Monday Superlatives

Tennis has three G.O.A.T.s now. It's weird and awesome

September 10, 2018
ATP Heritage Celebration - Inside
Matthew Stockman

Roger Federer has the most grand slam wins of all time. He has the most ATP tournament victories of all time. He is commonly recognized as the greatest player to ever live. He is the G.O.A.T.

Rafael Nadal has the second-most grand slam wins of all time. He has the best career winning percentage of any player except Bjorn Borg. He has a winning record against Roger Federer, who is considered the greatest player of all time. He is the greatest clay court player in history by a wide margin. He has a great chance to eclipse Federer's grand slam win total just by winning French Opens until he's 36. He is the G.O.A.T.

Novak Djokovic has the third-most grand slam wins of all time. He has a better winning percentage than Roger Federer, and a winning head-to-head record against both Federer and Nadal. At his peak, it would be crazy to argue that he wasn't simply better than both players. He had the single greatest tennis season of all time. Now that he's back in winning form, it is not at all crazy to think he will make a run at Federer's grand slam mark (he need six more to tie). He is the G.O.A.T.

If you're a big tennis fan, or even just a casual observer, you will disagree vehemently with one or more of the preceding paragraphs. However, you will have to concede that there is an argument to be made in each case, and even that reality is pretty stunning. Usually when we have the G.O.A.T. argument, we're talking about players from a different era, i.e. Ruth v. Bonds or LeBron v. Jordan. In this case, we have three contemporaries who have distinguished themselves, as of last night, as the three greatest players in the sport's history. And it's not at all clear which of them is the greatest.

I'm going to give you my honest-to-god answer to the question, and I swear I'm not being cute or ironic:

Roger Federer is the greatest of all time, but also he's not as good as Nadal or Djokovic.

How does that make sense, you ask? It doesn't! It doesn't, but it's also completely true. He's an unbelievable champion the likes of which the sport has never seen before and may never see again, but at the peak of his powers, he wasn't as good as his two main rivals—as the record shows.

In fact, the really crazy part about this triumvirate is that the weaker the resume, the stronger the player. If I needed one guy to win one match while playing at his highest historical level, it would be Djokovic. And he's the least decorated of the three, though of course that could change (and if not for his injuries and personal woes, I have a feeling he'd be really close to 20 slams already).

If you had to express this as a mathematical formula, it would look something like A>B, B>C, C>A. It's not rational, and it seems to go against the laws of physics, but here we are: One sport, one era, three goats.

The Worst Generation in Sports History: The Young Dudes of Tennis

Matthew Stockman

I wrote a book about a rising generation of golfers wrenching the game from the grasp of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and the other leading lights of that generation, and while the premise has played out as predicted, it's no more than you'd expect. Time passes, seasons change, what is young must become old. Greatness gets replaced. It's a cycle as old as history.

And yet, in men's tennis, a whole generation of players has abdicated their place in the rotation. We have just completed a second straight year in which every grand slam champion was named Federer, Djokovic, or Nadal. But it goes deeper than that—did you realize that the youngest living man to win a grand slam championship is Juan Martin Del Potro, and that he was born on Sept. 23, 1988. Do you realize this tweet is true:

Do you realize that only two men born after 1990 has even made a grand slam final? (Milos Raonic and Dominic Thiem.)

It's hard to find a historical parallel. Obviously there's no analogue in team sports, where talent replenishes and youth and age will always co-exist to some degree. In women's tennis, the youngsters are thriving, as we saw at the U.S. Open the past two years with Sloane Stephens and Noami Osaka. The same is true in men's and women's golf. And in men's tennis, players like Nadal and Federer and Djokovic were all winning slams at extremely young ages (Nadal won before turning 20, the others shortly after).

Of course, the real debate is whether the young generation in men's tennis is uniquely poor, or whether they're the victims of the ungodly, ahistorical dominance of the three goats.

The answer, I think, is a combination of factors. Yes, obviously those three men throw some long shadows, but the best players of the next generation seem uniquely susceptible to failure in big moments. Nick Kyrgios, maybe the most talented of the bunch, is a renowned head case. Sacha Zverev can't translate his ability to the grand slams. Dominic Thiem has had the most success, and appears the closest to a break-through, but has unfortunately had to face Nadal on his best surface. Others, like Andrey Rublev and Denis Shapovalov and Francis Tiafoe, are unfinished products who are years away from grand slam breakthroughs. Which seems normal, until you remember that at their age, the current kings of the sport were already winning slams.

We may be witnessing a situation in which greatness skips a generation. By the time Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are done with the sport, the mantle of grand slam champions may pass, in large part, to a group of players even younger than the ones fighting for relevance today. If that's the case, we can call the current class the Unfortunate Generation—not good enough, not lucky enough, and historically cursed.

The "Don't Lose a Perfect Game This Way!" Pitcher of the Week: Jorge Lopez, Royals

You know how in sports, there are certain things you just don't do in certain conditions? Like if you need to make a putt to reach a playoff on the last hole, you don't leave it short? Or in football, if you need to score a winning touchdown on the last play, you don't throw the ball short of the end zone? In baseball, if you have a perfect game going in the ninth inning, you do not do this:

It's one thing if you're in a tight game and can't give up a big hit. But Lopez had a four-run lead! Gaahhhhhh you CANNOT WALK THE GUY! If we lived in the fantasy world in which I was a MLB pitcher, and I somehow had a perfect game going in the ninth, there is no way I would serve up anything but the juiciest 82 mph meatball on a three-ball count. If the batter hit it 500 feet, so be it. But, again, YOU CANNOT WALK THE GUY.

Also, Lopez suffered the must crushing of ninth innings, losing the perfect game and the no-hitter in distinct events, first on a walk and then a single Robbie Grossman. Brutal stuff all around.

On the Other Hand, This is a Cool Way to End a Game...

...if you're not a Yankees fan. Which I am.

Oof. I also like this angle of the catch, even though it's not as comprehensive, because Haniger does not enter the frame until the absolute last moment. He's like some Yankee-killing super hero saving the day out of nowhere.

The "This Man Needs His Job Explained to Him" Person of the Week: Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans

O'Brien is the head coach of the Texans, and there came a point in his team's tight fourth quarter loss against the Patriots on Sunday when a questionable catch by Rob Gronkowski probably merited a further look. One way to bring about this action, if the refs don't do it themselves, is for the opposing coach to call a timeout. It is, as you might say, part of said coach's job. But you know who would not say that, apparently? Coach O'Brien himself:

Hmmm...coach, it might be time to sit down, brew a nice cup of coffee, and re-read your job description. And an NFL rulebook. And maybe, while you're there, update that old resume. Just in case.

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