Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Debunking Myths About Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Roger Federer

If you are only a casual tennis fan and/or are too young to remember the early 1980s, then you might believe the popular fiction that after Bjorn Borg lost to John McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open Final he walked off of the court and never played professional tennis again (save for a brief comeback in the early 1990s and some matches on the senior tour). McEnroe has done nothing to discourage people from accepting that version of events as the truth and journalist Mike Lupica is fond of repeating McEnroe's statement that Borg retired because Borg mistakenly believed that McEnroe would never mess up. Lupica and others--including McEnroe himself--claim that McEnroe never quite reached the heights that he was capable of reaching because in some way McEnroe mourned Borg's premature exit from center stage and thus never pushed himself as hard as he could have. That is a completely illogical contention, because if Borg had kept playing a full schedule well into the 1980s it is highly likely that McEnroe would have won fewer events as opposed to enjoying greater success.

Although many people act like Borg retired in 1981, he won four big money events in 1982 and did not officially announce his retirement from professional tennis until January 1983. So why did Borg not play in any Grand Slams after the 1981 U.S. Open? The International Tennis Federation ruled that any player must participate in a minimum number of sanctioned tournaments in order to avoid having to play in the qualifying rounds at the Grand Slams. Borg--the four-time defending French Open champion who won a record six French Opens overall and also won a record five straight Wimbledons--understandably did not feel like he should have to play in qualifiers under any circumstances. So, in 1982 he skipped the Grand Slams rather than obey this silly rule. Though Borg did not play in the number of events that the lords of the sport thought that he should have played in, he was still training and, if anything, his game was actually getting better in some ways; he became stronger and he was serving harder than he ever had before: if you don't believe that or are still convinced that Borg could no longer handle McEnroe after 1981, consider what happened in November 1982 in the Akai Gold Challenge Round Robin; Borg won the event by defeating the number one ranked McEnroe 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 and trouncing Ivan Lendl--who just months later would become the number one ranked player--6-1, 6-4, 6-2. Check out Borg's speed, power and deft shotmaking versus McEnroe:

In that footage you will notice how Borg repeatedly bludgeoned McEnroe with savage two-handed backhand winners. The interesting thing about Borg's two-handed backhand is that when it was subjected to frame by frame analysis (not specifically from this match but earlier in Borg's career) it turned out that Borg was actually flexing his left arm muscles more than his right arm muscles; in other words, Borg's two-handed backhand was, in effect, a left handed forehand!

A lot of people are entertaining themselves with delusions about how McEnroe would have done versus Borg in Grand Slams in the 1980s or what a hypothetical Borg-Federer matchup would look like. The above 1982 footage clearly refutes any notion that McEnroe had flustered or bewildered Borg. Federer has consistently struggled versus Rafael Nadal--a fit clay court specialist who has adapted his game to other surfaces--and Federer would not have fared any better versus Borg, a fit clay court specialist who not only adapted his game to other surfaces even better than Nadal has but was also savvier and possessed more touch than Nadal.

Borg still holds the record for being the youngest player to win 11 Grand Slams (25)--and he never played in a Grand Slam after the age of 25! This is kind of like Jim Brown retiring from the NFL at the age of 29 while holding the all-time career rushing record. Other players have rushed for more yards than Brown but there are not too many knowledgeable observers who believe that current record holder Emmitt Smith was a greater running back than Brown--and Federer is not the greatest tennis player of all-time just because he has won a record 15 career Grand Slams.

Two important factors are not properly considered when people compare Federer to Borg:

1) Borg's overall Grand Slam record is more impressive than Federer's.

Borg won 11 out of the 27 Grand Slams he entered (a .407 winning percentage that is an Open Era record). Borg won seven of the final 12 Slams that he entered and made the Finals in 11 of his final 12 Slams. His career match record in Slams is 141-16 (.898), the best such winning percentage in the Open Era. Borg's "triple double" (winning the Wimbledon and French titles in the same year three years in a row, 1978-80) is unprecedented in tennis history and will not likely be duplicated. Borg won three different Slam titles without losing a set, something no other player has done more than once.

At one time, Borg held the record for being youngest French Open champion (18 in 1974) and youngest Wimbledon champion (20 in 1976; he also was the youngest Italian Open champion and youngest player to win a Davis Cup match--and he still holds the latter record); in contrast, by the time Federer was 20 years old he had yet to win a Grand Slam title and had amassed five first round losses in Slams.

Borg made the semis in 17 out of 27 Slams, made the quarters in 20 out of 27 and never lost in the first round; Federer has made the semis in 23 out of 41 Slams, has made the quarters in 25 out of 41 and has lost in the first round six times.

It is also important to remember that in the 1970s most of the top non-Australian players skipped the Australian Open; Borg played there just once, at 18 years of age in 1974, Jimmy Connors only played there twice, Arthur Ashe played in four of the 13 Australian Opens held during his career and Ilie Nastase--the first player classified as number one in the world when the ATP began using computer rankings in 1973--played in the Australian Open once (1981) in a Grand Slam career spanning 1966-1985. John McEnroe, whose Grand Slam career lasted from 1977-92, played in just five Australian Opens. Federer's Grand Slam total includes three Australian Open wins. Referring back to the NFL analogy, comparing Federer's 15 Grand Slam wins to Borg's 11 is like comparing Emmitt Smith's rushing total to Jim Brown's without taking into consideration that Smith played for 15 seasons compared to Brown's nine and that during Smith's career the NFL season lasted 16 games instead of the 12 or 14 games that a season lasted during Brown's era; Federer's Grand Slam career has already lasted 11 years compared to Borg's nine, so Federer has had many more opportunities to pad his Grand Slam total--and he has done just that by winning an event that was so insignificant during Borg's era that many of the top players regularly skipped it. It took Federer 14 extra Slam appearances to produce four more Slam wins than Borg--and three of those "extra" wins came at the least important Slam.

2) The importance of the Grand Slam events has changed in the past few decades.

Prior to reading this article, you probably had never heard of the aforementioned Akai Gold Challenge and therefore you surely must wonder how important it could have been. That event may be largely forgotten now, but it was very important to the players at that time: it featured a larger prize fund than the Grand Slams did! Part of the reason that so many players skipped the Australian Open in the 1970s is that the event's prize fund was meager but even the more prestigious Slams were not the highest paying tournaments in the world at the time. For instance, the Pepsi Grand Slam was held annually from 1976-81; the invitation-only tournament featured a field of four players who had most recently won one of tennis' traditional Grand Slam events. As Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick noted in a January 31, 1977 article about Borg's Pepsi Grand Slam win over Connors, "Borg's $100,000 first prize was more than the entire amount he earned in winning his 1976 Wimbledon and WCT titles. Connors' winner's paycheck of $30,000 at Forest Hills was less than his runner-up Grand Slam take of $50,000." Borg won the Pepsi Grand Slam four straight years (1977-80), consistently besting the other top players in the world in a high stakes event that paid significantly more than the Grand Slams did.

While it has become very fashionable to talk about Grand Slam win totals, that was not the primary consideration for players in the 1970s--as indicated by the fact that three of the four players ranked number one in the world by the ATP during that decade (Nastase, Connors, Borg) regularly did not play in one fourth of the Grand Slam events (Australian John Newcombe, who was ranked number one for eight weeks in 1974, won a pair of Australian Open titles). Sure, players from that era aspired to win whichever Grand Slam event best suited their playing style but no one could match Borg's consistent, simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open success. Nowadays, it is easier for players to travel around to all four Slams and the tennis bureaucracy--while far from perfect--is much more professional than it was over 30 years ago, when there was constant infighting among various organizations, which resulted in various players being banned from or boycotting certain Slams.

Wilt Chamberlain once said that if he had thought that anyone was going to break his all-time NBA career scoring record then he would have put it "way out of sight." If Borg had been interested in setting the career Grand Slam record, then he would have annually journeyed down to Australia and most likely dominated that event the way that he dominated Wimbledon and the French Open--and he certainly would not have skipped the 1982 French Open when a victory there would have tied Roy Emerson's then record total of 12 Grand Slams (six of which were Australian Open titles won by the amateur Australian player between 1961 and 1967; professional players were banned from playing in any of the Slams until the start of the Open Era in 1968).

After Borg officially announced his retirement, Ashe said, "I think Bjorn could have won the U.S. Open. I think he could have won the Grand Slam (i.e., win all four Slams in one calendar year). But by the time he left, the historical challenge didn't mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody."


st said...


authored by joel drucker, who's an accomplished tennis journalist.

It certainly sounds that you are cherry picking quotes. If you feel that Arthur Ashe's comments on borg are valuable, then how can you dismiss mcenroe's, lendl's, wilander, or many of the other tennis legends' comments on how federer is the greatest player to ever play the game. I'm not saying that he is the greatest player to ever play the game. All i'm saying is that you are not being consistent by using Ashe's comments to support your argument, when you dismiss other tennis legends' praise towards other players.

David Friedman said...


Drucker may be "accomplished" but that does not mean that his word is always golden.

The column that you cited makes no sense. First Drucker belittles Borg's French Open record, despite the fact that Borg won a record six French Open titles and retired as the four-time defending champion at that event--and then Drucker praises Ken Rosewall's two wins at "tennis' most grueling tournament." I cannot take seriously someone whose math skills are so faulty that he believes that two wins at Roland Garros--during an era when for part of the time the pros were not even allowed to play there--are more impressive than Borg's six wins.

Borg did not have a matchup problem with any player of his era, unlike Federer, who not only has a losing record against Nadal but also has a losing record against Andy Murray as well. Considering that Borg made it to the Finals in his last six Grand Slam appearances, it certainly is reasonable to believe that what Ashe said is plausible. The Akai event footage shows that it is not true to suggest either that Borg thought that he could not beat McEnroe and/or that McEnroe's game somehow befuddled Borg. Despite not being a Tour regular by that time, in the Akai event Borg dispatched the current number one player (McEnroe) and the soon to be number one player (Lendl) in a high stakes event played on a fast surface.

Recently Sports Illustrated correctly questioned why Federer has been prematurely crowned as the greatest player of all-time, a question that I asked years ago. Then Nadal got hurt, Federer won two Slams without facing his greatest rival and now SI is back on the Federer bandwagon, when the reality is that nothing has changed--Federer has still not proven that he is better than Nadal.

Anonymous said...


he stopped at 25 he played less tournaments than federer at peak federer was way more dominant he won 21 striaght semi while the record was 12 he won 15 grand slams in 6 years. bjordg was on way down why he retired early he wouldnt of won more grandslams thAn federer he good t better tan roger.

David Friedman said...


Borg made the Finals of the last six Slams that he entered, winning three of them. Did you watch the footage that I posted here? Borg was hardly "on the way down." Borg smashed McEnroe and Lendl in a big money event in 1982, more than a year after his last Grand Slam appearance. Borg would certainly have won the French in 1982 and would have had an excellent chance to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open as well (he also could have won the Australian but, like most top pros of his era, he was not interested in playing there).

I do not understand why you think that making it to 21 straight semis is more impressive than the fact that Borg has a better winning percentage in Slams than Federer--both in terms of matches and in terms of winning 11 titles in just 27 appearances--and that Borg also appeared in the semis and quarters at higher percentages than Federer. Federer has lost in the first round at Slams six times--Borg never lost in the first round at a Slam--and Federer has a contemporary (Nadal) who beats him like a drum. No one talks about it much, but Federer has another contemporary--Andy Murray--who also beats him like a drum. Federer has put up some nice stats but his record is not more impressive than Borg's, nor does Federer possess a better skill set.

Anonymous said...


thats all selective thinking federer wasnt as good his first couple years but since 03 he has been the greatest ever bjorg has higher percetage 40 percent grand slams 11/27 to fed 37 15/41 and semi because he was in less tournaments and grand slams than fed he would of played another 15-20 like fed the percentage would of went down fed peak he was better than bjorg and more dominant as well than bjorg was. mcenroe had tooken over the tour in 82 bjorg was on the way down he might of won a couple tournments but the tour belong to mcenroe it was obvious he was getting better bjorg was not fed more dominant player than anyone bjorg or anybody.

David Friedman said...


You are making my case for me. Borg was great from the start, setting numerous records for being the youngest ever to win various tournaments, including Wimbledon, the French Open, the Italian Open, etc. Borg won at least one Slam every year from 1974-1981. That is dominant. Borg won 11 Slams at a younger age than anyone in tennis history. Considering Borg's record in his last several Slams, there is no reason to think that his percentages would have gone down any time soon. Again, did you watch the video that I posted here of Borg dismantling McEnroe? Instead of posting the same comments over and over, watch the video and you will see that Borg was not declining, nor did McEnroe have his number.

After Borg retired, the next four French Open winners were Wilander, Noah, Lendl and Wilander again. Wilander was Borg's old hitting partner and he openly admitted in 1982 that if Borg had played Borg would have won. Borg regularly beat Lendl. Noah did not have the game in 1983 to handle Borg. If Borg had even just played until he was 30 he probably would have picked up four more French Open titles and that alone would be enough for him to still be ahead of Federer--without even taking into account that Borg and most of the other top pros of the era skipped the Australian Open, where Borg could easily have picked up several more Grand Slams. Purely looking at total Grand Slam wins is the wrong way to determine who the greatest tennis player is.

After his first 27 Slams, Federer had just four wins! Federer lost in the first round at a Slam six times. Federer has cleaned up on lesser competition recently but he consistently loses to his biggest contemporary rival, Nadal--and now Andy Murray has emerged as yet another player who regularly beats Federer.

As I indicated, Federer is like Emmitt Smith: he holds some career records and has earned a place for himself in his sport's history but he is not the greatest of all-time.

Anonymous said...


1. bjorg and sampras didnt win on all surfaces fed has you cant be best of era when you cant win all surfaces.

2. fed was better on there best surfaces than both grass haveing 6 wimbledon too there five.

3. he won 15 majors in 6 years sampras won 12 in 12 years bjorg won 11 in 7 years so how are they more dominant?

4. mcenroe lendl sampras have said fed was best ever how could that be dismissed and so has many other tennis people.

5. nadal has a ways to go and have to stay healthy to be better than roger head to head he has beat him but he is not as dominant on all surfaces as fed he just beat him on hardcourt this year he been on tour five years.

fed is best of era.

