Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fun With Tennis Numbers

Here are some of the statistics compiled by one of the Open Era's finest male tennis players:
  1. Best career overall match winning percentage (.827)
  2. Best career Grand Slam match winning percentage (.898)
  3. Best career Wimbledon match winning percentage (.927)
  4. Best career match winning percentage against top 10 players (.705)
  5. Best career Grand Slam tournament winning percentage (.407)
  6. Won at least one Grand Slam singles title for eight straight years
  7. Only man to win three Grand Slam singles titles without losing a set
  8. Only man to reach four Grand Slam singles finals without losing a set
  9. Only man to defeat six previous Grand Slam winners in a Grand Slam final
  10. Holds the record for most consecutive Davis Cup singles match wins (33)
  11. Holds the record for most singles titles won before his 25th birthday (59)
  12. Reached the finals in 11 of 12 Grand Slams entered during a four year stretch
Based on how often Roger Federer is referred to as the greatest tennis player of all-time, one might assume that he produced the above numbers--but those statistics in fact belong to Bjorn Borg (who shares the record for eight straight years with a Grand Slam win with Federer and Pete Sampras). Borg did not lose a single set at the French Open in 1978 and 1980 and in 1978 he posted a .799 winning percentage in his French Open games en route to winning nearly two thirds (.665) of his Grand Slam games that year, the best such single season winning percentage ever. Rafael Nadal has tied some of Borg's French Open records (including six titles overall and four straight titles) but--except for one year--Nadal has not approached Borg's simultaneous mastery of Roland Garros' clay and Wimbledon's grass; Borg is the only man to win both the French Open and Wimbledon for three straight years (1978-80) and the only man who won both six French Opens and five Wimbledons.

While it is certainly true that Federer has posted some gaudy statistics and Sampras displayed amazing consistency by finishing first in the year-end rankings a record six straight times, Borg's dominance is far too often overlooked; no sensible discussion of the greatest Open Era male players can omit his name.


Anonymous said...

Those are staggering numbers . In my opinion Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal are the two greatest players of the Open Era . Rod Laver was unlucky I feel , but whatever this counts for, Borg leads him 4-2 . That's a small sample size and Laver was 36, so that may not be a conclusive stat. However , Laver is certainly a genuine candidate for the GOAT title but it's speculative what he would have achieved had the rules been different back in the 60s. So I would give the benefit of the doubt to Borg and Rafa . They are my top two OPEN ERA GREATS , followed by Laver and Federer , and Pistol Pete barely scrapes into the top 5 owing to his durability .

If Borg would have won the elusive US open trophy , I'd regard him above Nadal but unfortunately it didn't happen mostly due to his ailments. The best thing that Borg had achieved in my opinion was his TRIPLE DOUBLE . Now if we go back to the wimbledon final of 2007, Nadal had triple breakpoint at 2-1 40-0 in the decider against possibly the greatest grass court
player of all time. He missed a golden opportunity or he could have possibly emulated
Borg's triple double the greatest feat of all time . Nadal was unfortunate . But if we rewind our clock back to the US Open final of 78( correct me if I'm wrong ) Borg was up a break 3-2 in the decider against Jimbo. He had a golden opportunity there but probably was also suffering from a knee injury while playing at the hard courts of the flushing meadows . Borg was unlucky too . Borg should have had the US open and Nadal should have had the triple double . Nadal's failure to achieve the triple double keeps me from placing him above Borg in my all time list and vice versa for Borg's unfortunate loss at New York . So in my book , they're tied for the top spot in the mythical GOAT discussion .
In my opinion Nadal's 2010 season was the greatest grandslam run of all time for the reason that he won his 3slams on all the 3 different surfaces consecutively( the slow dirt of RG , the fast grass of SW19, and the fast deco turf of NYC) His run included wins on all 3 surfaces (clay, grass and hard ) both natural and artificial surfaces . He didn't drop a set on route to the
final at new york (his worst slam of all the four).
There have been many great grandslam winning streaks but they all came only on 2 surfaces . Laver had his calender slam on 2 surfaces (clay and grass ) There were other greats who complied 3 slams in the same season but they were all won on 2 surfaces (clay -grass or grass -hard or clay and hard ) No player apart from Nadal could do it . Laver , Federer , Borg , Djokovic were very close but failed at the last hurdle ( laver being the exception as the slams in his era were played on 2 surfaces ). So Nadal's 2010 grandslam run and Borg's triple double were the greatest achievements of all time in my
opinion .
I therefore feel that they are the two best players (along with many other stats to support their case as you've mentioned in this blog) of the Open Era . They are equally good, Rafael Nadal in many ways is a successor to Bjorn Borg.

