Sport is about two teams or individuals competing against each other two see which one is better. At a tournament, the purpose is to find out which team or individual is greatest. In an individual sport like tennis, the question "who is the greatest ever?" is the ultimate question. To not even ask the question would be to miss the whole point of the sport.
Some people say that it cannot be determined who the GOAT is. In response, I would ask who is better between Novak Djokovic and Raul Ramirez? Everyone says that Djokovic is better. At this point, they have conceded that it is possible to compare two players from different generations. That doesn't mean that all will agree on who the GOAT is or will agree on an objective manner to make the determination, but it is clear that a GOAT does exist. Therefore, it is meaningful to try to determine and debate who that GOAT is.
There is one other point that I want to make in this preamble. All tennis generations must be treated as equal. The sport has changed so much over the last 50 years in the Open Era. The way to win in tennis has changed significantly. However, the definition of success has never changed. Winning is success and success is winning. That has never changed. If we define a tennis generation as 10 years, then in every generation, there have been 40 grand slams won, 90 masters or WCT titles won, 10 year-end championships won, 522 weeks at No. 1, and 10 year-end No. 1's. These measuring sticks of success remain the same throughout all generations of tennis players, so they are the key ingredients for a GOAT resume.
Thus concludes my introduction. Here is the resume for each of the GOAT candidates:
Resume: The case for Laver is an interesting one because of when his career was played. He was an amateur for seven years, then he was banned from 21 majors for having turned pro before the Open Era began in 1968. Players from before 1968 are usually not taken into consideration in the GOAT debate, so how we understand Rod Laver's accomplishments before 1968 is still an open question. How impressive was it for him to win the Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur? After turning pro, he became the only player in the Open Era to win the Calendar Grand Slam in 1969. He finished his career in the Open Era with five grand slams. He is like the Babe Ruth of tennis in his legendary status. Like Babe Ruth's 60 home runs in a season, Rod Laver's record of four-consecutive grand slam titles won was a record that stood for several decades. It has become the ultimate achievement that every other GOAT candidate has attempted to repeat.
Drawbacks: If you only consider what Laver did in the Open Era, he certainly isn't the GOAT. His highest computer ranking was No. 3 and he only won five majors. If not for what he did before the Open Era, he wouldn't even get consideration. To argue for Laver as the GOAT requires treating his amateur achievements as equally valid as his Open Era achievements.
Resume: Most people don't give Connors much thought, but he certainly deserves consideration. At the time that he retired, he was considered by some to be the GOAT, since he held several records and was arguably the best player of his era (1974-83). During that decade, he was the No. 1 player in the world for over half of the weeks and had the second-most majors won of any player in the Open Era at the time. To this day, he holds the records for matches won and titles won. If greatness is about winning matches, then Connors is the greatest. His longevity in his career should be admired as well.
Drawbacks: Connors' case for being the GOAT is a lot less compelling when you consider that during the peak of his career, there was another player who won three more majors than he did. Also, outside of his peak 10 years, there was a lot of mediocrity. While Connors won a lot of matches, he also lost a lot of matches. He simply played a lot of matches. In the majors, he consistently made it to the final rounds of majors, but at one point he had an eight-match losing streak at major semifinals.
Resume: When looking at achievements per tournament played, nobody is close to Bjorn Borg. The clearest example is average ranking points (based on current rankings formula) earned per grand slam tournament played, Borg is far ahead of everybody else at 1,148. That means that reaching the final of a grand slam was just an average performance for Borg during his career. Nobody else is within 200 points of Borg in that category. He won 11 grand slams, which was the record at the time, and was the No. 1 player in the world for 108 out of the 121 weeks that made up the prime of his career.
Drawbacks: There are a lot of "what if..." questions that could be asked about Borg. He was still young when he retired at 25 years old. Had he kept playing, he surely would won more titles, but likely dropped off in the degree to which he dominated the sport. To make a real case for Borg to be considered the GOAT, you have to assume he could have continued dominating. However, possible dominance isn't the same as real dominance, so his case for the designation as the GOAT takes a serious hit.
Resume: McEnroe is a popular choice among casual tennis fans or sports pundits who only pay attention occasionally. While Borg was dominating tennis, McEnroe managed to win half of his matches against Borg, taking 7 of 14 contests. He also won all of his last three matches against Borg, which is considered by some to be the reason that Borg retired so easily. To end the career of another GOAT candidate certainly merits some consideration. McEnroe finished with seven grand slam titles and 170 weeks at No. 1. In 1984, he won both Wimbledon and the US Open in what was one of the greatest single seasons in tennis history. Usually when talking about the GOAT, fans are referring to singles success, but if you take McEnroe's doubles success into consideration, his case becomes more interesting. He won nine grand slams in doubles and reached the top ranking in the world. Most other GOAT candidates didn't even play doubles regularly.
