Roger Federer won his first French Open yesterday, dispatching of Robin Soderling in straight sets, 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4. With his now 14th Grand Slam title, Federer has tied Pete Sampras’ record for the number of all time grand slam victories and the clamor anointing Federer as the best tennis player ever is growing louder and louder. The clamor was pretty loud already, but by getting the proverbial monkey off his back by capturing the elusive French Open, the clamor is at a fever pitch.
In trying to assess Federer’s candidacy for greatest of all time, my primary criteria would include the following factors:
- Performance in Grand Slams
- Level of Dominance during his era
- All around performance (Grass, Hard-court, Clay)
Luckily, there is a fair amount of data available on wikipedia and the ATP web-site which I used to evaluate the top players since the mid seventies across metrics related to the criteria above. Of course, players like Rod Laver and Bill Tilden usually will come in the conversation about best player ever, however, since they played pre-dominantly before the open era and a full set of statistics are not readily available for their careers, I’ve left them out of this analysis.
For 12 top players, I’ve selected key metrics for the above criteria to compare the players.
The players (listed in order of most to least recent career start date)
- Rafael Nadal
- Roger Federer
- Andre Agassi
- Pete Sampras
- Jim Courier
- Boris Becker
- Stefan Edberg
- Mats Wilander
- Ivan Lendl
- John McEnroe
- Jimmy Connors
- Bjorn Borg
The key comparison metrics for each criteria
- Performance in Grand Slams
- % of Grand Slams Entered won (Champion)
- Number of Grand Slam Titles
- Level of Dominance during his era
- % of Career Ranked # 1
- All Around Performance (Grass, Hard-Court, Clay)
- # of Grand Slam Titles by Tournament
- Career Grand Slam Achievement
- # of weeks as # 1 Ranked Player
Following are charts for Top 5 players in each key metric over their career (for still active players Nadal and Federer, it is through June 7, 2009)
- Borg had a remarkable career winning 41% of the Grand Slams he entered. Of course, he may have been helped out by the fact he only played in 2 Australian Opens during his 9 year come back (excluding his brief come back in the early nineties).
- Federer is next at 35% and has ample opportunity to gain ground or more likely lose ground given the current state of his competition with Nadal and his advancing age.
- Of note, Nadal at a very high rate of 27% this early in his career.
- Federer’s 41% of his career as the #1 player edges, Sampras’ 39%. Again, Lendl is right near the top at 32%.
Legend: GS- All Grand Slams, A- Australian, F- French, W- Wimbledon, U- US
- Federer and Sampras have 14 Grand Slam titles each, but only Federer has the career Grand Slam with this week’s French. The French alluded Sampras in his 13 attempts.
- The only other player with a career Grand Slam was Agassi.
- Borg won 11 titles in a 9 year career, but never won the Australian or US Open.
- Sampras’ 286 weeks is the class here; Federer at 237 weeks is within shouting distance if he can once again take the # 1 ranking and de-throne Nadal. With Nadal’s current injury challenges, that may happen sooner than we think.
- The often overlooked Lendl is second at 270 weeks.
The full set of data for the 12 players reviewed is shown below.
|Career||Ranking||All||Grand Slams||Australian Open||French Open||Wimble
|Weeks @ # 1||% of Career @ # 1||% of Grand Slams Entered Won||Winning % at All Grand Slams||# of Titles||# of Titles||# of Titles||# of Titles|
At this point in his career, I would say Federer statistically is the best of the last 40 years (again leaving out Laver and others which pre-dates my analysis). This is fully based on statistical review and isn’t considering who had the best natural talent, which era had the best competitive environment and which had the least competitive field, and other factors beyond the actual final results. But based on the numbers, Federer would be the best as of today because:
- He’s tied Sampras for the most career grand slams at 14.
- Unlike Sampras, he’s now won the French Open and has a career Grand Slam which Sampras wasn’t able to achieve
- He’s also spent 41% of his career at # 1, more than any other player (but there is a big if with this one…..)
- He’s near Sampras’ record of 286 consecutive weeks as # 1, at # 3 at 237 weeks, with some additional time to catch up.
Now the big ifs— Federer has more time left in his career and likely many more battles with Nadal. Nadal at such a young age of 23, already has 6 grand slam titles and only needs a US Open title to get his own career Grand Slam. The competition between Nadal and Federer may definitely reduce the % of his career as the number 1 player in the world by the time his career is over.
When it is all said and done, I expect that Nadal will be considered the best of all time, with ample opportunity to catch Federer in total number of grand slams, get his own personal career grand slam, and even challenge for the longest period of weeks ranked # 1 in the world. (See more on the Federer-Nadal rivalry here in my earlier posting about sports rivalries).
Now looking at this data, if I rank my Top 5 of the last 40 years (as of today), I’d go:
- Federer— for reasons listed above
- Sampras- Grand Slam excellence, time at # 1, absence of career grand slam keeps him from # 1
- Borg- absolute domination at Wimbledon and French, winning 93% and 96% of his matches at those tournaments during has career and 41% of all grand slams he entered. Lack of longevity and performance in US open and Australian Open brings him down.
- Lendl- Long periods at # 1 during his career (32% and 270 consecutive weeks), 8 career grand slams, multiple time grand slam champion of each tournament but Wimbledon.
- Nadal- in short period of time, already 6 grand slam titles, won 86% of his grand slam matches which is only exceeded by Borg and Federer.
Again, with the caveats that Federer and Nadal have plenty of time to alter the course of their current trajectory, up or down. But as of today, Roger Federer is the best men’s tennis player of the last 40 years and I’d go as far as to say the best of all time.
Update June 23, 2009: In the original write-up above, I stated that I believed that Nadal would eventually end-up being greatest of all time. However, after doing further analysis on top players careers by age group (see posting here), I no longer believe Nadal will achieve that title. I believe Federer will continue to be GOAT (Greatest of All Time) even after Nadal retires.
Update July 5, 2009: Today, Roger Federer defeated Andy Roddick in the final of Wimbledon, another 5 set marathon including a 16-14 fifth set, only unlike last year, this year against Nadal, Federer was victorious, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14. With this victory, Federer stands alone with 15 Grand Slam titals, breaking his tie with Sampras, and further cementing his status as best of all time.