Anonymous said...

The reason I say that is the statistical similarities in their records . Their overall winning percentage is equal 0.827. They both dominated Roland Garros and won it 6 and 7 times with 8 appearances each . They reached the wimbledon finals adapting to the grass there. They only failed to make the wimbledon finals exactly 3 times ! The US Open was by far their worst slam but they both did well .

Here are the statistical similarities to continue with .
1) overall win%
Borg 0.827
Nadal 0.827

2) reaching slam finals without dropping a set
Borg 4
Nadal 5

3) winning a slam without dropping a set
Borg 3
Nadal 2

4) total slams won
Borg 11
Nadal 11

5) Consecutive wins at FO
Borg 4
Nadal 4

6) Winning at least one slam per year in succession
Borg 8
Nadal 8* (active streak)

Grandslam win loss record excluding AO
Borg 139-15
Nadal 122-15

Successive slam finals
Borg 11 from 12 appearances
Nadal 8 from 9
Federer 18 from 19
Roger 's streak was the greatest ever.

But Borg leads on many other fronts of percentages and other stats and vice versa for Nadal . Nadal has the unique achievement of a golden slam ( shared with graff and agassi ).

Nadal is a worthy successor to the legendary Iceman .


Andy said...

"No sensible discussion of the greatest Open Era male players can omit his (Borg's) name."

I agree. His name should be in the discussion. In that discussion though, his supporters have to somehow overcome the big argument against him; that he never won the USO even though he had a three shots at it on clay.

But to me there is no question he deserves to be in the discussion. At two majors he was a dominant force. He might have been at a third (the AO) if that tourney had been of the same importance back then that it is now. We will never know about that point (but we do know, that Federer has won 4AO, which is not a small number, and not to be dismissed as a mere "padding" of his overall numbers).

Nadal, however, does not belong in the discussion yet in my opinion. But lets imagine the propsect for a second. Let's say S.I. comes out with a cover next month naming Nadal the Greatest Player of the Open Era. What are the arguments against it? There are many I think, but I'll just start with one here and, ironically, it's the same argument that is used against Federer,

"How can Nadal be the greatest player of the open era, when he might not be the greatest player of his time?"

Yes, Rafa has the big edge in the head to head versus Federer, but in number of titles won at the
three out of the four Majors (that both guys have entered in the last 9 years), the numbers are not even close. He is DOMINATED in that area. Even at his second best Major, Wimbledon, what is it? 5-2 for Federer once you eliminate 2004 and 2009 when Nadal didn't play (by the way, it's arguable that we should be eliminating such years in comparing the two, but even when doing so the numbers are in Federer's favor at an over 2-1 ratio). The others are of course worse than that. 3-1 at the AO for Federer once you eliminate the 2006 AO when Nadal didn't play. And worst of all for Rafa, 5-1 at the USO in Federer's favor.

Yes, Rafa has the 7-1 edge at the FO. But there are four majors and the French is only one. At teh other three, the bottom line title counts are all well in Fed's favor. And last I heard, 3 is greater than 1!

So I ask,

"How can the greatest player of the open era have been DOMINATED in terms of numbers of titles at three out of four major by a player who played during the same time as him?"

David Friedman said...


Borg's case as the greatest Open Era player is very strong, as I demonstrated in this article and in several earlier articles.

You are correct that a case can also be made for other players. I have never denied that; I merely object to the widespread assertion that Federer is clearly and indisputably the greatest player of all-time. That assertion is demonstrably false.

Your attempt to make a case for Federer and/or against Nadal is a classic example of selectively citing the statistics that favor you. I have no interest in doing a point by point refutation of your errors in logic but I will make a few observations about glaring holes in your case:

1) Federer's Australian Open wins do represent "padding" if one tries to make the case that Federer is greater than Borg purely based on winning more total Grand Slams. In Borg's era only three Grand Slams mattered to non-Australian players and Borg simultaneously dominated two of those Slams in an unprecedented manner: when he retired he held the career record for Wimbledon titles and for French Open titles, a mark that no one else held before him and one that I seriously doubt that anyone will hold in the future.

