Saturday, February 7, 2009

Another Perspective on Borg/Nadal/Federer

I have written several posts comparing the accomplishments of Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer; I most recently offered my take on that subject here. I maintain that Borg should still be considered the greatest Open Era (post 1968) player and that anyone who tried to pass that crown to Federer acted prematurely. I consider Pete Sampras to be the second greatest Open Era player and I think that Nadal and Federer's places in that pantheon are yet to be determined. Nadal's head to head dominance over Federer coupled with the powerful Spaniard's ascension to the top of the ranking list are two strong pieces of evidence that my initial assessment well over a year ago--before Nadal beat Federer at Wimbledon and took over the number one ranking--was quite correct, although some readers who have posted comments here vigorously disagree.

Raymond Lee has extensively researched Open Era tennis for various articles that he has written for Tennis Week. He recently sent me an email offering his perspective about these issues and he granted me permission to quote some of the contents of that message:

"One of the reasons I wrote some of these tennis articles was because of the misuse of the information given in tennis. For example the reason Sampras is often mentioned as the GOAT is because he holds the official record of 14 majors. That's great and true but it isn't mentioned that he played in over 50 majors, if memory serves I believe it's 52. Borg won 11 in 27, Budge won 6 in 11.

It's like saying I'm a better free throw shooter than Larry Bird because I made 100 free throws in one day. Of course I may have attempted 1000 free throws and shot at a percentage of 10% while Bird made 99 out of 100 for 99%. By their logic, I'm a better free throw shooter because I made one more than Bird."

In a subsequent email, Lee added, "Borg was described by Arthur Ashe as a player without stroke weaknesses. I don't think I can say that about Roger Federer. Don't get me wrong I think Federer is a fabulous player but I try to put things in perspective."

Borg's lack of weaknesses and his Grand Slam dominance over an eight year period (1974-81) are persuasive reasons to still rank him ahead of every other Open Era player. Sampras displayed impressive longevity in setting the record for Grand Slam singles titles won (14, three more than Borg) but Sampras had an Achilles heel on the clay courts of the French Open. Federer has won 13 Grand Slams and perhaps he will match or surpass Sampras' mark but Nadal has clearly established himself as the best active player--and how can Federer be the greatest of all-time when he is not even the greatest of his time while still in his (late) prime years?

17 comments:

Saurabh said...

great post, but i would like to add a perspective. it doesn't necessarily need to be that if an athlete is not able to have an unchallenged dominance, he is the best. it also depends on the quality of competition during his time.. tennis today is irrefutably far more competetive than it was in bjorg's or pete's time.. so, the job of finding an all time best becomes a tough one..like comparing apples with oranges .
but great job for the post !

Anonymous said...

Dont be jealous of Federer. He is way more skilled than Borg and Nadal. He has 13 GS titles in 6 yrs. Borg lost 4 US open finals. He cud nt manage to win either the us open or the oz open, even once.
Regarding Nadal, he is well on his way to greatness. But, GOAT talk is premature.

Till now, Federer is the greatest

Anonymous said...

Very nice articles on this site, but one question. How can you say that Borg was "dominant" from 1974 to 1981 when in 1977 Vilas won two slams and in 1981 McEnroe won two slams beating Borg in 4 sets in the finals of the 2 biggest tournaments of the year (Wimbledon and the US Open). Borg was an incredible player and was dominant for three years (78-80) until he ran out of steam and burnt out in 81. Federer has burnt out a little bit after the 4 best years in the history of tennis (11/16 majors), and now it is the time to see if he can get back to #1 and confirm his place as the GOAT before Nadal takes it away.

madnice said...

Anonymous.....you cant say Federer is the greatest. You cant equate that. Borg played with a wooden racket. The times are so different. And right now Federer cant even beat Nadal. And he definitely cant beat Nadal on grass.

Saurabh...how is tennis more competitive now when the only match worth watching is Federer vs Nadal? The Djokovics, Roddicks, the Murrays etc never win any majors. So how competitive are they? The 70s, 80s and 90s was way more competitive. The game now is faster indeed but the technical aspect and overall match play was better back then.

David Friedman said...

Saurabh:

I agree that deciding who is the all-time greatest player is not an easy task.

I have provided my reasons for choosing Borg as the greatest Open Era (post-1968) player but there are certainly reasons that can be cited to support other players such as Sampras and Federer.

However, I would be interested to know what basis you have for saying that the competition is better now than it was during Borg's time. Borg battled against Connors and McEnroe, plus (at the French Open) various clay court specialists, including Vilas, who set a record for consecutive wins on that surface that stood until Nadal broke it recently.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I'm not "jealous" of Federer; I am analyzing his career in comparison with the careers of other Open Era greats.