David Friedman said...


Federer has not beaten the best clay court player of his era on clay at the French; Federer's victory this year at the French sans a healthy Nadal does not make Federer greater than Borg.

Federer was not better on grass than Borg. Each won five straight Wimbledons. Borg beat McEnroe and Connors in Wimbledon Finals--two of the 10 best players in tennis history. Federer has not beaten anyone in a Wimbledon Final who would be considered a top 10 player in the history of the sport (Nadal may one day have that status).

Reread my previous comments/posts; I make it quite clear exactly why Borg should be considered more dominant than Federer: Borg's Grand Slam percentages (match winning percentages, percentage of events won, semifinals reached, etc., etc.) are better than Federer's in every category. Bottom line: 11/27 is better than 15/41, particularly when 3 of the 15 come in the Australian, by far the least important Slam (particularly in Borg's day).

Nadal has beaten Federer on every surface, has a 5-2 edge in Grand Slam Finals and in the past year Nadal beat Federer in the French, Wimbledon and Australian Finals. It is far from clear that Federer will be considered the dominant player of the post-Sampras era. Federer's career totals are better than Nadal's but Federer is older; Nadal is way ahead of Federer's pace and already has a commanding head to head lead. I can't put Federer ahead of Borg when Federer is still dealing with a challenge from someone in his own era--and then there is the "little matter" of Murray dominating Federer, also.

Just because some people have rushed to judgment about Federer's place in history does not mean that I have to make the same mistake. Federer is a great player, one of the greatest of all-time--but he should by no means be considered the consensus best player of the Open Era, let alone the greatest player of all-time.

st said...


a good article on players that should be considered in the GOAT conversation. As robert geist noted, it is too difficult to compare players from different eras, so whether it is borg or federer, there will never be a definitive answer to this question. One can pose many arguments for each player, but there is no broad measure that can fairly evaluate a players' accomplishments across several decades. However, like geist noted, there is a consensus on which players should be included, namely, tilden, gonzales, rosewall, laver, borg, sampras, and federer. So when the most preeminent tennis historian of today is unable to award the GOAT status to any of the seven players listed, then I think it's too tough of a task for us tennis fans to reward a player with the GOAT status. Let's just leave it at that.

David Friedman said...


If you've been paying attention to my posts and my comments, that is precisely the point that I have been making all along: there has been this rush to crown Federer as the Greatest of All-Time, while I strenuously object to awarding him that title. In my opinion, Borg has the best Open Era resume for the reasons that I have previously stated. Many of the points that Geist made in his article I previously made in my articles on this subject: the greatness of players from bygone eras has been overlooked, the strength of the competition has not increased over the years--contrary to popular belief--the record keeping in tennis is spotty and the meaning/importance of various events has changed over time (Federer's career Grand Slam total includes three Australian Opens but that event was so minor during Borg's career that he only played there once; if Borg had played there regularly he likely would have won multiple titles and probably would still reign as the career Grand Slam leader even with his early retirement).

Also, Raymond Lee--who is cited in Geist's article--has stated, both publicly and in private correspondence with me, that he agrees with me that Federer should not yet be ranked ahead of Borg.

Anonymous said...


1. fed made every french open final the last 4 years nadal was better on clay the previous 3 fed beat nadal right before french he probably would of beat him in french this year but he is great on all surfaces and won on all surfaces he is not best of era on clay my point was he is great on clay as well as grass and hardcourt where bjorg was not dominant on hardcourt and sampras not on clay.

2. fed cant control who he played he beat roddick twice and nadal and the other 3 players he beat bjorg beat connors and mcenroe okay fed got 6 he got 5 so he was better on grass or won more on grass than bjorg who they played is another argument he beat everybody in front of him.

3. he has better percentage because he played less grandslams if he played 41 grand slams like fed he would have lower percentage fed was more dominant at peak value 15 in 6 years you cant look at whole career and look at percentages because bjorg had a shorter career so his percentage was going to be higher?

4. nadal beat fed at 3 fench open wimbledon and australian open fed beat him twice he juyst beat nadal and nadal has health issues so he is not better than fed and fed was on way down when nadal started beating him last year 06 and 07 fed was alot better than nadal.

5. he is the best of open era bjorg is nice mcenroe nice nadal noce no federer he the best david.

David Friedman said...


If you are going to credit Federer for all of the French Open Finals that he made before winning that event this year then you also have to credit Borg for making it to four U.S. Open Finals.

Borg went 51-4 in Wimbledon matches; Federer has gone 51-5 so far in Wimbledon matches--but Federer has lost in the first round at Wimbledon three times, while Borg never lost in the first round at any Slam. As I have demonstrated repeatedly in this thread, Borg has a more dominant Slam record (by percentages) than Federer.

As I mentioned above, Federer had just four wins in his first 27 Slams, compared to Borg's 11 wins in 27 career Slams, so your argument that Borg's percentages are better because he played in fewer Slams is bogus. Borg was still a dominant player when he retired and likely could have maintained those same percentages for a few more years (he was an absolute lock at the French Open and would have been a strong contender at the others).

Federer has not beaten a healthy Nadal in quite some time. You can definitely make a case that Federer is more durable than Nadal but that is not at all the same thing as saying that Federer is a better player; the head to head record speaks for itself--and Nadal has not even entered his prime yet.

My point is that Federer should not simply be declared to be the greatest Open Era player or greatest player of all time by default; a very compelling Open Era case can be made for Borg, while Laver certainly has to be in the discussion for greatest player of all-time.

Unknown said...

Whomever posted Joel Drucker as an authority:

First of all, ESPN has the worst, most consistently wrong sports "journalists" of all time.

Second, Drucker thinks that Ken Rosewall is greater than Bjorn Borg. Ergo, his opinion is worth no more than toilet paper.

I suspect Drucker will next be writing an article on how much better a President Martin Van Buren was than Abraham Lincoln.

Borg won 11 slams out of only 27 tries. For me, that ends the discussion. The 3 consecutive French-Wimby doubles and 89.8 percent Grand Slam win percentage are merely icing on the cake. Borg = GOAT.

st said...

as robert geist noted, no player, not borg, or federer, can be called the greatest player of all time, so it's a lost cause trying to annoint either of them as being the greatest of all time.

David Friedman said...


Borg's outstanding, unmatched Grand Slam winning percentages certainly make a compelling case for calling him the greatest player of all-time--or, at the very least, the greatest player of the Open Era.

David Friedman said...


I agree that it is difficult to single out one player above all others, particularly in tennis, which is divided into at least two very distinct eras (Open and pre-Open). I certainly object to using Grand Slam win totals as the primary reason to elevate Federer above Borg, because the raw win totals are not the most important statistic. As I have said, I think that a compelling case can be made that Borg is the greatest Open Era player.

st said...


great article

st said...


an article that reveals interesting facts. i thought i would post it up since this is a site for general sports talk.

this is my favourite fact

"Worldwide, US sports clubs are relatively puny brands. The New York Yankees, Boston Celtics and New England Patriots – biggest in their sports in recent years – have each inspired only about a fifth as many global searches as Manchester United since 2004. Real Madrid’s lead is even bigger: it has prompted almost seven times as many searches as the Yankees, the most searched-for American team."

i always come across people who strictly follow american sports, and it's troubling that they think american sports attract the most viewers, what nonsense. Whilst this article concerns itself with google searches, the gulf between viewership is even more startling. The superbowl, which is considered to be the largest sporting event in terms of viewers, doesn't even compare to an ordinary premier league game between arsenal and manchester united. If i'm not mistaken, the superbowl attracts between 100-200 million viewers, whereas, an arsenal vs manchester united league game (just league, not even champions league final) attracts close to 2 billion viewers.

Football (or soccer for americans) is by far the most global sport in the world

David Friedman said...


I think that the Super Bowl actually attracts upwards of a billion viewers worldwide (your 100-200 million figure likely only accounts for American viewers). American football is primarily only played in America, while soccer is very popular worldwide, so the fact that the Super Bowl attracts as much global interest as it does is actually quite remarkable. You are right, though, that most Americans probably do not have a good sense of the relative popularity of various sports from a global perspective; soccer and F1 racing are huge throughout the world but are almost afterthoughts in the USA.

st said...

you proved my point, that the superbowl doesn't have the world wide appeal that football has, and we are just comparing the superbowl, which is the most important game of the season for american football, to an ordinary league game in the english premier league. If you were to compare a league game in the NFL, for example, the 4th game of the season for New England Patriots, it would hardly compare to a league game for the English premier league or La Liga (spanish domestic league). The fact is that american football doesn't have a global appeal like football, it's as simple as that, and americans for some odd reason, are under the false impression that american football has more coverage than any other sport, which is laughable.

Anonymous said...


he won the french bjorg never won the us open thats the diffrence.

bjorg didnt win 6 wimbledon he won 5 straight so did federer who made 7 straight wimmbledon finals and won 6 early in federer career he wasnt as good as now obviously but at peak he is better than everybody in the open era since 04 he has made it to semifinals in every grandslam but 1 bjorg was never that dominant at any time in his career and he won more grand slams in a shorter span.

bjorg grand slam percentage is 40 fed is 38 virtually the same shows how dominant fed has been last 6 years be it that 98-02 he never won a slam where bjorg won slam early in his career and played alot less grandslams than fed did so he more dominant is bogus be it that they virtually have the same percentage and bjorg had the advantage. and if i take 41 3 and you take 27 3 and we go by percentage your percentage will be higher than mine if were both great 3 pointshooters like they were both great tennis players david.

nadal in his prime he got 6 by 23 he on pace for fed possibly but he has health issue and fed will win more slms so wont know the number it will be win fed retires.

more compelling argument could be made for fed than bjorg because he had a longer career more durable and was more dominant.

David Friedman said...


You are just repeating the same points without adding any new information. The simple fact is that Borg's winning percentages in Slams are better than Federer's in every sense, as I demonstrated previously--and Borg played in enough Slams that sample size is not an issue. Federer's six first round losses compared to Borg's none indicate that Federer is not as dominant as you suggest.

You are not taking into consideration who Borg faced compared to who Federer faced, nor are you acknowledging that Federer has a losing record against two contemporaries (Nadal and Murray).

Borg won at least one Grand Slam for eight straight years--and he only played three Slams a year, because the Australian Open was not considered to be that important at that time. While it is true that Federer has been durable, Borg also was very durable; in addition to his Grand Slam wins and his other "official" tournament wins, he also won plenty of "unofficial" events; you have to understand that tennis in that era was completely different than tennis in this era. The footage in this post of Borg demolishing McEnroe came from an event that was not "official" and yet paid a higher prize fund than the Slams did at that time.

David Friedman said...


I'm not sure that most Americans really believe that American football has more global appeal than any other sport; I just think that most Americans do not know--or care--that much about sports like soccer and F1 racing; Americans realize that those sports are hugely popular but most Americans do not follow those sports closely.

David Friedman said...


Do you consider Emmitt Smith to be a greater and/or more dominant running back than Jim Brown? Smith holds the NFL career rushing record but Brown has the advantage in yards per carry and yards per game, much like Borg has the advantage over Federer in terms of Grand Slam percentages.

Anonymous said...

1. During the time he was healthy, Nadal is indubitably the best clay court player ever--better than Borg for whom his wins at RG are so important to his standings. How then Borg be the best of all time?

2. Nadal's grinding style of play is terribly self-destructive. Nadal could not defend his RG title, due to his body breaking down (and possibly due to more rigorous anti-doping efforts by the ATP). Hence, Federer essentially beat Nadal.

3. One might reasonably conjecture that no one else could enter the all time top 10 in tennis during Federer and Nadal's era(s), because the two were overwhelmingly dominant.

4. Nadal plays left and with extreme top spin. Why do you think Uncle Tony pushed Rafa to go left? To suggest Borg would pose a real threat to Federer in a dream matchup, just because there exists a player (Nadal) who caused Federer trouble, is to ignore the single, most obvious reason for Nadal's success against all players (including the lefty Verdasco): Nadal is a lefty.

5. At 5'11" and 160lbs., Borg is too tiny to dominate in the modern era. Even Federer is starting to look tiny, but he still manages to win the big ones.

6. Federer was dealt serious blows with mononucleosis and a back injury, yet battled back to top form and the #1 ranking, all the while in the public eye and never missing a slam.

7. Federer never dropped out of the mainstream of tennis during the height of his prowess or career.

Borg has got Federer in one area: on-court emotions. Federer is far more restrained than most but he is still clearly an emotional guy and often chokes on key points that would otherwise have ensured his victory. See for example the 11/12 break points he lost to Nadal in the 2008 Wimby final. Or consider that Federer didn't have the physical and emotional maturity to win his first slam until he was almost 23 years old.

Unlike Borg, Federer's pro career isn't over either. You should take another look back in, say, 3-4 more years.

Anonymous said...

Borg required 5 sets to beat Roscoe Tanner in the 1977 Wimbledon final. Borg required 5 sets each to beat Manuel Orantes and Victor Pecci in 1974 and 1977 FO finals, respectively. You call those impressive wins?

If you look at Federer's slam record since 2001, the year he knocked out Sampras, it's as good as Borg's. Actually, it's better than Borg's, because Federer has since that time played significantly more matches in slams than Borg ever did. The tour is also more competitive today because it draws players from a much larger population pool than in Borg's day. With your logic, though, after Federer retires, you'll likely want to count his declining statistics so you can say Borg had the best overall career statistics in slams, thus making Borg the best player in tennis history. (ugh!)

David Friedman said...


1: You provide absolutely no evidence to prove your bold assertion that Nadal is the greatest clay court player ever. Borg won 49 of his 51 matches at Roland Garros, captured the title in six of his eight appearances and retired as the four-time defending champion. Nadal is 31-1 at Roland Garros and has won the event four of the five times he played there. Nadal may yet surpass Borg's record six titles but at this point Nadal has not proved that he is the greatest clay court player ever and he certainly has not "indubitably" proved this to be the case.

2: This is an incredible reach. Federer did not beat Nadal at the French; Federer won the French for the first time because he did not have to face Nadal at full strength. It is premature to assume that Nadal's body is breaking down on a permanent basis and it is reckless to speculate about him using PEDs.

3: I don't get your point here but it is worth noting that Borg had to contend with two players--Connors and McEnroe--who would be on most lists of the ten best players of all-time.

