Monday, November 26, 2012

The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time – Part 1

The tennis tour has entered its short end-of-year hiatus1. For the first season since 2003, the just completed (2012) tennis season was highly competitive throughout, with no dominant player. Four different men won the four grand slams2, and the remaining major tournaments were snatched up by the top five players. It says something that the man who won the most matches and tournaments (76 and 7), fifth ranked David Ferrer, was no one’s pick as the player of the year. In the end, Novak Djokovic was just a bit better than Roger Federer and Andy Murray and finished top ranked for the second consecutive year. Rafael Nadal, despite not playing for the last six months due to a career-threatening knee injury, still finished ranked fourth. It all sets up for an interesting 2013, a season that will kick-off in just five weeks.

I thought this “off-season” break would be a good time to debut my rankings of the Greatest (male) tennis players Of All Time; the proverbial GOATs. In tennis, perhaps more than any other sport, there is long and heated discussion among fans and commentators about who’s the best ever. The entire sport is based on rankings; tournaments are structured on a hierarchy that descends from number 1. And unlike team sports, the discussion of rankings, of greatness, can be focused on each man. Absent are the nuances that make ranking teams (and players in team sports) so difficult, subtleties of teamwork, synergies between players, the interplay of complex team-based tactics and collective talent. No, instead, in tennis it seems that the play of each man – his skill, his will, his mind – are all on display. It’s all there to be witnessed and all measured in his results. There aren't any ambiguities. Points are awarded for every result, and rankings listed. And so it follows that if we can rank tennis players at any given time then we should be able to rank them over all times. We should be able to identify the greatest of all time.

Of course this assertion presumes a lot, or stated differently, it ignores a lot of complicating and uncomfortable factors. Factors like changes in racket and string technology over time; varying court surfaces, qualities, and speeds; the regularly changing structure of the tennis tour and the tournaments that make up the yearly calendar; and of course improving fitness and athleticism, and a general broadening and deepening of the professional tennis field. All these things make it problematic to compare, say, the circa 1969 wood-racket-wielding Rod Laver, charging the net on a fast and dodgy grass court, on the one hand, with the 2006 version of Roger Federer and his hi-tech composite racket whacking heavily top-spinned groundstrokes from the baseline of a slow hard court, one the other. This comparison is at minimum a challenge and perhaps impossible. Laver and Federer will never play one another, so we’ll never really know who the better of the two is. So we should just get this out front and center: determining the greatest player of all time, the real GOAT, is a fan’s fantasy. We can make arguments, but we’ll never have a final answer.

But it’s still fun to have the discussion and to make a case, so in that spirit I’ve developed a quantifiable approach to determine the greatest player of all time.

A Quantitative Approach
Just this past year the Tennis Channel presented a list of the 100 greatest players of all time (men and women), based on career achievements and the perspectives and opinions of tennis players, journalists, and historians. Similar lists have been compiled in the past by Tennis magazine other tennis- and sports-related websites and publications. These lists are always qualitative in nature. They attempt to rank players and identify the best based on a range of factors from day-in-day-out results to stylistic innovations, and influence on the sport, which is all fine by me. If we concede that identifying a GOAT is by nature difficult to impossible, then trying to balance all the factors in a qualitative measure is a reasonable approach. But for a numbers oriented person like me, it’s a whole lot less fun, and well, imprecise.3 So I’ve come up with an approach that considers results and rankings over a full career to rank players and identify the one and only GOAT.

Before I lay out the factors that go into my formula, a few ground rules:
  • The list is restricted to the Open Era only, the period that started at the 1968 French Open when professional players were permitted to play in the grand slam tournaments. It’s during the Open Era when all the best players, amateur and professional alike, played in the sport’s biggest tournaments. Before then grand slam results were skewed because many of the best (read: professional) players weren’t there to compete for the titles. I don’t want to gloss over this point, some great players (e.g., Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Poncho Gonzalez) played entirely or mostly before the Open Era and they are completely excluded from my rankings. For players whose careers spanned the Open Era, only the Open Era accomplishments are counted. This is in effect a list of the greatest players of the Open Era.
  • The list includes if and for how long a player was ranked number 1, but the rankings didn’t start until 1973, so for the period from 1968 until 1973, the top ranked player (whoever that was at any time) loses out in my system. There’s nothing that can be done about that, though I have identified who would qualify as the year-end number 1 based on the season long results.
  • This list is of the top men players. A similar list, using the same approach could be made for women (I should probably dedicate a post to the greatest women players at some point).

