The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time?

Is there any athlete more stylish than Roger Federer? Of course not, as the picture to the left proves quite nicely. There’s literally no room for debate there. But when it comes to deciding if he is the best athlete in his sport, all of a sudden people have to go and get all riled up. For example, I like to read tennis blogs from time to time, and its no secret that the commenters (and blog posters) at such places have created a feud between Federer and Nadal of monstrous proportions. This is great for the popularity of tennis (especially since Federer and Nadal themselves seem to get along excellently), but unlike a religious debate (the only other type of argument I know that can get so heated so fast), I still think there are reasonable, logical ways to answer some of the questions which get debated between these factions, and I’d like to have  stab at doing so now. Namely, the claim lodged by so many Nadal-ites that Federer cannot possibly be the greatest male tennis player of all time.

Now I’m obviously a huge Federer fan myself, so I’ll make no pretense of being unbiased. But I think there are logical flaws in the three main arguments used against Federer’s candidacy. And yes, I am really going to waste my precious little window of free time this evening on something as trivial as this, thanks for asking ;-). With the elections coming up and political tensions running high, I have the urge to debate someone, so I thought I’d blow off steam rebutting nameless blogging adversaries (who have no real way to respond) about a totally unimportant topic. I guess it’s the forensics nerd’s equivalent of mowing down zombie Nazis on Call of Duty– which apparently some people still feel the need to cheat at.

Anyway, I don’t have time to find and present all the statistics about why Federer is the greatest male tennis player ever, so I’m just going to shoot down three common arguments for why he isn’t, although I think along the way I’ll still be able to suggest that, in fact, he is.

Like a good debater, I’ll start by making a definition: the “Greatest Tennis Player of All Time” is the one that has the highest odds of winning averaged across every possible opponent on every possible surface. Put another way, suppose you had a million dollars riding on a tennis match, in which you could choose any player you wanted from any point in history to play on your behalf, but then your had to roll some dice and randomly select the surface of play and the tennis player your guy would be facing. Whoever would be the best possible choice for you in that situation is the greatest player of all time, by my definition.

Now, to rebut some arguments: the first claim commonly made against Federer is usually that there are lots of players from earlier eras of tennis who deserve to be in the running, and there’s no way to know who would be better, so Federer can’t easily be said to be the greatest. In version one of this argument, the guy making it usually says something like “Rod Laver won two calendar-year grand slams,” or “McEnroe had a higher winning percentage in his best season.” But this is obviously irrelevant, at least if you accept my definition. Now you’re just telling me you think Laver had a more impressive career, and that’s not what we’re talking about.

Version two involves claiming that, in addition to having better career stats, some of these older players could actually beat Federer if the two could only have played under “fair conditions.” But the problem here lies with defining “fair conditions.” I’ll grant you that, if we’re arranging this hypothetical showdown, it’s only fair to have both players face each other in their primes, of course. But from there, the “Federer’s-not-greatest” crowd tends to start making unreasonable demands. For example, Laver played with a wooden racket, and Bill Tilden, well, he played in an outfit that looked like this:

Facing Federer’s high-tech gear and training regimen, guys like these probably wouldn’t have stood a chance. But you know, I’ll even grant them the chance to use modern rackets and shoes and such. Their advocates, however, usually demand more, and end up saying “well, if they were given modern technology and time to train with it and get used to it and stuff, and to adapt to all the new strategies that have emerged since their era, and work out and build up their muscles so that they can hit as hard as the players nowadays…” But of course these requests are patently unfair. Now you’re not looking to see who was the greatest, but for who “would be the greatest under ideal conditions and given an unlimited amount of time to train and an unlimited technology budget.” Heck, if that’s the game we’re playing, then the greatest tennis player of all time is probably some random Chinese guy who has never touched a tennis racket, but could become the best ever if he also got all the time in the world to prepare.

No, I think we have to take the older players “as they were,” and in that situation, I think Federer would take them all, at least all the way up to very recent times (80’s or 90’s and beyond, probably.) I can’t prove this, of course, but I think common sense is really on my side here. Athletes keep breaking the old records, every year. People just keep finding ways to get stronger, faster, and more disciplined, by taking the techniques of those who came before them, and building off of them. We don’t have data on how hard people like Tilden and Bulge were hitting the ball, but I’m almost certain there weren’t hitting it nearly hard enough to keep up with Federer. As circumstantial proof, I offer this photo of the “world’s greatest bodybuilder” back at the beginning of the 20th century:

I hope that makes the point that in general, the modern athlete will win in a clash with one from 50 years before.

So that’s my case for why Federer doesn’t have to worry about guys like Bulge, Laver, Tilden or even the more comparatively modern crew like Connors, McEnroe, Etc. So now on to argument number number two which is frequently used against those of us who tip Federer as the best of all time: that the field Federer was facing while acquiring all his wins was somehow “weaker.” than the ones faced by previous greats– i.e., that Borg* or Lendl would have won a lot more titles but had to face guys like McEnroe, Nastase, etc. The problem with this argument, as far as I’m concerned, is that there’s just a case of confusing the directionality of the causation. It’s true, aside from Nadal, the kind of guys we think about Federer having had to face don’t, on first blush, strike us as being “great” in the same way as the names above. True, Roddick, Hewitt, Djokovic and Murray may not have won nearly as many grand slams as the aforementioned previous generation of greats. But that’s mostly because Roger keeps preventing them from doing it. We really have no way of knowing how great they would have been regarded as by history if Federer hadn’t been around, but don’t forget, without Federer, Djokovic would have three slams, Murray two, and Roddick would have five, if not in all likelihood more. All of a sudden they start to look a lot less like a bunch of rag-tag also-rans and more like real contenders.

