The first thing I did yesterday morning was switch on the computer and check what had happened at the Australian Open. I had been hoping , without much hope, that Roger Federer would be able to pull off a miracle, but it was not to be. Novak Djokovic won in four sets, edging ahead of Roger in their head to head contests. As dominant as Novak has been these last three years and as fit as he is, he is very likely to surpass Roger’s record of 17 Grand Slam wins. That will no doubt start anew the debate over who is the greatest of all time ( G.O.A.T). BTW, that is an acronym I dislike intensely and I am going to use the word ” Greatest ” in the rest of this post.
Both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are great players, but in my opinion, neither of them is the Greatest. That accolade cannot be given to any player for a number of reasons because, in any such comparison, those from the pre-Open era suffer significant disadvantages.
Players in the pre-Open era had much shorter careers because, except for the wealthy few, they had to earn a living; going professional meant that they could no longer play in the Grand Slam tournaments. A case in point is Richard ” Pancho” Gonzales, whom Jack Kramer dubbed ” the best player never to win Wimbledon”. One of seven children of impoverished Mexican immigrants, he was completely self taught and did not have the benefit of coaching. He won 2 U.S. Opens, one of them at age 20, before quickly turning pro. He then dominated the pro tour from 1954 to 1962 regularly beating other greats such as Frank Sedgeman, Lew Hoad , Tony Trabert and Ken Rosewall.
Many of the other greats of that era, among them Don Budge and Ellsworth Vines, also had very short amateur careers. In the case of Don Budge, he enlisted in the U.S Air Force during World War II, suffered a shoulder injury and was never the same again. In spite of that, he won seven Grand Slam titles ( including all four Slams in 1938) and the Triple Crown ( mens singles, mens doubles and mixed doubles) three times. He also dominated the pro tour for three years , regularly beating such greats as Fred Perry and Bobby Riggs. What might he not have accomplished except for his wartime injury ?
Before commercial air travel, most players skipped the Australian Open. The only option was to go by ship, a two week voyage. This is not something most players were willing to do, because of the time and the expense of going to Australia.
Racket Technology. Metal rackets only became a reality in the sixties. Before that, players used wooden rackets which could not be strung to as high a tension. Racket design has continually improved since then. Rackets today have a bigger ” sweet spot” and players are able to generate a lot more power because the rackets are strung so tight. How much better would the old time players have been with today’s rackets?
Better coaching support. Pancho Gonzales had no coaching at all but even the other players of that era had very little compared to players today. Today, many of the top players have full time coaches and hitting partners. They also are much fitter than those of old because of fitness regimens and dietetic advice. Additionally, they recover from injuries faster because of the improved state of medicine today.
Standardization of tennis courts. In recent years, the grass courts at Wimbledon are no longer lightning fast. Conversely, the clay courts at the French Open are not as slow as they used to be. They and the hard courts the U.S. Open are not as different from each other. As a result the top players today are a threat on any surface making it a little easier to rack up Grand Slam wins.
In particular, I abhor statistics about the number of career Grand Slam wins and head- to head- records in deciding who is the Greatest. The earlier part of this post explains why Grand Slam wins (career) are not a true indicator. I would also add that, in some eras, the competition is stiffer, thus making it more difficult to win a Grand Slam. As for head to head records, they can be very misleading because they are not usually between two players at the peak of their careers. Either one of the players is just starting out or he is on the down slope of his career, factors that arguably skew the head to head record.
No, choosing the Greatest is impossible and most of us, if we are inclined to pick one player above the rest, wind up choosing our favorite player and then coming up with reasons to justify our choice. At best, we can choose the most dominant player for each decade but even that is fraught with difficulties. For instance, Roger Federer is my choice for the first decade of this century and ( even though this decade is only half over), Novak Djokovic is the best player of this decade. But where does that leave Rafael Nadal, who belongs in the conversation for both these decades?
Better to just root for your favorite player and enjoy watching his matches. After all, that is the prime reason we watch sports, isn’t it?