4: Borg had better strokes than Federer--whose backhand is weak--and, more importantly, displayed greater resolve/mental toughness in crucial situations. Nadal literally reduced Federer to tears on more than one occasion.

5: I addressed the size issue previously. At the ATP site, Nadal is listed at 6-1, 188, Federer is listed at 6-1, 187, Sampras is listed at 6-1, 170, and Borg is listed at 5-11, 160. Those differences are hardly significant and, in any case, you cannot judge an athlete based purely on his size. In his prime, Pedro Martinez threw very hard despite having a small physique; likewise, Borg hit with tremendous pace--and he was using wood rackets: imagine what he would be able to do with today's equipment. If you watch the footage in this post of Borg destroying McEnroe a year after many people assert that McEnroe had figured Borg out you can plainly see that Borg had gotten bigger and stronger and he was playing a very "modern"-looking game more than a quarter century ago. Neither Federer nor Nadal would beat that Borg (not to say that Federer or Nadal could not win a match off of Borg but neither player would have put together a winning record against him).

6: I did not question Federer's toughness or his greatness. What I question is why there is such a widespread clamor to declare that Federer is not simply the record holder for most Grand Slam wins but also the greatest player of all-time. Laver and Rosewall, among others, must be included in the GOAT discussion, and a very compelling case can be made that Borg is still the greatest Open Era player. Federer's Slam record is like Emmitt Smith's rushing record--no one really thinks that Emmitt Smith is the greatest running back ever and it is puzzling that so many people try to convince themselves that Federer is more skilled than Borg, let alone pre-Open Era greats like Laver.

7: Jim Brown "dropped out" at his peak but is still widely considered to be the greatest football player ever. Sandy Koufax likewise left his sport on top and is considered one of the best left handed pitchers of all-time.

You completely ignore the fact that Borg's Slams record is much better than Federer's on a percentage basis in every way: matches won, tournaments won, finals reached and so forth; I bring this up repeatedly because most people simply cite the Slam win totals of Federer and/or Sampras without noting that they had many more Slam appearances than Borg and thus were much less dominant. Federer lost in the first round of a Slam six times, while Borg never lost in the first round of a Slam.

David Friedman said...


My article compares Borg's total Slam record to Federer's total Slam record. Do you find Federer's six first round losses to be more impressive than Borg's legendary ability to prevail in grueling five set encounters? Borg not only had better strokes than Federer but Borg also had tremendous stamina and a great will to win. Federer pounds on guys who are intimidated by him but has losing records against Nadal and Murray.

Why do you propose looking at only one portion of Federer's Slam record--post 2001--and then preemptively accuse me of putting too much weight on how Federer will perform in the latter part of his career? The fact is that Borg was a more dominant Slam performer than Federer; the likelihood that Federer's percentages will decline as he gets older is hardly a compelling reason to rank him ahead of Borg, who had accomplished more by age 25 not only than Federer but than any other Open Era player.

I stay away from comparing Open Era players to guys like Laver and Rosewall but I have no problem saying that Borg should still be considered the greatest Open Era player. There is no objective reason to rank Federer or Sampras ahead of Borg.

warsaw said...

You use facts at your will. That Nadal was half-injured is as true when you think about Federer beating him, as it is when you think about Nadal losing this year in Roland Garros (I'm talking about your comparison with Bjork as the GOAT on clay).
But in one case you use Nadal's injuries to explain that Federer's victory was not a big deal, while in the other case you take the facts straight and present the 31-1 without saying that Nadal lose that one with physical problems.

The 11/27 rate is a phoney argument. If Bjork would have played until he was 33 that rate would be obviously worse. Would that mean that he wasn't as good?
Is it not about the sample being big enough (it is) is just the fact that no other great player has retired at his prime, so Bjork will always have a big advantage compared to anyone using that simple rate. With that system players that retire well past their prime will always have worse rates. Even Sampras would have been better off not winning his last Great Slam, since he would have a better rate retiring years ago.

You value precociousness and an early retirement over constancy and maturity.

There are some facts you don't adress:

Borg was 7-7 lifetime against McEnroe. That's better than Federer head to head numbers with Nadal, but it explains that Borg didn't just dominated every big rival at will. Even if you consider him the best of his time, he didn't dominated Mcenroe.

Borg tried 10 times to win the Open US and failed all of them. So he did have the chance to dominate all surfaces and failed. Federer won Roland Garros before his tenth attempt. If you wanna talk about Nadal being injured in this year's ROland Garros that's fine but then:

-Consider all of 10 US Open that Borg played and look for all his rivals to be always healthy.
-Include that in the Nadal vrs Borg discussion as the GOAT on clay.

David Friedman said...


I don't understand what point you are making about Nadal's injuries or, more importantly, how that has anything to do with the content of this post.

If Federer had retired at exactly the same age as Borg then Federer would have had both fewer total Grand Slam wins and a worse winning percentage than Borg in Grand Slam events, so your argument is completely unconvincing. No one holds it against Jim Brown or Sandy Koufax that they retired at the top of their games and the video footage embedded in this post indicates that Borg was still quite formidable well into 1982, a period of time during which the mythmakers would have us believe that McEnroe had "figured out" and "frustrated" Borg. As the saying goes, "The eye in the sky doesn't lie": the footage makes it look like Borg had "figured out" McEnroe in the wake of their U.S. Open Finals match.

I "value" the fact that Borg's Grand Slam percentages--in terms of tournament wins, match winning percentages, percentage of times reaching the Finals, etc.--are all better than Federer's. I "value" the fact that Borg did not have a decisively losing record against a main rival. I "value" the fact that Borg was supremely dominant on two completely different surfaces: his "triple double" at Wimbledon and the French Open (1978-80) will likely never be equaled and when Borg retired he held the career record for wins at both events (not counting the era when Wimbledon winners were automatically seeded into the Finals the next year).

I fail to understand the twisted logic that because Borg did not dominate McEnroe that this somehow makes Nadal's dominance of Federer irrelevant. The footage shown in this post indicates that there is hardly any reason to believe that McEnroe had figured out how to dominate Borg, though that myth is often promulgated as an explanation for Borg's retirement--but we have seen with our own eyes that Nadal has been dominating Federer for quite some time. Let Federer figure out how to beat Nadal consistently and then we can talk about comparing Federer to great players from other eras.

I don't object to Federer being mentioned as a candidate for the title of greatest Open Era player but I contend that he has been prematurely crowned as such and that far too many people act like that debate/conversation is over. By the same "logic" that Federer's fans crowned him several years ago one could make a much more compelling case on Nadal's behalf, because Nadal has won more at his age than Federer did at a comparable age, in addition to dominating Federer head to head.

It is true that not winning the U.S. Open is the one blemish on Borg's record. I could get into some of the specifics of why Borg lost some of those matches but ultimately that does not matter. Borg does not have six first round Grand Slam losses to his "credit"--Federer does--and Borg did not have a particular problem with a given surface, while in contrast Federer is clearly less effective on clay than on grass. Borg won on grass, clay, carpet, hard, etc.

warsaw said...

If Borg would have played until he was 40 he would have won more grand slams but he would have had a worse "Grand Slam percentages". So according to that logic he'll be a worse player (despite having more titles)

Also, If Nadal would have retired last year he would have been the best player ever on clay according to "Grand Slam percentages" with a 100 % on four RG. Beating easily Borg, if we use your beloved "Grand Slam percentages".

"If Federer had retired at exactly the same age as Borg then Federer would have had both fewer total Grand Slam wins"

Borg was precocious while Federer was not. I'll give you that. But precociusness is not the only factor that counts. Unless you use "Grand Slam percentages".

You don't seem to understand that some masters have success from the beggining while others need more time.

If Jordan would have retired at 25 he would have zero rings. And today he would not be considered the GOAT.

"his "triple double" at Wimbledon and the French Open (1978-80) will likely never be equaled"

Never? Don't be ridiculous. How can you possibly know that? Nadal won both in 2008 and he would have been a candidate to do the same this year without injuries.

"I "value" the fact that Borg was supremely dominant on two completely different surfaces: his "triple double" at Wimbledon and the French Open (1978-80)"

Federer won in two different surfaces FOUR years in a row. (2004-2007) Wimbledon and US Open. Those are two different surfaces too. Of course you fail to mention that.

"It is true that not winning the U.S. Open is the one blemish on Borg's record. I could get into some of the specifics of why Borg lost some of those matches but ultimately that does not matter."

It does matter. In tennis greatness is measured by Grand Slams. Federer has won Grand Slams at every surface. Borg? No. And that's it.
Is true that Borg won tournaments in every surface but he had 10 times to do it in the Grand Slams and failed it every time.
Federer did it before that.
Let me tell you I don't think that that fact by itself proves Federer is better, but is an advantage he has.

There is other fact you didn't bother to explain:

Federer was 160 weeks ATP's number 1

I have no doubt that if Borg would have had that record you would have mentioned it. But since is Federer who did it you ignore it. ANd that's my problem with your aticle. I don't even think that Federer is the GOAT, but they way you ignore some facts and use others doesn't help you.

It would have been nice that you put the achievements of all candidates and compare them, instead of using Borg's achievements and ignore the ones that Federer or Mcenroe may have.

David Friedman said...


Before addressing your concerns, it must be mentioned that I have done other posts that compared Borg's entire career to Federer's; the purpose of this post was not to do an exhaustive comparison of Borg to Federer but rather to address certain specific myths pertaining to Borg, McEnroe and Federer, so it should be self evident that this post will not contain every single bit of factual information about those players' careers (ATP rankings, U.S. Open performances, etc.).

Here are my responses to your specific complaints:

1) No one knows what Borg's totals or percentages would have been if he had played until he was 40. In your previous comment you conceded that sample size is not an issue, so you should have no objection to comparing Borg's percentages to those of any other player's--and the simple fact is that Borg is the most successful Grand Slam performer of the Open Era based on his winning percentages. Taking Federer over Borg as a Grand Slam performer is like taking Pete Rose over Ty Cobb as a hitter simply because Rose amassed more total hits.

2) You seem to be very interested in hypothetical scenarios (Borg plays until 40, Jordan retires at 25) and strangely reluctant to accept the reality that Borg had a more dominant Grand Slam career than Federer or any other Open Era player. Federer might yet surpass Borg in that regard and Nadal could very well topple all of the records but the point that I have been making for several years now is that it was premature to crown Federer as the greatest Open Era player or greatest player of all-time, because Federer does not have the accomplishments to support such a claim--he has done enough to merit being mentioned in those discussions but it is simply wrong to declare that he is the greatest and the case is closed.

3) Wimbledon and the French Open have been around for decades, the Open Era began in 1968 and no player has come close to matching Borg's "triple double." I don't know what will happen in the future but based on decades of history I feel comfortable saying that Borg's feat will "likely" not be matched; that is hardly an outlandish statement.

4) Winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year is not nearly as difficult as winning Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year. Wimbledon and the French Open are played on completely different surfaces that require vastly different skill sets and tennis aficionados understand that it is remarkably difficult to master the clay at Roland Garros and also conquer the grass at the All-England Club.

David Friedman said...


5) I think that you misunderstood my comment. I did not mean to suggest that Borg losing at the U.S. Open did not matter but rather that it did not matter to get into the specifics of why he lost. For instance, Federer had the good fortune this year to not face Nadal, while any student of tennis history knows that--to put it mildly--Borg certainly did not enjoy good fortune during his attempts to win the U.S. Open.

6) As I indicated in the opening paragraph, this article did not deal with ATP rankings or the U.S. Open because it focused on certain particular myths about Borg, McEnroe and Federer (mainly the myth that Borg retired because he could not "figure out" McEnroe). That said, I rarely mention ATP rankings in any writing that I do about tennis because the computer ranking system is so obviously flawed; there have been numerous times in tennis history, on both the men's and women's tours, that the consensus best player did not hold the number one ranking--including right now on the women's side, where Serena Williams is racking up Grand Slam titles but is not ranked number one. It is impressive to some degree that Federer--and Sampras before him--held the number one ranking for so many weeks but I would not rank all-time greatness based purely on what the ATP computer says.

As for your last statement, the fact is that in several posts--including this one--I have presented a great deal of factual evidence that shows that, at the very least, the Borg-Federer debate is far from settled and it certainly should not be considered a runaway win for Federer.

warsaw said...

I'm not that interested in hypothetical scenarios, I used them to prove that "Grand SLam %" is useless to compare masters.

The reason why is wrong to use it is that if someone retires early his % would be better, but if he retires at 40 years old his % would be worse, simply because a player out of his prime will be less succesful (that's why Borg or Mcenroe couldn't come back succesfully when they tried). That's a fact, and you know it.

That's why is not about the size of the sample (which is good enough to say Borg dominated two Grand Slams for a long time) is about the flaws of that specific method to compare players with different careers.

The same way its unfair to compare COnnors number of titles with Borg's (since Connors played for 22 years and Borg for 10) it is also unfair to use "Grand Slam %" to compare them both (since Connors played when he was out of his prime)

You may say that Borg was the best because MaCenroe o Federer didn't win as much as he did at the age he retired. But some players simply need more time to find success (that's why I put Jordan as an example)
I would agree that Borg was the most precocious tennis master of all time.

"while any student of tennis history knows that--to put it mildly--Borg certainly did not enjoy good fortune during his attempts to win the U.S. Open.

Luck is hard to measure, and again, David, Borg had 10 times to do it. That's a lot of chances even if you have bad luck.

Federer was lucky that Nadal was injured (although Borg was also lucky in some way because Nadal may have broken Borg's clay record) but that's the way it goes for both. Luck is not a factor when you compare two long careers.

"the Borg-Federer debate is far from settled"

I agree with that. I'm not sure Federer or Borg are better than each other.

David Friedman said...


I'm not that interested in hypothetical scenarios, I used them to prove that "Grand SLam %" is useless to compare masters.

You did not "prove" anything. You offered your opinion but your opinion does not change the fact that Borg has the best Grand Slam winning percentage in history and that he reached the Finals, semifinals, etc. at better rates than Federer--and that Borg never lost in the first round of a Slam, while Federer already has six first round losses to his "credit." Any way that you cut it, the numbers show that Borg was both more dominant (winning percentage) and more consistent (Finals appearances, etc.) than Federer in Grand Slam events. You can choose to disregard those facts if you want but you did not "prove" anything--and you most certainly did not prove that those numbers are insignificant.

