Saturday, July 10, 2010

Who let the GOAT out?

I had planned to talk about this topic some time in the future, but it has popped up on its own on the blog, so I'm talking about it now: Who is the greatest player of all time?

The answer: No one.

There are two reasons that there can be no legitimate "best":

1. How could people--even experts--agree on the criteria, and the heirarchy of importance of those criteria? Who won the most majors? Who had the most talent? Who had the best winning average? Who won the most majors and titles? Who won the most majors of all kinds? Names that fit those categories include--but are not limited to--Margaret Court, Steffi Graf, Maureen Connolly, Suzanne Lenglen, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova.

2. Generations cannot be compared. Players who played three majors on grass cannot be compared with players who play only one major on (slower) grass. Players who used wooden racquets are a universe away from players who use today's racquets. The training techniques are different, the shots themselves are different. Even the rules are different.

And then there is the matter of the importance given to the majors. Back when the Australian Open was played during the Christmas holidays, it was considered legitimate to skip it. Players who skipped it, of course, did not wind up with the winnning records they could have had. "Could've, would've, should've" doesn't count, a commenter on another blog said to me when I brought this up.

But it does in cases like this--because the culture of tennis was different then. Skipping the Australian Open was a common expectation. If a player skips a major today, of course we can say "She made a choice and she'll pay for it." But years ago, skipping a major was not unusual and not unexpected because majors didn't have the type of value they have now. Chris Evert, at the prime of her clay court powers, skipped three French Opens in order to play World Team Tennis. There is every reason to believe she would have won all three of them. But at that time, the value of the majors just wasn't the same as it is now (obviously, WTT play was permitted while the French Open was in progress.)

Comparing tennis cultures across time isn't so much a matter as comparing apples with oranges as it is comparing apples with tablecloths. It makes no logical sense.

I also don't understand the current obsession with determining who is the greatest of all time. This seems to go on more regarding the ATP because both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are playing in the same generation. But the same arguments apply: Who can determine which criteria matter and what their order of importance is? And how can one possibly compare the tennis culture of 1950 with the tennis culture of 1970 with the tennis culture of today?

Finally, why does there have to be a "greatest of all time"? Even if we suddenly all agreed on one (and we never would, which is as it should be), someone else would come along later and contend for that title. Nothing in life stays the same--why should tennis?


Sunny nine said...

My comment is under the Friday cat blogging. I could address what you have said more Diane but I have had surgery and being on the computer is uncomfortable. But I think on many points we were close. Because I like Sci-Fi, I speak about these discussions of who is the GOAT and what MIgHT of happened as people being in alternate universes. Also we agree-time keeps marching on, criteria and generations cannot be the same.

Diane said...

Yes, I read the comment and appreciated it. I hope you get better soon Sunny!

Sunny nine said...

Sorry that should have been "MIGHT have happened"

bill said...

Great post, Diane. I completely agree with it on an intellectual, logical level. Yet as a fan I find myself constantly drawing comparisons among players from different eras, especially those I've seen in person (Maybe this is a sign of advancing age - the older I get, the more players I have to compare.) Not rational, but fun nonetheless. And I enjoyed your comment about Evert and World Team Tennis. The only time I saw her play in person was in a WTT match in Pittsburgh (Go Triangles!), and she was great.

Diane said...

Thanks, Bill. I don't know why, but I've never had the desire to compare top players like that. A lot of people do, though.

I saw Evert play a few times. It was thrilling. Navratilova, too, and the elegant Mandlikova.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that these are the type of things to be argued about in the pub, and are probably best left there. I also have always had the suspicion that such discussions are more of a male concern than a female one generally. You can't really compare eras and conditions of play since they are so different, but it is one way of talking about a game that you follow and care about so such discussions will inevitably arise. Katharine UK

Todd Spiker said...

I don't how closely you might follow any other sports, but I think it's something of a spillover from that. Football, basketball, baseball, boxing, golf, etc. Fan/media discussions have always been peppered with the "who's the greatest" of all-time arguments. It's always engaged people from all generations, and pulls together the history of the sport as a whole. I think when it happens with tennis, at least in the coverage of sports in the U.S., in some small way, it's almost a case of tennis being "elevated" to the level of "importance" that those sports hold in the American sporting landscape. It's such a rare occasion these days when it happens, it's nice to see... and it's a bonus that it's actually about the talent of the players involved, rather than the "not really important" things that usually bring the sport -- especially women's tennis -- to the forefront in the 2000's, as it's because so much harder to garner any attention at all.

Good or bad, I really don't think Serena would have gotten within miles of the S.I. cover without the GOAT story being attached.

Diane said...

I think it's a spillover, too (and I don't like it any of the other sports, either). I see what you mean--at least they're paying attention to tennis.

By the way, Todd, I almost fell off the sofa this weekend when a NASCAR announcer said something to the effect of "It's on his serve now."

Todd Spiker said...

Ha! It's amazing how often that one's uttered. I really don't think there's any other sports phrase that is quite as descriptively accurate as that one.