Is Federer now the G.O.A.T?

June 9, 2009


We’ve heard what some of the great and good of tennis have said about Roger Federer’s achievements but can we now rank him as the best player ever to have picked up a racket? Here, Ossian Shine considers the arguments, while in the post below Miles Evans urges a spot of caution.

At first it looked as though the world’s tennis pundits were bickering about whether or not Roger Federer was a herbivorous bovid.

But what in fact was grabbing their goat was whether or not the Swiss phenomenon was the GOAT – or Greatest Of All Time.

The argument is likely to rage for years, or at least unless Federer grabs so many grand slam singles titles that he kills off the claim of his own hero Rod Laver.

Federer now sits level with Pete Sampras on a record 14 major singles wins, but pips the American in the GOAT stakes by virtue of the fact that Federer has won all four grand slam titles — Australian, French and U.S. Opens, plus Wimbledon — whereas Sampras never conquered Paris.

Despite all the froth this sort of argument excites, Federer refuses to get caught up in it.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever know who is the greatest of all-time, but I’m very proud to be up there. How well did I do? Good, great, very great or medium, I don’t know. It’s for others to decide,” is his level-headed approach.

Aside from Federer, the player with the greatest claim to the GOAT title is perhaps Rod Laver who won three fewer grand slam singles crowns than Federer and Sampras, but whose 11 came in a career interrupted by his decision to turn professional in an era when tennis was an amateur sport.

Laver himself says he does not believe in such a title and that it is not possible to compare different eras. His fans, however, point to the fact that Laver won calendar grand slams (all four majors in a season) twice — in 1962 as an amateur and in 1969 as a pro.

Eight times grand slam champion Ivan Lendl’s solution is to agree that Laver was the best of the amateur era and that Federer is the best of the professional players.

But even that is not enough for some pundits who ask how can Federer lay claim to being the best tennis player of all time when he has not been the world’s best player for the past year and seems incapable of bettering current world number one Rafael Nadal.

That point would seem to be a spurious one, however. Every great champion reaches his peak and faces a slow decline as younger, faster, fitter players emerge. That should not be allowed to tarnish his achievements.

Interestingly, one very distinct voice refusing to cite Federer’s record against Nadal as a chink in his armour is the Spaniard himself.

PHOTO: Switzerland’s Roger Federer holds each of his 14 Grand Slam tennis trophies in this combination image from file photos. (From bottom R to top L) Wimbledon 2003, Australia 2004, Wimbledon 2004, U.S. 2004, Wimbledon 2005, U.S. 2005, Australia 2006, Wimbledon 2006, U.S. 2006, Australia 2007, Wimbledon 2007, U.S. 2007, U.S. 2008, French 2009. REUTERS/Staff/Files


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He is absolutely my hero. He has accomplished so many unbelievables. He’s been hanging in there for so long. However, you cannot call the world #2 the greatest of all-time. He’s been beaten by Nadal so many times (their last three majors).

Posted by Yifan | Report as abusive

Get out of it, Yifan! Richard Krajicek won six of the 10 matches he and Pete Sampras played… does that negate Sampras’s claims to be the best? Of course not… even the GREATEST OF ALL TIME can have a bogeyman… that’s just the nature of sport…

Posted by Ossian Shine | Report as abusive

Let us start by agreeing that it is difficult to compare people who have not played against one another, especially, of different eras with differing technology, surfaces, etc. And if you go back far in time, you will also not find someone who has actually seen both the players playing. I have actually seen from the Laver times till now, so I will only look at the last 50 years. Right at the top you have three people: Federer, Laver and Sampras: few would argue on this. Federer (already) pips Sampras thanks to his immensely superior clay court record. Laver could have won more titles but then when he won in 1962, he did not have to compete against the then best players like Rosewall, Ganzales and Hoad who had already turned professional. No one considers Emerson as the best despite his majors because he won during a period when the best did not compete in the majors. Differences in playing surfaces, the racket technology that makes ordinary players fantasatic these days, all mean that winning now is tougher. The fact that Federer has poor record against Nadal is easily explained: Federer as the second best clay player regularly reaches clay finals and get beaten by Nadal. Nadal however is not the second best hardcourt or grass player and only occasionally reaches the final. As he and Federer have been the 1st or 2nd seed, unless Nadal also reaches a final they do not meet. Funny as it may sound, if Federer has been a terrible clay court player, he will have had a much better head to head recond. As for his record against Murray, any great player at the end of his career has a poor record against new comers. On balance, as of now, Federer and Laver are probably the best two: in 2 or 3 years, if Federer scores even more majors, it will be difficult not to agree he was the best ever.