Hypothetical scenarios can be taken in many different directions. Few top tennis players play until 40--particularly in the Open Era--so that hypothetical scenario is meaningless. A "normal" career for Borg would have meant that he played four or five more years, so if he had continued to play three Slams a year (skipping the Australian) then he would have had 12 or 15 more opportunities. If he would have won three more French Opens and one or two more Wimbledons then he would have kept his winning percentage stable--and, as Arthur Ashe said when Borg retired, Borg likely would have won the U.S. Open at least once if he had kept playing.

Since you are so concerned about what happens after a player is 25/26 years old, if Federer happens to pass Borg's percentage record in the next couple years and then retires will you discount that in the same manner that you have already discounted Federer's numbers in what you presume will be his declining years? Or do your hypothetical scenarios only work in the favor of one player? We agree that the sample sizes are large enough for both players, so at some point you will simply have to admit that Borg holds this record and that this record is in fact quite significant.

David Friedman said...


In your most recent comment, you opened another discussion thread by mentioning the record for most career titles won. Tennis record keeping was so spotty during some eras that there is not even a consensus about how many overall titles certain players won (depending on how you count events sponsored by bodies other than the ATP).

Of course, even the Grand Slam records should be kept in proper context. Sampras was the first player who clearly had the goal of setting the all-time Slams record. Borg retired in his prime just one win away from tying this mark--and Borg only played in the Australian once, meaning that he easily could have picked up at least three or four more Slam titles if he had so desired. The fact is that the top players during Borg's era routinely skipped the Australian, while Sampras and Federer both padded their Slam totals by playing there. Then, of course, if you look at the pre-Open Era you have Rod Laver, who won all four Slam events in the same year twice but could not play in the Slams for half a decade because of tennis' stupid amateur/professional rules.

Therefore, while overall win totals have limited meaning it is in fact very significant that Borg is the most dominant Slams winner in history and his tremendous winning percentage certainly makes him the leading candidate for best Open Era player, especially when one remembers that Borg set the modern record for both Wimbledon titles and French Open titles--and he still holds the latter mark. That is a more impressive and much rarer duo than winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, because the contrast between those playing surfaces is not nearly as great as the contrast between Wimbledon and the French Open. The reality is that luck/misfortune have more to do with Borg not claiming a single U.S. Open title than anything else, while Sampras failed at the French due to skill set reasons and Federer only won the French due to the absence of Nadal. It is irresponsible to compare Borg, Federer and Sampras without taking that into account.

warsaw said...

I did prove that "Grand Slam %" is a rather flawed system.

But i'll prove it again

According to that "logic":

a) Last year Lance Armstrong was the best Tour winner of all time with 63%. Anquetil was second with 62,5

b) But this year Anquetil is better

What has Anquetil done to achieve that? nothing, Armstrong just competed in another Tour without winning it, so his Tour % is now 58,33

So (according to your beloved rate) Anquetil improved Armstrong by being dead.

That's reasonable. And notice than both guys have good samples.

"If Federer happens to pass Borg's percentage record in the next couple years and then retires will you discount that in the same manner that you have already discounted Federer's numbers in what you presume will be his declining years?"

Yes, because I think that that rate is completely bogus to compare masters. You are the only one using it.

"so at some point you will simply have to admit that Borg holds this record and that this record is in fact quite significant."

I admit that his "GS%" rate is significant to prove Borg's greatness in two Grand Slams. I won't admit that the "GS %" is a good system to COMPARE players.

"(winning RG and Wimbledon) is a more impressive and much rarer duo than winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open,"

It is, but Federer's four wins in a row in US Open and WImbledon are also unprecedented.

"The fact is that the top players during Borg's era routinely skipped the Australian"

That is true, but only to some extent. Wilander, Connors, Newcomb, and VIllas were amongst the winners, and they were amongst the best of their time. Only Borg and Mcenroe never won it.

Ultimately it doesn't matter what the people did at the time, since Borg didn`t play in Australia merely because he didn`t want to. It had nothing to do with the other players.

Nobody force him to boycott that GS.

"As Arthur Ashe said when Borg retired, Borg likely would have won the U.S. Open at least once if he had kept playing."

You don't adress the fact that he failed 10 times in a row. That is enough to doubt that he would have won it.
Bad luck 10 times in a row? Hey, maybe that's another record.

By the way, is funny that you use Ashe's quotes about Borg, but then ignore Borg's and Mcenroe's quotes about Federer. I guess Ashe's opinion is more relevant than the opinions of those scrubs.

I've been looking into the archives of this blog and you said this in 2007:

"Federer certainly seems to have a great chance to do that--but can he truly be considered the best all-around player ever without winning at least once on the French Open clay?"

Well, David, he won it. What can you say now?
You can only say that he has to win it against the players you decide he has to. And that Borg (who lost against world beaters like Roscoe Tanner) was unlucky 10 times in a row in the US Open.

The truth is that no matter what Federer did this year in RG (win or lose) you would have found a way to use it against him.

David Friedman said...


You have proved nothing. Federer did not come out of retirement as an old man, fail to win Grand Slams and lower a previously record percentage. In fact, when he was the same age as Borg was when Borg retired, Federer had a worse Grand Slam winning percentage than Borg. Federer has actually improved his percentage a bit since that time but he still trails Borg. You also neglect to acknowledge that Borg not only has a better winning percentage in terms of tournament wins but also a better match winning percentage, a better percentage of reaching the Finals, a better percentage of reaching the semifinals and no first round losses compared to six first round losses for Federer. The correct historical analogy is the one that I used earlier regarding Pete Rose and Ty Cobb.

I am not the only one who compares tennis players this way. Raymond Lee has done several articles about the greatest tennis players of all-time, greatest tennis players of the Open Era, etc. and he used several categories, one of which was Grand Slam winning percentage. He agrees with me that Borg should still be considered the greatest player of the Open Era.

I don't want to keep going back and forth about Wimbledon/French Open versus Wimbledon/U.S. Open. Look at the record book and you will find that what Borg did--winning both events in the same year three years in a row and retiring as the career leader in titles at both events--is unprecedented. Winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year is not unprecedented and is not as difficult, due to the nature of the surfaces at those events.

David Friedman said...


It is fact, not opinion, that the top players in Borg's era largely bypassed the Australian Open. Borg played there once. Connors played there twice. Ashe played there four times. McEnroe played there five times, three of which came in 1989 or later (i.e., in a different era than when Borg played). Therefore, it should be obvious that (1) the Australian was not really considered to be that important in the 1970s and early 1980s and (2) Borg and the other top players were not as concerned with Grand Slam win totals as Sampras and Federer were/are. Borg played in the three most important Slams and he dominated them to a greater degree than Federer has dominated the Slams during his era.

Borg made the U.S. Open Finals three of the last four times that he played there. He did not have a particular surface problem, nor did he have a rival that had a winning record against him. In contrast, Federer is clearly not as good on clay as he is on other surfaces and he has a losing record versus Nadal (and Andy Murray, too). As the video footage embedded in this post shows, Borg certainly could still beat McEnroe, despite what the mythmakers want us to believe. So it is very reasonable for Ashe to say--and for us to believe--that Borg still had a good shot to win the U.S. Open. In contrast, we have seen Nadal dominate Federer for years--literally driving Federer to tears--and since Nadal is the younger player and is still improving there is little reason to believe that Federer would beat him in the French Open. So, yes, I am quite comfortable quoting Ashe about Borg while disregarding certain statements that other players have made on Federer's behalf. I cited Ashe after making several fact-based statements and am not simply relying on his judgment. In contrast, what have other players said about Federer and do they cite facts to support what they say? McEnroe tried to browbeat Laver, Borg and Sampras into calling Federer the greatest of all-time after Wimbledon this year but Sampras was the only one who really took the bait (and he and Federer have become good friends, so Sampras may not be the most objective observer). There is a major rush to judgment to crown Federer, this has been going on for quite some time and it is just baffling to me.

Federer certainly added to his case by winning at the French but it would be asinine to fail to note that he did not have to face Nadal. As I keep saying, let Federer prove that he can master a healthy Nadal before you start comparing him to other players from different eras. I am not convinced that Federer is the greatest player of the post-Sampras era, so--to use a golfing analogy--Borg is the leader in the clubhouse in terms of the Open Era; Borg dominated his era and set numerous records, many of which have still not been broken. Federer is great but I see no reason to say that he is the greatest.

Also, I absolutely hate it when people presume to know what I would have said if something had happened. Federer did not beat Nadal at the French, so just because you cannot refute my arguments don't throw out red herrings by acting as if I have some kind of agenda against Federer no matter what he does. The reality is that it appears that you have some kind of anti-Borg agenda, because you cite hypothetical scenarios instead of dealing with the cold, hard facts.

David Friedman said...

Rather than continue to answer comments that raise issues I have already addressed in this post and/or in previous posts about Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer, I will close this discussion thread by providing a link to a very interesting article by Raymond Lee, who makes a compelling case that Rod Laver should be considered the greatest tennis player of all-time and that Bjorn Borg should still be considered the best Open Era player. Although Lee's article is nearly two years old, Nadal's thorough dominance of Federer in 2008--and Federer's resurgence in Nadal's absence in 2009--hardly is enough to move Federer past Borg based on Lee's criteria. Here is the link to Lee's article:

Greatest Player Of All Time: A Statistical Analysis

tennis said...

laver is still the best of all time

David Friedman said...


Indeed, a very good case can be made that Laver is the greatest tennis player of all-time; Laver certainly deserves much more consideration vis a vis Federer in that regard than he currently receives, just like Borg should receive much more consideration in terms of being the greatest tennis player of the Open Era.

Anonymous said...

Borg is nowhere near my list as the greatest of all time. One of the best qualities of a champion for me is what happens when he is challenged. For example, Ali beat two fighters considered to be almost invincible at the time, Sonny Liston and George Foreman, and he did so almost a decade apart. He avenged tough losses to Frazier and Ken Norton, respectively, twice over. He got back his title for an unprecedented 3rd time time late in his career. The Pistons of the late 1980s had to learn how to overcome the Celtics and Lakers, and Jordan had to learn how overcome THEM. McEnroe came back from the bitter defeat in the '80 Wimbledon Final to get the top ranking the year. And what did the great Bjorn Borg do? He took his ball and ran home to mommy. I don't give a crap what he thought about the rules of the time, or his reasons for avoiding the AO. He is the ONLY one of the top 20 or so Slam winners in the modern era who failed to ever win the US Open-and he managed to stink out the joint there on three different surfaces. You don't get credit for punking out against adversity, IMO. I used to hold Laver high, but winning the Grand Slam as an amateur (and let us not forget, he got thumped as a pro for YEARS by Gonzalez and Rosewall before winning the Slam again as a pro in 1969, so the he-was-prevented-from-winning-more-Slams doesn't hold much water) doesn't really mean much to me-we all know he wasn't the world's best player. I can go with Sampras (better competition, but no Dirtball titles) or Fed (more Slams, career Slam, but weaker competition and not exactly outstanding when challenged), but Borg and Laver aren't in the conversation as far as I'm concerned.

David Friedman said...


My articles about tennis have generated a lot of comments--but yours takes the cake as one of the worst written and most poorly thought out. I can easily understand why you decided not to attach your real name to those ridiculous sentiments concerning Laver and Borg, two players who are on the top ten lists of anyone who knows anything about tennis. We can argue about who is better among Laver, Borg, Sampras and Federer but to suggest that Laver and Borg don't even belong in the discussion is so stupid I don't even know what to say in response.

Anonymous said...


who is juan martin delpotro i think fed played down to opposition 2 grand slams and 2 finls great year for him idf nadal was healthy he would of played better 1 grandslam for him and melanie oudin was good she up and comeing serena was wrong what you think david

David Friedman said...


I think that if Nadal had been healthy he would have had a good chance to win all four Slams in 2009: he won the Australian before he got hurt, he was a lock to win the French if he had been healthy, he won Wimbledon last year and we just saw him make it to the semis in the U.S. Open despite a painful abdominal injury that subsequently had kept him out of Davis Cup play and will prevent him from playing in the Thailand Open.

Federer did not "play down" to the opposition in the U.S. Open final; if that were true then he would have played poorly from the start of the match but instead he built a big lead and then he choked. Federer should be very thankful that Nadal was not at full strength for most of the year, because otherwise Federer would not have won two Slams and regained the number one spot.

As for Serena Williams, her conduct was completely inappropriate and merited a stiffer punishment, even though the foot fault call was bogus. She has been the victim of some questionable calls over the years and I suspect that in the back of her mind--if not in the front--she believes that racism has something to do with this but that still does not give her the right to threaten the line judge with bodily harm.

Anonymous said...


nadal not healthy enough to mess with fed records fed had a great year 2 grand wins 4 finals serena was wrong and is a victim of rasicm but she cant threaten people life.

David Friedman said...


I am neither a physician nor a psychic, so I don't know what the future holds for Nadal's health. However, it is worth noting that Nadal is way ahead of Federer's pace for Grand Slam wins (six by age 23 for Nadal compared to Federer's three by the same age) and that Nadal reached the number one ranking at age 22 (Federer first attained that status just before turning 22). Nadal certainly has the necessary talent and time to break Federer's records and Nadal has proven that when he is healthy he is clearly superior to Federer, as demonstrated by their head to head record.

Tariq said...


Regarding Nadal's health: Saying that Nadal had a very good chance at winning the GRAND SLAM this year if he was healthy is rubbish. Federer, who stays healthy through most of the year, has been closer to doing it than Nadal ever was, to be considered a contender for a Grand Slam. Three times he's won three out of the four majors in a year. Four times (including the year you mentioned, 2009) he's made the finals of all four Slams.

If you actually watch tennis now at all, you'll note that by the USO, each year, Nadal is well past his tennis season prime. The French-Wimbledon stretch takes far more out of him than it does Federer who has gone on to win the USO many times.

It amazed me when folks said he had a chance to win the Grand Slam when Nadal has never even done any of the following:

1) Reached the finals of the USO.
2) Won even three Slams a year.
3) Won a hard court Slam for the first time this year when two of the four majors are played on that surface.
4) Has only won two Slams a year ONCE.

