Another take on the never-ending debate about the greatest players of all time.

After a historic La Decima in Paris and an unexpected and brilliant triumph Down Under, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have set the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) debate alight once again. It seems that these days pundits and fans are looking to anoint a new GOAT every year – or indeed an old one. It’s certainly a hot topic for this era, and has been ever since Federer looked likely to surpass the grand slam total of Pete Sampras back in the mid noughties. But is tennis guilty of forgetting its own history? Is there a single GOAT – or more than one? What achievements stand the test of time and deserve more consideration?

It would be easy to think tennis started in 1990 or even later considering most GOAT lists. In fact the first Wimbledon was held in 1877, 140 years ago exactly! It was won by Spencer William Gore, and yes I had to look that up! Tennis has changed and evolved massively since then, both in terms of style and rules, but there is a lot of truth to the view that you can only be the best of your own era. This is an opinion that a certain Rod Laver subscribes to. The old saying that you can only play who’s in front of you applies here.

Federer and Nadal shaking hands after the Australian Open 2017 final

The 2017 Australian Open final is a good example of this. The match was widely tipped as the most important match in the history of the sport, and it’s easy to see why in the context of today’s era. If Nadal had won he would have boasted an even more commanding lead in his head-to-head record over Federer – and the gap between him and Federer in terms of major titles would now stand at just one. As it turned out after the Aus Open final, Federer extended his Grand Slam lead, and completed a remarkable fortnight after missing six months of action. For many he achieved the impossible. What both Federer and Nadal have achieved this year has underlined their greatness in a profound way, especially after they were both sidelined with injuries last year, causing them to miss the back half of 2016. However, this narrow line of thought reduces the GOAT debate to a microcosm, the Fedal rivalry, as even in their own era they have been challenged by a certain Novak Djokovic. Indeed, the case of Djokovic goes to show just how fickle these debates can be.

For the last few years it looked almost inevitable that Djokovic would be staking his own claim to the title of The Greatest. In 2016 Djokovic achieved something that had not been accomplished in the men’s game since the dawn of the Open Era in 1968 – he won all four major championships in a row. An accomplishment dubbed the Non-Calendar-Year-Grand-Slam (NCYGS), it was an extraordinary feat of dominance. Only two other men, Rod Laver and Don Budge, have won four majors in a row. At this point last year Nadal’s haul of 14 slam titles, and perhaps even Federer’s record of 17, looked in imminent danger. Fast forward a year and the tennis landscape looks awfully different, and if ever there was a story about how quickly things can change in sport this would be it. The beginning of 2017 looks identical to the beginning of 2006, with Federer and Nadal sharing the biggest prizes almost exclusively so far, and sitting in the top two spots for the race to the Year End #1 ranking. Djokovic, who looked unstoppable following the most dominant 18 month stretch in the Open Era, perhaps of all time, has been struggling with form and motivation. He now holds no major titles, and was recently bounced in the quarter finals of the French Open as defending champion with a bagel in the third and ultimately final set – his first bagel in a best of five set match since the US Open in 2005! But Djokovic and his fans can take inspiration and solace in the journeys of Federer and Nadal – that is, that a champion as great as Djokovic is ultimately in charge of his own destiny.

Djokovic celebrates winning the French Open in 2016.

For these great players most of their achievements need little introduction. Whether it’s Nadal’s mastery of clay and five set victories at Wimbledon and Australia, or Federer’s record setting 18 slam titles and dominance, in this era of stats and media coverage no stone is left unturned with regards to these great players. This leads me onto the question posed by this article – what does it mean to be the GOAT? Or is the definition of a GOAT just being the best of your own era? Is it the level of play you achieve? Time spent at number one? Longevity? In a sport with so much history and change there should be more to the discussion than just how many slams a player has won. How do we judge the best players in eras where the tour wasn’t standardised and didn’t have such a strict hierarchy of events? Are there other achievements which deserve more than just passing praise? There were great players throughout history that excelled in their own eras, chasing greatness in a different way to the current crop of legends.

Tennis historians such as Joe McCauley, Ray Bowers, Andrew Tasiopoulos and Kevin Rosero, to name a few, have done much to illuminate the careers of players who played the bulk or all of their career before the Open Era. These players were every bit the professionals that today’s modern players are, and they would often play night after night in the worst conditions possible before driving (not flying!) to their next destination to do it all over again. These underappreciated greats have records and achievements of their own that rival or surpass those of players we’re more familiar with. For example, some of the better known records today are those relating to time spent at number one. These days we’re well aware of the Open Era records of Sampras, with his six consecutive years of finishing as world number one, or of Federer’s 302 total weeks on top of the mountain. But going back through tennis history there are players who have set even higher benchmarks.