2) Nadal belongs in the greatest player discussion because he has dominated Federer head to head, he is the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam and he has accomplished more at a younger age than any player other than Borg. Federer's only edge over Nadal is that Federer has played longer and has been more durable. It remains to be seen how long Nadal will play and how many more titles he will win but from a skill set standpoint Nadal certainly matches up quite well with Federer.

3) It is possible to find a particular stat that favors Borg or Nadal or Federer but an objective analyst has to look at each player's career in proper historical context and that is what I have tried to do in my various articles on this subject.

David Friedman said...


One more point about how you twisted the numbers. You attempted to prove that Nadal has only dominated one Slam while Federer has dominated three but another way to look at this is that Federer cannot touch Nadal at Nadal's best Slam while Nadal has beaten Federer at Wimbledon; Nadal completely owns clay in this era AND he has beaten Federer at Federer's best Slam. Again, context is everything. You presented the numbers in a manner to favor the point that you emotionally believe in but the larger context refutes your point.

This is why Borg stands out: at his best no one could touch him on grass or on clay and he retired (at just 25) as the career record holder for both Wimbledon and the French Open. That is like Jim Brown winning eight rushing titles in nine seasons. Other players have rushed for more career yards than Brown but no one has dominated like he did. As I have said before, Federer is the Emmitt Smith of tennis; Federer's great longevity and durability enabled him to set the record for career Grand Slams much like Smith's longevity and durability enabled him to set the NFL's career rushing record but Smith is not the greatest running back of all-time.

Andy said...


You say I twist numbers without looking at context, and I say you twist numbers without looking at context. You think I selectively cite statistics that favor me. I think you selectively cite statistics that favor you. You think I have errors in logic. I think you have errors in logic. You think there are glaring holes in my case. I think there are glaring holes in your case.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let's get to the real point of professional tennis. And that point is that these guys play for titles, especially major titles. That's what it is all about. The two guys, Fed and Nadal, more or less entered the same majors in the last 9 or so years and Fed has come out with significantly more titles than Rafa at three out of four venues.

Yes, Rafa has done great against Fed on all surfaces (except indoor hard in which he has been totally dominated by Fed), but that doesn't change the fact that Fed has out-performed Rafa at three out of four majors. You can't get around that fact David no matter how hard you try to do your own twisting. I'm pretty sure Rafa would gladly trade his HtoH against Fed for better overall title numbers vis-a-vis him.

Now, of course, Rafa is younger and has more shots. I am not saying that he can not become the "greatest of the open era" but as of right now, he does not belong in the discussion in my humble opinion. And Fed does belong in the discussion.

And you are right. Many Fed fans and people in general are too quick to label Fed unquestionably the greatest. BUT, what I was trying to point out was that when one turns that around and names someone else the greatest (i.e., if S.I. were to name Rafa the "greatest of the open era"), there are some very legitimate questions to throw at those sort of declarations as well.

As for the Emmitt Smith comment, it is, in my opinion, an inappropriate comparison as I have said before. Amongst other reasons, Emmitt did not dominate several seasons. He was a great running back (on a great team), but he wasn't dominant. With the exception of one guy, Fed was way above the pack in 2004 to 2007. Fed's numbers and his story in general are not just about durability.

Lastly, returning to Borg, unlike a lot of Fed fans, I have no beef with the proposition that he is the greatest of the open era. My point is just that Fed's four actual AO titles set a high standard. Sure, I see the argument that Borg would have won some AOs. I am all with you for looking at the context when considering that point. But 4 is a lot for anyone, even for Borg. It's not "padding". It's simply a high standard. That's all I was trying to say there.

David Friedman said...


The difference is that I demonstrated why the numbers you cited lack context; just asserting something to be the case does not prove it to be so, which means that the first paragraph of your last comment is irrelevant: stating the obvious--that we disagree--does not somehow prove that you are right or that our contentions have equal merit.

You say that the point of tennis is to play for "major titles." Nadal won 11 Grand Slam titles faster than anyone except Borg and he enjoys a head to head advantage in Grand Slam Finals over Federer. Nadal has beaten Federer on Federer's turf (Wimbledon) but Federer has not beaten Nadal on Nadal's turf (French Open). Federer is older than Nadal and he has been more durable so naturally he has amassed more total titles, just like Smith played longer than Brown and thus amassed more total yards.

