“Update: As of Sunday, January 16, by Australian federal court decision, Novak Djokovic’s visa to the country was denied, and the player has been deported from the country. He will not be defending his title at the Australian Open, but Rafael Nadal still has the opportunity to break the three-way men’s Grand Slam tie if he wins this tournament.”
This month’s Australian Open tournament may finally settle the sport’s ‘G.O.A.T’ debate – or begin it anew.
By Vikram Nijhawan, Senior Arts and Culture Editor
“How exactly do we measure greatness?”
The narrator of a recent Rolex ad opens with this rhetorical question, as the company celebrates the career and achievements of legendary tennis player (and their long-time brand ambassador) Roger Federer.
“By the number of titles?” the narrator continues. “The number of Grand Slams? Maybe, but not only. Because there are certain things that numbers can’t convey.” The commercial aired during the Wimbledon season of July 2021, and featured a montage of clips from the Swiss Maestro’s matches over the past two decades, highlighting some of the finest moments tennis viewers have witnessed from the iconic player.
Federer, who has long been crowned ‘King Roger’ and the presiding sovereign over the Wimbledon grass court, was bounced in straight sets in the 2021 quarterfinals (including a loss by 6-0 in the third set), a major upset for a player who held eight previous singles titles at the All-England Club. He has been out of play ever since due to long-term knee injuries, and the prospect of the Swiss Maestro playing at a high-quality level – or even returning to the court at all – remains uncertain. For some, this signifies the end of his reign.
“This commercial is so ironic considering they sell watches,” remarked ‘Keir’, in the comments section below the commercial’s YouTube video. The perceived irony of the ad’s message did not escape many online pundits, who turned to numbers they felt better reflected ‘greatness’. The three-way contest for the sport’s status of G.O.A.T. (or “Greatest of All Time”) between contenders Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic has dominated professional men’s tennis for the past decade, and Internet discourse has amplified the opinions of tennis enthusiasts.
With Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic currently tied at twenty total Grand Slam titles each, supporters of each player turn to different facts and figures to justify their picks. From setting a new record for the longest streak as world #1 (350 weeks) to his superior head-to-head match records against Federer (27 wins to 23 losses) and Spaniard clay-court specialist Nadal (30 wins to 28 losses), Djokovic has currently entrenched himself as the favoured candidate for the sport’s statistical G.O.A.T.
Despite his inconsistent popularity over the years, the Serb has increasingly gained respect among tennis fans and commentators for his recent feats, particularly in 2021. Djokovic continued to shatter records previously held by players like Federer, and attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to achieve the elusive ‘Golden Slam’ by winning all four major titles and the Olympics during the year. The world number one has a chance to break the three-way tie with his participation in this month’s Australian Open, where he has secured eight previous titles – although geopolitical and pandemic-related controversies may now derail those plans.
Djokovic’s recent success has not prevented plenty of Federer’s supporters from deferring to the Rolex ad’s fundamental argument: that purely based on his playing style during his peak years of performance, their man secures the G.O.A.T. title. With his fluid inside-out forehand, deft one-handed backhand slice, pinpoint shot-making abilities, and unreadable yet ever-accurate serve, Federer has so often been likened to an ‘artist’ on the court throughout his career that the ascription has become a cliche. In his panegyric 2006 essay “Federer Both Flesh and Not”, David Foster Wallace summed up the Swiss man’s playing style as the merger of “Mozart and Metallica”, attributed to his classical elegance within the modern power baseline game. Similarly, women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King has described the Maestro as “the most beautiful and balletic player I’ve ever seen”.
A beautiful playing style may have aesthetic merit, but in the belligerent contest for “greatest of all time”, there are other factors to consider. In his introduction to Wallace’s essay collection, String Theory, literary journalist John Jeremy Sullivan wrote of the solitary, combative nature of tennis that, “It is perhaps the most isolating of sports, even boxers have a corner […]”, and that, “It may be as close as we come to physical chess”. In this respect, would either the professional boxing or chess worlds serve as valuable analogues for the ‘sport of kings’, and the use of quantitative measures of ‘greatness’?