Drawbacks: Inconsistency and a short period of dominance both hurt McEnroe. His peak lasted only six years and it had a big dip in the middle of it. If you compared the best six years of all the GOAT candidates, McEnroe still wouldn't lead in many statistical categories. He is remembered because of his on-court antics and he has remained in the public eye since retiring, but there are better players to remember from tennis' past.
Resume: At the time he retired, most tennis pundits considered Sampras to be the GOAT. He had the most grand slams won, the most weeks at No. 1 in the world and the most wins against top-10 opponents. Sampras had no rivals, because he dominated all of his opponents. His most serious rival was Andre Agassi, who he beat 20 times in 34 matches. Unlike any other GOAT candidate, he was clearly the best player of his generation, dominating the sport from 1993 to 2000. During those eight years, he was the year-end No. 1 for nearly 70 percent of the weeks and he was the year-end No. 1 six years in a row.
Drawbacks: Clay creates the biggest hole in Sampras' resume. He always struggled at Roland Garros and never won the title. Where Sampras' resume is strong, Roger Federer's resume is even stronger. Anyone who tries to argue that Sampras is the GOAT will be met by an even better argument for Federer being the GOAT on the exact same grounds. There are few things that Sampras has accomplished that haven't also been done by Federer. Those in the Sampras camp will have to focus on how Sampras dominated all of his rivals and finished as the year-end No. 1 six years in a row. That kind of dominance is unmatched.
Resume: I have been among those who have considered Federer the GOAT for a long time, and my mind hasn't been changed yet. The case for Federer is simple. He has won the most grand slams, he has the most weeks at No. 1, he has the most wins against top-10 opponents and he has become the second player ever to win 100 career titles. Federer is one of only five players in the Open Era to achieve the Career Grand Slam and he has earned more ranking points at grand slam events than any other player in tennis history.
Drawbacks: The charge that Federer played in a weak era is addressed in my introduction to this post. Still, there is something to be said for the fact that he played high-ranked players with a shockingly low frequency for the first half of his career. In the second half of his career, he has been outdone by both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Both of the other GOAT candidates from Federer's era have positive head-to-head records against him. There is an argument to be made that Federer didn't have any serious competition for the first half of his career and he was only the third-best player during the second half of his career.
Resume: It is an understatement to say that no tennis player has ever dominated a single tournament the way Nadal has dominated Roland Garros. Nadal has won 11 of his 17 majors at Roland Garros and only lost two matches in his career on the Parisian clay. Most people consider Federer to be the GOAT, but Nadal leads the head-to-head series against Federer, 23-15. He has won 17 majors, which is the second-most in tennis history, and he has also won an Olympic gold medal. Nadal doesn't hold many records, but he is second or third in nearly every statistical category, while he does lead in most career Masters Series titles won.
Drawbacks: Nadal has a losing record against Djokovic, who has beaten Nadal at all four majors. Also, he only has won six majors outside of Roland Garros. No other GOAT candidate has such a lop-sided distribution of grand slam titles. Nadal has been the world No. 1 for 196 weeks, which ranks sixth. Because his dominance has been limited to clay, he hasn't spent as much time atop the rankings as other GOAT candidates and he his longest stint as No. 1 only lasted 56 weeks.
Resume: Of the three active GOAT candidates, Djokovic is the one who still could add a lot to his resume. He is the current world No. 1 and has won each other last three majors, which seems to indicate that he could still win a few more, even at 32 years old. Like his idol Pete Sampras, Djokovic has a positive head-to-head record against all of his rivals. During his peak years (2011 to present) he has clearly been the best player in the world, holding the No. 1 ranking for 253 weeks and counting, which is well over half of the time. He has finished five seasons as the No. 1 player in the world and is on pace to tie Sampras' record of six at the end of this season. Djokovic has won 15 majors (3rd most) and 201 matches against top-10 opponents (2nd most). He is also only the second player to win four-consecutive majors, joining Rod Laver. Unlike Rafael Nadal, Djokovic's dominance is not limited to one surface. He has won all nine Masters Series titles, all grand slam events and the year-end championships. And unlike Roger Federer, Djokovic has had to face higher-ranked players with great frequency. In every metric that considers opponents' ranking, the Serb comes out on top. Simply put, Djokovic has won against the very best on all surfaces and conditions. Nobody else can say that.
Drawbacks: While Djokovic has winning records against both Nadal and Federer, his two contemporaries have both won more major titles. The fact that three players in Djokovic's era managed to win more than 14 majors could suggest that winning many majors is perhaps not as difficult as it used to be. Federer has 57 more weeks at No. 1, six more grand slam titles and 17 more wins against top-10 players, so Djokovic still has his work cut out for him.