Nadal is certainly in the discussion as the greatest player of the Open Era based on the total context of his career (listed in no particular order): dominance in the French, career Grand Slam, head to head dominance over Federer, youngest to win 11 Grand Slams other than Borg. Once we put Nadal's name in the discussion with Borg, Federer and Sampras we can debate how to rank those four players but I disagree with your contention that Nadal is not even worthy of being in the discussion.

Yes, four Australian Opens is a significant accomplishment in this era--but if one is going to compare Federer to Borg then the only logical thing to do is to compare Borg's record in the three most important Slams with Federer's record in the three most important Slams. Otherwise, this would be like someone in 2050 comparing that era's best player and his record in some new fifth Grand Slam to Federer or Borg who never even played in this new fifth Grand Slam event.

Andy said...


As mentioned in previous posts, the HtoH numbers need to be looked at in context. Fed very much helped to create the numbers by being so good on clay so as to get to all those finals. If Fed would have been losing in semis prior to those matches, the HtoH would be a lot closer. Dismiss this if you like, but the disproportionate number of clay matches is a fact, as is their HtoH record off clay. I am not saying Nadal hasn't done very well against Fed off clay (obviously at their 3 matches at the Majors in the last 4 years he has). But even so, Fed still has the overall edge on both hard courts and grass courts. I mean, that point alone “demonstrates” that had they played a greater percentage of their matches off clay, the HtoH would be looking at least a little different now. That is not to say that Rafa wouldn’t have taken some non-clay matches, but still the way we look at the rivalry would be different.

I have also “demonstrated” your lack of logic in citing the Chrissie-Martina rivalry as a point which favors Rafa. Given that only 18% of the Chrissie-Martina matches were on clay, it is reasonable to suggest that Chrissie would have had a winning record against Martina if 50% of their matches would have been on clay, as Rafa-Fed’s matches have been. But even if that were the case, few would argue that overall Chrissie was a better player than Martina given Martina’s success on grass, hard and carpet. So if you are going to refer to that rivalry, be fair and adjust the numbers so that the proportion of the surface matchups there equals that of the Fed-Rafa rivalry.

You write off my analysis as twisting numbers etc., but that is just your contention, no greater in merit than my contention that your analysis simply ignores, or grossly downplays, some very basic facts/contextual points about each of Fed’s and Rafa’s places in this debate.

And, yes, Nadal won 11 Grand Slam titles faster than anyone except Borg, but you fail to point out that 7 of the 11 (over 60%) came at one venue. Take away the 7 and you are left with Vilas-like numbers in terms of titles (better than Vilas in overall performance though). Take away Fed’s 7 Wimbys and you are left with title numbers that exceed those of Lendl, Agassi, Becker and Wilander (I’ll leave out Mac and Connors as they didn’t play as many AOs). Vilas was a very fine player, but his career doesn’t compare to any of those other guys.

Nadal is certainly a tremendous player (a potential GOAT one day). He is either the greatest ever on clay or a close second. He has done well at the other majors, and I admire him for that by the way. However, with the exception of Wimby, he has not done as well as Fed has at the FO (and the conditions of the non-clay courts have clearly become so much more suitable for Rafa’s game than they would have been in other eras – and moreover, those conditions help his game more than Fed’s).

To be continued.

Andy said...

- Continued from an earlier post just sent.

Here is another way to look at their performances. Fed is arguably one of the greatest grass court and hard court players ever (certainly in the top 5 on both surfaces). Is Nadal, even with his very good success at Wimby, in the top 5 grass court players of the Open Era yet? Probably not, as Borg, Fed, Sampras, Becker and McEnroe would have to be ranked ahead of him, at this point. On hard, he is definitely not in the top 5, and possibly not even in the top ten. On the other hand, there is a very reasonable argument that Fed might crack the top 5 clay court players of the Open Era, certainly the top 10. For several years he basically lost to only the “King of Clay” on that surface. 5 FO finals. 1 FO title. He has beaten Rafa twice on clay (I think only one or two guys have done better). He has several titles on clay over the years. Pretty darn good for someone’s weak surface. There are few guys arguably ahead of him on clay, sure, but it is more reasonable to assert, at this point in time anyway, that Fed cracks the top 5 on clay than it is to assert that Rafa cracks the top 5 on grass, let alone hard. And even if you want to list a bunch of guys ahead of Fed on clay, he is clearly in the discussion as one of the two or three greatest players ever on two out the three surfaces. That cannot be said of Nadal yet. In 1 or 2 years maybe. But not yet.