The other problem is that the great champions of old I mentioned above have been retired long enough that they’ve become slightly more “legendary” than the current players can ever hope to be in their own time. For example, I snuck Nastase’s name into the list former “greats” and you probably didn’t bat an eye at it. By now, his name is famous enough that we remember him as one of the old masters. But Nastase won only two grand slams, and was runner up at just three more. That gives him almost exactly the same grand slam record as Andy Roddick. But alas for Andy, no one can be a legend in their own time, and I submit that the current crop of tennis players will always look like it has less depth than the previous generation because of this. So that’s my response to argument number two: sure, Federer has only one current opponent who can claim more than two grand slam titles. But how were these other guys supposed to have won more titles facing the greatest player in the history of the game? And isn’t it possible we’re being just a little bit prematurely dismissive about the greatness of the current players compared to the one’s who’ve achieved a degree of historical prominence?

And now, the last argument, and probably the one that annoys me the most. Critics claim that Federed demonstrably can’t be the greatest of all time, because he has a losing record head-to-head against Nadal. My response would be this: If you make it part of the definition of being “greatest of all time” that you need to have a winning record against every major player you’ve faced, then there is no such thing as the greatest player of all time. For example, suppose Federer is out because of his losing record against Nadal; in that case, Nadal is out too because of his losing record against Davydenko, among others. Davydenko is out because of his (very lopsided) losing record against Federer. Connors is out for having a losing record against McEnroe; McEnroe and Borg are both out because their head-to-head record is tied at seven all. Even Sampras is out for having a losing record against Lleyton Hewitt, who in turn is also out for having a losing record against Federer.

The point it, its ridiculous to say that to be the “greatest ever” you have to be able to beat every other player you’ve ever faced the majority of the time. If someone can do that, they’re probably a good candidate for greatest ever, but since it’s a nearly impossible task, it shouldn’t matter if you can’t do it.

This, in particular, is why I’d still take Federer over Nadal for greatest ever, using my definition above. Sure, if I pick Federer, and then I roll the dice and I get Nadal on a clay court, I’m out of luck, in all likelihood. But if I pick Nadal, there are lots of ways I might be in trouble. Djokovic, Roddick, Davydenko, Murray, Soderling; all these guys quite capable of beating him on a hard court. That’s the reason Nadal hadn’t even been in a US open final until this year. Someone else always beat him earlier in the tournament. And of course Federer, in his prime, probably has the edge against him him on both grass and hard courts. I just don’t think it would be the safer bet.

The same goes for Pete Sampras, by the way, who would be my pick for second-greatest of all time**. I happen to think that Sampras in his prime could probably beat Federer on a grass court, and the two would be fairly evenly matched on hard surfaces. But what if I pick Sampras to play for me, I roll the dice and I’m stuck playing on clay? There were a LOT of people who could beat Sampras on clay; remember, the guy only won one tournament on the surface ever, and often failed to make it past the quarterfinals at the French open. Federer, on the other hand, has very clearly the second-best clay-court player in the world since 2005. People often overlook that, but it’s unambiguously true. Recall that in that time, he’s been in 4 of the 6 French Open finals (winning one), and lost another semifinal to the eventual champion Nadal (had they been seeded differently then, he certainly would have been in the final.) He played in the finals of 10 other clay-court tournaments, winning 4 of them, including once against Nadal himself. These numbers are far above any other player on the tour.

So to recap, Federer has the best grass and hard court record in his era, and the second best clay record, which I think makes him the best in his era easily. His clay record makes him better than Sampras all around, and the sheer fact that he plays a modern game of tennis that has evolved to require more strength, speed, stamina, etc. makes him better than anyone else in the decades before. Greatest of all time? It sure looks like it so far. Mind you, Nadal’s career is still on the upswing, so he may yet surpass the Swiss master. But until that time, I think there’s only one guy who reasonably deserves the title.


*Actually, if there’s one guy who makes me sometimes wonder if he was/could have been greater than Federer, it’s Borg. Don’t forget, the guy ruled grass and clay for 6 straight years, and reached 4 US open finals as well. All in all he wound up winning 11 grand slams; just five off Federer’s record, without having entered the Australian open at any point during his peak years. Oh yeah, and then, he retired at age 26. If Borg had played all those australian opens, and then kept playing grand slams up to age 30 , he would have had TWENTY-ONE more shots at winning additional grand slam titles. Do I often wonder if he couldn’t have picked up five more someplace in there? You bet I do…

**By the way, people always talk about how much they would have wanted to see Federer face Sampras when they were both at their peak, and of course, I would kill to get to that match. But to be honest, I’m also dying to see how Sampras would fare against Nadal on grass, and if  I had to choose only one hypothetical dream match to make a reality, it would probably be that one. I’ve always said, Federer just needs to bring out the serve-and-volley a bit more to regain his edge against Nadal on grass. And no one did that better than Sampras. Then again, Nadal is such a gritty, determined player I know he’d dig in and do everything he could to pull it out. I think it would be one hell of a show.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

2 Responses to The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time?

  1. Moominmamma says:

    You win.

  2. Pingback: Two Things You Don’t Know About Roger Federer « WLOG blog

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