The Formula
We’re discussing the very best players, so three broad categories of achievement capture, I think, who’s should be considered as among the best. These are (in no particular order) the time spent ranked number 1, success in grand slam tournaments, and “winning” in the general sense. Number 1 ranking is important because a player can hardly be considered the best if he isn't the best at any given time. Grand slam success is important because the best players win the most prestigious, coveted titles, and overall winning is important because that’s what champions do.

So I’m breaking these three broad categories into 12 specific measures, with points assigned for the discrete accomplishments within each measure. They are:
  • Number 1 Ranking – was the player ever ranked number 1 (10 points),
  • Weeks Ranked Number 1 – the longer a player was ranked number 1, the longer they could stay above the rest of the field, the more credit they deserve (2 points for every five weeks a player is ranked number 1),
  • Year End Number 1 – there is special recognition for being the year-end number 1 because that player was by definition the best player of the season (10 points for each year ending number 1),
  • Grand Slam Titles – winning one of the four grand slam tournaments is the highest accomplishment for a tennis player. Each one is highly coveted and very hard to win (seven, best-of-five set matches). These tournaments are also the only tennis achievements that resonate in the larger sports culture. Further, it's only the grand slams that can be compared over time, as most other tournaments come in and out of existence over relatively short periods of time, especially in the pre-ATP Tour era (15 points for each title),
  • Grand Slam Finals – just making a grand slam final is noteworthy, and I think it’s fair to say that appearing in a grand slam final is a greater achievement than winning a lesser tournament (5 points for each grand slam final loss),
  • Calendar Year Grand Slam – winning all four grand slams in one year is the greatest accomplishment in tennis and deserves bonus points for the difficulty of the feat and the historic nature of the accomplishment (50 points for each calendar year grand slam),
  • 3 Grand Slams in One Year – winning three of the four grand slams in one year is a rare feat (at least until recently) and demonstrates clear dominance over the rest of the tennis field. It deserves bonus points for the difficulty of the feat (25 points for each year winning three grand slams),
  • 2 Grand Slams in One Year – winning two of the four grand slams in one year is a clear indication of superior play and deserves bonus points for the difficulty of the feat (10 points for each year winning two grand slams),
  • Career Grand Slam – winning all four grand slams at least once is a very rare feet (almost as rare as winning a calendar year grand slam) and deserves bonus points for the difficulty and historic nature of the accomplishment (50 points for a career grand slam),
  • Titles – winning tournaments (other than the grand slams) is what the best players do (3 points for each (non-grand slam) title),
  • Career Match Wins – winning matches is the core of being a great player (1 point for every 20 match wins),
  • Career Winning Percentage – the best players should win a high percentage of their matches (1 point for a 0.700 winning percentage, with one additional point for each 0.010 increment over 0.700).

Add all the points up and you get a player’s total; the higher the score, the better. I make no claims that this is a definitive inventory of the elements that should go into determining the best of all time, or that the points allocated for each measure are appropriate. The old axiom of garbage in, garbage out should be heeded with any formulation like this; it has to pass the sniff test. I think this approach is at least a reasonable start, but let’s see how it computes for an individual player, and I’ll go ahead and pick the current number 1 player, Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic’s GOAT Points:
  • No. 1 Ranking: 10 points (he’s currently ranked No. 1),
  • Weeks Ranked No. 1: 24.8 points (he’ll have been ranked No. 1 for 62 weeks through the end of this year),
  • Year End No. 1: 20 points (he’s been year-end No. 1 twice, 2011 and 2012),
  • Grand Slam Titles: 75 points (he’s won five grand slams),
  • Grand Slam Finals: 20 points (he’s appeared in four other grand slam finals),
  • Calendar Year Grand Slam: 0 points (no calendar year grand slam),
  • 3 Grand Slams in One Year: 25 points (he won three grand slams in 2011),
  • 2 Grand Slams in One Year: 0 points (he’s never won as many as two grand slams in any other year),
  • Career Grand Slam: 0 points (Novak has never won French Open),
  • Titles: 87 points (he has won 29 non-grand slam tournaments),
  • Career Match Wins: 23 points (he has won 469 matches over his career so far),
  • Career Winning Percentage: 10 points (he has a career 0.792 match winning percentage).