David Friedman said...


You have an interesting perspective and you make some valid points but I stand by my contention that overall you are twisting numbers to suit you. As I said before, I do not intend to issue a point by point refutation but look at your general take versus mine: you continually say that we should count this number and discount that number and that by doing this in the appropriate manner (i.e., the manner that suits the points you want to make) we will reach certain conclusions. In contrast, I keep saying that we should look at all of the evidence and not selectively cite stats that favor one player or another. The total picture shows--among other things--that Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than anyone but Borg, he has a head to head advantage over Federer and he has beaten Federer on Federer's turf while Federer has not beaten Nadal on Nadal's turf. I simply disagree with your assertion that Nadal is somehow ineligible to be considered the greatest player of the Open Era. That discussion starts with (in chronological order) Borg, Sampras, Federer and Nadal. All four players are in the discussion. Your attempt to remove Nadal from that discussion based on twisting certain numbers and suggesting a spurious comparison with Vilas makes no sense.

If you want to selectively cite numbers, then look at the 25 year old Nadal versus the 25 year old Federer and try to justify removing Nadal from the discussion. Federer's chief advantage is that he is extremely durable and he has played in more Grand Slams than Borg, Nadal or Sampras so Federer has had more opportunities to amass titles, just like the durable Emmitt Smith had more opportunities to amass yards than Jim Brown did.

Andy said...


The Vilas reference was not intended as a comparison between Nadal and Vilas. It was just one way of pointing out that the number of Rafa's titles other than his 7 FO titles is considerably lower than the number of Fed's other than his 7 Wimby titles.

Another, more simple, way of looking at the above point is to ask yourself this question. Would you not be far more willing to put (and keep) Rafa in the discussion if the breakdown of Rafa's 11 titles were:

4 FO, 3 Wimby, 2 USO, 2 AO

Perhaps I can concede that Rafa is already “in the discussion,” but for me anyway, if he would have put up numbers like the above numbers he would be a hell of a lot more difficult to quickly dismiss from “the discussion.” Why? Because with such numbers it would be clear that Rafa had tremendous (not just very good or good) success on more than one surface and that his 11 titles were well spread out amongst the 4 the Majors rather than having SO much weight placed on one particular venue. This is NOT to question Rafa’s significant accomplishments off clay (which I acknowledge and greatly respect), but to question the extent of such accomplishments in the context of a “greatest of the Open era” discussion. You can say 1,000,000,000 times that Rafa has won a Career Grand Slam (which is indeed evidence that he is not a “one trick pony”) but that doesn’t change the point that a disproportionately large portion of his success at the Majors has come at one venue. He may not be a “one-trick pony” but he is still a “mainly made on clay pony.”

This point also is evident when contemplating a tennis world where clay is the predominant surface and hard is the minority surface (as Nikhil above was considering above). Let’s imagine for a second that the AO is played on clay and Rafa dominates there to the same extent that he has dominated the FO. In that scenario, all other things being equal, Rafa’s numbers are:

7 FO, 7 AO, 2 Wimby, 1 USO

And Fed’s numbers are

1 FO, 0 or 1 AO, 7 Wimby, 5 USO

Rafa of course leads, the totals being 17 to 13 in his favor. Some Fed fans might raise the closer differential in this scenario as something in Fed’s favor, but this is not my point as Rafa is still 26 and thus has a far better chance of adding to his total than Fed at 31. No, my point is that even in this double clay major scenario you can see the better balance at two out of the three surfaces for Fed.

Most importantly, to address your challenge directly, you can see the same point comparing Fed and Nadal at 25 too! Here is the breakdown at that age 26 and a month or so (a little higher than 25 to cover Rafa’s 2012 FO and Feds 2006 USO).

7 FO, 2 Wimby, 1 USO, 1 AO

O FO, 4 Wimby, 3 USO, 2 AO

Again, it is clear. On two out of three surfaces, Fed is well ahead.

Whether he is "in the discussion" or not is a question of sematics I guess. I can concede that he is in it, but he quickly leaves it based on the weight of his overall success being primarily on clay.

Andy said...