And more specifically about Nadal's health. If you can't see that one of the most amazing things about Roger's tennis has been his ability to stay injury free while continuing to reach at least the semis of Slams for so long, then that's simply a matter of you putting blinders on in terms of what Federer has achieved. Try and find the last time he retired from ANY match whatsoever. I still can't find one. Nadal whining about the schedule and his constant fitness issues simply point out who the more versatile player is. Play the way he does, and it takes it's toll. It's nobody's fault but his that he can't stay healthy throughout the year like Federer does. He has also been known to be awful at arranging his schedule, whereas Federer is a damn contortionist when it comes to the schedule and hardly ever seems to suffer for it.

The health excuses are so old it's now just funny. So much is made of Nadal's health problems that every single achievement of his is deemed "an amazing achievement for someone so tired". By that token, Federer had infectious mononucleosis last year which severely affected the timing and duration of the three training blocks he usually sets up with trainer Pierre Pagannini and robbed him of the Australian Open title. Yet he reached the finals of three Slams in a horrible year preparation-wise.

It could easily be argued that he was nowhere near peak form at Wimbledon, which is a bunch of crap because until he met Nadal in the final he didn't drop a set. At least I'm willing to admit that. But somehow people are less willing to believe that Federer's illness was the cause of his issues than they are willing to believe that for the entire clay season until he last to Roger in the Madrid final this year, an unhealthy Nadal somehow didn't lose a single match on clay in 2009. But when he loses the French after that, it was entirely because of the injury that he never mentioned until later; not because someone that everybody loves to hate, Soderling, gave him a good ol' attacking-player beatdown. Watch that match. Nadal was running like a damn rabbit. He was beaten, fair and square. If we're going to say he could have won that tournament if he was "healthy" based on previous results at the FO then I can easily say that Federer could have easily won the Australian Open final this year if his back wasn't in such terrible shape since he'd never lost a final there before.

At least Federer doesn't make a damn saga out of his injury woes by mentioning them a thousand times to belittle his opponent's achievements "humbly" the way Nadal does, by saying, "I wasn't hundred percent, no? But Federer is the best of the history, no? He played great tennis and unless you are playing at 100 per cent, you can't beat him, no?".

David Friedman said...


Federer has been playing longer than Nadal, so he has had more opportunities to try to win all four Slams in a single year. Nevertheless, it is important to note--as I mentioned above--that Nadal is ahead of Federer's pace for winning Grand Slam events; Nadal has been durable enough to accumulate six Grand Slam titles by age 22, more than Federer won at the same age. In 2008, Nadal won the French and Wimbledon (plus the Olympic gold medal) and he made it to the U.S. Open semis for the first time. Then in January 2009 Nadal won the Australian. So, he came within two match wins (at the 2008 U.S. Open) of capturing a non-calendar year Grand Slam. I believe that if he had been healthy he would certainly have won the 2009 French and most likely would have won Wimbledon--and we saw him make it to the U.S. Open semis again despite a serious abdominal injury. While my speculation cannot be proven true--or false--I stand by my assertion that a healthy Nadal would have had a good chance to win all four Slams in 2009.

I give Federer credit for his durability but simply being durable does not make one the greatest player of all-time. Emmitt Smith displayed remarkable durability while setting the NFL career rushing record, but few--if any--knowledgeable people consider him to be the greatest running back of all-time. Federer has a contemporary who he struggles to beat, a player who has accomplished more at a younger age than Federer did; Nadal has likely not even hit his prime, yet he dominates a player who has been prematurely crowned as the greatest of all-time.

I never said anything about Nadal's achievements being more amazing because he was "tired"; I simply noted the obvious, namely that Federer likely would not have done as well as he did in 2009 if Nadal had been completely healthy. Nadal literally drove Federer to tears in 2008 and early in 2009, so it is senseless to dismiss the obvious physical--and psychological--advantage that Nadal enjoys over Federer.

Perhaps Federer does not complain about injuries but he certainly whines about line calls and he is pompous enough to bring a jacket with "15" on it to the Wimbledon Final versus Roddick; if I were Roddick, I would have rather died on that court fighting for every last point than let some smug dude beat me and put on that kind of jacket. Federer is supposedly so classy but I cannot imagine Borg or Sampras committing such a self-centered act, let alone doing so on the court right after such an epic match. What a show of disrespect to Roddick! Before game seven of the 1969 NBA Finals, Boston's Bill Russell found out that the Lakers had already made elaborate plans to celebrate after winning game seven, including releasing thousands of balloons and deciding the order in which star players Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor would be interviewed. Player-coach Russell told his Celtics before the game that a lot of things could happen but one thing that simply could not happen is the Lakers winning--and he looked forward to watching the Lakers remove those balloons one by one! It would have been funny to see Roddick win that match and ask Federer if it was too late for him to return that jacket!

st said...

Firstly, while fashion may not be federer's strongest suit, it is important to note that he did not bring that jacket with him onto the court, it was given to him after he won the match. So I think you should speak to nike about that. Since he has signed a contract with nike and rolex, he is obliged to, by contract, to wear the jacket and wear the watch once he wins a match. Bottom line, it has nothing to do with tennis, it's completely commercial, whereas nadal's injury excuses degrades the opponent's performance. To say that you are not fully healthy after the match, implies that you are not giving credit to your opponent. If he is healthy enough to participate in a tournament, he's healthy enough to win a match.

Secondly, to attribute all of his recently losses to health is almost laughable. If you honestly think that nadal's recent losses to cilic and del potro is because he wasn't fully healthy, then you don't understand the nuances of the sport. It was simply a poor matchup, and it's no secret that he has struggled to play against bigger and taller hitters like tsonga, soderling, del potro and cilic. He got demolished by del potro in the us open semis, right after he had taken the last set against gonzales 6-0. The reason why he loses against taller opponents like soderling, del potro and cilic is because his major advantage against the majority of the players on the tour is his top spin forehand. It spins up high onto his opponent's backhand, which is a very difficult shot to hit. However, if he plays against a taller opponent, like soderling, del potro and cilic, his top spin forehands fall right into their strike zone, and they are big enough hitters to put him on the defensive and attack him. Whilst clay court is a slower court, it allows him to recover in a point, when being on the defensive, hence a closer match against soderling. But on the hard courts, it is a risky strategy to constantly be on the defensive, and he suffers most against bigger and taller players who not only neutralize his advantage, but punish him with their big shots. If you watch the matches, you would realize this, because mcenroe, mary carillo, and darren cahill have made this point many times. Losses like 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 to del potro and 6-3, 6-1 to cilic reinforce this point

David Friedman said...


Federer's jacket is not the subject of this post and I don't have anything else to say about it other than noting once again that some media members apply double standards to certain athletes--and Federer certainly has a say in what kind of apparel his sponsors provide for him and when they provide it. If Terrell Owens wore a similar garment to honor his climb up the NFL career receiving records charts he would get blasted. My critique in this regard relates more to the media than to Federer, though if I were competing against Federer I certainly would derive additional motivation from that kind of thing (much like Michael Jordan hyped himself up with real--and imagined--slights).

Nadal had a 4-0 record versus Del Potro prior to this year. It is obvious that this year Nadal has been greatly hindered by various injuries. Whether or not Nadal talks about his ailments more than he should is not the subject of this post. I do not believe that Federer would have beaten a healthy Nadal at the French Open or Wimbledon and I also think that there is a good chance that a healthy Nadal would have beaten Federer at the U.S. Open as well. Of course, I can't prove this but you also cannot prove that I am wrong; this is just a matter of opinion, but my opinion is founded on the incontrovertible facts that Nadal enjoys a huge head to head advantage over Federer and that Nadal's advantage over Federer grew in 2008 (as shown by Nadal's breakthrough Wimbledon win).

st said...

darren cahill is an expert in the field, and has coached great players, so i take his analysis on why nadal has struggled against bigger and taller players over your opinion. i think it's kind of odd how you quote great coaches like hubie brown in the sport of basketball, yet refute the comments that great coaches make in the sport of tennis.

David Friedman said...


Hubie Brown led the Kentucky Colonels to an ABA title, won multiple NBA Coach of the Year awards and was honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport. He is arguably the sport's best TV analyst and is renowned as a tremendous clinician. I don't think Cahill has quite that impressive of a resume in tennis. Anyway, it is possible for intelligent observers to disagree.

Also, I disagree fundamentally with your assertion that Nadal has "struggled" against Del Potro and Cilic. Nadal is 4-3 against Del Potro, with all three losses coming this year when Nadal clearly was not 100%. Nadal is 0-1 against Cilic; that loss came this year and, obviously, this is a very small sample size from which to draw the sweeping conclusion that you are making.

st said...

whether his resume is as impressive as hubie brown's is irrelevant. He has coached all time great Andre Agassi and former number one Lleyton Hewitt. I think that is enough to go by. He has also provided intermittent advice to Roger Federer over the past year

David Friedman said...


I mean no disrespect to Cahill but I don't think that he is quite the authority on tennis that Brown is on basketball. Anyway, as I said in my previous comment, on certain issues it is possible for intelligent people to disagree; some analysts think that LeBron is the best basketball player in the NBA and some say that Kobe is the best player. I did not hear Cahill's comments firsthand in their entirety; all I have to go on is your paraphrasing of whatever Cahill said--and the reality is that the head to head records do not indicate that Nadal is "struggling" against Del Potro or Cilic.

Do you really believe that the Nadal we saw from roughly March to the present is the same Nadal we saw last year and in this year's Australian Open? I think that it is pretty evident that Nadal was not 100% and that his injuries significantly affected his game.

Is it possible that because Cahill has worked with several of Nadal's rivals Cahill is not 100% objective regarding Nadal's relative strengths/weaknesses? If Cahill wants to work with Federer in the future then Cahill would be less inclined to simply say that a healthy Nadal is a better player than Federer, even though the evidence suggests that this is indeed the case.

When I cite basketball coaches I don't cite them blindly and I offer evidence to support their statements--and there are times that I respectfully disagree with statements made by basketball coaches.

st said...

your comment about darren cahill is honestly one of the most absurd things i have read. To say that darren cahill has some hidden agenda is ludacrous. You could say that about any commentator. And it wasn't just darren cahill. Mary carillo who praises nadal everytime she gets a chance, also agreed with darren cahill.

David Friedman said...


I did not say that Cahill has a "hidden agenda." I suggested that it is possible that he might have one. Unless you can read his mind, you don't know for sure. Since I did not hear Cahill's comments about Nadal and am merely relying on your impressions about them--which, judging from your reactions to my writing, may not be very accurate or reliable--I have nothing more to say about Cahill regarding Nadal unless/until I hear Cahill's comments firsthand.

You keep focusing on side issues while ignoring the more significant points. Nadal has a 4-3 career record against Del Potro--and all of the losses came this year when Nadal clearly was not 100%. How can you possibly justify your wild assertions about Nadal "struggling" against Del Potro? If a 4-3 record means that Nadal is "struggling" then how would you characterize Federer's 7-13 record against Nadal? What about Federer's 3-6 record against Andy Murray?

Instead of thinking for yourself and doing some research you are completely dependent on guys like Drucker and Cahill, but their analysis is far from perfect.

David Friedman said...

I thought that I had closed this thread two months ago but people still keep commenting. I strongly suggest that anyone who is not persuaded by the logic of my post should take the time to read this excellent article by Raymond Lee:

Greatest Player of All-Time: A Statistical Analysis

st said...

using your reasoning, if i can't read any of the commentator's minds, then jeff van gundy, or hubie brown, or any commentator in basketball can have a hidden agenda. There needs to be a line drawn somewhere. I think there's a huge difference between a coach like Hubie brown or Jeff van gundy and charles barkely or steven a smith. Hubie brown and jeff van gundy have been following the sport for a long time, and have a scout's or coaches perspective on basketball, whereas barkely and smith are paid to provide entertainment. Similarly, darren cahill has coached great players in andre agassi and lleyton hewitt, and should not be mistaken for someone who just wants to amuse the audience.

Secondly, roger federer had mono the beginning of last year, but no one knows for sure when he started to regain full fitness and health, so i can attribute many of his losses last year based on that. I think it's silly, there should be no excuses. If one proclaims he/she is healthy enough to compete in a tournament, then he/she is healthy enough to win a match. Federer lost fair and square to nadal and djokovic at the grandslams last year, and nadal lost fair and square to del potro this year at the us open. End of discussion.

Thirdly, on a different note, i'm kind of puzzled how you don't apply the same analysis from basketball to tennis. You have consistently praised kobe bryant's durability as one of his assets, and are correct to do so. Yet you have never commended federer for reaching 22 consecutive grandslam semifinals. The fact that federer has been able to play at such a high level for so long is a testament to how fit he has kept himself and the way he plays the game. Don't get me wrong, i'm a big fan of nadal, and I honestly think that he should be a role model for kids, since his success is a product of persistence and hard work. However, it must be said that Federer has superior footwork, timing and stroke making abilities. Like i have written before, the style in which nadal plays the game, is very taxing on his body, and it is going to take a toll. He has suffered his first major injury at the age of just 22, and I don't see it getting better. He has to adjust his game so that he plays less on the defensive, since that style puts more strain on his knees. I saw this injury coming last year, and if you go back to your post from last year when nadal beat federer at the wimbledon finals, i wrote that i fear for nadal's playing career, and how it might be curtailed if he doesn't adjust his game. John Mcenroe and Mary Carillo also mentioned it during the course of the wimbledon grandslam.

Lastly, there's nothing wrong in reading articles and forming your conclusions based on what you read and watch. That's what all people do. You're a writer, you should know. Darren cahill is an informed and well thought out commentator, and there's nothing wrong with quoting him when making a point.

David Friedman said...


It is important to take into account that any commentator may have a hidden--or not so hidden--agenda and/or that he may have biases for/against certain teams/players for a variety of reasons. I did not hear what Cahill said regarding Nadal and Del Potro but it seems odd to me to suggest that Nadal is "struggling" against someone who he has beaten four out of seven times. Perhaps you misunderstood what Cahill meant (i.e., maybe Cahill was talking about why Nadal was "struggling" in a particular match due to being ineffective on that day, not overall).

