Almost two years ago, I got the hankering to write about Tennis. For some reason the blog was never posted. Maybe it still shouldn’t be. But here is a commentary on tennis greats. I still agree with most of it, though the prism of the last two years gives us more clarity on Rafael Nadal and suddenly, a new contender may have emerged—Novak Djokovic!
June 30, 2011
Any time you discuss the best at something, it tends to turn into a trashing of the #2 and #3 person in the argument, so it will be with this. So, when asking the question, “Who is the best male tennis player ever?” must start with the fact that everyone in the discussion is very good. But, there clearly are objective standards that we can look at, and if we’re going to have this discussion, we must.
As biased Americans who grew up in the 80’s, we often like to start with John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Objectively, they are great entertainers who brought people into the game, but they are merely top ten players overall. Andre Agassi is another American who was great. And if he hadn’t done relatively nothing from 1996-98, he might be higher. And the funny thing is, those are the years when most people have their “peak.” And people argue that there are no ill effects of marijuana! The long haired teenager-early twenties guy won three grand slams and reached seven finals. Then, the reborn shaved head old guy won five grand slams and reached eight finals. His overall win percentage is better than Sampras’s and if you exclude those three years, his grand slam winning percentage is better. Nevertheless, his wasted prime knocks him down the list.
Many people like to begin with Roy Emerson or Rod Laver. Now this is difficult for two reasons. First, I am not old enough to have seen them. Second, they won at least some of their grand slams in the amateur era. I won’t pretend to be the best at translating amateur era wins into Open Era wins, but I do think we can look at the numbers for what they are. They have won 12 and 11 grand slams. Both are impressive, but I think they fall just short of the man in the open era to whom they are most comparable–Björn Borg.
Björn Borg is a notch better than these two in my mind. He won 11 grand slams, but he did it on the two most opposite surfaces–clay and grass–almost equally. He did not win the US Open or the Australian Open, but I think this should come with an asterisk. He competed in the Australian Open only once (in 1974 when he was young). In the US Open, excluding 1974, he averaged five wins a tournament. He made it to the finals in four of the remaining years. So, while he never won the US Open, he was a threat to win it often. He competed in only 27 grand slams and won 11 and got second another five times. So, he won tournaments as often as he didn’t make the final. That is simply incredible. And when he retired, he had gone 39-3 in his last six grand slams. He may have been able to continue to win and certainly would have contended. He was the Jim Brown of Tennis. And while I have him above the guy with more grand slams–Pete Sampras–he clearly was not as motivated by history.
Pete Sampras’s numbers are very comparable to Borg’s in his three most successful grand slams, except he competed in all four grand slams. And while Borg only played on two surfaces for grand slams, Sampras played on three (if we consider all “hard” courts the same). Sampras was phenomenal on grass and was very good on hard courts. But his record at the French Open was between 64% and 65%. To give you a frame of reference, that is the same winning percentage at the French as Anna Kournikova (and worse than her overall grand slam winning percentage), who is not known as a great all time tennis talent. It isn’t so much that Sampras never won at Roland Garros, but that he never made a final. He was never just one match away from winning there. When you consider that almost 40% of the year is played on clay courts, I have a hard time considering him the best ever. In fact, in my mind, he is a more exaggerated version of the man who surpassed him in total grand slams–Roger Federer.
Roger Federer’s knock for a long time was that he never won the French. But unlike Sampras, he has always been good there. He has won over 80% of his matches there and he has made the final five times (and all four losses were to arguably the best clay court player ever). So, while he did win one, he’s been a threat often and has been consistently among the best on all surfaces. More overall grand slams than Sampras, a better overall winning percentage, and a better showing, by far, on the weakest surface for both (clay). As of right now, I have Federer as the best ever.
While it is difficult to evaluate people in the midst of their careers, there is one player who COULD pass Federer. That is, of course, Rafa Nadal. Right now, he has not passed him. He has a similar number of grand slam wins and entries as Borg. For years he was considered a clay court specialist, and has only lost once at Roland Garros (and that when he had an injury so pronounced he missed Wimbledon a month later). But, he hasn’t lost at Wimbledon since 2007. He’s 17-2 in his last three years at Flushing Meadows. His “weakest” grand slam is the Australian, where he’s won once and has an overall winning percentage of about 83%. With only 11 grand slams, he isn’t at that level yet, but he could be. Right now, he’s battling Borg and Sampras for 2.