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Evolution of the GOAT: The Men Considered The Best Ever Before Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic holds his 23rd Grand Slam title.

Novak Djokovic has achieved his lifetime’s ambition and become the GOAT – the Greatest of All Time – in men’s tennis. In winning a record 23rd Major at Roland Garros on Sunday, he has become the most successful male tennis player ever and finally overtaken the two other men with whom he has constituted the Big Three, namely Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. As a result, he can now legitimately claim to be the Big or Biggest One.

But the concept of the GOAT goes back beyond even Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. Here in chronological order are the four men who could legitimately claim to be the best male player ever before Novak proved that he was.

1.ROY EMERSON (Australia): Total Majors Won: 12; GOAT from 1967 to 2000

There is a huge irony in Roy Emerson having once been considered the GOAT, because many would argue that he wasn’t even the greatest player of his generation, let alone of all time. That was because Emerson was a contemporary of Rod Laver. Unlike Laver, who was banned from playing at the Majors between his two Calendar Grand Slams of 1962 and 1968 for turning professional after the first of them, Emerson remained an amateur until tennis itself finally became fully professional in 1968.  And he clearly benefited from not having to compete with Laver at the Majors throughout most of the 1960s. Indeed, it is extremely doubtful that he would have won as many as 12 Major singles titles if he had had to compete with “Rocket Rod” for most of them.

When tennis entered the Open Era in 1968, it was thought that Emerson’s record would soon be overtaken, especially when Laver made up for all that lost time by winning his second Calendar Grand Slam in 1969. Remarkably, however, he never won another Major after 1969 and “only” ended up with 11 Major victories. So did Bjorn Borg, who also looked certain to eclipse Emerson’s record until he retired at the extraordinarily early age of 26. Consequently, Emerson held the title of GOAT for more than three decades after he retired, until another champion for the ages overtook him in the new millennium.

  1. Pete Sampras (USA): Total Majors Won: 14; GOAT from 2000 to 2009

“Pistol Pete”, as he was known, is the only man to have been the GOAT who did not achieve the Career Grand Slam of winning all four Majors. His serve-volley game was uniquely suited to hard court and particularly grass, as demonstrated by the five US Opens and seven Wimbledons that he won. However, he never got over the line at Roland Garros, with his best achievement in Paris being the semifinal he reached in 1996, where he lost to Russia’s Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the eventual winner that year.

Sampras’s inability to conquer clay is the biggest argument against his being considered the GOAT, especially as all his other rivals for the title did win the French Open. However, Sampras can legitimately claim to be the GOATOG – the GOAT on grass. That was because he dominated Wimbledon to such an extent in the 1990s that he had no real rival at the tournament throughout that decade. It was only when Sampras finally began to age and near the end of his career that another great grass-court player emerged, namely Roger Federer, who would defeat him at Wimbledon in the fourth-round in 2001 and go on to succeed him as the GOAT.

  1. Roger Federer (Switzerland): Total Majors Won: 20; GOAT from 2009 to 2020

Statistically, Novak Djokovic is now indisputably the GOAT, but FedHeds (the global army of Roger Federer fans) will always argue that stylistically Federer is the GOAT, because no-one has ever played tennis, or arguably any other sport, with such grace, flair and sheer elan. Perhaps Richard Gasquet summed it up perfectly in 2021 when he said, “Novak is the best tennis player ever, but Roger is the greatest tennis player ever”. Typically, it took a Frenchman to suggest that Federer’s feat of being so extraordinarily successful while also being so aesthetically pleasing was possibly even greater than Djokovic’s more metronomic playing style and acquisition of Majors.

Like Sampras, Federer was at his absolute best on grass and hardcourt, and statistically he is the GOATOG – the GOAT on grass, having won eight Wimbledon singles titles. However, even that last remaining title that Federer and FedHeds can cling to might be taken from him within the next month, with Djokovic now looking set for another serious tilt at a Calendar Slam, which of course would encompass a record-equalling eighth Wimbledon title.

  1. Rafael Nadal (Spain): Total Majors Won: 22; GOAT from 2022 to 2023

Rafael Nadal’s reign as the GOAT is the shortest of all the men on this list. Indeed, it lasted for only about 18 months, from his Australian Open victory in 2022, when he won a 21st Major to break the three-way tie with Federer and Djokovic on 20 Majors, through to Djokovic’s victory in Paris over the weekend. However, the one title that Nadal will almost certainly hold forever is GAUTOC – GOAT on clay. His total of 14 victories at Roland Garros is the greatest by any tennis player, male or female, at any of the four Majors and unless Djokovic can defy time and injury for at least four more years, such that he can try to win 14 (or more) Australian Opens, it is unlikely ever to be overtaken.

Of course Nadal was not just a supreme clay-court player, as evidenced by his winning the other three Majors at least twice each. Indeed, for a brief period, he was probably the best grass-court player in the world, winning Wimbledon in 2008 (when he ended Federer’s long reign in SW19) and again in 2010, and he might have made it a hat-trick of titles if injury had not prevented him from competing in 2009. And it is always worth remembering that of all these GOATs, past and present, none of them have ever had to contend with the seemingly endless succession of injuries that Nadal has throughout his career. Given his relatively fragile physique, at least in comparison to those of Federer and Djokovic, it was something of a miracle that he won even one Major, let alone 22.

  1. NOVAK DJOKOVIC (Serbia): Total Majors Won: 23; GOAT from 2023 to….?

Djokovic may only just have become the GOAT, but it is very likely, barring an incredible resurrection in fitness and form by Nadal (who has already said that he plans to retire from tennis next year), that he will hold the title for the longest that anyone has held it since Emerson, and may well go on to hold it for even longer. That is because, other than Nadal, no other man currently playing has more than a single Major to their name. Consequently, even if Carlos Alcaraz fulfils his seemingly boundless potential, he will still be extremely hard-pressed to get close to Djokovic’s total over the next 10 to 15 years, let alone overtake it.

And of course Djokovic is not done yet – far from it, in fact. In winning Roland Garros again, for the third time, he remains on course for the Calendar Slam himself, which he came so close to winning in 2021. It is hard to see beyond him at Wimbledon, given the lack of grass-court experience of Alcaraz and other possible contenders. So, assuming that he wins Wimbledon again this year, to equal Federer’s record of eight men’s singles titles there, he will go to New York in August with the chance not only to complete the Calendar Slam but to become the first tennis player of either gender to win a quarter-century of Singles titles. And given his voracious appetite for Majors, it is certainly not beyond him.

Main photo credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports


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