Forget The GOAT Debate! Let’s Talk About The GROAT!
By Thaddeus McCarthy
As we are in the (short) off-season, I thought now would be a perfect time to look at some historical aspects of our great game. Rather than discussing my opinions on the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) debate (which is a boring and tedious one), I will instead talk about the GROAT (Greatest Record of All Time) debate. Whether it is Roger Federer’s 17 Grand Slams, or Rafael Nadal’s 81-match clay-court win streak, we certainly have an array of options. The records I will compare will be only men, as it is too difficult to compare both sexes. I also don’t want to get into a debate on the relative importance of the two.
Two factors are most important here; the first is the difficulty of acquiring the record, and the second is how important the record is too the game’s history in general. The difficulty of acquiring the record can be looked at by the closeness of the results, the quality of the opponents, and the next person in the category. How important the record is can be looked at by how widely known is, and is revered by players and historians.
I would like to start off by talking about a record that unfortunately never was, Federer’s 19 consecutive Grand Slam finals. The match which broke this streak was the 2008 Aussie Open semifinal versus Novak Djokovic, which coincidentally your writer watched from the stands. I remember thinking that Fed was not his normal self. He did in fact have mononucleosis, which did slow him down. But let’s for now go back to fantasy and believe that Federer won this match, in which case I believe we certainly would have had the greatest record in tennis, and arguably in sports. Why? Well there were many close matches throughout, such as Janko Tipsaravic at Aussie 08, won 10-8 in the 5th. The opponents Federer had to face in this time (2005-2010) before the final were very good; such as a young Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick, and David Nalbandian. The next person in the consecutive finals category is Rafael Nadal with 5, which is not even close. And it’s standing in the history of tennis and sports would undoubtedly be exemplary. It would be near on five years of constantly finishing in the top two of sports major tournaments… ridiculous.
As it is in reality land, we have Federer’s 23 consecutive semi-final streak to admire. The matches were close and the opponents were still very good. The next person in the category though is Novak Djokovic with 14, which is much closer than five. It is probably the best known record in tennis, and has been talked about as one of the greatest in sports. But is it the greatest? His own 17 Grand Slams stand out as maybe a better known record. Nadals 81-match clay court win streak, or his 7/8 titles at 4 different tournaments (French Open, Monte Carlo, Rome, Barcelona) were both far beyond anything else. Jimmy Connors 109 single titles record will likely never be approached. Guillermo Vilas’s 16 titles in a single season will not be overtaken in the modern age. You could also include Rod Laver’s two calendar year Grand Slams or his 200 total titles in this company.
For Nadal’s two greatest records there is one match which stands out above all others, and that is the 2006 Rome Final, which went over 5 hours. It was the longest match in the Nadal-Federer rivalry. Winning this match enabled Nadal to break Vilas’s record 53 straight clay wins. Jimmy Connors total titles record of 109 is a reasonably known record throughout the tennis public. The next person in the category is Ivan Lendl with 94. Seeing that Fed only won a single title this year to notch up his 77th, we can clearly see how difficult it is. The Vilas record of 16 titles in one season (1977) is practically unbreakable. Especially considering that Federer in his best year of 2006 ‘only’ won 12. Most of those for Vilas were on clay though, so one has to question his all-court mastery. Rod Laver’s calendar Grand Slams, one in the amateur era and one in the professional; will be hard to emulate. It has to be remembered though that these were the transition years when neither (amateur/professional) had all the great players in their respective competitions. One has to think that it would be somewhat easier to accomplish the true Grand Slam then, than from the 70s onwards.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to that which is best known by the general public and appreciated by historians. And unfortunately Vilas’s, Nadal’s and Connors records; while undoubtedly great, are not well known by the general public. The Laver calendar Grand Slams are well known, but the quality of the opposition in those days was spread across two separate competitions. The record which stands out I believe (and I know it may be obvious) is the Federer semi-final streak of 23. The reasons for it are many. It is one of the best known records in tennis and is revered by historians and the public alike, most importantly though it demonstrates consistent excellence over a prolonged period. Among the great records in sports it is arguable where this stands alongside the likes of Tiger Wood’s 142 consecutive cut streak or Wilt Chamberlains 100 point game. Within tennis though, nothing is on par with it. We needn’t live in a fantasy land, because the reality of 23 consecutive top four finishes isn’t half bad.