As Lee suggested in his comments, it would be much closer to the truth to say that Borg was a more skilled all-around player than Federer.

Borg only played in Australia once, very early in his career. That tournament simply did not--and does not--have the status of the other three Slams. It is more impressive to have won 11 Wimbeldons/French Opens than to have won 13 total Slams when the latter total includes three Australian Opens but no French Opens.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Borg won 11 of the 27 Grand Slam events that he entered during his career, which is the highest winning percentage in the Open Era. He won 89.8% of his matches in Grand Slam events (141-16), which is also an Open Era record. Those numbers, plus his "triple double" (winning Wimbledon/French from 1978-80), are why I referred to 1974-81 as a period of dominance for Borg. He also won at least one Slam in each of those years, the longest such streak in tennis history (Sampras later matched that total).

EL said...

"how can Federer be the greatest of all-time when he is not even the greatest of his time while still in his (late) prime years?"

I like the way you present your arguments in the post by I have to disagree. From 2003-2007 Federer was dominant in the sport in a way that is very rarely seen in history. The fact the Nadal has a much better head-to-head record does not tell the whole story. Nadal has been virtually unbeatable on clay since 2005, but Federer has been at the same time the undisputed second best clay court player in the world, while also the undisputed best player in all other surfaces. Nadal commonly lost to lower ranked players in hard courts and grass until last year. The above factors led to a situation where the two player meet on the clay court disproportionate amount of times.

Due to their seeding they would only play each other in later rounds, but on non-clay Nadal was usually out already and Federer would proceed to win the tournament; On clay the two of them would face each other over and over again in the final, where Nadal is a distinctly better player.

In tennis the prime years of top players are very short. A lot of elite players declined after reaching 25. I don't think Federer is as good as he was few years ago. It remains to be seen how long Nadal can sustain his level of play.

Any head to head record only reflects the match up at that point in time. As an example Steffi Graf is without doubt one of the top 3 female players of all time. But there was a span during her prime when Monica Seles absolutely owned her, until she got stabbed in the back during a match and was never the same again. Graf went on to regain world number one and won several more Grand Slams. If the stabbing didn't happen it would be logical to predict that Seles would have more slams in her career while Graf would have fewer. Now Monica did not have as great a career as Graf, but during those years Seles was clearly the better player.

Likewise Nadal is the better player now but it can not be extended that he is the better player period. We can only analyse after both careers are completed.

Right now for Nadal to catch up with Federer will have to sustain his level for at least 2 more year, we'll have to wait and see.

Anonymous said...

Again, nice statistics, but here is my response.

In Borg's prime, he won his 11 slams in a stretch of 21 slams played. In Federer's prime, he won his 11 slams in 16 played and 12 slams in 18 played. Who cares how old you are or how long it takes you to develop? Yes, Borg was the best teenager in tennis history and Federer was a late bloomer. The point is that Federer won as many slams in 4 years as Borg did in 8, which was his entire career.

Yes, Borg did not play Australia, but the grass there was much faster than at Wimbledon, and when he played there in one of his "dominant" years he lost in the 3rd round in an era when the great players like Connors claim that the competition at slams was non-existent until the quarterfinals. (Connors, not one of the GOAT candidates, made the quarterfinals in every slam he played from 1974-82, an all-time record of 27 straight in slams played.)

The competition back in Borg's day was nowhere near as deep as today. Considering that only a small fraction of the number of people in world who play tennis today, played back then (i.e. the world population is up 50% and tennis is much more popular around the world), it is not hard to see why. Ask any professional player back then and they will tell you that Federer and Nadal are just ridiculously good. That is why their matches against the rest of the competition are often not very close. You can argue about aesthetics and technique as much as you want. The point is that the game is much more athletic now and technique is not enough to get you into the top echelon of the game like it could in the 20th century.

Yes, you can only play against the competition that you are dealt. But the point is that it is ridiculous to hold greats post-1990 to the same statistical standards as those pre-1990. In the 70s and 80s, there were four players, only one of whom was a legitimate GOAT candidate, with career (700+ matches) match winning percentages above 80% (Borg, Lendl, Connors, and McEnroe). Since 1990, Federer is the only player (Nadal, another GOAT candidate, may become the 2nd) above 77.5%.

Tennis cannot be analyzed by stats alone. Some perspective, tennis experience, and context analysis are required. Federer is playing in an era with another legitimate GOAT candidate whereas Sampras and Borg, the other two open era candidates, did not. We shall see if Federer can continue to win a slam or two for a few more years and how many more years Nadal can last.

Anonymous said...

