Raffa? Serena? Rogers? Tennis Goat debate is an affront to history | tennis

THis September marks the 20th anniversary of Pete Sampras’ 14th and final Grand Slam victory as he defeated longtime rival Andre Agassi to claim his fifth US Open title. It was also the last game Sampras ever played on tour, making his victory in New York the culmination of a great career. At the time, it seemed like Sampras’ extraordinary career stats – namely his then-men’s Slam record – would set the benchmark for future generations.

But as the tennis world makes its annual descent to Gotham, it’s worth noting that not only has the Grand Slam record been eclipsed by Sampras, but also by a trio of players known as Rafael Nadal’s Big Three (22 grand Title). ), Novak Djokovic (21) and Roger Federer (20). That three players did all this in the same era is almost incomprehensible.

But unless there’s an 11-hour reprieve Djokovic enters Flushing Meadows unvaccinated, only Nadal will start next Monday’s tournament (Federer, 41, who is still recovering from a knee injury, is expected to return to action in the coming months). Regardless of position on Djokovic’s vaccination status, it’s a shame that fans are being denied the possibility of another Nadal-Djokovic clash (their is the most prolific male rivalry of the Open era: they’ve played each other 59 times, with Djokovic coming out on top has row 30-29). For while these three competitors may appear immortal, the monster of time will swallow their careers sooner rather than later.

All eyes will no doubt be on Nadal over the fortnight, although he also heads into the final major of the year, having played just one game since retiring from Wimbledon with a stomach injury. And the main focus will be on whether Nadal can capture his 23rd Major and move forward in the greatest of all time (Goat) debate.

The goat discussion has become a distracting epidemic in tennis — and all sports, for that matter. It’s a tedious, simplistic, and one-dimensional approach to evaluating greatness, and it’s also an affront to history and perspective. It’s hard to date when the Goat debates became an obsession among fans and sportswriters, but with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, they achieved mass appeal. The rush to award the Goat title is a short-sighted, insecure and immature reflex by sportswriters and commentators who feel the need to declare their own generation the undeniable best.

To illustrate the impossibility of settling a goat debate, the exclusive use of Grand Slam titles to determine greatness is a relatively recent phenomenon in the sport’s long and extremely complicated history. For example, up until the 1960s, the Davis Cup was considered equal, if not more important, than the four major championships. Nowadays, the Davis Cup hardly gets any mention in the media.

In addition, professionals were barred from participating in slams until 1968. Consider that Rod Laver missed five years in his prime. The Australian ended his stellar career with 11 major titles. How many more would he have asked for in those five years? One could argue at least 10 considering he won the calendar year Grand Slam in both 1962 and 1969 (Laver is the last man to win all four majors in one year).

Additionally, from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s, many of the top men didn’t bother to travel to the Australian Open. Incredibly, Bjorn Borg only played once in the tournament, as a 17-year-old. How many Australian titles could he have won in his short but legendary career? The Swede amassed 11 majors by the time he was 25 without playing in Australia.

Finally, there is the issue of technology and fitness. Until the advent of larger racquets in the 1980s and the advent of polystrings (first used to great effect by Gustavo Kuerten), all players competed with basically the same sized racquets made primarily of one material – wood. It’s impossible to overestimate the impact that racquet and string technology has had on the sport. What is most striking today compared to the game 30 or 40 years ago is the almost complete abandonment of serve and volley in modern tennis.

In the not too distant past, there was a bevy of players who played serve and volley, bringing a mix of styles to the tour. Currently, the pure serve and volley is a rarity. One need look no further Roger Federer as a visual lesson. Looking at old clips of his matches in the early stages of his career, it’s striking how much more often Federer came back from behind his first serves. For his part, Nadal is actually an excellent and underrated volleyball player, but his forays into the net are very selective. The decline – and sometimes total absence – of net play as a major part of a game is due in no small part to players’ ability to hit winners seemingly at will from behind the baseline. This was something unthinkable before the ’90s. While few would dispute that batting, longer rallies and more competitive plays are more exciting in today’s game, it’s also true that there is a price to pay: losing the beauty and artistry of the volley. However, it’s very difficult to compare generations when the game has changed so fundamentally.

To bring it back to Sampras, with Wimbledon’s faster grass from decades past, would Djokovic’s incredible second leg against Pistol Pete have endured – or would Sampras have won his seven Wimbledon titles on SW19’s modern surface? This is not to say that Sampras or Djokovic are better than the rest, but to draw attention to the futility of comparing players in different eras.

Of course, the goat talk wouldn’t be complete without mentioning it Serena Williams. If she doesn’t shock everyone and win the US Open to claim her 24th Slam, Williams will end up second in the list of major titles, one shy of Margaret Court. One can make the simple case that she’s enjoying her era completely mastered. What makes it less compelling is that — barring periods of competition with her sister Venus and Justine Henin — she’s never had a rival who could live with her long-term. And just like the men’s game, women have competed over the years using different styles and methods. Comparisons between modern women’s football and, for example, the era of Billie Jean King or Martina Navratilova are simply too difficult.

It’s worth remembering that at the end of 2007, when Federer collected his 12th Slam just after the age of 26, he was already being called the Goat. And it was understandable why so many swarmed over him, as his beautiful all-court playing style obliterated his enemies with preternatural ease. But here we are, and by the slam-count-goat standard, Federer is probably only considered the third best…of his generation.

Not that it should matter: great tennis players should be enjoyed rather than subjected to meaningless comparisons.

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