Rafa? Serena? Roger? Tennis’s Goat debate is an affront to history

This September marks the 20th anniversary of Pete Sampras’s 14th and final grand slam victory, when he beat his longtime foe Andre Agassi to claim his fifth US Open title. It was also the last match Sampras ever played on tour, making his victory in New York a glorious capstone to a magnificent career. At the time, it appeared as if Sampras’s extraordinary career stats – namely his then-record slam count for men – would be the benchmark for future generations.

Yet as the tennis world makes its annual descent into Gotham, it’s remarkable that not only has Sampras’ grand slam record been eclipsed, it’s been smashed to pieces by a trio of players, the so-called Big Three of Rafael Nadal (22 major titles), Novak Djokovic (21) and Roger Federer (20). For three players to have done this, all in the same era, is almost beyond comprehension.

But, unless there’s an 11th-hour reprieve allowing Djokovic to compete at Flushing Meadows unvaccinated, only Nadal will start the tournament next Monday (the 41-year-old Federer, still recovering from a knee injury, is scheduled to return to action in the coming months). No matter one’s position on Djokovic’s vaccination status, it’s a shame fans are being deprived of the possibility of another Nadal–Djokovic matchup (theirs is the most prolific men’s rivalry in the Open era: they have played each other 59 times, with Djokovic edging the series 30-29). After all, while these three competitors appear immortal, the monster of time will swallow their careers sooner rather than later.

All eyes will be undoubtedly be focused on Nadal during the fortnight, although he also comes into the year’s final major having only played one match since he pulled out of Wimbledon with an abdominal injury. And the main focus will be whether Nadal can capture his 23rd major and pull ahead in the Greatest of All Time (Goat) debate.

The Goat discussion has become a distracting epidemic in tennis – and all sports, for that matter. It’s a tiresome, simplistic and one-dimensional approach to assessing greatness, and is also an affront to history and perspective. It’s hard to date when the Goat debates became an obsession among fans and sportswriters alike, but it reached mass appeal with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. The rush to bestow the Goat title is a myopic, insecure and immature reflex by sportswriters and commentators who feel the need to declare their own generation is undoubtedly the best.

To illustrate the impossibility of settling a Goat debate, solely using grand slam titles to determine greatness is a relatively new phenomenon in the long and extremely complicated history of the sport. For example, until the 1960s, the Davis Cup was considered on par with – if not more important – than the four major championships. Nowadays the Davis Cup barely gets a mention in the media.

Furthermore, professionals were excluded from competing in slams until 1968. Consider the fact that Rod Laver missed five years during his prime. The Australian concluded his stellar career with 11 major titles. How many more would he have claimed in those five years? One could argue at least 10, considering the fact he won the calendar year grand slam in both 1962 and 1969 (Laver is the last man to have won all four majors in one year).

Additionally, from the early 1970s to mid-1980s, many of the top men didn’t bother to make the trip to the Australian Open. Incredibly, Bjorn Borg only played in the tournament once, as a 17 year-old. How many Australian titles could he have won during his brief but legendary career? The Swede accumulated 11 majors by the time he was 25, without playing in Australia.

Finally, there is the issue of technology and fitness. Until the dawn of larger racquets in the 1980s and then the advent of the poly strings (first used to great effect by Gustavo Kuerten), all players competed with basically the same size racquet made up chiefly of one material – wood. It’s impossible to overstate the impact the racquet and string technology has had on the sport. What is most strikingly different now compared to the game 30 or 40 years ago is the near complete abandonment of serve-and-volley in modern tennis.

In the not-too-distant past there were a bevy of players who were serve and volleyers, giving the tour a blend of styles. Currently, the pure serve-and-volleyer is a rarity. One need look no further than Roger Federer as an object lesson. Looking back at old clips of his matches in the very early stages of his career one is struck by how much more frequently Federer came in behind his first serves. For his part, Nadal is actually a superb and underrated volleyer but his forays to the net are very selective. The decline – and sometimes downright absence – of the net game taking a starring role in a match is in no small part due to the ability of players to hit winners, seemingly at will, from behind the baseline. This was something that was unheard of before the 90s. While few would argue with the fact that the shot making, longer rallies and more competitive matches in today’s game are more exciting, it’s also true that it has come with a price: losing the beauty and art of volleying. Whatever the case, it’s very difficult to compare across generations when the game has so fundamentally changed.

Bringing it back to Sampras, with Wimbledon’s faster grass from decades past, would Djokovic’s incredible return game have held up against Pistol Pete – or would Sampras have won his seven Wimbledon titles on SW19’s modern surface? This isn’t to say Sampras or Djokovic is better than the other, but to draw attention to the futility of comparing players in different eras.

Of course, the Goat talk wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Serena Williams. Unless she shocks everyone and wins the US Open to claim her 24th slam, Williams will end up in second place in the major title list, one shy of Margaret Court. One can make the easy case that she has utterly dominated her era. What makes it less compelling is that – aside from periods of competition with her sister Venus and Justine Henin – she never had any rival who could live with her long-term. And, just like the men’s game, women have competed using different styles and methods down the years. Comparisons between the modern women’s game and, say, the era of Billie Jean King or Martina Navratilova are just too hard to make.

It’s worth recalling that at the end of 2007, when Federer had accumulated his 12th slam just after turning 26, he was already being called the Goat. And it was understandable why so many fawned over him, as his beautiful, all-court playing style obliterated his foes with preternatural ease. But now here we are, and going by the slam count Goat standard, Federer will likely be considered only the third best … of his generation.

Not that it should matter: great tennis players should be enjoyed rather than subjected to meaningless comparisons.