Federer had a quadruple double (2004-7) on fast hard courts and the modern slow grass courts at the two slams with the most status nowadays (Wimbledon and the US Open). And I guess if you agree that the Australian Open does not have very much status, then Nadal's victory is not very significant. Wimbledon this year will be huge.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

My main point about Federer in these various posts is that it was premature to call him the greatest player of the Open Era, let alone the greatest player of all-time. I still don't believe that he has surpassed Borg and he has not clearly bettered Sampras, either. Then, when you consider that Federer has a contemporary who has been so dominant against him that just makes it all the more obvious that Federer has not established himself as the greatest of all-time or greatest of the Open Era.

The Graf-Seles example is not really a good comparison to Nadal-Federer because the Graf-Seles rivalry did not come to a logical, on court conclusion; Seles was clearly not the same emotionally or physically after the attack, so we will never know what kind of career she might have had otherwise. Also, by the time Seles emerged, Graf had already won a Golden Slam (Grand Slam + Olympic gold medal in 1988) and was more accomplished than Federer at a similar stage. Before Seles was stabbed, Graf enjoyed a 6-4 head to head advantage, though Seles had been winning more Slams recently.

I don't think that there is an example of someone being considered the best ever at anything when he or she had a contemporary who enjoyed a decisive head to head advantage.

I agree that a complete analysis cannot be done until both Nadal and Federer's careers are over; that is why I have not only criticized anointing Federer but I have refrained from anointing Nadal as well. My choice for greatest Open Era player is Borg.

Anonymous said...

Borg lost his last 3 meetings (7-7 overall) with McEnroe and more importantly his last 3 slam finals against McEnroe (1-3 overall) before retiring. He certainly did not feel up to straightening out this trend. Federer could have quit at the end of 2007 at age 26 just like Borg did with back to back wins over Nadal (6-8 overall) and more importantly being 2-2 in slam finals. (Federer would have had 12 majors vs. Borg's 11 at this point.) But I guess the best thing to do in life is to quit when the going gets tough... it's a matter of opinion.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Borg played in Australia very early in his career, just before he began building his impressive Slams resume by winning his first French Open title (Borg posted an 11-3 match record in Slams in 1974).

I'm sure that there is a larger number of competent tennis pros now than there were in the 1970s but is the talent level really higher at the very top? Borg contended with elder statesmen Laver and Emerson, plus Ashe, Nastase, Gerulaitis, Connors, Vilas, McEnroe and even a young Lendl. Those are all well recognized, "name" players. How many of today's players will be considered "name" players in a historical sense?

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Federer has an impressive resume, without question, and his Wimbledon/U.S. Open feats are significant--but I think that most tennis experts would agree that the Wimbledon/French Open double that Borg pulled off three times and Nadal has done once is even more impressive and difficult.

I don't put any more weight on Nadal's Australian open win than on any other Australian open victories--it is the least prestigious Slam--but the one thing that is significant about it is that Nadal bested Federer on yet another surface, reinforcing the point that his advantage over Federer runs deeper than just being a clay court specialist.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

It is purely speculation to talk about what Borg "felt up to" doing. Borg disagreed with the rules of the tennis governing authorities at the time; he wanted to pare back his playing schedule--much like Tiger Woods does--but if he did not play in a minimum number of events then by rule he would have been forced to play in qualifiers at the Slams. Can you imagine asking a six-time French Open champion and five-time Wimbledon champion to play in qualifiers at those events because he did not play in the Podunk Open? If those rules had been changed at that time--as they eventually were--then Borg may very well have kept playing in the Slams and a few other events. As McEnroe has candidly admitted, if Borg had kept playing McEnroe would not have won every match. Borg would have won his share of Slams and almost certainly would have picked up a few more French Open crowns.

Did Borg "quit" or did he retire at the top? In his last year, Borg won one Slam and made it to the finals in the other two Slams that he entered. In Jim Brown's final season, he won the MVP but his team lost in the championship game. Did he "quit" or did he retire at the top? As you said, "it's a matter of opinion."

Ardell Young said...

It appears that persons posting comments that Federer is the GOAT do not understand the tennis politics of the 1970s-80s, which forced Borg to play more events to continue being seeded in the grand slams or step away from the game.

After ten years in professional tennis, he chose to stop playing on the tour.

If you saw Borg play between 1977-81, you were watching the most dominant player to ever play tennis. He beat everybody on the tour (I believe he won 12 of last 14 matches against Connors and Connors was no patsy).

Borg posted career winning records against every major tennis player of his era. He was 7-7 with McEnroe.

Federer has career losing records with Nadal, Murray, and is something like 16-14 with Nole and will likely end up with a losing record with him.

I believe Federer is one of the top five players of all-time but he is not better than Borg.

David Friedman said...

Ardell:

You are 100% correct and your comment is a welcome departure from the kinds of comments that I have often received when I write articles on this subject; I have discovered that many of my readers are very passionate about tennis but they are not necessarily well informed about tennis history to the extent that you obviously are.