Numbers Don’t Lie…Or Do They?
by Thaddeus McCarthy
When we talk about the greatest rivalry in tennis history (GROAT), men and women, experts are often unanimous in their verdict. Everyone points out that it is of course Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Surely with 80 clashes and yet an only slim 43-37 favour for Martina, then this rivalry has the numbers to back it up. Considering that the next largest rivalry in the women’s game is only 43, and the longest in men’s is 39, then surely their needn’t be any more proof that the Evert/Navratilova is and was the greatest. Similarly we could say the same thing (but to a lesser extent) with Nadal’s 8 French Open titles, or with Federer’s 17 Grand Slams or with Margaret Court’s 24.
Although in the context of this article, and to better illustrate my point, I will first discuss whether the greatest rivalry is really Evert and Navratilova. The point I will be making in this article is that numbers are not always the most effective method in measuring greatness. I think this point is known by many, but must be remembered in the tennis context if we are to continue to have lively debate over such metrics as The Greatest of All Time. To start, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the greatest rivalry in tennis did not read 43-37. I know, I know, you must be thinking, “but what else could it be?” Well maybe it could be the McEnroe/Borg rivalry, as even though they met 14 times, they were the duo that launched tennis into the stratosphere. They were the perfect example of two players who had totally contrasting temperaments. On one side there was McEnroe, the bratty, brash New Yorker, and symbol of serve and volley tennis. At the other end there was Borg, the cool, calm Swede who arrived on the scene with this style of topspin baseline tennis that we hadn’t seen, and haven’t until the arrival of Nadal. Concerning Nadal and his rivalry with Federer, the fact that the record reads 23-10 in Nadal’s favour does not discount it as being perhaps the greatest. Just as the fact that McEnroe and Borg only having 14 clashes does not discount them.
There was an academic paper done in 2012 that looked at players past and present, and measured greatness not just upon numbers but on the quality of opposition and their dominance of their respective eras. Jimmy Connors ranked on top of the list, helped no doubt by his unusually long career. Ivan Lendl was next, with Federer back in seventh place, and Nadal way back in the 20s. The paper illustrates perfectly that numbers are not the be all and end all. In saying that though, the findings of it surely arose some debate among us ardent fans out there. It surely would have to be questioned if Jimmy Connors ever dominated for an extended period of time. In 1974 he definitely was the top player; his 99-4 record is demonstrative of that. Although he remained year-end No. 1 for 4 consecutive years, he was beaten in many Slam finals during that period by Borg, McEnroe and others. To have Federer in seventh behind Lendl seems absurd, but not unarguable. Lendl was a player I have enormous respect for, the way he dominated his opposition and brought in power tennis is proof of his first-rate greatness. The point I am making with the findings of this paper is not to say whether they are true or not though, but to say that they show us that numbers are not always the truest measure of things.
Now, back to the rivalry debate, there is no doubt that the fact Nadal has such an absurdly lopsided rivalry against Federer means that he has dominated their clashes. Considering the fact also, that is closing in on his 17 Grand Slam tally means that he is pushing further into the GOAT argument, currently occupied by the Fed Express. When you add in metrics, as those used in the academic paper to measure the ‘true’ GOAT rankings, like quality of opposition, and the dominance of an era, then Nadal would come out on top again. The players Fed used to whip in his heyday; like Nalbandian, Hewitt and Davydenko, do not stack up as quality opposition, as would Federer himself, Djokovic, or Murray. Those last three are the players Nadal has had to beat to win his big titles. He has positive records against all of them, whereas Federer only has a positive record against Djokovic (a slim 17-16). If you solely look at the numbers in 2014 as a measure of GOAT status, then Nadal is very close to overtaking Federer.
But when you consider non-numerical metrics, like the way that a certain player has influenced the sport globally and is so widely admired by his peers outside of tennis; then Nadal’s achievements do not come close to Federer’s. Multiple times Federer has been ranked as the second most admired man in the world, behind only (the now late) Nelson Mandela. Can Nadal or any other tennis player lay claim to a feat as monumental as that? Probably not. But that sort of award does not do justice to what Federer has done. All around the world young people have picked up tennis rackets and strived in many fields (not only tennis) to emulate a similar level of grace and determination as he displays on the tennis court and in life outside it. Which is not to say I don’t admire Nadal, actually I idolise him equally as I do Federer. But as a shining beacon for the sport Federer is unmatchable, as no-one currently or in tennis history can compete with him.
‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a common saying, which means that different people will look beautiful to different individuals. Any all-time greatest ever measure in tennis, whether that be the GOAT or Greatest Rivalry, will always be up to the individual to decide. How the individual should decide, should not just be based on numbers alone, but on the influence their player or players have had within and outside the game worldwide. But, then again, that is up to the individual to decide. What this articles purpose is, is to show you that to make your decision on numbers alone is flawed. There are other things to consider when making your decision on who should be the GOAT, or GROAT.