One such player is Pancho Gonzalez, who ruled the roost in professional tennis for much of the 50’s, his reign stretching into the early 60’s. Being number one at the end of the year and being World Champion is a concept understood across all sports, and it’s a concept that doesn’t change with draws or time. Can you be the greatest without being the best of your era? Can you be the best of your era without being number one longer than your rivals? However you feel about these questions, when considering who was the longest standing number one, few can compete with Gonzalez. I don’t believe anyone was top dog for longer. Pancho Gonzalez was an athletic 6’3, quick on his feet and possessed some of the best touch of his era, but his biggest weapon was his serve. So dominant was his delivery that the rules were changed to try and handicap him, and the one bounce rule (the return had to bounce once before the server could hit again) was brought in to try and stop him dominating opponents with his serve and volley. Those tools helped Gonzalez stay number one for most of a nine-year stretch between 1952 and 1961. Some of those years are debated fiercely between historians, as there was no official ranking system like today, however there is no doubt he was number one longer than anyone that came after him.

Pancho Gonzalez in action.

Back in those days the World Championship was often decided by long head-to-head tours, a concept that goes back to long before Gonzalez turned pro. There wasn’t a consistent, hierarchical and points-based tournament circuit like there is now. The World Championship tours often featured the reigning pro champ against a rookie pro (usually the last year’s most successful amateur player). They faced each other up and down the country, across borders in a series of one night matches, for the title of World Champion. These tours were often over 100 matches long. However, other World Championship tours featured several seasoned pros, and out of Gonzalez’s seven World Tour victories four of them were in this format. One such World Tour was in 1960, and this pro troupe consisted of Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall, Tony Trabert, Alex Olmedo and Pancho Segura. In a show of sheer excellence at 31-32 years of age, Gonzalez dominated the tour with a 48-9 record. Despite his many accomplishments, what I find most impressive about Pancho Gonzalez is that he was self-taught! He didn’t pick up a racquet until he was 12 years old, and yet he went on to reach highs in his era that few, if anyone, has ever reached since. If being the greatest is about being the best more often than anyone else, then Pancho Gonzalez exemplifies this better than anyone.

I’ve spoken a bit about the head-to-head tours, but the pros in those days did have big events; Wembley, the French Pro, the Tournament of Champions. These events were the ‘majors’ of the touring pros, but not in the exact sense we know them today. These events often had only four rounds, with limited best of five sets conditions. However, the best players in the world competed at them, unlike the traditional majors in amateur tennis, and they were the most prestigious standalone events of their tour. Moving from the 50’s into the 60’s the pros looked to emulate the tournament-based tour structure of the amateurs, and the importance gradually shifted to these events as the barometer of success. The likes of Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver and especially Ken Rosewall dominated these events, just as they would have likely dominated open majors during the same time period.

Winning the biggest titles has always been a hallmark of greatness for players throughout the ages. But for these old pros, if you ask them who the greatest player of their day was, they will all say one man – Lew Hoad. Even a fiercely proud and competitive man like Pancho Gonzalez believed that Hoad was the best he ever played, better than even him. Likewise Rod Laver, in listing his top 10 best players from the pre-open era, put Hoad at the very top back in 2012. Rosewall also put Hoad at the top of his top 4 in 2010. Hoad was a phenom; he had legendary strength and could pull off all the shots. In 1959, two years after he turned pro, he was arguably the best player over Gonzalez. Part of his claim comes from winning the Tournament of Champions in that same year, defeating Pancho in four sets, and defeating him head-to-head on the World Tour, though he finished second overall. In the amateur ranks he’s famous for nearly pulling off the Grand Slam in 1956, falling just short at the final hurdle thanks to a certain Ken Rosewall. Hoad unfortunately suffered from a series of injuries after 1959, partly owing to his unorthodox weight training techniques. Compared to some of his contemporaries Hoad’s resume may not stand out, however his peaks might have been the highest of all time. His peers would certainly agree with that.

Lew Hoad, Wimbledon winner of 1956.

Having the greatest peaks is one thing, but maybe dominance over a period of years is the best way to determine the greatest of all time. Examples of a great consistent level of play over a number of years can be seen from the likes of Roger Federer from 2004-2007 and Bjorn Borg from 1977-1980 – but did any great player demonstrate more dominance over their respective fields? The answer is yes. Bill Tilden reached a level of dominance that might never be surpassed. The late, great Bud Collins, in his Encyclopaedia of Tennis History, names Tilden as the most dominant and influential player in history. In Tilden’s day the amateur level included all the top players of the era, and from 1912 to 1930 Tilden won 138 of the 192 tournaments he played. In addition he made a further 28 finals, which means that in 166 of 192 events Tilden made it to at least the final! He had a 907-62 match record, for a staggering winning percentage of 93.6% across 18 years. From 1920 to 1925, Big Bill Tilden won every major event he entered, winning Wimbledon twice and the US Open six times in a row.