Federer had a losing record versus Nadal prior to last season. The only thing that changed in 2008 is that Nadal beat Federer at Wimbledon and that can certainly be attributed to Nadal's continuing improvement as a young player. Then Nadal continued his 2008 success by beating Federer at the 2009 Australian Open, winning his first title at an event where Federer had previously triumphed three times. Did Federer still have mono at that time? What has changed since then is Nadal has not been 100% healthy.

There is no question that Federer is durable and there is no question that Federer is a great champion. You seem to not clearly understand what I have written regarding Federer, Nadal and Borg. What I object to is the way that current commentators are obsessed with saying that Federer is clearly the greatest player of all-time and that the subject is not even open to discussion. I would say that Borg, Federer and Sampras are clearly the three greatest players of the Open Era but it is certainly open to discussion which of them is the greatest Open Era player. As for the greatest player of all-time, that is a much more complicated issue for a variety of reasons, but Laver deserves a lot more credit than he is given. The current tennis commentators do not use a lot of nuance or deep thought in their evaluations because a big part of what they are doing is trying to promote tennis right now. Saying that Federer ranks among the greats is not as dramatic or simple as saying that he must be the greatest. Did you see how McEnroe kept badgering Laver after Wimbledon to say that Federer is the greatest? I give Laver a lot of credit for not caving in to the moment. Why should Laver stand there and disrespect his own accomplishments?

It is very premature to make assumptions about how the rest of Nadal's career will go, either in terms of his health or in terms of how many more Slams he will win. Navratilova spent the first part of her career as an overweight, out of shape underachiever and then remolded herself into a powerful athlete who could still win titles in her late 40s.

How can Federer be the greatest of all-time when he has a contemporary rival who dominates him?

Anonymous said...

Nothing has ever infuriated me more than this particular blog topic and your staunch yet ridiculous defending of anyone other than Federer. I hope he gave you something to think about this. Australian Open, Two things; first, you probably won't put this up, and secondly, if you do put it up, you'll say Nadal was injured and couldn't meet Federer to get to beat him(Is Nadal ever fit when he's losing?).

Federer has now won 16 Slams, and reached the last eight major finals. Incredible. And he's won four of them.

Like you would give him credit for that.

David Friedman said...


If I understand your "logic" correctly, Federer's match wins after I wrote my original article somehow invalidate my premise that Federer had yet to prove himself to be indisputably the greatest player of the Open Era--let alone of all-time--during a period when he had a contemporary who was completely dominating him.

Furthermore, Federer has won four of his 16 Grand Slam titles at the Australian, an event that was so relatively unimportant during Borg's era that most top non-Australian players--including Borg--often skipped the tournament. Simply comparing Federer's Grand Slam win total with Borg's without historical context is absurd, not that it would stop anonymous trolls like you from doing so.

Also, I don't know whether or not you are a doctor--since you declined to list your real name--but apparently you definitively know Nadal's exact health status better than the real doctors who say that he is so badly injured now that he will likely miss at least a month.

Anonymous said...

As for Nadal's record over Federer, you know how much that stat works against Federer, so you use it at every turn. What you fail to mention is that Roger always makes it to the finals or semi-finals of clay tournaments to be able to play Nadal on clay. Nadal hardly ever does it on the other surfaces. How about taking just the surface H2Hs? Federer leads on grass, and is tied with Nadal on hard court, both of which would be even more skewed in Federer's favour if Nadal was competent enough to get to those stages on those surfaces. Nadal wins the clay ones, hands down, but at least Federer gets there routinely to have to lose to him. Where Nadal's edge lies is in the fact that he has beaten Federer on his favourite surfaes at Slams. But using that fact alone to disprove Federer's being the GOAT shows nothing but bias, especially when you truly study the circumstances of those losses.

If Del Potro was never to meet Federer in another Slam final or another match, would you use the argument that DP beat him in a Slam to disprove that he could be considered the greatest?

That's my last word to you on this subject. Fed-critics like you never cease to shut up about Nadal. What a pity you can't appreciate the accomplishments of a man who has won three of the last four Slams. What a shame, in fact.

David Friedman said...


Yeah, it's funny how logic works: the fact that Federer has a contemporary who has dominated him for several years does "work" against the popular belief that Federer should be declared hands down the greatest player ever. I have this nasty habit of basing my articles on facts and logic, an approach that is apparently completely alien to you.

This article is actually more about Borg and what made Borg great than it is about Federer--and I never took any gratuitous shots at Federer or even tried to suggest that Federer is not a great player--but you apparently did not read the article very carefully.

I have written some articles comparing Federer to Nadal and the important thing to note in that regard is that Nadal is way ahead of Federer's pace in terms of winning Grand Slams, being effective on multiple surfaces, etc. Nadal does not seem to be as durable as Federer, so it is possible that injuries will curtail Nadal's career but prior to last year Nadal not only had dominated Federer head to head but was on pace to exceed Federer's Grand Slam accomplishments.

It is self evident that Del Potro's one Grand Slam win does not vault him into the conversation for greatest player of all time--but you do bring up an interesting issue. Borg's Grand Slam Finals losses came to all-time greats McEnroe and Connors. If Del Potro never wins another Slam then it will look a bit odd on Federer's resume that the supposed greatest player of all-time lost in a Grand Slam Final to a journeyman.

I am not a "Fed-critic." I am a commentator/analyst. I use facts and logic to support my arguments. I don't write anonymously and I don't play favorites. Federer is obviously a great player and he is worthy of being mentioned in the discussion of greatest Open Era players (along with Borg and Sampras). My objection--in this article and dating back for a few years in various other articles--is that I don't think that Federer should be called the greatest Open Era player, case closed. The case for Borg is very compelling and one could make a case for Sampras being Federer's equal as well, though Federer's French Open win gives him a leg up on Sampras now.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. Let's see where Nadal finally lies in the tally. He may be ahead in terms of age, but hasn't won a Slam since the 2009 Australian, and hasn't even reached a Slam final since. It may have been because of injury, but so were Federer's losses in the AO '09 to him and his loss to Novak in the 2008 AO final. At the end of the day, I am willing to truly accept the numbers despite the ailments the players had. Are you?

And by the way, if you're going to claim that you use logic in your articles, back it up. Saying that he is ahead in terms of how early he is winning Slams is not logic, it is using the hypothetical to enhance your argument. Stick to the logic, and to the numbers before you, not to the ones you expect to pan out.

I have nothing but respect for Borg. In fact, to me, only he can be mentioned in the same breath as Federer. My point throughout was that you should stick to the numbers that you started with instead of resorting to the same old Nadal nonsense that Federer critics resort to. Keeping that as the basis of your argument, you have a remarkable case for Borg. Talking about Nadal in reference to Federer makes about as much sense as saying Borg retired early because McEnroe scared him off. (bunch of nonsense, I remember him thrashing the great Lendl towards the end of his career. Borg was still the very best by a long way).

FedFan said...

Sure, Fed has a losing record against Nadal, but that doesn't mean Nadal's a better tennis player.
The cost of Nadal's dominance over Fed is now being paid through his knees.

To draw on metaphor:
The engine that redlines at 14000rpm has been beating the engine that redlines at 15000rpms, by over-revving to 15500rpm. But people are starting to realise which engine is genuinely better, because the over-revving engine has now blown a gasket.

I take issue with the age to slams point - some masterpieces take longer to finish than others.
In my opinion (and I suspect you may have a differing one) greatness should be measured by the extent of dominance only, with how soon or late that dominance started not being a relevant factor.
I do accept that given how early Borg began his dominance, had he maintained it as long as Fed is doing now (age 28 and counting), Fed may still be chasing an all time slam record of Borg's...but that's all speculation, I only have what actually happened to base my opinions

And sticking to this theme, if we accept that some masterpieces take longer to complete, I suspect (and admittedly I haven't done the maths to be exactly sure) that if we compare the winning percentages of both players from their first slam to their last, there wouldn't be much difference.
Fed undoubtedly suffers from his first 17 unsuccessful slam attempts - but again, that's only if you take the view that time taken to rise to the peak is a factor in determining greatness (which I don't)

Lastly, Fed lost a lot of French Opens, BUT he's finally got one - Borg lost a lot of US opens...Fed proven on 3 surfaces - what about Borg?

David Friedman said...


Federer certainly has accomplished more than Nadal has but Federer has also been playing for much longer. Federer clearly is on the short list of players who merit mention for possibly being the greatest player of the Open Era (Borg and Sampras are the other two) but I disagree with those who say that Federer has earned this distinction by such a wide margin that the discussion is closed--and I vehemently disagree with those who made that assertion one, two or even three years ago, when Federer had yet to win the French Open and when Nadal was regularly beating Federer.

The engine metaphor is not applicable here. No one knows if Nadal has "over-revved" his engine (i.e., why Nadal gets injured so frequently--some guys are just more durable than others regardless of how they train or what schedule they keep) or if his injury problems will truly derail his career (as opposed to simply taking out chunks of the 2009 and 2010 seasons). I am talking about who is the greatest player, not who is the most durable player or who is likely to accumulate the most honors. Bottom line: when Federer and Nadal are both healthy who wins? Nadal wins most of the time, so how can Federer be the greatest Open Era player when it is not clear that he is even the best player of his own time? Nadal most likely has not even hit his prime yet--in terms of his talent, though we may not see what he could do at his very best if he cannot get healthy again--but his record against Federer is already most impressive. No one dominated Borg or Sampras the way that Nadal has dominated Federer.

I understand that you view Federer as a fine wine who aged with time--but Borg was dominant almost immediately and then was dominant throughout his career, in Grand Slams, Davis Cup and various other tournaments on a variety of surfaces: Borg's three consecutive French-Wimbledon combos is still the most impressive accomplishment of the Open Era and don't forget that he retired as the Open Era leader in both French titles (six) and Wimbledon titles (five) despite leaving the game at the height of his powers. In contrast, Federer tallied numerous first round losses in Grand Slams. Regarding their winning percentages, you can find that info in this post and in some of my previous posts; Federer's percentages have improved since I wrote those articles and I have not rechecked the math but I believe that Borg's career winning percentages still best Federer's.

Borg did not have a particular surface weakness--and the U.S. Open was played at multiple venues during his career. Also, if you do your research you will note that injuries likely cost Borg one or two of his best chances in the U.S. Open Finals.

Borg versus Federer is an interesting subject to debate and good points can be made in favor of both players--which is precisely why I disagree with those who declare that Federer must be considered to be the greatest. There is an unfortunate "recency bias" that causes people to believe that whatever or whoever they have most recently seen must be the best (or, as the case may be, worst) event or competitor ever. I am trying to set the record straight here regarding what Borg accomplished more than three decades ago, feats that may truly seem ancient to fans and commentators who do not remember back that far and/or who have failed to do sufficient research.

David Friedman said...


I agree that we should see what Nadal's final "tally" is. That is precisely why it is too early to call Federer the greatest Open Era player--and it certainly was way too early to do so one, two or three years ago when Federer had yet to win the French Open or surpass Sampras' career Slams record.

Why would you even ask if I am willing to "accept the numbers"? All I am doing is citing facts, logic and numbers. I have no reason or ulterior motive to do anything but accept whatever the reality turns out to be. The point is that the story is still being written. Look at last year: Nadal won the Australian and it looked like Federer may never win another Slam, but then Nadal got hurt and Federer retook the number one ranking. How do we know that the reverse won't happen this year? I certainly would not bet against Nadal if he can get healthy and play his best during the year's final three Slams.

Part of being the greatest player is showing dominance early and sustaining it for an extended period. Borg did that. Federer developed more slowly, though his dominance since he hit his stride is certainly impressive--but it is marred somewhat by Nadal's record against him.

Anonymous said...


I agree completely that Federer's losses to Nadal have tarnished his legend a tad, but being an analyst, you should truly look at the numbers in that rivalry (as I mentioned earlier), to really judge who is the better player, just like you took into account every last detail of the circumstances of Borg's retirement in your blog article. In this (Federer-Nadal) case, it is extremely important, in today's game, to take into account surfaces played on. On clay, Nadal is ahead. On grass, Federer is ahead. On hard courts, they are level. The huge difference in the H2H is simply because Federer got to the latter stages of clay tournaments in Nadal's prime, whereas Nadal only got to the latter stages of Wimbledon when Federer was a little past his prime. Nadal didn't reach the later rounds of Wimbledon in 2004 and 2005 for Roger to have a chance to beat him at his grass-court best, and the same happened in 2009. And most importantly, the only grass court tournament they both play is Wimbledon. Also, there are far more clay tournaments played in the year than grass court ones.

It's clear. Federer is the better grass court player. Nadal is the better clay court player. They're level on hard courts in terms of their head-to-head record, but most tennis analysts will insist that Federer is the better hard court player. Tennis is all about match-ups. Federer struggles against Igor Andreev as well because of his style of play and almost all of their recent matches could have gone the other way, yet their greatness isn't measured by their H2H, or the closeness of their encounters, but their overall achievements.

I myself question whether Federer is truly the greatest player ever. For me Borg is level with him. There are times I look at Borg's record and wonder how in God's name he almost never lost!

For me, it's obvious. Borg was the greatest of his era despite the McEnroe loss, sudden retirement, lack of a USO title, and failed comeback attempt. Same with Federer being the greatest of his era, despite his losing record to Nadal (since those numbers are very, very misleading). The Federer-Nadal H2H simply can not be used to determine who the "better" player is. You will find pretty much no tennis expert who will say that as a tennis player, Nadal is more "complete", talented, durable or dominant than Federer.

Pete Sampras loves to talk about Federer's losing record to Nadal because he realises that his having a winning record over his own main rival, Agassi, gives him some room in the GOAT conversation. But the numbers there as well, tell a vastly different story. While Sampras won all their meetings at the USO and Wimbledon, Agassi won all of them at the AO and the French. Agassi was almost unbeatable in Australia, and was an excellent clay-courter, reaching a number of French Open finals. If Sampras had actually been good enough on the surface to reach the later stages of clay tournaments, Agassi would quite likely be on par or even ahead of Pete in their H2H. Same with the Rebound Ace surface used earlier at the AO (now they use Plexicushion Prestige. Interestingly, Federer is the first man now, to have won Slams on FIVE different surfaces), which favoured Agassi, being slower.

All I say is, H2Hs mean very little. I do understand it as an argument, but not THE argument.

