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?