The dominant William ‘Bill’ Tilden.

Tilden’s era was very different from today’s, for example the French Open was not open to non-French club members until 1925. In addition it goes without saying that there was a smaller talent pool, and less countries were producing players. However, it’s hard to imagine any player dominating their era more than Tilden did his. Tilden was nearly 6 foot 2 and played mostly from the baseline like most of his contemporaries, as well as having an excellent serve and dominating strokes off both wings. However, his greatest weapon was his tennis IQ. Tilden was a tennis genius who was constantly adding new dimensions to his game. He literally wrote books on how to play tennis (‘Match Play and the Spin of the Ball’,’ How to Play Better Tennis’), with advice in those writings that are still relevant today. If there is any doubt about just how good he was, he was still challenging and beating the best players in the world even into his 50’s – in 1946, at 52 years of age, he defeated Joe Whalen (a top 20 player) in the Michigan State Champions tournament by the score of 6-2 6-2. He went on to lose to current World Champion Bobby Riggs in the next round – but only after taking the first set, going down 3-6 6-4 8-6. Impressively he finished 1946 ranked inside the top ten.

This brings me to longevity. Who can forget Jimmy Connor’s heroics in 1991 at the US Open? Those five-set triumphs as a wild card at 39 years of age have passed into folklore. Or likewise Andre Agassi’s run to the final in 2005 at age 35 in the same tournament. Their classic night matches will be long remembered by all who witnessed them. Recently we have Federer’s win in Australia to fill us with awe. With his win in January the Swiss became the second oldest man to win a major in the Open Era. But if Federer is the second oldest then who is the oldest? That man is Ken Rosewall, a 5 foot 6, slightly built man who was affectionately nicknamed Muscles by his peers – for his lack of them. He had a legendary backhand which he drove with underspin and unerring accuracy. He was also famous for his return, his volleys, and for being an effortless mover. Rosewall made a career out of beating bigger and stronger men in the biggest matches; he won a record number of Pro Majors during the 11 years he was banished from the traditional majors. He was number one for at least three years in the early to mid 60’s, and no worse than number two in at least a half dozen other years. He remained a top ten player until he was 40.

Ken Rosewall returns a shot in the WCT Year End Finals in 1972.

When the Open Era arrived in 1968 Rosewall was already 34 years old. Yet he still won the French Open in 1968, the US Open in 1970, as well as back to back Australian Opens in 1971 and 1972. Now, it must be said that the status of the Australian as a major tournament was a bit iffy in those years, however the 1971 edition had many of the world’s best players in the draw. Beyond the traditional majors, Rosewall also triumphed at the World Championship Tennis (WCT) Year End Finals in Dallas in 1971 and 1972. The WCT tour was one of the competing tennis circuits in the early open era, and it survived in some form up until the formation of the ATP in 1990. WCT finals paid out the most prize money in tennis at the time, and were highly coveted. The WCT Year End Finals in those years deserve to be counted among the top four events of the year, especially the 1972 version. Rosewall defeated Laver in both finals, in four sets in 1971 and in five sets in 1972. The final in 1972 was a true classic which brought tennis to the masses in a way never before seen, as it was watched live in the United States by 23 million people. I imagine Laver still regrets serving twice to Rosewall’s backhand when up 5-4 in that final set tiebreak – two return winners and a Laver missed return later and the match was over. Rosewall never won another major after 1972, but he made the finals of both Wimbledon and the USO in 1974 at 39 years of age. At Wimbledon, in his run to the final, he defeated Roscoe Tanner, John Newcombe and Stan Smith. At the USO he again defeated John Newcombe in the semi-finals. Although beaten by an on-song Jimmy Connors in both finals, it is a testament to Rosewall’s greatness that he even reached the finals at all. Rosewall in fact led the head-to-head against Newcombe 15-10, an all-time-great ten years his junior, even defeating him soundly on occasion, such as his 6-2 6-0 victory in the final of Corpus Christi in 1970. In 1976, well into his 40’s, he was still strong enough to defeat Guillermo Vilas in a professional match. If you judge greatness as being at or near the top of the game for longer than most anyone else, then you have to consider little Ken Rosewall from Sydney.

For all their records and all their achievements there is still greatness for Federer and Nadal to chase. The sport of tennis has changed and evolved over the decades, but throughout tennis history there are records from former greats that may never be matched. We may never again see an athlete as dominant as Bill Tilden, or see a player leave such a big mark on his generation purely on the strength of his play like Lew Hoad. Whatever else this current generation achieves we should always seek to widen the GOAT debate, to look at the achievements of past greats, and to remember their rich contributions to tennis history. If we can’t agree on one GOAT, then maybe we should settle for more than one?