I appreciate the tone of your last post to me, since it was far clearer to me that you were only insisting that Fed could not yet be anointed the greatest, and also that he really wasn't by far the greatest. That is 100% correct. He is up there, but a good analyst who really wants to dig up real numbers will realise it's not all one-way. For me, he is slightly ahead of Borg, but I fully understand, once again, based on the numbers, why Borg has an excellent, if not better case for that title.

David Friedman said...


While I agree that there is some merit to considering the impact of venues/surfaces in the Federer-Nadal head to head competition, I cannot think of anyone who is considered to be the greatest player in his/her sport who was consistently dominated in any fashion by a contemporary rival. At best, if we are going to seriously take into account the factors you mentioned then we should say that Federer is the greatest grass court/hard court player of the 2000s and Nadal is the greatest clay court player of that era. I also find it odd that you simultaneously praise Federer so highly and then dismiss Nadal's most recent victories versus him because Federer is supposedly past his prime. It could also be argued that Nadal has not yet entered his prime--and Nadal definitely was not in his prime when he beat an in his prime Federer several times.

Federer's overall record clearly means that he has to be considered one of the top three players of the Open Era, along with Borg and Sampras--but I refuse to go along with the idea that Federer has clearly proven his superiority over Borg and Sampras (though Federer's French Open win probably moved him ahead of Sampras in my estimation).

Andreev and players of his ilk do not matter in head to head discussions because they don't have the overall resume to be considered all-time greats. Nadal certainly has that kind of resume as a multiple Grand Slam winner, so the fact that he has dominated Federer is very relevant and not just some weird statistical quirk.

One problem in objectively comparing Federer and Nadal is that many people are so captivated by how aesthetically pleasing Federer's game is, while Nadal is perhaps more of a grinder. Nevertheless, the bottom line in sports is winning and Nadal has been a big time winner when he is healthy. Also, the fact that Nadal's success versus Federer literally brought Federer to tears on multiple occasions says a lot. I really thought that Nadal broke Federer's spirit in 2008 and the early part of 2009 and I would have been fascinated to see a healthy Nadal take on Federer last year. I am still not convinced that Federer can beat a healthy Nadal on any Grand Slam surface now except, perhaps, the U.S. Open. The matches would no doubt be competitive but Nadal just seems to have more fire--and even more precision--in the key moments versus Federer.

I don't recall hearing Sampras say much about Federer's record versus Nadal. Sampras is a good friend of Federer's and any time I hear Sampras talk he is always pumping up Federer's place in history. Speaking of which, I thought that it was completely tacky for John McEnroe to try to strong arm Borg, Laver and Sampras into calling Federer the greatest ever after last year's Wimbledon and Laver deserves a lot of credit for simultaneously being gracious but also not surrendering to the moment. If I had been in Laver's position and asked such a disrespectful question I would have been tempted to punch McEnroe in the nose; a strong case can be made that Laver is the greatest player of all time.

One final note on Borg: his "comeback" attempt--which consisted of just a handful of matches--has nothing whatsoever to do with who is the greatest Open Era player. What counts is what Borg did during the active portion of his career. Sure, if he had won some more titles as a "senior citizen" then he could have even further enhanced his legend but those final matches have no more to do with his place in history than the two seasons that Michael Jordan spent with the Washington Wizards have to do with Jordan's place in history (though the fact that Jordan could still average 20-plus ppg, with some 40 and 50 point games sprinkled in, actually added to his career in my opinion even though Jordan no longer was the very best player in the NBA).

FedFan said...

The one point that everyone seems to like to fall back on to question Federer's standing is the Nadal rivalry, and therefore I would like to address this...

I see two aspects to any sport:
- things that are specific to that sport
- general physical/athletic ability

For tennis, I struggle to imagine anyone who has greater ability at the things specific to tennis (forehand, backhand, volley, serve, court position, placement, etc) than Federer. He enhances this by having a pretty good level of general physical/athletic ability.

In contrast, I believe Nadal makes up for a much lower level of ability at the things specific to tennis, by utilising a much greater level of physical/athletic ability.

Ergo, they are both great athletes, with Nadal possibly a more powerful athlete. But I just can't see how Nadal can be considered a better Tennis Player.

To beat Fed, Nadal has to enhance his general physical/athletic ability to such an extent that his body starts to break down after prolonged exposure.

And to me that does not make a better tennis player, just a misguided determination to be more than what your body meant for you to be.

As for the potential for Nadal to come back stronger, I'd love to see it, but can't convince myself that it will happen. Watch how he plays (or at least used to play, prior to FO '09) - you can see it's murder on his body. So physical, so much running, sudden direction changes, massive amounts of impact and huge loads going through all parts of his body.
Of course, time will tell....

Lastly, I'd like to hear a bit more about why Borg never won a USO (despite 10 attempts, according to comments here?)
If we discount Fed's 4 Aus Opens, that still leaves him at:
- 6 Wimb
- 5 USO
- 1 FO

Compared to Borg:
- 6 FO
- 5 Wimb
- ...

and Borg did the FO/Wimb double 3 times, but never won a USO

Fed did the Wimb/USO double 4 times, but also won an FO (again, ignoring the Aus Opens)...

David Friedman said...


Federer's game may be more aesthetically pleasing to a tennis aficionado but no one can deny the results that Nadal has achieved, both in Slams overall and versus Federer head to head--and results are ultimately what matters the most. Nadal has a winning record versus Federer and has beaten him in Grand Slams on multiple surfaces, so one can certainly make the case that Nadal--when healthy--is a better player than Federer; it may not be popular to make such a case, but there are hard facts that support such a case.

I am baffled by your suggestion that it is somehow "misguided" for Nadal to do whatever he has to do to win Grand Slams.

The Wimbledon/French Open double is much more difficult to achieve than the Wimbledon/U.S. Open double because of the vast difference between grass and clay court. No one has accomplished Borg's "triple double," while Sampras, McEnroe, Connors, Newcombe, Emerson and Laver are just some of the players who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year.

Borg played in nine U.S. Opens, not 10. He reached the semis five times and the Finals four times, twice losing to Connors and twice losing to McEnroe.

A 1980 AP article by Alex Sachare documents some of the reasons that Borg never won the U.S. Open, noting "for the third time in the last four years, Borg is coming into the Open less than 100% physically" due to a lingering knee injury he suffered shortly after winning that year's Wimbledon.

Sandwiched between his Finals appearances in 1976 and 1978, Borg withdrew from his fourth round match in 1977 due to a shoulder injury.

It is important to emphasize that Borg never made excuses about not winning the U.S. Open; however, you asked what happened, so I have provided some historical context. Unlike Federer, Borg did not have a particular opponent or particular surface that vexed him and during his prime Borg simultaneously mastered Wimbledon's grass and the French Open's clay in an unparalleled manner.

FedFan said...

So it boils down to this: Federer has a losing record against a contemporary, and that counts against him in considerations of greatness.

In contrast, Borg didn't have a losing record against any of his main contemporary rivals. And yet, he never managed to win a USO.
Sticking to the theme of 'results are what count', then surely this points to Borg having a major weakness on hardcourt surfaces (despite repeated claims to the contrary).

So really, Borg was a two-trick pony when it came to playing surfaces - same as Sampras, and Federer until 2009. This to me counts significantly against him in considerations of greatness.

Federer on the other hand, had a losing record against a main rival and YET by Wimb '09, he had won more total slams than Borg (even ignoring Fed's Aus Opens) AND had won at least one on EVERY main surface type.

So the question is, even with total domination over his main rivals, why didn't Borg:
a) win more total slams (even ignoring Aus Opens)
b) win on all surfaces
compared to Fed. If Borg really is better than Fed, Im' sorry, but something just doesn't add up....

And as you mentioned, 'results' are what count, so leave injury excuses out of it.
Alternatively, if you want to talk injury/not 100% physically in shape, then lets talk Fed from AO 2008 to AO 2009.

Bottom line, yes, Fed's losing record against Nadal is a negative for him, but then similarly Borgs failure at USO counts against him.
And if results count, then Fed still had the numbers on Borg by Wimb '09 (even ignoring the Aus Opens).
Sure, Borg was ahead previously, but to me, by Wimb '09 Fed had overtaken Borg, by the slightest of margins, in the claim for greatest of the Open era.

David Friedman said...


Forgive me if I don't consider someone named "FedFan" to be an unbiased source of objective commentary on this subject.

I have already refuted most of your contentions in various posts at this site--including the very post about which you are commenting--but I will make one last effort to clarify matters:

1) Federer has a decisively losing record against a contemporary who he has played in a significant number of matches. Just in 2008 and the early part of 2009 alone we saw Nadal whip Federer at the French, Wimbledon and Australian. I again challenge you--or anyone else--to name any athlete who is considered the greatest ever in his sport who has lost so frequently to a top rival.

2) Borg absolutely did not have a particular surface weakness. In fact, his dominance on two completely different surfaces--Wimbledon's grass and the French Open's clay--is unprecedented. All a player can do is dominate his contemporaries and Borg retired at 25 as the career record holder at both events. That is a remarkable feat, as is Borg's "triple double" (winning both events in the same year for three straight years). Borg lost at the U.S. Open on clay (his best surface) and on hard courts. Whatever reasons you want to list/believe for why he did not win the U.S. Open, a specific surface weakness does not fly: Borg was clearly a clay court master and he won significant events on hard courts (for instance, Borg beat Connors at the Pepsi Grand Slam--a big money tournament at that time--on a hard court). According to the ATP website, Borg had a 117-37 match record on hard courts and won five hard court singles titles. It is worth noting that hard courts were much less common in Borg's time than in Federer's (Federer has played nearly 500 hard court matches), which is yet another reason why it is difficult to compare players from different eras other than by assessing how they did against their contemporaries (which is why Federer's failures versus Nadal are more significant than Borg not winning the U.S. Open). Furthermore, Borg did beat Connors at the U.S. Open in 1981, while Federer has yet to beat Nadal at the French Open. It is worth noting that during Borg's career he faced two players who would be on virtually everyone's all-time top 10 list (Connors and McEnroe), while Federer has not faced similar dual competition.

3) The total Slam count is basically meaningless when comparing players from different eras. The Australian Open was a minor event for non-Australians during Borg's time and such players regularly skipped it entirely. Furthermore, even with the Slams that Federer picked up in Nadal's absence--a luxury that Borg did not enjoy vis a vis Connors or McEnroe--Borg still has the better Grand Slam winning percentage: Borg won 11 of the 27 Slams that he entered (.407) while Federer has won 16 of 43 Slams that he entered (.372).

Comparing Borg to Federer on the basis of total Slams won is like comparing Jim Brown to Emmitt Smith.

I agree that in some sense Federer is "gaining ground" on Borg because Federer is still winning Grand Slams but considering what we have already seen of Federer versus Nadal it would be difficult for me to rank Federer ahead of Borg unless I see Federer beat Nadal at full strength more consistently.

tennis said...

borg's inability to win the us open out of 9 tries, is for me, more of a gaping hole on his resume than fed's record against nadal. borg's record in the us open is 0-9, whereas, atleast fed has won 7 times against nadal, he's on the scorecard.

David Friedman said...


I disagree. Borg not winning the U.S. Open can be looked upon as a fluke considering his overall record against the two players (Connors and McEnroe) who defeated him in his four Finals appearances. On the other hand, Nadal has dominated Federer for years and on a multitude of surfaces/events. Consider an example from auto racing: Mario Andretti "only" won the Indy 500 once but because of his versatility and the large number of races he won in various formats he has been honored as the Driver of the Century, best driver of the past 25 years, etc, best American driver, etc. Andretti raced very well at Indy and he led more laps there than many of the drivers who won the event multiple times but something always seemed to go wrong. Likewise, Borg played well at the U.S. Open but something always seemed to go wrong, whether it was an injury, a questionable line call or something else and Borg ended up losing to great players who he did well against throughout the rest of the tennis season (in contrast to Federer's world tour of losing to Nadal at various venues and on various surfaces).

Federer has a contemporary who owns a decisive advantage against him and yet many people are not merely content to say that Federer is in the discussion with Borg to be considered the greatest Open Era player but that Federer should be considered the greatest player hands down; I reject that premise.

FedFan said...

I'm not sure how many people would agree that something that happened on 9 separate occasions can be considered a 'fluke'...
If you really want to push that argument, then we embark on a rather slippery slope.
Perhaps I could contend that Federer's 9 losses against Nadal on clay can be considered a 'fluke' considering his overall record on clay (141:42), and his dominance over Nadal on all other surfaces combined (Fed:Nadal, 2:9 on clay, 5:4 on all other surfaces combined). And in fact, at least Federer has 2 wins against Nadal on clay to prove he wasn't completely unable to do it...

Also, you consistently argue that the FO/Wimb double is a lot more difficult to achieve than the Wimb/USO double (mainly because more people have achieved the latter than the former), and yet Borg never managed the so called 'easier' double. So either Borg wasn't so 'great' after all (seeing as he couldn't even master the easy stuff), or both doubles are equally difficult, with different players having success with one or the other for whatever particular reasons.

Nonetheless, in this department, Federer has, as of 2009, managed both the 'doubles' - something Borg never did.

It is the fact that Federer has completed the wider variety of difficult achievements (and a greater total tally) that gives me reason to believe that he now, by the smallest of margins (but nonetheless definitively), can be considered the greatest player of the Open Era (again, I make no representations regarding 'all time')

Lastly, as I have contended in previous posts, I consider Federer to be a late blooming master (and in fact quite liked your metaphor of being like a good wine that takes time to age).
Thus the career percentages are not what I feel should be compared, but rather the percentages that cover the respective periods of dominance.
Not having the pertinent figures to hand (for either Borg or Federer), I make no assertions in this regard.

David Friedman said...


I did not say that something that happened nine times was a fluke; I said that it could be considered a fluke that Borg did not win a single U.S. Open title in light of some of the circumstances that happened to him in that event. Those are two very different statements (i.e., not every single loss was a fluke but based on Borg's play on clay and hard courts and his record versus his U.S. Open opponents it is a bit unusual that he did not capture a single title there).

In contrast, Nadal has been dominating Federer for years and in 2008-early 2009 that dominance became more pronounced and spread to more surfaces. That hardly looks like a fluke but rather seems to represent Nadal's continued evolution as a player. Nadal's unfortunate recent spate of injuries do not change that history or alter that evaluation.

