Who is the GOAT of Tennis?

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"2017 Laver Cup: Match 8" by mirsasha is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal prepare to play a doubles match together at the Laver Cup, which features the best tennis players from Europe facing off against the best tennis players from everywhere else in the world.

Benjamin Hoppe, News Editor

   Who is the GOAT of men’s tennis? Is it the Swiss Maestro, Roger Federer, or the short-tempered John McEnroe? Is it former American tennis star “Pistol” Pete Sampras, or maybe the wolf-like Novak Djokovic? How about one of the most intense tennis players ever, Rafael Nadal, or the man with the mullet, Andre Agassi? Then what about on the women’s circuit? Is it one of the most loved and hated tennis players, Serena Williams, or the woman with the most grand slam titles, Margaret Court? Maybe it’s 22-time grand slam champion Steffi Graf, or is it Martina Navratilova? The question about who is the greatest of all time has been hotly debated, but I’m going to try to answer that question.

   Starting with the men’s circuit, or the Association of Tennis Professionals, there have been many incredible athletes over the years. Currently, there are three men’s tennis players who all have won 20 or more grand slam titles, an impressive 20 for Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, and 21 for Rafael Nadal. They have established themselves as the Big Three, but many still debate who of the three is the greatest. There have also been many other great players throughout the history of the ATP Tour, but three that have stood out have been Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and John McEnroe. All six of these men have stood out amongst every other tennis player, but only one can be the best.

 

  1. Coming last on the list, which is still the sixth-best of all time, is Andre Agassi. Agassi played on tour for 20 years, starting in 1986 and retiring in 2006. Agassi had a great career, winning eight grand slam titles and 61 ATP events in both singles and doubles. He played well throughout his entire career, but near the end of his career, he had to face the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, to which his overall record against the two was three and ten.

    Andre Agassi prepares to hit a tweener, a between the leg shot while your back is turned to the court. (“Andre Agassi Tweener” by ph-stop is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

  1. Next on the list is the hothead John McEnroe. McEnroe’s career lasted for 15 years, starting in 1977 and ending in 1992. He finished with one less grand slam title than Agassi, but he finishes higher on the list because of his success at other tournaments. McEnroe finished his career with a record 156 titles at ATP events in singles and doubles events. Although McEnroe is probably most remembered for his tantrums on the court, his success in the sport cannot go unnoticed.

    John McEnroe lifts the 2008 Championships Cup. John McEnroe was not on the ATP tour at this time. (“John McEnroe” by WBUR is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

  1. Finishing just outside of the top three on this list is “Pistol” Pete Sampras. Sampras played from 1988-2002 on the tour. He finished his career with an incredible 14 grand slam titles and 66 titles at ATP events in singles and doubles. Sampras was most impressive at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, winning Wimbledon seven times and the U.S. Open five times.

    Pete Sampras hit an enormous overhead smash at Wimbledon (“pete sampras” by smarch0987 is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

   Before the order of the last three is revealed, it has to be made known that Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal are probably tied for the best of all time. They are probably the three most well-known tennis players in the world. Each one of them has stats that could prove one better than the other two, but then a different stat that makes them not as good. So, be warned, there is going to be a little bit of personal bias in the order of the last three, but it’s nearly unavoidable.

 

  1. Claiming bronze on this list is Novak Djokovic. He’s an incredible tennis player, and probably will be considered the best tennis player of all time by the end of his career. He will also probably finish with more grand slam titles than Federer and Nadal, but as of right now, he is not better. He started his career in professional tennis in 2003, and still probably has many years left. Djokovic has proven he can still play some of his best tennis even at the ladder end of his career. As of right now, Djokovic has the better head-to-head record against both Federer and Nadal, which many will argue is why Djokovic is the GOAT. However, this is where one statistic trumps another: Djokovic has won fewer ATP singles titles, at 86, than Federer and Nadal. Also, even though many will say this doesn’t matter, Federer and Nadal have won more doubles titles than Djokovic. Again, all three of these men should be tied for number one, but for this list, Djokovic is third.

    Novak Djokovic hit a volley in a match at the 2013 French Open. (“Novak Djokovic” by y.caradec is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

  1. The runner-up on this list is Roger Federer. He joined the tour in 1998, and despite injuries that have plagued him in the later years of his career, he is still active on the tour. Federer had so many firsts in his career, one of the most prominent being that he was the first male tennis player to win 20 grand slams. Federer has won more ATP titles than Djokovic and Nadal, has won a record eight Wimbledon titles, and most importantly, invented the tweener, which is when a tennis player turns their back to the court and hits the ball in between their legs. However, despite all he has achieved, he has fallen behind Nadal in the Grand Slam title race, which for me is a pretty defining statistic, and for this ranking puts Federer at a very close second place on this list.

    Roger Federer serves at a match at the 2007 Rogers Cup.

