATP Tour Finals titles, four of which were won consecutively from 2012 to 2015, which is a record.

Best in their generation

Premise behind the argument

Even though tennis has the reputation of being a sport that is very adverse to change, there have certainly been consequential developments of consider in the the last 50 years. For instance, there is the well-worn argument that the Australian Open didn’t have the same status as the other Slams in 1969, so players in this generation were competing for three Grand Slam titles a year instead of four.


Moreover, there is the argument that the quality of a generation should be given a certain weight when calculating ‘all time’ status. Being ranked at the top of the game when your peers aren’t exceptional and the game lacks depth is unlucky, but is a material consideration in the GOAT debate.

GOAT contenders on this basis

PETE SAMPRAS

  • He was number one in the world rankings for six consecutive years and his 14 Grand Slam titles was a record at the time.

IVAN LENDL

  • He was the world’s top-ranked player for four years, and held the number one ranking in the world for 270 weeks, a record in that day.

ROD LAVER

  • He was ranked number one in the world for seven straight years (1964 – 1970) and has more career titles (200) than anyone in the history of the game.

BJORN BORG

  • Borg had won 6 consecutive French Open titles and 5 consecutive Wimbledon titles before retiring at the age of only 27.
  • During his career, Borg also won 10 consecutive titles (a record) from a 1979 Tokyo Indoor event to Wimbledon in 1980.

ROGER FEDERER

  • From 2004–2007, he won 42 titles, including 11 of the 16 majors played, amassed a 315-24 match record, and spent a men’s-record 237 straight weeks at No. 1.
  • Federer holds nine winning streaks of eighteen matches or more and an Open Era record of seven winning streaks of twenty matches or more with his two longest among the top 10 of the era.
  • Federer's 2006 season is considered by most tennis experts to be one of the greatest years since the beginning of the Open Era. He won three Grand Slam singles titles, reached the final of the fourth, and won the season-ending Master's Cup. He won four Masters Series events, winning 12 events of the 17 he entered, making the finals of all but one of the events. His overall record was 92–5.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC

  • Djokovic 2011 season was a dominant one. He won 10 titles on 3 different surfaces and defeated Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer a total of ten times collectively, going 10–1 against them. Djokovic went on a 43-match win streak and set a then record of 5 Masters titles won in a season.
  • In 2015 Djokovic won three majors in one season for the second time, improved his record of most Masters won in a season by winning six titles, and finished the year winning his fourth consecutive World Tour Finals title.
  • Djokovic also made the finals of all big tournaments he played in 2015 defeating 31 Top-10 players along the way (Open Era record) and setting an all-time ATP rankings record.
  • Djokovic has the records of 15 straight finals in a single season, streak of 11 Masters finals and 18 straight top-tier tournament finals.
  • Djokovic is the first and only player since the 1973 ATP rankings were introduced to have accrued 16,950 points, more than the world number 2 and 3 combined.

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H2H dominance vs. top ten players

Premise behind the argument

Tennis is a game of match ups and career H2H results is a concrete way of looking at who has an edge between two players. However, there is nuance required when applying this lens because different variables inevitably come into play: results on a given surface, results at major tournaments vs. smaller events and results at different junctures of a player’s career.

GOAT contenders on this basis

ROGER FEDERER

  • Federer has the most wins over top-10 ranked players in the Open Era and is the first and only player in the Open Era to reach 200 top-10 wins.
  • He has a 218–116 record (.653) against players who were, at the time the match was played, ranked in the top 10.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC  

  • Novak won 69% of the matches he has played against top 10 players in his career.

RAFA NADAL

  • Nadal has won 65% of the matches he has played against top 10 players in his career.

Career winning percentage

Premise behind the argument

The GOAT is the most dominant player to ever walk on the tennis court, so an obvious distillation of that distinction is winning percentage. It shouldn’t matter which surface or which phase of his career the opponent is in - the greatest of all time simply comes out with the W.