When asked to name the greatest boxer of all time, a layperson will likely turn to the braggadocious icon Mohammed Ali. The three-time world heavyweight champion, who “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee”, held a total of 56 wins (with thirty-seven K.O.s) and a mere five losses, with over a 90 per cent victory rate out of 61 total fights. An impressive feat, but according to the numbers, there are ample cases for other fighters to be crowned with the G.O.A.T. title. For instance, if not losing a single match was the metric for greatness, then take the defensive middleweight champion Floyd Mayweather, who racked up a perfect 50 wins over his 20-year career, and was deemed by respected record-keeping site BoxRec as the greatest of all time in their 2016 ranking. If precocity was the metric, then Mike Tyson – who punched his way to heavyweight champion at 20, beating Ali’s record – can stake his own claim. If longevity was the most valued stat, then Joe Louis’ decade-long reign as heavyweight champion (and 95 per cent win record) is daunting. If consistency and aggregate success, then perhaps BoxRec’s ranking of Sugar Ray Robinson as the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time is the most definitive metric of all.
The world of competitive chess does not provide much closure through numbers either. Individual players’ Elo ratings are the most common numerical ranking system used in the game. Current World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who has defended his title for a decade now, holds the highest rating in the game’s history at over 2800 points in all three of the game’s formats. But much like currency valuation, solely examining Elo rankings elides the strength of players from past eras, as ratings gradually inflate over years with more players joining the circuit. This has led pundits to turn to other metrics to establish all-time dominance in the game, from longest reign as Classical World Chess Champion (Emmanuel Lasker, who held the title from 1894-1921), to pure player brilliance, a factor that has since become possible through the empirical analysis of chess games by computer engines. Even so, the names Fischer and Kasparov have for years resonated among chess enthusiasts, casual players and grandmasters alike. In our modern media landscape which magnifies individuals and personalities, popularity can play just as important a role in ensuring remembrance throughout time, in a way that feats and statistical figures cannot capture.
If popularity is quantifiable, then Roger Federer’s millions of dollars in endorsements, and his record 13 Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Awards (titles voted on by his fellow players) cement his status as one of the wealthiest and most beloved athletes in any sport, which for many is synonymous with ‘greatness’. Over his 20-year career, the Maestro has solidified his image as the consummate gentleman – backed by brands such as Rolex, Nike, Uniqlo, and Vogue – through his seemingly effortless charm and gracefulness both on and off the court. Even during the twilight of his career, Federer’s younger and more successful opponents are hard-pressed to win equal love from fans. Case in point, his epic 2019 Wimbledon final match against Djokovic, where the Swiss player – the clear crowd favourite – ended up narrowly losing a historic five-set tiebreak, to the disappointment of much of the audience.
Thucydides’ Trap applies just as much to tennis as it does to boxing or chess: when a rising power challenges the presiding one, tensions will naturally arise. In the case of the modern men’s tennis G.O.A.T. debate, this battle has largely taken place within the online sphere, with numbers and statistical feats as the main ammunition – but which exact numbers fans choose, and which ones they overlook, may reveal more about their own metrics for admiring top performers.
Did Federer’s unparalleled achievements from 2003 to 2009 occur during an era with weaker competition overall? A recent poll from the YouTube channel Tennistic Productions reveals that among 15,000 respondents, around 58 per cent say ‘Yes’. Conversely, a BBC Sport poll in the middle of 2021 revealed a 56 per cent audience vote supporting Federer’s G.O.A.T. status. Regardless of who has the strongest case, inconstancy will always dominate the game. As another anonymous YouTube commenter opined, “Novak is the GOAT, right now. But, eventually, some young guy will take over. It’s the way of the world. Nothing lasts forever.”
With the ‘Big Three’ players of men’s tennis all officially active and eligible for more titles, the conversation about legacy and greatness is far from resolved. Whether Roger Federer’s legacy will “prove more perpetual than any number”, as the Rolex ad avers, only time will tell.
Vikram Nijhawan is the Senior Arts and Culture Editor for Trinity Times, and a fourth-year undergraduate student at Trinity College, studying English, History, and Classics.