Due to its complexity this topic har has been divided into five parts – Enjoy!
I have explained before (see Greatest Tennis Player Of All Time – Part 1) how statistics can be misleading and why I don’t fully rely on them to determine the G.O.A.T. But before I move on I want to give you another example.
Rod Laver is the only tennis player to have twice won all four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year and he “officially” has 11 Grand Slam titles under his belt. This is an incredible stat but is it misleading? I believe so…
You see, when discussing G.O.A.T, titles and statistics we must consider the early era of pro and amateur status. Let me explain. To be selected for a pro career you had to win at least one Grand Slam and be a big draw card to the paying fans. Therefore most of the top players in the world at the time had moved across to the pro circuit and were excluded from playing the Grand Slam tournaments. This is not to belittle the official Grand Slam status, but for 20 years or so prior to the Grand Slams being fully professional in 1969, Grand Slam tournaments did not containing all the best players in the world.
So, Rod Laver joined the professional tour in 1963 and was therefore banned from Grand Slam tournaments during the peak of his career. During this time Rod Laver was ranked as the best professional player in the world. So judging from the Grand Slam results the year before and after his ban we must assume that he would have won a minimum of 1 Grand Slam title a year (probably more). Therefore, Rod Laver would likely have won a minimum of 16 Grand Slams during his career. This is a conservative estimate and I believe Laver would probably have won 20ish total.Think about how many titles Rodger Federer won during his prime…
Yet again you can see how quoting titles and statistics can be misleading when trying to determine the greatest tennis player of all time. We tend to have short memories and disregard past generations as being inferior. We quickly turn to stats and statements about how equipment, technology, fitness, etc make todays players better. I feel this is grossly ignorant. Past generations playing with poor equipment (by todays standards) only gives them more credibility in my mind.
All Round Player
To be the G.O.A.T one must be great and successful in all forms of the game of tennis. This includes singles, doubles and team competitions (Davis Cup/Olympics). Don’t for a second think this is not an important issue. Just because doubles is not as popular on TV it does not mean that is not to be regarded highly. It is a different and skillful part of tennis.
The accuracy and reflex’s required for doubles are of the very highest quality. Doubles was regarded very highly until recent times when the top players decided it was too stressful to play both.
Pete Sampras was one such player and he readily admits to struggling with doubles when he did play. Sampras found that the ball was speeding around him too quickly. This is not to say players like Borg, Sampras or any of the modern players such as Agassi, Nadal (who has won several titles), Djokovic, or Federer wouldn’t be top players if they played more often. However, they haven’t challenged themselves as previous generations did in this department.
So in light of this should they even be considered for the G.O.A.T list? Wouldn’t the Greatest Tennis Player Of All Time need to be great at all forms of tennis? Below is a list of singles champions with substantial doubles titles.
Well it goes without saying that players are bigger and perhaps stronger each generation or two. From time to time I hear a player from this generation say how the game is more physically demanding than it was. Well lets just have a little look back.
We have to remember players in the early pro era trained very hard, practicing as much or more than the players do now. 4 – 6 hours a day in the same heat but with poor shoe wear, heavier rackets and no special energy drinks to rehydrate. This takes a great determination! Stretching and gym work was also done, though not using the machines we have now. Push ups, sit ups, jumps, medicine ball, etc were the methods of the day. There is actually now a trend going back to these forms of training instead of weights.
Players in the 40’s -70’s regularly played best of 5 sets in tournaments and particularly finals (not just Grand Slams). A 5 set match was not a one off but a regular occurrence. Players from that era also played singles, doubles and mixed doubles at Grand Slams. This is much tougher than playing only one event. It means they never had a day off to recover during the tournament!
This is simply amazing! I know first hand how tough the Grand Slams can be when playing more than 1 event. In 1984 at Wimbledon I played two events, singles and doubles. Every one of my doubles matches went to 5 sets with the exception of the first round which went to 4 sets. (I made the semi final in the singles and final of the doubles.) At the time I was only a few games away from being the player who played the most games ever in a championship. The player with the most had played 3 events.
And what about Davis Cup?
Davis Cup matches, singles and doubles, are one of the greatest challenges a player can face. They are regarded by some, like myself, as the hardest competition in tennis. Davis Cup has a long history so you can do some research yourself but in my day matches were played without tiebreaks and with a 10 minute break after set 3.
Lets have a look at the longest Davis Cup matches in the open era:
McEnroe v. Wilander is the longest in Davis Cup history and lasted 6 hours and 20 minutes with a score 9–7, 6–2, 15–17, 3–6, 8–6. We’ll never know how much of that was McEnroe stalling and arguing but I’m guessing it was quite a bit as he features in the top two longest matches. Having said that, Davis Cup matches tend to take longer as crowds get heavily involved and cheer longer than tournament play…. in general.
So is tennis today more physical than it used to be? It’s possible but I’m not convinced. I would argue that saying the modern game is more physical is not a valid argument when attempting to determine G.O.A.T. I would also argue that we need to consider, like I did above, the complexities of the “amateur” and “pro” eras and how that has affected titles and statistics.
Thank you for reading Part 4 of the Greatest Tennis Player Of All Time. In Part 5, the final conclusion, I will cover the last few things to consider before determining the G.O.A.T. I’ll also tell you about the little known tennis legend who many consider the greatest tennis player of all time.