GOAT contenders on this basis

OVERALL

GRAND SLAMS

MASTERS SERIES

ROGER FEDERER

82%

86%

78%

RAFA NADAL

83%

87%

83%

NOVAK DJOKOVIC

83%

87%

82%



Number of consecutive weeks ranked at number one

Premise behind the argument

Enduring success at the top of the game is a core attribute of the GOAT. So, it follows that gaining and keeping the number one ranking for an extended period of time is perhaps the most obvious marker of true greatness. Extra credit here for achieving this ranking across multiple cohorts of players, which shows added depth of excellence.


GOAT contenders on this basis

ROGER FEDERER

  • Roger Federer holds the records for both the most total weeks at No. 1 (310) and most consecutive weeks at No. 1 (237)

PETE SAMPRAS

  • Pete holds the record for the most year-end No. 1 rankings (six, all consecutive)

Best player across ALL surfaces

Premise behind the argument

It’s simply illogical to argue that a surface specialist deserves the GOAT title without qualification. Although the distribution of tournaments played on hard court, grass, clay and indoors has varied over the years (remember carpet?!), being the best in the game requires a versatile style and the highest level of competence irrespective of the conditions.


GOAT contenders on this basis

ROD LAVER

  • He is the only player to have twice won the Grand Slam, doing it once as an amateur in 1962 and again as a pro in 1969.
  • If Laver was not excluded from the Grand Slam tournaments during a five-year period in the mid-1960s, who knows how many he would have won.

ROGER FEDERER

  • In 2006-2007 he had a 41-match win streak which is the 7th longest ‘all surface’ streak of all time. He also has a 35 match winning streak in 2005.
  • Hard court winning streak: 56-match hard court win streak 2005–2006 (longest in the Open Era).  
  • Grass court winning streak: 65-match grass court win streak 2003–2008 (longest in the Open Era).
  • Federer is the only player to register at least ten titles on three different surfaces; he has 70 hard-court titles, 18 grass-court titles, and 11 clay-court titles.

RAFA NADAL

  • Nadal is only the third male player in the Open Era to have won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year, and the first since Borg in 1980
  • He has appeared in at least four finals at each major and has won multiple majors on hard, grass, and clay courts, the latter of which distinguishes him from his contemporaries as Federer and Djokovic have both managed only one French Open win each.
  • He also owns the longest single-surface winning streak in the Open Era, having won 81 consecutive matches on clay from April 2005 to May 2007

NOVAK DJOKOVIC

  • Novak is the only player in history to hold all four Grand Slams on three different surfaces at once
  • By 2018, Djokovic won Masters titles at all 9 venues where Masters tournaments are held, becoming the first and only player to achieve the "Career Golden Masters".
  • He is also the only player to defeat Nadal in all three clay court Masters events, which he achieved in finals of Madrid (2011), Rome (2011) and Monte Carlo (2013).

HARD

CLAY

GRASS

INDOOR

OUTDOOR

ROGER FEDERER

84% (70)

75% (11)

87% (18)

81% (25)

83% (76)

RAFA NADAL

77% (19) 

92% (57)

78% (4)

68% (2)

85% (78)

NOVAK DJOKOVIC

84% (55) 

79% (13)

83% (5)

79% (12)

84% (61)

*Figures in brackets indicate number of titles

Further digging into the stats

We have done a fair amount of leg work pulling stats and making different arguments to consider on the question of the GOAT. However, this pales in comparison to the number crunching and sophistication of the data analysis happening on the Ultimate Tennis Statistics site.


Our favourite aspects of the site are the ‘Dominance Timeline’ which shows who was reigned supreme in a given year and - more interestingly - their degree of dominance. We also appreciate the self-explanatory ‘Greatest Rivalries’ table and of course the GOAT List which has a complex, multivariate methodology and currently puts Roger at the top of the list, followed by Novak and Nadal




Alan Kelly
Alan Kelly

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