Who is the greatest tennis player of all time?

So many choices but three players stick out. Who's your Tennis GOAT?

multiple writers
6th November 2020
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Roger Federer

Roger Federer and Tennis are synonymous, let's be honest, when you think of tennis the first player you think of is Roger Federer. The reason for that? He is simply the greatest of all time.

Throughout the big three era, only one player has remained at the top for the duration of the era, Roger Federer. Federer has won a record 20 grand slams (shared with Rafa Nadal) and been world number one for a record 310 weeks. That's 5.9 years as world number one, a feat matched by no one.

While Rafa Nadal's grand slam total is largely amassed from Rolland Garros, Federer has a much more evenly split grand slam total, showing his prowess as the best on numerous courts. Federer has won eight Wimbledon titles, six Australian Opens, five US Open titles, and one French Open in 2009.

No player has won as many grand slam matches as Roger Federer, with him reaching a record 31 Grand Slam finals including a streak of 10 consecutive and another 8 consecutive- the two longest streaks in history. His 103 career titles leave him behind only Jimmy Connors in career titles during the open era. With Federer still going strong at 39, who's to say he won't become the first ever player to reach 110 career titles?

Alongside his success on the court, Roger Federer is a stand out guy off it. Roger Federer has been voted by fellow players on the court to receive the sportsmanship award a record thirteen times, the man oozes class both on and off the court. Federer has also won the ATP Fans Favourite' award a for 17 consecutive years. Some would argue that Federer is bigger than tennis itself, winning the Laureus World Sportsman Award a record six times (in 2020 the award was shared by Lionel Messi and Lewis Hamilton).

Roger Federer transcends sport in a way similar to Micheal Jodrdan, Kobe Bryant and Lionel Messi. He reinvented the game and people thoughts of how tennis could be played, with his play style continousy courted as the most graceful and entertaining. Before Federer, Tennis was struggling to attract interest, Federer helped bring the popularity of the game to new heights. When Federer won the Australian Open in 2004 the prize money was a mere 85,000 AUD compared to 4 million AUD in 2016.

For all these reasons, Roger Federer is clearly the greatest tennis player of all time, no one has impacted the sport as much as he has and despite being past his peak during the majority of the 'big three' era, he has continued to stay at the top of the game and win several grand slams during the period.

Simply the best.

Andrew White

Rafael Nadal

Sceptics would be forgiven for assuming that Nadal’s new-found advocates in the GOAT debate are simply caught up in the afterglow of his recent dismantling of Djokovic at Roland Garros. When the dust settles, Federer’s superiority will become apparent once more, they might reassure themselves.

But the Spaniard’s case is far from flimsy, and neither is it solely based on his utter mastery of clay.

That said, let’s get the obvious out of the way: 13 French Open titles – no player has won more at a single Grand Slam, only four men have ever won more titles across all four Majors, two matches lost in 16 years. A record totally unmatched in tennis history.

Inexplicably, some will use this dominance on clay as a stick to beat Nadal with, in a manner reminiscent of the way “can he do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?” is used to cast doubt on Messi’s greatness.

Fortunately, Rafa has plenty of other stats up his sleeve to dispel such lazy analysis.

The metric which has prompted this debate is of course the 20 Grand Slam titles on which Roger and Rafa are now tied. But considering Nadal has won his 20 titles from a fewer number of finals, in a shorter time period, and in spite of a number of injury spells which robbed him of additional chances, this is not necessarily the equilibrium it first appears.

Rafa also has a better career win percentage than both his rivals – 83.3% compared to Federer’s 82.0% and Djokovic’s 83.2%.

Ah, I hear you say, but aren’t career win percentages misleading because they don’t reflect performance at the highest level?

I’m glad you asked. Because Nadal’s win percentage at Grand Slams is also better that his contemporaries. If that’s not enough, if you only count the most prestigious tournaments (Slams, Olympics, Masters 1000, Tour Finals), the 34 year-old has more titles than Federer (56 to 54), despite the Swiss having more titles overall.

When it comes to the statistics, far from showing us an objective winner, they reflect the values we apply to them. If you value pure quantity of achievements – weeks as World Number 1, overall titles won, Grand Slam finals reached – then Federer’s your man. But if, like me, you value quality over quantity, then it’s hard to deny Nadal’s superiority.

Crucially however, our perspective on such matters is not formed from stats alone. Even the most neutral of onlookers is still compelled more by personalities than by facts and figures.

And it is at this point that Federer fans tentatively take their fingers out of their ears, where they have been firmly lodged whilst inconvenient stats are espoused, and start grinning like Cheshire Cats. Buzzwords such as “gentlemanly”, “artistic”, “graceful”, will customarily be spouted to describe Roger’s undeniable style both on and off the court, which are part of the reason for his widespread acclaim.

Frankly, the gushing praise heaped on him by his most ardent of worshipers can border on the nauseating, but it raises an important question in this debate: to be the greatest, does it matter only what you achieve? Or how you go about achieving it?

I say the former. I say Nadal

Cameron Hume

Novak Djokovic

I’m not gonna lie to you, tennis really isn’t my favourite sport. Don’t get me wrong I love a bit of Wimbledon (who doesn’t?), but I can hardly match up to the level of determination that the previous two writers have for the sport.

That being said, I can admire the tactical side of tennis. As a snooker fan I’ve come to love the slow, tactile parts of the sport, and I can think of no player that’s epitomised this than Novak Djokovic.

He’s won 17 grand slam titles, making him the 3rd highest in history (you can guess the two he’s behind).

And guess where he’s ranked in the world right now? Number 1. I think that’s the argument over, don’t you? Not only that, but he’s held the title for 290 consecutive weeks, and where have Federer and Nadal been? Trailing behind.

I remember being absolutely enthralled in his run to a 5th Wimbledon win last year, which saw him face up against fellow short-lister Roger Federer. His fantastic run of form which saw him go 2 sets a piece in the final showdown and win 13-12 in the final made for unbelievable viewing. 

Just looking at his run of form shows that Djokovic was truly a fine wine just waiting to mature. Over the last few years he’s been unbelievable, and I truly believe that he’ll be fighting for the top against these two giants.

However, the question of ‘Who’s the greatest tennis player’ might not rely on stats about competitions won, world rankings and all that jazz. What about their impact on the sport?

The Novak Djokovic Foundation aims to help impoverished children go to school, play tennis and gain social skills in a supporting and nurturing environment. Since it’s start in 2007 they’ve opened 43 kindergartens and trained 1,500 teachers, aiding those in his beloved Serbia and inspiring people around the world.

He’s also got his wallet out for a number of charitable causes around the world. This year alone he’s donated around £1.165 million to COVID-relief charities, the bushfire relief in Australia and fight-hunger organisations in the US and Brazil.

Something which I think a lot of people might not consider would be age. Federer might be some peoples first choice, but don’t forget he’s a good 5-6 years older than the other two. Djokovic is a giant of the sport, and has a few years to cement himself in tennis folklore as the greatest player to ever grace the court.

If you think that being the greatest tennis player means living by example on and off the court, then Djokovic is your man. 

Tom Moorcroft

Featured Image: Twitter @cnnsport
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