Posted by Natarajan | Report as abusive

I agree with most things said by Natarajan. Apart from rackets making ordinary players fantastic. No, in my opinion the level of tennis has just been rising all the time. Just think of those non-existent backhands (e.g. McEnroe:), those incredible weak second serves, the physical condition of the players and the movement on court, everything’s getting more competitive. I can’t talk about Laver, haven’t seen him play. But the best player i’ve watched is either Federer or Nadal, they are both incredible in their technics, tactics, mental and physical strenght.
GOAT discussions are superfluous I think. The comment by Yifan is funny though :)… Being excluded by being #2 pretty much excludes every contender from discussion I guess :)

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Mike – I have to take issue with your comment about McEnroe’s backhand. Non-existent?! He could hit it with top spin or slice with very little effort, in fact, it was much better than his forehand in terms of technique. I think Federer has a good argument to be the best of all time, but I’d like to re-examine the argument once Nadal’s career is over. What if Nadal wins the US Open this year (his main goal for 2009) and completes his own career slam?

Posted by Simon | Report as abusive

Simon, I will admit to exaggeration with respect to Johnny Mac… Slightly off-topic: The first guy on my mind was Marc Rosset who was top ten and won the olympics with a backhand that in fact is non-existent. Then Thomas Muster who was world number one with a mediocre backhand at best. Then I thought of Mac, with that backhand swing that rarely passes his shoulder. He never gets much top spin with it either (even with the new equipment). His forehand is not much nicer to watch but he could put more into it. He was still a great player, his touch and his reactions at the net were incredible. Perhaps the other players did have a weaker backhand however. Ivanisevic would be part of that group, too.
If Nadal completes his own career slam, he will still have to win more majors, be number one for a longer time, but he’s definitely up there with Federer. I hope he’ll stay healthy so we can see many more duels between those two. Like AO 2009: rE

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

1. Regarding Laver. In Laver’s day, tennis was nothing like the competitive international game it is today. Remember that 9 of Laver’s 11 Grand Slam final wins were against Australians! Federer’s 14 final wins have come against men from 9 different countries (Australia, Russia, USA, Cyprus, Spain, Chile, Serbia, Britain, and Sweden.)

2. Regarding Nadal. It’s all quite simple really. First, off clay Federer is ahead 5-4, and clay is not so important in the analysis; clay has always been the domain of specialists. Second, because Nadal has been in the top #2 for so long (and for most of that time on account of his exceptional clay court play), he has only met Roger in finals, except at the Masters Cup, where they have been able to meet in the semis. This means that the only time that Roger gets to play Nadal off clay is when Nadal is in hot form. On the other hand, Roger has a habit of making finals even when he is below his best, so Nadal doesn’t always have to face the best version of Roger. (Wimbledon 2008 is the best example.)

Posted by Tommy | Report as abusive

Of course it’s impossible to compare players from different eras but some things never change and winning all four grand slam titles in the same year will always remain the ultimate achievement in tennis. To do it once is amazing, to do it twice beggers disbelief, so in that regard Rod Laver stands alone at the top. He played during a golden era and beat some of the sport’s finest players. The fact they were Australians is meaningless. That’s like saying most of Rafa Nadal’s grand slam wins were against Swiss! The debate over who is the best since Laver is complex and should not be decided just by the number of grand slam titles but Federer and Pete Sampras still present the most compelling cases. Federer is a superior clay-courter but Sampras faced much tougher opposition on grass and hard courts, including Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier and Goran Ivanisevic. It is no fault of Federer’s that his career took off at a time when there was no great challenger to him and Rafa Nadal, who is five years younger than the Swiss, was only just starting out. Nadal won six grand slam titles on three different surfaces at the same age Federer had won just one but has since replaced him as the world’s number one ranked player. Is this whole debate premature?

