Stats or impact on tennis: why choosing the GOAT is so damn difficult

Djokovic, Nadal and Federer dominated tennis, but who among them is truly the GOAT? And what criteria are the ones with which to choose

by Lorenzo Ciotti
Stats or impact on tennis: why choosing the GOAT is so damn difficult
© Clive Brunskill / Staff

Let's start from the assumption that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer did something moving. Let's start by thanking these three extraordinary champions, who gave us a legendary tennis epic, something that had never happened in the past and which is unlikely to be seen again in the future. We were truly lucky to be able to admire and comment on the exploits of the Big 3, who have left (and are still leaving) an indelible mark in the history of sport.

But if Djokovic, Nadal and Federer are the greatest tennis players (and perhaps sportsmen in general?) ever, who among them is the GOAT. What are the criteria we must take into consideration when choosing? Are numbers and statistics more important or the impact that a single player has had on tennis? It's damn complicated to choose.

There are two schools of thought that fuel the endless debate on who is the greatest of all time. The first gives greater weight to the results achieved on the court and, therefore, prefers the numbers and trophies won. The second, however, focuses entirely on the impact that a player has had on the world of tennis and on the emotions given to fans.

The Big 3
The Big 3© Matthew Stockman / Staff Getty Imagws Sport

Both in the last few days, former player Andy Roddick and young star Carlos Alcaraz have talked about the issue, for example, with very clear points of view.

"What makes the GOAT question very strange is that we never find a definitive solution. The same thing happens in basketball with LeBron James and Michael Jordan. There is always something that can be used against the numbers. But the mathematics is not like that , doesn't care about the fans' feelings.

If you analyze the resumes of the Big 3 and choose one other than Djokovic's, you're crazy. It's very simple. You can argue that you like one or the other more, but if you believe Novak is not the GOAT considering the numbers, it's like being ignorant. People like simple things. Maybe Djokovic's game is not easy to simplify for an inexperienced tennis spectator.

I have always thought that what he does is not easy to appreciate and understand for someone who does not understand this sport well. It has incredible precision, destroys you and forces you to take impossible risks. He knows that the opponent will never be able to do it for three or four hours. You see Federer and you realize how incredible his tennis is. While Nadal amazes everyone with his intensity, it is more difficult to understand Djokovic's greatness," said Roddick.

Speaking to MARCA, Carlitos Alcaraz also expressed his opinion on the issue: "Everyone has their own perception of things. For some, Djokovic is the best, for others Rafa and for others still Roger Federer. Rafa said that Djokovic is the best considering the numbers, and I think so too. In terms of numbers, Djokovic is the best in history, there is no doubt about this. I think the GOAT question goes beyond the numbers though. For me, all three are the best in history."

The Big 3
The Big 3© Julian Finney / Staff Getty Images Sport

GOAT issue: why is it so difficult to choose?

So, should we just look at numbers and statistics or rely on emotions and sensations? Numbers, data and statistics are extremely important and cannot be doubted in any way.

Numbers and statistics say that Novak Djokovic is the GOAT. The Serbian champion is the tennis player who has won the most, who has broken the most records, who is ahead in head-to-head matches with his two rivals. Nole's game may or may not excite, but his effectiveness in maintaining his level of tennis throughout his career is monumental. Something immense. Looking also at other sports, it is almost impossible to find such a long-lived champion capable of dominating his opponents and winning as much as Djokovic does.

Let's look at the numbers again. Nadal, 22 Slams against Djokovic's 24 Majors, has phenomenal numbers and statistics, which obviously explode on clay courts. Rafa dominated the Roland Garros, winning it 14 times (14 TIMES!!!). A feat achieved by no other tennis player, both in men's and women's singles. Not even Djokovic was capable of much. Can a ruler like Rafa, who has also proven himself complete on all surfaces, therefore not be considered the GOAT?

And then there's Federer. The first tennis player to surpass Pete Sampras' 14 Majors, the first tennis player to reach 20 Slams, the first tennis player to win 8 titles at Wimbledon (in men's singles), in the most prestigious and famous tournament in the world. A tennis god who came down to earth, who perhaps, in his glorious career, would also have had the chance to win more than everything he has won.

The Big 3
The Big 3© Clive Brunskill / Staff Getty Images Sport

Then there is the emotional side. The impact that Federer had on the history of tennis was something epochal. More than any of his illustrious predecessors, in both men's and women's tennis, he brought the popularity of tennis to an unprecedented level. Sauzanne Lenglene, the 4 Musketeers, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and John McEnore, Martina Navratilova, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Federer managed to attract the crowds, fans and sponsors. He brought tennis from the past to the future, becoming a true icon, as Serena Williams did in women's tennis.

Federer has completely rewritten the history of tennis, thanks to his game which has reached heights of unattainable beauty. His rivalry with Rafael Nadal completed the painting. Djokovic's entry, which interrupted the Federer-Nadal duopoly, (stupidly) angered the fans of the Swiss and the Spaniard. But how can you say something to the Serbian, who had the willpower and courage to insert himself between two legends like Federer and Nadal to say: "Hey, I'm here too."?