You add all of those points up and you get a total of 295 points (rounding to the nearest point). At the risk of taking some suspense out of this list, the total of 295 points put Djokovic thirteenth among Open Era players. That seems reasonable to me. Certainly Djokovic has put himself into the discussion as one of the best ever, but he hasn’t done enough just yet to be among the top 5 or even 10. (It’s safe to say that baring major injury or some hard to imagine loss of form, he’ll be climbing this list in the coming years.)

So, the formula passes the basic test of reasonability, I applied it to every player who was ranked number 1 or won a grand slam in the Open Era. The results make sense to me, but judge for yourself. Eighteen players amassed at least 200 points (arbitrary number), so that’s where I’ll start the countdown of the greatest players of all time.

Before we get to the list, I offer an important observation about this ranking system. This approach rewards both high-level and long-term success. The more wins, titles, weeks ranked number 1, etc., the higher a player’s point total and the higher they will be ranked on the list. This ranking system doesn’t reward qualitative greatness. A player may have played brilliantly, may have appeared superior to his opponents, or to borrow some inflated rhetoric, he may have displayed strokes of genius on the court. By the eye that player may have appeared greater than others. That qualitative measure isn’t captured here. For instance, for many people John McEnroe displayed genius on court while Ivan Lendl displayed only consistent power. Many may consider the style of McEnroe to have been superior to the style of Lendl. Tennis lends itself to the beautiful: in movement, in ball striking, in shot-making. Tennis fans often love the style as much as the results. This quantitative rankings approach is based solely on results, it’s indifferent to style, indifferent to the many things that happen on court that aren’t measured in the results. The reader is cautioned to consider the “blind” perspective of these rankings as we countdown to the greatest of all time.

Okay, that’s enough background, on to the rankings.

The Greatest Players of All Time (Numbers 18 through 11)

Honorable Mention: Among active players (who aren’t ranked in this list), only Andy Murray has demonstrated a level of success that could get him onto this list before his career is over. By this system his career points stand at 128, well behind each of the 18 men listed below, but well within range of this group if he has a few more good years (and wins some more grand slam tournaments). This list isn’t static (it contains several active players after all), and other current or future players will join it. But other than Murray, I don’t know who that might be with the possible exception of Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro.

18. Jim Courier (1988-2000)
Jim Courier was a hard hitting baseliner, perfectly constructed for slow hard courts and even slower clay. His career hit a peak from summer 1991 through summer 1993 when he made all seven of his grand slam finals (winning four), and rising to number 1, including finishing 1992 as the best player in the world (and starting a string of eight years with Americans finishing at the top of the rankings). Courier had some decent moments after 1993, but his career never approach those heights and he couldn’t hang with his fellow Americans Agassi and Sampras.

Total Points: 211
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 58
Year-End Number 1: 1 (1992)
Grand Slams: 4 titles / 3 finals
Career Titles (all): 23
Career Wins (PCT): 506 (0.681)

Other Noteworthy Achievements: Courier was the first of the great wave of American players of the 1990s (which included Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang) to be ranked number 1.

Iconic Moment: 1991 French Open Final. Courier played favorite and fellow American Andre Agassi in the final (Agassi was seeded fourth while Courier was seeded ninth). He lost the first set 3-6, and fell behind in the second set 1-3, and down another break point when rain came and delayed the match. Courier was sharper when they returned and stormed back to win the second set 6-4, but Agassi dominated the third, downing Courier 2-6. It was then that Courier’s mental strength came to the fore. He quickly turned the tables on Agassi, dominating the fourth set, winning 6-1, and at 4-4 in the fifth set he earned the decisive service break. He held easy to win his first grand slam, and the first of four he would win over the next year-and-a-half.

17. Lleyton Hewitt (1998-current)
Like Courier, Hewitt is a scrappy baseliner known for his dogged style. He became the youngest player ever ranked number 1 in 2001 at age 20. Hewitt’s precise groundstrokes allowed him to dominate the tour from the middle of 2001 through early 2003 when he won both of his grand slams. He occupied the top of the rankings in the brief period after the decline of Pete Sampras and the rise of Roger Federer. Unfortunately for Hewitt, once Federer got his measure, his career was bound to be eclipsed. His dogged play continues but bigger, stronger opponents, and a rash of injuries have relegated him to lower status over the last five or six years.

