In Search of Understanding the Nuances of Greatness: The Never-ending Tale of the GOAT Debate

Blog by: Sharada

2011 US Open - Day 13

Never before has the word GOAT (Greatest of All Time) been tossed around in the men’s tennis world as it is being done in the present days. With Rafa Nadal inching closer to Roger Federer’s tally of 17 majors, both these players have ended up to be the protagonists in the ever-interesting tale of being the greatest players of the men’s tennis realm.

In this yo-yoing context, it is also interesting to note the changes in perspectives and perceptions of the term which makes it quite a subjective affair rather than an objective presentation and thus by extension, a thoroughly grey-shaded ambit. Where Rafa’s total majors win count is pitted against the Swiss’ haul of 17-majors, one cannot help but insert about the former’s superiority over the latter in their head-to-head meetings. And while this tilts the balance slightly in favour of Rafa, Federer’s consistency then invariably turns the scales towards him.

The unmistakeable involvement of several past players – with a similarly astounding career repertoire – then gets added to the mix, further compounding the issue instead of making it a straight-forward and simpler affair to dissect. But the upside of such innumerable juxtapositions between the past and present is that tennis isn’t restricted to merely a collection of names and accumulating titles, by one or two players, anymore.

For, with each passing tournament, there is someone who makes it to the record books. Like Novak Djokovic, who just completed 100-weeks as the world no. 1 and before that, went on achieve the singular standing of being the first male player in the Open Era to win three consecutive Australian Open titles. Or Andy Murray who finally won the much-talked about Wimbledon crown for Great Britain after a drought of nearly eight decades.

These then aren’t names that make momentary appearances but are ones that have come to be perceived as the best possible ‘present’ and ‘future’ that the sport can offer. Aspects like rivalries, which bear quite a saying when it comes to determining and discussing the murky area of being ‘greatest’, have thus come to be far more pronounced elements considering that domination hasn’t been restricted to one player at any given point of time.

Greatness thus has become difficult to interpret too, considering that the player with a comparatively clear consensus to be the GOAT may not have the edge over his nearest rival in their match-ups; case in point – as referenced earlier – Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer. But merely on account, one can’t then overrule one for the other. For, even though Nadal may have bested Federer on various occasions, their head-to-head isn’t that vastly lopsided in the Spaniard’s favour when it comes to grass and hard-courts. Moreover, to substantiate Federer’s case specific to the French Open, the tangibility that he’s not only made it to four French Open finals, but has also won it once – alongside winning most of the other assorted clay court tournaments – then gives him due credibility as being proficient on clay as much as on the other playing surfaces.

The chain of thoughts thus continues to swirl round and round with no particular end in sight. Like a catalyst triggering a reaction, standpoints and counter-standpoints start to bubble forth, lingering on and around this issue with regard to both these players year-after-year, without fail. This season it was all about Nadal’s emphatic return to the game after an injury-ridden gap of almost nine months and Federer’s sudden slump in tournaments and the rankings. A few years ago, the topic of GOAT circulated around Federer’s run of invincibility and Nadal’s battles with injuries. And who knows, a year down the line, the subject of greatness would be broached not just between these two players, but amongst three – possibly even four – of them, thus adding yet another obscurely defining trajectory to the existing opinion count.

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