Who’s the greatest male tennis player of all time?

Who’s the greatest male tennis player of all time?

After the French Open, there are two more Grand Salams to go this year β€” and the debate rages. But will we ever know, even as the question allows us to travel throughout the careers of the goats of tennis?

After the French Open, there are two more Grand Salams to go this year β€” and the debate rages. But will we ever know, even as the question allows us to travel throughout the careers of the goats of tennis?

Narratives are a sport’s lifeblood. They shape a fan’s connection to the game, provide a hook for his or her obsessions, sustain the deep emotional investment and create space to set out stakes well ahead of time. If Lionel Messi can lead Argentina to World Cup glory in Qatar this December, he will be a greater footballer than the late Diego Maradona.

But narratives are also fickle, self-serving, and often pre-ordained. They are neither objective nor fully quantifiable and do not provide room for luck, chance, and risk. They are more a supporter’s flight of fancy to overcome sporting uncertainty. If Gonzalo Higuain had buried the gilt-edged chance in the 2014 World Cup final against Germany, Messi would already be a greater footballer than Maradona.

Federer, Nadal, Djokovic – The Big 3 of Tennis

In tennis, the pet narrative of this generation’s fans is to christen one among Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic as the greatest male singles player of all time. After all, this is an era unlike any other in men’s tennis history. Starting from the 2005 French Open, the trio has dominated to corner 57 of the 67 Grand Slam tournaments, giving credence to the argument that the greatest has to be one among them.

Who’s the greatest male tennis player of all time?

Spain’s Rafael Nadal clenches his fist after scoring a point against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic during their quarterfinal match at the French Open tennis tournament in Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Tuesday, May 31, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

They occupy the top three positions for most Grand Slam match-wins, with each of them recording over 300 victories, and they are also in the top five for most ATP tour titles won. Hence, the desire is to build a historical time machine, compare statistics among the three, and also with yesteryear champions like Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, and Pete Sampras and separate the greatest from the great.

It has simmered ever since Nadal equalled Federer’s then-record of 20 Majors by winning the 2020 French Open, nearly bubbled over when Djokovic came within a match of winning his 21st Grand Slam title in New York last year, and exploded in Australia earlier this season when Nadal claimed his 21st. With three more Slams (including the ongoing French Open) still in play in 2022, and the trio is still active, the talk is unlikely to die anytime soon.

Comparisons across time

But comparisons within the contemporary and between the contemporary and the historical come with their own pitfalls. Records are for sure indicative, but short of context and perspective, they are often misleading. For one, there isn’t an even field for comparison. If Grand Slam titles won is the lone measure of greatness, how does one square with the fact that the great Pancho Gonzales was denied the opportunity to even compete in them (from 1950 to 1967) because he had turned professional in what was an amateur sport until the Open Era began in 1968?

Jimmy Connors, an eight-time Slam winner and former World No.1, did not participate at Roland-Garros from 1974 to 1978 – his peak years – after he was banned from the 1974 edition because of his association with the World Team Tennis, a professional league started by Billie Jean King. That year, Connors won the other three Slms. Fellow top players also routinely skipped the Australian Open, which was held at the end of the year until 1985 than in the coveted start-of-the-season slot it occupies today.

There is then the depth of the field and the non-overlapping nature of players’ peaks. Laver, considered by many to be the greatest, won six of his 11 Majors as an amateur even as similarly great players in Ken Rosewall and Gonzales were plying their trade on the professional circuit. Federer won 12 of his 20 Majors before the end of 2007, a period when Djokovic was yet to fully arrive and Nadal was just about finding his feet outside of the Parisian red clay.

It is undeniable that advancements in string and racquet technology have benefitted players of the modern era over their counterparts from the 1960s and ’70s who played with wooden racquets that had a much smaller sweet spot. Better nutrition, training, and recovery techniques have allowed today’s stars to play longer. Still, how can one quantify Federer’s and Nadal’s resilience, consistency, big-match nerve and infinite appetite for the game across two decades?

Borg, who won all 11 of his Majors in a glorious seven-year window from 1974 to 1981, still radiates triumph partly because he retired at the slightest hint of a decline. But should it rank higher than Federer’s late-career brilliance and problem-solving abilities that allowed him to add three more Majors in 2017 and 2018 after going nearly five years without a victory?

Another variable is the playing surface. Laver won nine of his 11 Majors on grass, while Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic finished finalists or better at all four Slms, across clay, grass, and the acrylic, at least five times each. Djokovic, in fact, is the only man to twice win all four Majors, all nine ATP Masters 1000s, and the year-ending ATP Finals. However, a single surface dominating the tour like in Laver’s time leads to greater variance and a closely closeed field.

It is a truism that courts of today are more homogenous than ever before, making them more amenable to all-courters like Djokovic. The Wimbledon grass, for example, was way faster in the 1960s and ’70s, thus imparting a halo to the back-to-back triumphs at the French Open (slow clay) and Wimbledon of Laver (1962 and ’69) and Borg ( 1978, ’79, ’80) as against those of Nadal (2008 and 2010), Federer (2009) and Djokovic (2021).

Beyond the field

Sporting champions are also of varied hues, whose aura and significance extend far beyond the confines of the playing arena. Arthur Ashe, a three-time Major champion and the only Black man to win the single title at the Australian Open, Wimbledon, or the US Open, will easily trump the trio of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic for the eloquent activist he was for causes like civil rights, anti-apartheid movements and AIDS awareness.

Going beyond tennis, the world may see a greater sprinter than Usain Bolt but the Jamaican’s role in single-handedly rescuing a discipline ravaged by multiple doping scandals will remain undiminished. In football, the world may forever debate who among Pele, Maradona, Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo are the greatest, but it is Dutch maestro Johan Cruyff’s ideas developed nearly five decades ago that are still driving the sport.

Same sportsman, different times?

The debate to decide the greatest sportsman is also self-limiting in that it not just sees the past through a blinkered lens but closes the door on prospective greatness. Across a decade and a half, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have evolved their tactics continuously to match up to each other and add layers of intrigue to their rivalry. Is it fair to assume that no other set of players can replicate the same?

β€œI feel if I were playing today, I would have adapted my style of play to today’s needs,” badminton legend Prakash Padukone told Sportsstar back in 2018. β€œThe tendency for people is to think, ‘Would he have survived now?’ Generally, my view is that champions, in any sport in any era, succeeded because they found out what was good at that time. It doesn’t mean that if I or anybody were to play now, we’d play exactly the same way we played in the 1980s or the 1970s.

β€œWe would have adapted to what was required and found a way to win. It’s not just me. It applies to any sport. I would still have made use of my strengths. I would probably have been much stronger physically. I would maybe have had a more powerful smash, moved faster.

β€œI don’t know how it would have evolved. But I would have found a way. If you could do it at that time, you can do it anytime.”

Why is it then that such a binary, narrow and zero-sum exercise of finding out who the greatest is still appeals? At its best, it allows us to revisit the past and learn from it. At its worst, in the intellectually flawed avatar, it offers an escape from the trappings of the present. The ‘Greatest of All Time’ tag has an authoritative ring to it, notwithstanding the myth and illusion that blur reality.

The court is large enough

But players’ legacies and their places in pecking orders are not always determined by the outcomes of big moments. Nadal’s victory over Djokovic on Tuesday at Roland-Garros told us nothing more than what we already knew about his greatness. Nor would a record-extending 14th French Open and 22nd Grand Slam overall. It will however fit his fans’ narrative, of their desire to see their hero endure for a bit more than the rest, militating against the overwhelming evidence that the world is wide enough to hold every sporting hero, of the past, present and the future.


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