Total Points: 211
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 80
Year-End Number 1: 2 (2001-02)
Grand Slams: 2 titles / 2 finals
Career Titles (all): 28
Career Wins (PCT): 564 (0.725)

Other Noteworthy Achievements: Hewitt is one of the few players in history to be ranked number 1 for every week of a calendar year, achieving the feat in 2002.

Iconic Moment: 2001 U.S. Open Final. In his first grand slam final, Hewitt demolished 13 time grand slam champion Pete Sampras in three sets. It was probably his most impressive victory and signaled to the world that a new champion had arrived. It was one of Sampras’ most lopsided grand slam defeats.

16. John Newcombe (1967-81)
John Newcombe was the last in the great wave of Australian players that dominated tennis from the 1950s through the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, his ranking on this list is suppressed a bit because his early career was played before the Open Era. Newcombe was an attacking serve-and-volley player, which was common at the time but rarely seen now. He was also an exceptional doubles player, winning 17 doubles grand slams.

Total Points: 237
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 8
Year-End Number 1: 2 (1970-71)
Grand Slams: 5 titles / 2 finals
Career Titles (all): 32
Career Wins (PCT): 429 (0.759)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: Newcombe had a very successful career before turning professional including winning Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 1967.

Iconic Moment: 1970 Wimbledon Final. Newcombe defeated his countryman Ken Rosewall in five long sets to win the 1970 Wimbledon title. It was the first of the five grand slams he would win in the Open Era (and third of the seven he won overall). For both 1970 and 1971 Newcombe was considered as the best player (along with Rod Laver and Rosewall in 1970 and Stan Smith in 1971).

15. Ilie Nastase (1966-85)
Nastase’s career also started before the Open Era, but he came into his own in the early 1970s. Nastase was known for his style and all court game, and his antics, a sort of European John McEnroe with a bit more playfulness and a bit less skill than the American.

Total Points: 287
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 40
Year-End Number 1: 1 (1973)
Grand Slams: 2 titles / 3 finals
Career Titles (all): 57
Career Wins (PCT): 755 (0.725)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: Nastase was the first man to be ranked number 1 when the rankings were introduced in 1973. He held the top spot for the first 40 weeks of the rankings (the only 40 weeks he would be number 1).

Iconic Moment: 1972 U.S. Open Final. Nastase won his first grand slam title by defeating Arthur Ashe at the 1972 U.S. Open, in a long five set match. That was in an era when the U.S. Open was played on grass, and it’s noteworthy that Nastase won the grand slams on grass and clay (1973 French Open). Few players have proven capable of winning grand slams on both surfaces.

14. Mats Wilander (1969-85)
Mats Wilander followed Bjorn Borg as the top player from Sweden, not long after Borg left the stage, Wilander won his first grand slam at the 1982 French Open, at the tender age of just 17. He won four grand slams by the age of 20, the youngest man ever to achieve that feat. He was ranked in the top 5 for every year from 1983 through 1987, but it was 1988 when he reached his apogee, winning three grand slams and surmounting perennial number 1 Ivan Lendl. However his fall from the top was quick as he couldn’t sustain the level that had carried him to number 1. He won just one title after 1988 and by 1990 he had fallen out of the top 40. Had he been able to maintain his level for just a bit longer, he’d surely rank higher on this list.

Total Points: 288
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 20
Year-End Number 1: 1 (1988)
Grand Slams: 7 titles / 4 finals
Career Titles (all): 33
Career Wins (PCT): 571 (0.720);
Other Noteworthy Achievements: Wilander won three grand slams in 1988 (Australia, French Open, U.S. open), the only man to do this between Jimmy Conners in 1975 and Roger Federer in 2004.

Iconic Moment: 1988 U.S. Open Final. Wilander did the almost impossible, beating Ivan Lendl in the final of the U.S. Open. Coming into the match Lendl had won 27 straight matches at Flushing Meadows. The match was long and hard, going a full five sets. The final set was back and forth, but Wilander broke late and withstood Lendl’s pressure to close out the match in just under five hours. Wilander had conquered the mighty Lendl and established himself as the new number 1 (short-lived though his reign would be).

13. Novak Djokovic (2003-current)
I’ve written plenty on Novak Djokovic over the last couple of years. It seemed that his all-around excellent game would only ever be good enough for third best on tour; winning the tour scraps left from Federer and Nadal. Then 2011 happened. Seemingly out of the blue Djokovic realized all of his potential and became nearly unbeatable, winning 64 of his first 66 matches, three grand slams and putting Nadal and Federer clearly in his rearview mirror. He just finished 2012 ranked number 1 and he’s the odd-on favorite to stay there in 2013. Who knows where he might end up on this ranking, but inside the top 10 seems almost certain.

