My generation of tennis fans was already incredibly lucky to grow up watching two of the best tennis players of all time, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, in their prime years.
Sport demands a winner. It’s the pay-off we expect for the emotional investment we put into our team or an individual we follow.
We’ve all heard the expression “playing the beautiful game”. Associated originally with football of the round ball variety, it’s morphed into general use to mean a style of elegant, attractive, attacking play that brings joy.
After the initial knee-jerk reaction of celebrating a win or mourning a loss, what brings us the deeper, longer-lasting pleasure? Winning ugly or losing beautifully?
If the team you support, or your favourite individual sporting personality, keeps winning in a methodical, plodding style, does the satisfaction eventually disappear?
If we apply this notion to the GOAT concept, the discussion takes on a new dimension.
When it comes to tennis, and in particular the greatest male player of all time, the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic debate generates arguments usually reserved for Christmas lunch with relatives you see once a year.
Federer fans claim that nobody has ever won so much, so stylishly. Nadal and Djokovic fans claim the edge over Federer because of their superior head-to-head records over the Swiss maestro. Will the argument be resolved once all three players have retired and their Grand Slam singles tallies assessed?
Of course not. Statistics can be shaped to prove any point you want.
From 1967-2000, Roy Emerson held the record for the most Grand Slam singles titles until Pete Sampras overtook him. But not even Emerson’s mother would have declared him the greatest male player of all time because he happened to be sitting on 12 grand slam singles titles for all those years.
Don’t get me wrong. Stats have their place. I unearthed a beauty myself recently while doing some research on Maureen Connolly, the first woman to win the Grand Slam in 1953. It’s a stat that jumped out at me and one which I’d never seen quoted before.
Connolly owns the best three consecutive years of any tennis career, either man or woman. From September 1951-June 1954, she won nine Grand Slam Singles titles. It stands to this day. But what does it prove?
Imagine this scenario. A player plods along without any significant results for five years. Wins no titles, makes a living as a steady journeyman, making second and third rounds of the majors. Then out of nowhere, they catch fire and win the calendar grand slam.
After that amazing year, the player goes back to making second and third rounds at the majors and eventually retires. Should this player be considered one of the greatest of all time because he won the Grand Slam, even though he ends his career with a total tally of four majors?
It’s enough to do your head in. That’s why I’ve decided that no matter who finishes with the most grand slam singles titles, the greatest player of all time is the player who brought me the greatest pleasure watching them play.
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