Fans love to debate who’s the GOAT — greatest of all time — in their favorite sports. Mine are basketball and tennis and I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time surfing the ‘net reading posts evaluating the relative merits of Kobe, LeBron and Michael. I’m an L.A. guy and am naturally biased for Kobe, but I realize LeBron and Michael may have greater claims. Only Phil Jackson (aka Phil Jax) knows for sure. We’ll see next year. Nevertheless, basketball is a team game and the answer to the question of the GOAT will always be elusive.
Not so tennis. Not a team sport, it has evolved from a “gentleman’s game” into the ultimate mano-a-mano without boxing gloves. Sunday’s spectacular Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer was a case in point. These two titans of the sport battled for nearly four hours in an unrelenting struggle for tennis’ greatest prize, with Djokovic ultimately prevailing in five sets by the proverbial whisker.
We are in the Golden Age of Tennis. Between Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Andy Murray, there has never been such high-level competition in the sport, nor has there been such an extraordinary level of fitness. These guys rival NBA players and soccer stars in their ability to run and run, while at the same time striking the ball with incredible pace. They are the best ever.
Who am I to say that? Well, I have played and watched tennis devotedly since the age of six (64 years!) so I have a fair amount of experience with the sport. I have seen everyone play from the era of Rocket Laver and Lew Hoad through Borg, McEnroe, Becker, Sampras, Agassi, etc., etc. I even saw the young (about 18) Jimmy Connors versus the aging (about 43) Pancho Gonzales in the finals of the now non-existent Pacific Southwest Tournament, played on the very court at the Los Angeles Tennis Club where I now try to avoid double-faulting on ad point several days a week (rotator cuff permitting).
So I’ve seen a lot of tennis, obviously, and, with some exceptions, the sport keeps getting better and better.
And who do I think is the GOAT? Well, here I am going to get hooted down by a lot of tennis fans, but I have to say it is Novak Djokovic. Yes, Federer and Nadal have more grand slam victories than he, but the game gets tougher and tougher, the competition steeper and steeper, and since 2011 it is a different story. Let’s look at the stats on the next page.
The last 15 Grand slam tournaments (from 2011):
Djokovic: 6 x winner, 5 x runner up, 3 x semi-finalist, 1 x quarter-finalist
Nadal: 5 x winner, 4 x runner up, 0 x semi-finalist, 1 x quarter-finalist, 1 x 4R, 1 x 2R, 1 x 1R, 2 x Absent
Murray: 2 x winner, 3 x runner up, 5 x semi-finalist, 4 x quarter-finalist, 1 x Absent
Federer: 1 x winner, 2 x runner up, 6 x semi-finalist, 3 x quarter-finalist, 2 x 4R, 1 x 2R
To save you the effort of adding it up, Djokovic has been in the semis or better in fourteen of the last fifteen Grand Slams. Clearly, since 2011, he has the edge. In the Masters 1000 tournaments like Indian Wells, the differential is even greater. And I think there is a reason for it. At his best, no one has had an all-court tennis game the equal of Djokovic. He has no weaknesses. Federer and Nadal are soft on the backhand side. (Of course, soft is a relative term when you’re dealing with two of top three players in the history of the game, but still…)
In the last year and a half, however, Djokovic seemed to be losing in key moments, particularly in the finals of Slams. Perhaps his attention was wavering. Perhaps he was losing confidence. He hired Boris Becker as coach to shore him up. Things changed again. Djokovic, with his Wimbledon victory, has returned to number one in the world after giving up that position for a year to Nadal. I predict now he will go on one of his runs when no one can touch him.