For many, Roger Federer’s winning his 20th Grand Slam in the Australian Open settled the debate of whether or not he is the greatest tennis player to have ever played the game. However, many tennis fans disagree and argue that Raphael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras or Rod Laver should be considered the Greatest of All Times (or GOAT, in tennis lingo).
Here are three arguments for Federer being the greatest tennis player, and three acknowledging that while he is great, he’s not necessarily the greatest of all time.
Three reasons why Federer is great but not the greatest
Lack of competition
Roger Federer dominated the tennis courts between 2003 and 2007, winning 12 out of his 18 Slams. In seven out of those 12 Grand Slams, Federer beat Andy Roddick (who admits he is one of the worst players to ever hold the no.1 ranking), Lleyton Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis, Marat Safin and Marcos Baghdatis, none of whom are considered elite players, and who weren’t ranked highly when Federer won against them.
The average ranking of the players Federer has faced in the finals is 16.3. Djokovic`s average, for example, stands at 6.5, meaning Federer played against weaker players than Djokovic did in the finals. Federer’s decline in wins coincides with the emergence of Nadal and Djokovic. Thus, his impressive record of Grand Slam wins should be attributed mostly to his lack of competition.
Serena Williams is the best
When considering who deserves to be named as “the best tennis player of all time,” gender should be left out of the discussion (although it usually isn’t). Therefore, Serena Williams should be considered the game’s best player ever.
Both Williams and Federer have each won the most Grand Slam trophies worldwide, but Williams’s record of 23 wins is more impressive than Federer’s 20. No one is close to flirting with Williams’s domination, unlike Federer, and she holds a better Slam-Average (Grand Slams entered/won ratio). So, when only referring to men’s tennis, the claim that Federer is the GOAT may be legitimate, although worth a deeper discussion. However, when gender is taken out of the equation, it has to be Williams!
It`s impossible to compare over time
Comparisons across eras are insufficiently meaningful. Training conditions and methods are becoming more professional as time goes on. Modern equipment and technology provide players with better equipment and different means of playing the game. Moreover, you can`t tell which players competed in a stronger era.
For example, can you tell if Federer is better than Rod Laver or Pete Sampras? Sampras competed with stronger players, like Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and Pat Rafter. Laver dominated the game no less than Federer, winning 11 Grand Slams despite the fact that he was not allowed to compete for five years in the middle of his career.
It can’t be said conclusively that Federer is the best player to ever play the game—therefore, it shouldn’t be said.
Three reasons for team Federer
Federer plays the most beautiful and elegant tennis ever
There are few things in sports as aesthetically pleasing as Federer’s tennis game. His flair and creativity are phenomenal, while his movement is economical, in that he doesn’t run as far or as much as his rivals. His single-handed backhand is poetry; a thing of beauty; an all-time classic. In fact, every aspect of his game is executed effortlessly, with much style and grace.
American statesman Henry Clay once said: “Statistics are no substitute for judgment.” Following this logic, if Federer`s 20 Grand Slams are not good enough proof that he is the greatest player ever, the way he plays is. From an abstract perspective, it’s the magic he produces when he plays that settles this kind of debate.
The claim about lack of competition is ridiculous
Federer might have less competition in terms of quantity of other players, but he has more competition in terms of quality. He has brought the golden era of men’s tennis; he competed against Nadal and Djokovic, two players who have to be included in any GOAT discussion. Moreover, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka are stronger than their three Grand Slam titles (apiece) would indicate.
If anything, it’s Federer`s talent that prevented those players from winning more Grand Slams. His ability is likely what prevented Nadal from holding the record for most Grand Slam titles, as much as it`s Nadal`s ability with clay court serves that prevented Federer from adding more wins to his record than he already has. The quality and strength of Federer’s competition is unquestionable.
Federer is the most versatile to ever play the game
Jimmy Connors, winner of seven Grand Slams, once told the BBC: “[In the modern game] you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard-court specialist… or you’re Roger Federer.” Federer won Grand Slams using all serves. He is the best of his era on hard and grass courts. (He did lose 11 finals to Nadal on clay, which arguably shows that Federer is the second best on clay when compared only to the Spaniard.)
Versatility is what separates Federer from the rest. His one-handed backhand is a classic, and his forehand is one of the greatest shots in tennis, according to Pete Sampras. He controls every element in today’s tennis, such as the backhand smash and skyhook, half-volley and jump smash. And if that’s not enough, he has the character of a champion, as we all witnessed in the 2017 Australian Open final.
Bottom line: Federer’s skill, class, versatility and stylish game may make him the undisputed GOAT, yet the claims that he faces weak competition and that it`s hard to compare players over time remain a strong argument for those who believe he is not the best tennis player ever. Do you think Federer is the true GOAT?