Total Points: 295
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 62 (as of December 31, 2012)
Year-End Number 1: 2 (2011-12)
Grand Slams: 5 titles / 4 finals
Career Titles (all): 34
Career Wins (PCT): 469 (0.792)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: Djokovic won three grand slams in 2011 (Australia, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) becoming just the sixth man to do this during the Open Era.

Iconic Moment: 2011 Wimbledon Final. Djokovic seemed to overcome one challenge after another in the first half of 2011, most notably beating Nadal four times, including two times on clay. But it was in the Wimbledon Final the Djokovic showed that the dynamics of the tour had changed. He dominated Nadal en route to a four set win, ending the Spaniard’s 20 match Wimbledon winning streak in the process. There could be no doubt, there was the new top dog on Tour.

12. Boris Becker (1984-99)
Boris Becker was perhaps the most precocious of the many great players on this list, winning his first grand slam at Wimbledon, in just his fourth grand slam tournament, at 17 (a younger 17 than when Wilander won French Open in 1982). He possessed perhaps the first truly monstrous serve in the game and his basic big serve-put-away volley approach adumbrated the style that would come to epitomize the tennis tour in the early and mid-90s.

Total Points: 306
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 12
Year-End Number 1: 0
Grand Slams: 6 titles / 4 finals
Career Titles (all): 49
Career Wins (PCT): 713 (0.769)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: Becker won the 1985 Wimbledon title when he was just 17 years old. He would win it again as an 18-year-old in 1986.

Iconic Moment: 1985 Wimbledon Final. Nothing could compare to Becket’s 1985 Wimbledon break-through. The red-haired German was young and bold. His booming serve and diving volleys electrified the English crowd. Despite being unseeded and unheralded, Becker kept winning. His opponent, American by way of South African Kevin Curran, was game, but no one was going to deny Becker his first grand slam title. He won in four sets and the Becker phenomenon had arrived.

11. Guillermo Vilas (1969-92)
Guillermo Vilas may be the greatest player never ranked number 1 (at least in the Open Era). He won more matches, more titles, and more grand slams than anyone else not ranked number 1. In 1977, his finest season, Vilas won a startling 16 titles, including two grand slams (French Open and U.S. Open), and an amazing 130 matches. By current rankings practice, he would have finished the year ranked number 1 (he finished the year ranked second behind Jimmy Connors). All told, Vilas was ranked inside the top 10 for nine consecutive years (1974-83).

Total Points: 316
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 0
Year-End Number 1: 0
Grand Slams: 4 titles / 4 finals
Career Titles (all): 62
Career Wins (PCT): 923 (0.765)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: In 1977 Vilas won a still-standing record 46 consecutive matches. This record has since been approached by John McEnroe, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic, but no one has bettered it.

Iconic Moment: 1977 U.S. Open Final. Vilas won four grand slams but the best triumph may have been at the U.S. Open in 1977 when he took down Jimmy Connors in five sets. 1977 was the last in a short three year stretch (1975-77) when the U.S. Open was played on clay. Vilas took advantage of his favored slow surface to take command of the match after Connors won the first set. Vilas won going away 6-0 in the fourth.

The top ten players are listed in Part 2, see here.



1. Short, but actually longer than in past seasons when the Davis Cup Final was traditionally played on the first weekend in December. A couple of years ago the ATP agreed to compress the end of the season to give players a bit more rest before the tour heats up down in the antipodes in January.

2. Australia: (1) Novak Djokovic; French Open: (4) Rafael Nadal; Wimbledon: (2) Roger Federer; U.S. Open: (3) Andy Murray. Djokovic also won three of the ATP 1000 tournaments (Miami, Canada, and Shanghai) and the year-end World Tour Finals, Federer won three ATP 1000 tournaments (Indian Wells, Madrid, and Cincinnati), Nadal won two of them (Monte Carlo and Rome), Andy Murray won the Olympics, and David Ferrer won the final ATP 1000 tournaments in Paris.

3. Of course given the context of this discussion, it’s worth emphasizing that precision is not synonymous with accuracy.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Everyone,

    My favorite tennis player would be Roger Federer because he has always been my greatest inspiration from young. He was the greatest Tennis Player of All Time. Thanks a lot for this new post.

    Cincinnati Tennis