Actually, I think I might have short-changed Fed one Wimby and one USO title as at age 26 and one month(i.e., Sept of 2007) he had 5 Wimby and 4 USO. This just furthers my point. Anyway, no matter where you pinpoint teh calculation for the comparison, the point is there.

David Friedman said...


All you have done with these two comments is reiterate your previous points so I will--in much briefer fashion--reiterate my refutation: most of what you are doing consists of nothing more than selecting certain numbers that favor your "case" and ignoring other numbers that do not favor your "case." If you look at all of the numbers posted by both players then Nadal clearly belongs in the discussion of best Open players along with Borg, Sampras and Federer. Your initial contention was that Nadal does not belong in that discussion; now you say that perhaps he belongs but that you would immediately eliminate him, which means that essentially you have not changed your point of view--nor have you presented any new stats or evidence to support your point of view. You are entitled to your opinions but you are not entitled to your own facts; the factual evidence is that Nadal has already had one of the greatest Open Era careers even if he never wins another event. He is in the discussion, whether you like it or not.

DanielSong39 said...

Borg, Nadal, Federer, and Sampras are of course 4 of the best players in the Open Era and it looks like Djokovic is on a course to join them.

With that said, Federer put up video game statistics from 2004-2006. 247-15, winning 34 of 49 tournaments, 8 of 12 majors. It got so ridiculous that when he went 68-9 in a 3-slam season in 2007, he was thought to be slipping. In contrast, when Nadal had a comparable season in 2010 and Djokovic in 2011, they were being hyped as being "greatest seasons ever".

You can always argue who's the greatest but I have never seen a player held to a higher standard than Federer. Just to give an example, if Djokovic wins 3 slams this year while losing the French Open to Nadal all the talk will be about Djokovic's claim as being "best ever" and his chase to catch Federer's record in slams - and not his failure vs. Nadal on clay and his negative head-to-head record against him.

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Federer has been widely lauded as the greatest tennis player of all-time despite Laver's impressive resume, despite Borg's superior Grand Slam winning percentage and despite being dominated head to head by his primary rival, so I disagree with the notion that Federer is held to a higher standard than other great players. Each Federer success is immediately cited as evidence that he is the greatest player ever, while each Federer loss is often excused for a variety of reasons; the same media members that discount Nadal's head to head success against Federer have been quick to say--on the basis of one calendar year--that Nadal has a "Djokovic problem" even though Nadal still enjoys the lead in that head to head rivalry.

I don't recall anyone calling Djokovic or Nadal the greatest player ever; some people suggested that Djokovic had the best calendar year ever but that is much different than saying he is the best player ever.

Charles F said...

What an utterly fascinating discussion! Thank-you so much gentlemen, for expounding your points of view so well.

Obviously, now in Feb 2015, with 14 slam titles, Nadal has to be in the discussion for GOAT... especially in light of his splendid 2013 run. The fact that 9 of his slams are on clay may not be a point in his favour, as Andy notes... it means that his non-clay record is not as strong as some other GOAT candidates.

However Nadal's clay record alone makes him worthy of inclusion in the discussion. To so thoroughly dominate one slam is unprecedented and laudable. Federer has not been able to so thoroughly dominate one surface. Let's put it this way, Nadal has excelled at dominating on one surface. Federer has excelled at being more of a generalist. I'm not sure that one accomplishment is greater than the other. However, 'my opinion' is likely that the generalist is showing a greater range of skills.

To be honest I don't think that either David or Andy are particularly skewing the data, or not considering the whole picture. There's a whole disco ball of facets to this thing, and I see both commentators seeking to find the most fair and unbiased way of unpacking it all. It's just really tough to do...

I do think that the h2h between RF and RN must be handled carefully. I don't think it's as straight forward as 23-10 (at time of writing). Surface and even age should be considered to add the appropriate nuance in the search for fairness.

The 13-2 advantage Rafa enjoys on clay says clearly that he dominates Federer on that surface. That leaves 10-8 for Nadal on other surfaces, which is also to RN's advantage. However 4 of those wins have occurred after Roger's 31st birthday, which makes me squirmy about including them. Roger is clearly past his prime, and including them seems unfair. For instance the fact that Roger can go out and beat Laver now is no indication that RF is superior in the GOAT debate... I think we must acknowledge that we we should considering comparing players in their relative primes.

