Sunday, September 22, 2019
The G.O.A.T. in the living room
There are a lot of tennis discussions that turn me off, but perhaps none tires me as much as the one entitled "Who is the greatest player of all time?"
There are a couple of reasons I thoroughly dislike this discussion:
1. There is no way to measure such a thing.
Who decides what factors come together to determine who is the "greatest"? Does it involve winning majors (more on that in a moment)? Or does it involve the totality of a player's career--winning majors in different categories, remaining in the top 10 over a period of time, winning Fed Cup titles, etc.? There is no objective method of measuring such greatness.
Many people, however, believe that the number of singles majors won is an objective measurement. It is not. First, it doesn't take into account other achievements, such as those mentioned above. And perhaps even more significant, it isn't valid. Back when such outstanding players as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were playing, winning majors was not the be-all and end-all as it is now.
Consider, for example, that many top players skipped the Australian Open because it was held during the Christmas holidays. Consider that Chris Evert skipped three French Opens (and she would surely have won at least one of them, and probably all three) to play World Team Tennis. (Consider that Rod Laver was not even permitted to play in several majors.)
Players of different eras simply cannot be compared, yet people insist on comparing them. I recall someone on Twitter once saying "Could have, would have' doesn't count." She missed the point entirely. The values were different, the rules were different, the schedules were different. More recently, someone on Twitter told me that "there has to be a gold standard for a sport." No there does not, and that brings me to:
2. Why does it matter?
The obsession with choosing the "best" anything is something I don't understand. Not only is it objectively impossible, it reflects an obsessive desire to idealize something or someone to the detriment of appreciating so many similar things or people. I have no desire to determine whether a particular player is (or was) the greatest player of all time; it means nothing to me. I also have no desire to determine whether a player was the greatest of her era, even if there were objective criteria.
I much prefer to appreciate players for their outstanding contributions--as champions, as shot-makers, as surface specialists, as Fed Cup stars, as leaders. Too many discussions revolve around the G.O.A.T., a mythical creature whose existence serves to create pressure on players, to rely on the use of unreliable statistics, and to bring out the worst kind of fan over-identification.