 

  1. Finally, the one who gets to be called the greatest of all time in men’s tennis, Rafael Nadal. He started his career only two years before Djokovic in 2001 and is still active on the tour. Nadal is an amazing tennis player, and his mental toughness is unmatched. He is the only tennis player to have not smashed a tennis racket. Nadal’s head-to-head against Federer is incredible, having won eight more matches against Federer. However, Nadal has won 15 fewer ATP singles titles than Federer, but the stat that skyrockets Nadal to the top of this list is the number of grand slam titles he has. Nadal has a record 21 grand slam titles versus Djokovic and Federer’s 20 titles. There’s still a good chance that Djokovic will tie or surpass 21 grand slam titles, but as of right now, Nadal holds the top spot.

    Rafael Nadal winds up to hit a massive forehand. (“Rafael Nadal” by y.caradec is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

  Now for the women’s side. Just like on the men’s tour, there have been many incredible tennis players on the women’s tour or the Women’s Tennis Association. A lot of the women on this list have actually played a greater variety of tennis matches than the men, not always just focussing on singles, but playing doubles and mixed doubles matches as well. All of the players from the WTA tour that are on this list have gone into the double digits for grand slam titles, which is a big accomplishment. They all had, or have had so far, incredible careers, but only one can claim the top spot.

Honorable Mentions: Before ranking probably the top four tennis players on the WTA tour, there are two honorable mentions: Billie Jean King and Monica Seles. Starting with King, who brought a lot of attention to the sport of women’s tennis, many refer to her as the pioneer of it. Not only that though, but King also had an impressive career lasting from 1959 to 1983, winning 12 grand slams in singles, 16 grand slams in doubles, and 11 grand slams in mixed doubles. Monica Seles is another honorable mention on this list. Her career started in 1989 and technically lasted until 2008, but she played her last match in 2003. Seles was a nine-time grand slam champion, which may not sound as impressive compared to the others on this list, but Seles was the victim of a knife attack by a German man at a tournament in Hamburg in 1993. At the time, Seles was on track to dethroning Steffi Graf from the number one spot in the rankings, so the man thought by injuring Seles, then Graf would hold on to the number one spot. Before the attack, many were predicting Seles to break the grand slam record, too.

  1. Claiming the fourth spot on this list is Martina Navratilova. Her career started in 1975 and ended in 2006. Navratilova won a total of 59 grand slams in her career, winning 18 in singles, 31 in doubles, and 10 in mixed doubles. Navratilova also holds the record for the most tournaments won, at 167. An interesting fact about Navratilova is that one of the coaches on her team was Joe Breedlove ‘78, Director of Breakthrough and Boys Basketball Program Director and Head Coach.

    Martina Navratilova hits a blistering serve in a match. (“Martina Navratilova” by Paolo Rosa is licensed under CC0 1.0)

 

  1. Finishing in a solid third place on this list is Steffi Graf. She joined the professional circuit in 1982 and retired in 1999. In her career, Graf finished with the third most grand slam singles titles at 22, only behind the last two tennis players on this list, Serena Williams and Margaret Court. Complementing her 22 grand slams singles titles, Graf finished with 11 grand slam doubles titles, winning four of those in the same year she won four singles titles, the only player to have a Golden Slam in both singles and doubles in the same year. She also finished her career with a total of 107 titles in other non-grand slam tournaments. After retiring from the tour, she married Andre Agassi, one of the best men’s tennis players of all time.

    Steffi Graff and Gabrielle Sabatini change sides in a tough match at the 1989 Wimbledon. (“Wimbeldon 1989 Doubles partners Steffi Graff and Gabrielle Sabatini” by redchillihead is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

  1. Finishing in a potentially controversial second is Serena Williams. She joined the tour in 1995 and is still active on the circuit. Williams has had an incredible career so far, currently holding 23 grand slam singles titles and 14 grand slam doubles titles. She has won 73 titles at other non-grand slam tournaments and probably will have chances to win more. However, Williams comes behind Margaret Court in all of these categories, so it only makes sense to put Williams in second. Maybe some will argue Williams played in a more difficult time, but that’s really hard to try to argue.

    Serena Williams races to get a ball at the 2013 US Open. (“Serena Williams at the US Open 2013” by Boss Tweed is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

  1. Finally, claiming the number one spot is Margaret Court. She started her career in 1960 and retired in 1977. Court finished her career with an incredible, record-breaking 24 grand slam titles and singles. She has also won 19 grand slam titles in doubles and a total of 92 titles in other tournaments. Even though Grand Slam titles aren’t the only statistic that defines how good a tennis player is, winning 24 of the most difficult tournaments against the top players in the world is nothing to scoff at, so at least as of right now, Court holds the spot for the best women’s tennis player of all time.

    An incredible view of the Margaret Court Arena at the Australian Open. Yes, she was that good of a tennis player to get a tennis court at a Grand Slam event named after her. (“Margaret Court Arena view” by birdsey7 is licensed under CC BY 2.0)