So pre age-31, Roger was up 8-6 on Nadal off clay. This is hardly convincing proof that Roger is superior. I think any consideration of the h2h, even making allowances for age and surface has to favour Nadal.

However I think Andy's assertion has merit that when considering success on other surfaces than his best, Rafa clearly lags Federer. Roger has clearly posted more wins and titles off clay. His record there dwarfs Nadal's, no question. And this is a significant consideration in the GOAT debate, however I'm less sure that Nadal is therefore ruled out. There are so many facets to consider.

I think theoretically, by limiting the discussion to the open era, there's a sort of unstated primacy that we give to number of slam titles. However until about 1983 when Wilander, McEnroe, and Lendl all suddenly played the Australian, this was very far from the case. In the early open era, even Wimbledon did not benefit from the unimpeachable fields it boasts today. Newcombe did not defend his title in 1972. And 1973 of course was a write-off with the strike. Both years missed many of the top players. And the French had very subpar fields for much of the 70's as the various leagues battled for control of the game, sanctioning players in ways that today are unthinkable. My point is this, what Chris Evert said, "We didn't think about slam trophies, we tried to win the tour [year]."

I think comparing slam trophies is an excellent way to measure greatness for players who contended at the top solely after 1983. But before that, yearend #1's might be the best we can do. I think it's paramount that we consider what was important to the players in the years they were competing.

As David notes, considering AO's for Borg is ridiculous. They weren't something he was striving for. Nor was Connors playing at the French for his best years.

(to be continued)

Charles F said...

If we just look at the list of yearend #1's for the open era, we would come away saying Sampras was #1. Six yearend top finishes... open and shut case. But this is not what I'm saying. 'Pre-1983 only' does it make sense, and even then, there's texture. Change often doesn't happen abruptly... even Agassi, coming to prominence in 1988, only played 2 AO's in the 10 years to 1997.

I think in the modern era (post 1983) comparing GS titles makes a lot of sense. This is what the player's valued, so how well they achieved in this realm makes logical grounds for comparison. Right now Fed has 17, Sampras and Nadal 14, Djokovic and Agassi 8, and I think this is a perfectly reasonable, ordered list for ranking the GOAT of the last 30 years.

I think the raw slam number accurately weights Nadal's magnificence in winning 9 French titles and it accurately weights Federer's magnificence in winning 17 overall (a number, Nadal might yet eclipse). Both players were putting primary importance on winning slam titles, all of them, so it's an excellent way to compare them. Nadal has been more of a specialist, Federer more of a generalist. Both methods are proving effective.

But in the pre-1983 era (or maybe pre-1990? where is that line?) is where David's teasing of Borg's numbers becomes so fascinating. We are drawn below the surface of slam titles to some other indicators that we can perhaps compare.

But while I agree that Borg's numbers are unparalleled, especially 'for his age', I think that there are 2 significant holes in his resume. One is the US Open, which he clearly wanted to conquer, but did not succeed at. The other is his lack of longevity.

It's too easy to play the 'what if' game with Borg, and extend his staggering percentages to future years he did not play. Let's say up front that Roger's 4 best years have a better win percentage than Borg's 4 best years. But Borg may look better because he didn't suffer through decline. The fact is that, with admittedly the help of an unsympathetic ATP-ITF-Slams hegemony that would not allow him to play a lesser schedule, he did not show the fortitude to keep playing and battle for the top with McEnroe, Lendl, and eventually Wilander, Becker, and Edberg. What he did was much less accomplished. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Borg fan, but these are fatal flaws in considering him for GOAT honours, in my opinion.

Maybe the GOAT is Pancho Gonzales who was arguably #1 for 8 years, or maybe it's Laver who showed the depth to rise up and dominate on all surfaces when necessary. But that's a whole other can of worms...

David Friedman said...

Charles F:

Glad that you enjoyed the article and some of the comments.

Here are a few additional thoughts:

The "what if" game with Borg cuts both ways. He was far from a declining player when he stopped participating in the Slams. He could easily have added to both his raw totals and his winning percentage if he had extended his career another few years.

Borg won at least one Slam for eight straight years. That displays tremendous longevity in and of itself.

You are right that the lack of a U.S. Open title is a hole on Borg's resume but he did not have an issue with a particular surface nor did he have a rival who dominated him. It is difficult to consider Federer the greatest of all-time when he is not even the greatest of his own time in light of how Nadal dominates him.