Posted by JL | Report as abusive

Does it matter if a player wins titles in different calendar years? It’s the way a player plays and his integrity that counts. Federer appears upright and anally pure toward his sport. I’ve never seen Laver play but apparently he had a huge muscular arm. One might question how it came to be in an era lacking proper PED testing. In this era one may question the controversy regarding a popular player who is currently the only player filing a lawsuit toward the WADA. IMO Federer has 3 calendar GS’s.

Posted by nada | Report as abusive

re: “you cannot call the world #2 the greatest of all-time” comments… Pete Sampras won his final and record-breaking 14th grand slam at the 2002 US Open final as 17th seed… rankings have very little bearing on this argument — it is about silverware and titles.

Posted by Ossian Shine | Report as abusive

Let’s not forget Nadal suffers a shoulder injury this time and so he was eliminated by someone else. I still believe Nadal is the best player on clay court and it took Federer more than 7 years to acquire French Open title. Unless Federer had defeated Nadal face-to-face in this year’s French Open, Federer remains G.O.A.T. meaning Grass champ Of All Tournaments.

Posted by Mario | Report as abusive

Absolutely no argument as far as I’m concerned….Federer is the GOAT! Laver’s achievements were fantastic but, let’s face it, he could probably have waltzed through the early rounds of tournaments back then with his hand in his pocket. Federer’s achievments need to be looked at beyond his 14 grand slam wins….He has reached the last four French Open finals and the semi-final before that…each time losing to Nadal, probably the greatest ever claycourt player….he also lost to Kuerten once at Roland Garros who also wasn’t bad on the dirt (3 titles)…
he has reached the semi-finals at least of the the last 22 grand slam tournaments, has an amazing record in Masters Series events, and was world number one for more than four years….dealing with the expectation and pressure that goes with that…But forget the stats, watching the guy hit a tennis ball is sporting perfection and something I will never get bored of…Long live the king!

Posted by martyn | Report as abusive

Grass champ?. And Hardcourt. And Indoor. And now also CLAY !!!!

Yes, Soderling beat Nadal at the French Open this time — but FEDERER beat Nadal ON CLAY in the final of the Madrid tournament a couple of weeks earlier. You can only play the person on the other side of the net.

And you cannot blame injuries or illnesses, either. Federer has won his 14 grand slam titles (with more to come!!!) despite having mononucleosis last year.

Posted by FedFan | Report as abusive

none of these Billies is the GOAT… the only one worthy of title is BillieJean King!!! What a pllayer, and what a stateswoman. Tennis would not be what it is today without her!

Posted by Randy | Report as abusive

Billie Jean King, Navratilova, Graf, Becker, Sampras & Agassi would be above Federer in my list of tennis greats

Posted by bronwen | Report as abusive

I definetly think Federer is the greatest of all time. Apart from winning the career grand slam, the field of players is so much stronger these days than it was before the open-era. I feel that outside of the top-4, anybody can beat anybody. Also, Federer has been so consistant for the past 4 or 5 years on all surfaces, CONSTANTLY reaching the later stages of tournaments and winning them. I think thats what seperates him from all the other players with great achievments. His consitency is second to nobody.
I still also think Federer will go on a bit longer and achieve a few more grand slams.

Posted by Joseph O’Brien | Report as abusive

Just popping to say hi and throw in my tuppence.

1) There is no “greatest of all time”, only “all time greats”. “GOAT” is not a title or a position that can be given like “UN Secretary General”. Conceptually I don’t think it’s possible to be the greatest of all time. Doesn’t exist. Eras can’t be compared. Nor do we know what would happen in the future.
2) Roger Federer is an “all time great”, no doubt about it. As is Sampras and Laver. And maybe Borg and Lendl as “fringe greats” in that category.
3) Even in that category, Roger Federer is a standout, his records are well documented. I don’t need to repeat them. In this sense, he is closer to becoming tennis cattle than those four other players.
4) Even if we were to officially anoint the Fed as the GOAT, you could always run arguments otherwise.
5) If Federer were to win another slam or two (and hell, maybe even more), the anti-GOAT camp will come off as a bunch of sour grapes. Which they do anyway.

Nice to see a discussion going on here. Federer’s win may have sparked a neverending GOAT debate, but it’s only been good for tennis. It’s generated a lot of interest from casual tennis followers. He may or may not be GOAT, but Roger Federer is the greatest contributor to this sport. In that regard I am certain.

