Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Djokovic as GOAT? (II) / Follow-up: Tennis, numbers, and reasoning

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As I suggested earlier this year, a strong case can be made for Djokovic as the GOAT of tennis. As he now has added another two majors, for a three-way tie with Federer and Nadal, even those obsessed with the flawed proxy of majors won (Cf. [1]) should slowly be caving.* This especially as his Wimbledon victories in 2019 and 2021 (this year) point to his being a clear favorite for 2020, had there been a tournament. In a reality just a little different, with Wimbledon postponed and the French Open canceled, Djokovic might lead 21 to 20 to 19 over Federer and Nadal.

*Except that tennis fans are often religious and might change criteria after the fact.

As to my own main proxy, weeks at number one, he has built a lead on Federer (while Nadal is not a factor) and will necessarily extend it further after his Wimbledon defense.

Moreover, as I wrote in [1]:*

*Footnotes removed for brevity.

The best way to proceed is almost certainly to try to make a judgment over an aggregate of many different measures, including majors won, ranking achievements, perceived dominance, length of career, … (And, yes, the task is near impossible.) For instance, look at the Wikipedia page on open era records in men’s singles and note how often Federer appears, how often he is the number one of a list, how often he is one of the top few, and how rarely his name does not appear in a significant list. That is a much stronger argument for his being the GOAT than “20 majors”. Similarly, it gives a decent argument for the Big Three being the top three of the open era; similarly, it explains why I would tend to view Djokovic as ahead of Nadal, and why I see it as more likely that Djokovic overtakes Federer than that Nadal does (in my estimate, not necessarily in e.g. the “has more majors” sense).

Look at the same page today, roughly two years later, and note how the distance between Federer and Djokovic has grown smaller or even reversed in various measures.

Should Djokovic add this year’s U.S. Open, winning the Grand Slam, this would probably close the debate for me. If he does not, I suspect that the developments over the next one or two years will leave the same conclusion. (But let us wait and see.)

Excursion on Federer as GOAT:
Now, if I were to argue Federer as GOAT, which is a position closer to my heart, I would probably rely on two things. Firstly, rivalries tend to favor the younger player, and will almost certainly have done so in the case of players this long-lived. This would give Federer a greater handicap from competing with the other “Big Three” than it does Djokovic and Nadal. Secondly, the great slowdown of surfaces has certainly favored the immensely strong defensive players and runners that are Djokovic and Nadal over Federer, who has a faster and more attacked based game. The downside of this argument, is that we cannot know how other players would have fared without a slowdown—and maybe all three would have seen their success diminished relative some even more attack based, and/or younger, and/or more canon-serving players. (Maybe, for instance, we would have had a four-way tie with Sampras at 14 in terms of majors won, with Sampras still leading in weeks at number one?)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 11, 2021 at 9:06 pm

One Response

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  1. […] I have repeatedly mentioned Djokovic as the potential GOAT of tennis, including in at least [1] and [2]. […]


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