It is a fact that the Wimbledon/French double is much more rare than the Wimbledon/U.S. Open double. Again, this points to the fact that it is fluky that Borg never won a U.S. Open title; Borg did not have a specific surface weakness or matchup problem that would explain his failure to win that event, particularly in light of how he evolved from a clay court specialist to become the dominant grass court player of his generation.

Why is Federer's "greater total tally" so impressive to you? Borg won 11 Slams in 27 tries. He never played the Australian during his prime and he retired from Slam play at 25. There is every reason to think that he could have pushed his Slam total to 15-20 by either playing in the Australian or simply extending his career for a few more years. Does Emmitt Smith's "greater total tally" impress you more than Jim Brown's absolute dominance for a nine year period?

Why should any objective person cherry pick which winning percentages to count? If you suggest that we don't count Federer's early years and only count his years of dominance then I will counter that we should only count winning percentages in the two most prestigious Slams, Wimbledon and the French Open: Borg went five for nine at Wimbledon and six for eight at the French, while Federer has gone six for 11 at Wimbledon and one for 11 at the French. No, the only sensible thing is to count the total Slam percentages: 11/27 for Borg, 16/43 for Federer.

FedFan said...

I'd like to go down a tangential path, and pose a question:

In your opinion, what (more) would Federer need to do to be the definitive greatest player of the Open Era (i.e. be definitively, even if by the slightest of margins, ahead of Borg in this respect)?
In fact, is there anything that he can do, or has that ship already sailed given current win/loss percentages and the possibility of Nadal never returning to the heights he reached near the '09 Aus Open....?

David Friedman said...


As I have indicated repeatedly, Federer needs to demonstrate that he can consistently beat a healthy Nadal. If Federer never does that then he has not proven "definitively" that he is the greatest player of the Open Era--Federer is of course on the short list with Borg and Sampras but I don't see how anyone can objectively say that Federer is "definitively" the greatest when he has a contemporary who has dominated him. That should be obvious but far too many people act like it is complicated.

I once again challenge you--and anyone else--to name anyone who is considered to be "definitively" the best in his/her field despite being dominated by a contemporary of his/hers. It just would not make sense to make such a claim. Federer's strong overall record certainly can be compared with Borg's and with Sampras' but it is not "definitively" better than theirs.

Anonymous said...

David. Very nice call that Nadal could win the French Open-Wimbledon double this year at a time when nobody thought he could. Impressive!

David Friedman said...


In the comment thread I said that I thought that a healthy Nadal would have had an excellent chance to pull off the French/Wimbledon double in 2009. This year, a healthy Nadal did in fact pull off that double, becoming the second youngest Open Era player to win eight Grand Slam singles titles (trailing only Borg) and becoming the only player other than Borg to twice accomplish the French/Wimbledon double; Borg did it from 1978-80 and he retired as the Open Era leader in both French Open titles (six) and Wimbledon titles (five), a distinction that no one player is likely to match (i.e., Federer broke the Wimbledon record after Sampras surpassed Borg and Nadal may break Borg's French Open record but no one player is likely to ever hold both records simultaneously).

It is becoming increasingly obvious just how right I was to question the way that so many people were insisting that Federer be declared the greatest player of the Open Era.

Anonymous said...

Love this thread, having read the whole thing over the past hour. Great arguments on all sides (if a bit edgy at times!).
I definitely feel like I'm a bit biased towards Borg/Nadal but Federer has been (to use a cliche) awesome.
I agree with David in that:
1. The de-emphasis of the AO and "collecting majors" in general in the 70's and early 80 is a HUGE factor. Not just for Borg but for Connors, Mac and others (and I always rooted against those 2!)
2. I always found simply "counting championships" as the only measure of who is the best to be lazy and boring. So now Coach K at Duke is twice as good a hoops coach as Dean Smith was? I really liked the subtleties (sp?) of most of the posts. The main point of the the initial post is simply: Fed is not even close to CLEARLY being the best.

I also agree with the use of Fed's losing record to Nadal as important, but I think it is minor compared to 1. and 2.

As far as the pre-open era, if you count pro major titles, which were just as difficult to win but not as historically prestigious, vastly under-rated Ken Rosewall would have 23 majors (8 GS and 15 pro majors) or, more fairly, 19 majors (subtracting his 4 amateur grand slam victories in the '50s when he did not have to beat Gonzalez, Sedgman, Kramer, Segura,and the other best players in the world at that time...)

Good stuff Mr Friedman!

David Friedman said...


Thank you for your thoughtful reply. My main goal here is to provide intelligent, objective and logical commentary and it is clear that you responded to my post in the spirit that it was written.

Anonymous said...

That's not how I recall it. Bjørn was dethroned and lost his nerve in late 1981. He didn't want to be no. 2 for some years. We all hoped for a comeback in '82 but it didn't happen. Sydney '82 was invitational and probably meant less to John and Ivan. Trying to blame his goodbye on tournament rules is pleasant, but he had the ending in himself.

David Friedman said...


If Borg had kept playing on tour it is hardly certain that he would have been "number two for years." McEnroe did not dominate the tour after Borg left the scene; McEnroe, Connors and Lendl each took turns at number one from 1981-1985, when Lendl grabbed the top spot for the next three years. Borg was clearly capable of being in the mix with those three players if he had been willing to follow the tour's rules pertaining to frequency of play.

As I mentioned in the article, the prize fund for the Akai Gold Challenge was larger than the prize fund at Slam events so I highly doubt that McEnroe and Lendl suffered from insufficient motivation when they faced Borg.

sean said...

Great thread, how did Borg fare at the 1977 french open near his prime? He didn't play, he was contracted to WTT with the cleveland nets, can the Borg sceptics not chalk (titanium oxide) up another GS for Bjorn. Such was the drive for GS's in that era. The players then chased the money, a modern player does not have to think about finance now, just GS's, so it distorts this arguement somewhat.

Borg would score higher on looks as well, Rafa is popular with the ladies but not as much as Bjorn..

Like Rafa, Borg has only been beaten at the FO by one player, Panatta.

BB was great over 5 sets which made his GS record so impressive. In deciding 3 or 5 set stats he ranks above Nadal... (so far)

As for the US, the Americans did like scheduling him late on in the lights in their desire a USA winner...

If Rafa retired tomorrow, he would not be ranked the GOAT, he needs a few more years/titles if Novac doesn't win everything from now on.....

Fed has a bad record against Murray and another Brit, Tiger Tim Henman.


Athang said...

what do you think of the greatest of all time debate now? after nadal having eclipsed borg's 6 french open titles.

David Friedman said...


I wrote this article three years ago, so even if my opinion subsequently changed would that make this article incorrect?

I still rank Borg ahead of Nadal because during his era Borg simultaneously held the record for most Wimbledon titles (five) and most French Open titles (six). No player before or since has simultaneously dominated grass and clay the way that Borg did.

Borg is the greatest Open Era player, followed by Nadal--who has a better Grand Slam winning percentage than Federer, won the career Grand Slam at 24 (Federer was nearly 28 when he achieved this) and an 18-10 head to head advantage versus Federer--and Federer. Sampras, who was inept on clay compared to the aforementioned three, ranks fourth.

Anonymous said...

If Roger Federer's achievements were accomplished over a longer period than Bjorn Borg's because Borg retired early, then this is another legitimate argument in Federer's claim to be the greatest open player. Success and dominance over a longer career is more impressive than in a shorter career.
Mr Friedman's best argument is that Federer is not even the best player of his own era since he has a losing record to Rafael Nadal. I argue that the criteria for judging greatness should not be simply head to head matchings, but success in a sport's most important competitions. Track and field athletes would trade several wins at weekly, summer events for a win at the Olympic Games or World Championships. The best baseball team is not necessarily the one with the most wins in a season, but the one that wins the World Series. In tennis, the "World Series" are the Grand Slam events, at least in the modern, Open era. Those are the events the Open era tennis community has always cared about and the ones we care about today. The draw of prize money may have motivated some players toward some events, just as unseen appearance money may have motivated too, but that should not lift the Akai event to the status of a Grand Slam event. No, victories in Grand Slam events are what it's all about. That's why we watch those and care so much. Roger Federer will continue to be regarded by many as the greatest because of his consistent and long lasting success in Grand Slam events. Others may pick Nadal because he will win nearly as many Slams as Federer before he's done and seems to have dominated Federer in his own time. Sampras and Borg will be regarded just behind those two.

David Friedman said...


Emmitt Smith's career lasted longer than Jim Brown's and Smith rushed for more yards than Brown but no informed NFL observer would rank Smith ahead of Brown. Federer is tennis' Emmitt Smith, while Borg is tennis' Jim Brown. By the way, Borg won a Grand Slam in eight straight years, which stood as a record for three decades, so he enjoyed a long period of dominance even though his career is considered to be "short."

I am not equating Akai with a Grand Slam; my point is that Borg's dominant win over McEnroe in that event debunks the idea that Borg retired because he was befuddled by McEnroe. Borg retired from Grand Slam play because he did not want to deal with the ridiculous rules that forced him to play in a certain number of events per year in order to avoid having to participate in qualifiers at the Grand Slams.

While the Grand Slams are the most important events, the Australian Open was not important to non-Australians during Borg's era, so comparing Borg's totals in three Grand Slams to Federer's totals in four Grand Slams is deceptive; Borg was more dominant in the three most important Slams than Federer has been.

Unknown said...

I'd read this before and just wanted to say thanks for posting. If an argument can be made that anyone is better than Borg, it would have to be an argument for Nadal. The statistics however, as well as I what I refer to as the intangibles, still point to the ice man. Enjoyed this piece very much!

David Friedman said...


Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Friedman, you analysis is thesis quality but one variable that is missed by most tennis analyzers of Borg's development?
His racket. Borg started out with a wooden Slazenger brand, moved to wooden Bancroft variant, then to a semi composite Donnay. Borg used the tightest strung rackets (about 80lbs, for control) hence the famous ping when the ball hit his racket! What would've happen if Borg strung his racket at a lower tension and bigger grip for his US Open games?
I theorize, that players like Nadal who would vary the tension of their rackets given the surface would have a wider arsenal to choose. I guess Nadal could beat these bigger server guys on hard court with a lower strung racket or even using a different racket (clandestinely painted to their endorser). Lendl was notorious for favoring his Kneissel branded racket and customizing it with his endorsed racket (i.e. Adidas). Perhaps, Borg would've benefited from having more clandestine racket choices. I guess, Nadal is a prime example who has the funds to play around with those choices?
You think?

David Friedman said...


Your comment is interesting and you may be right that racket stringing preferences affected the results of some players. I know that Borg was very particular about how tightly his rackets were strung but I am not familiar with the stringing preferences of all of the great players so I elected to leave that out of my analysis.

BenSarlin said...

How can we compare someone who played with a wood racket with someone playing today with much larger, more powerful rackets. Can we say Borg was better in his era than Federer was in his?
Perhaps. But Federer now has 18 grand slams. And has almost doubled Borg's career. So at the time of this writing, I am sure the nod must go to Federer.

Pranav Kulkarni said...

Just came across this write-up while trying to Google search "Why did Bjorn Borg never play the Australian Open?" Well, now I know that he DID play once, way before he became the best ever!

While the first half of your write-up gives some interesting insight about how Borg was still far from over post 1981 U.S. Open final, the second half discusses the GOAT debate with Federer and like all such discussions, is a bit biased! :)

Even though since your publication, 2 more players (Nadal and Djokovic) have gone past Borg in the Grand Slam tally, I still feel Borg is the Best Male Tennis Player of All Time ahead of not just Federer but Laver, Nadal, Djokovic, Sampras and the rest (McEnroe, Connors, Agassi, Lendl, etc)

However, my reasoning (bit biased, I declare!) is not statistical. I have 2 primary reasons for feeling he is GOAT.

1. His domination of French Open - French is still the most difficult of the 4 GS to win. Partly, due to many players who feel they have a chance to win it. Only two players have dominated it since the Open Era, Borg and Nadal. While Nadal has nearly double the number of Roland Garros titles than Borg, it is the fact that Borg totally dominated the event in the late seventies that makes him different and better. (This is coming from a hardcore Nadal fan!) He also annihilated the great clay court specialist Guillermo Vilas in 2 of those French Open finals and has a 18-5 career head to head record against him! This is even highlighted by the fact that even after having such a dismal record and only 1 French Open win, Vilas is considered a legendary Clay Court Player, probably rated third after Borg and Nadal!

2. His adaptation at Wimbledon - While winning on the Clay of Paris was more suited to his playing style, it is at the Grass of South West London that Borg earned his legendary status. Borg was essentially a baseliner and a 5-time winner of Wimbledon which essentially favoured the hard-hitting style of Serve and Volleyers like.. well almost everyone else! Right from Rosewall, Newcombe to Connors and McEnroe, many others were better suited to win Wimbledon than the tall lanky Swede whose game was based on topspin. The fact that they hardly succeeded against him shows his great adaptability!

He also played in an era where the grass was "Faster" (An accusation labelled against Nadal, belittling his Wimbledon wins!). For sure, he struggled in the early rounds at Wimbledon on a couple of occasions but did get through and won it 5 straight times, not to forget the 6th final!

It is this quality that makes him the best!

Federer - Could never win French Open while Nadal was on the other side of the net. And still has a solitary slam to show! Hardly adapting to less favourable surroundings.

Nadal - Did win Wimbledon and US Open multiple times but still not as dominant as Borg and has to contend with accusations of Slower surfaces which help his playing style!

Djokovic - Has beaten Nadal at French and Federer at Wimbledon. But still only one French Open. Also lost too many finals especially those against Murray and Wawrinka!

Sampras / McEnroe / Connors - Never won the French Open, their least favourite slam!

Lendl - Replace French with Wimbledon from the above scenario!

Agassi - Won all 4 Slams but never really dominated for an era like the others above!

Laver - Won the Calendar GS twice! But at that time, 3 out of 4 slams were on Grass! Also Aussie open was more of a national tournament, although aussies were dominating in that era! Is the best contender for GOAT after Borg, but for the non-participation during pre-open era (not his fault, at all!)

David Friedman said...


I do not believe that my article is “biased” but I agree with you that Borg is the greatest tennis player of all-time.