Posted by dootsiez | Report as abusive

^ should point out that the above post is strictly limited to men’s tennis. The women would have their own “all time greats”.

Posted by dootsiez | Report as abusive

Well, different strokes for different folks, if you pardon the expression. Different eras come with different opponents, different surfaces and different technology. So it’s hard to compare apples with oranges.

But Federer is definitely right up there with the best.

Posted by Stephen Yeo | Report as abusive

Federer is clearly the GOAT. The Swiss phenomenon dominated tennis in the manner seven-time champion Schumacher did in Formula One in an era where significantly more skills are required to stay on top for that long. Federer may have not got the better of Nadal as much as he would have liked, but that doesn’t take away any of his achievements. SR

Posted by Sanjay | Report as abusive

[…] Abschluss bleibt nur noch die Frage zu stellen: “Is Federer the GOAT? The greatest of all time?” Oder muss er dazu doch erst noch seinen 15. Major-Titel gewinnen? […]

Posted by sportticker » Blog Archive » Wimbledon 2009 – Von einer Bergziege und deutschen Hoffnungen | Report as abusive

What most people seem to forget is that tennis is NOT about winning individual match-ups, but about winning tournaments.

Personally I am not in favour of appointing GOAT’s, but if you really desperately want to, you simply cannot ignore the fact that Federer has collected 15 GS-trophies and IS NO.1 in that regard.

Let’s work out another scenario: Let’s suppose that Federer in all the tournaments he lost against Nadal in stead lost before losing to Nadal in the final or sfof that tournament For example in Wimbledon 2008 he does not make the final, In Roland Garros 2005-08 he loses before the final, etc. That means:

1. His performance objectively is worse
2. He does not lose any match against Nadal

Now suppose that Nadal on the other hand does not lose in all the matches he in reality did lose before meeting Federer. For example: Nadal reaches the final of the US-Open 2008 Because Federer won these tournaments it does not seem to absurd to imagine Nadal in the end losing these finals against Federer.

Nadal objectively has done better in this scenario.


But, Federer would have a winning 13-0 or something like that against Nadal!

In my eyes this proves the absurdity of holding this 13-7 record against Federer. It is an interesting footnote and I do think you can conclude that Federer has problems with playing Nadal, but nothing more than that.

Posted by Eelco | Report as abusive

Never will we be able to set the real GOAT, since rackets, equipment and general conditions do not allow us to compare eras.

to say that Federer would easily beat Laver is exactly the same as saying that Bush would anhiliate Napoleon´s army corps with the help of a couple of divisions plus all the satellites, non piloted air plans, nuclear submarines and so on.Would this mean that Bush – or whichever other president for that matter, I do not want to personalize- is a greater strategic mind , a greater imperator thatn Napoleon?

I use this stupid example to visualize that it is not possible to compare.Let´s just see tennis as one of the most entertaining activities that mnkind ever invented.

Lest´s say that, going by this criteria we will say our goat is the one we enjoyd most watching.Here is my list:

3/Mc Enroe

Posted by scanlon | Report as abusive

Interesting list, Scanlon. So you don’t even pick Federer in your top 10? Explain THAT one. . .

Posted by SportsFan | Report as abusive

Oh yeah¡¡ I just forgot about him.I could put him 11, Cash 12,Becker 13, Rosewall 14 Gerulaitis 15 and Panatta 16 and this would be my seeded players for the
” Most Spectacular tennis Player All round “

Posted by tulasne | Report as abusive

Okay, Federer squeezed in between 10th-placed Lendl and 12th-placed Pat Cash (who has one grand slam title to his name, by the way).

Now i KNOW you are smoking something, guys.

We aren’t talking about entertainers here, or showmen (if we were, Lendl wouldn’t make even the top 1,000) but about The Greatest.

In which case, how do you even mention in the same BREATH as Cash, Gerulaitis and Panatta? Federer won more grand slams in 18 months than all three of these combined in their entire careers… this is just CRAZYTALK!

Posted by SportsFan | Report as abusive

able-bodied, dissimilar strokes for diverse people if I can. At poles apart times, differentopponents, different textures and different technologies. It is therefore difficult tocompare apples with pears. other than Federer is the most excellent there.


Posted by margiewhite123 | Report as abusive