Tennis: Who is the men’s GOAT?

Roger Federer? Rafael Nadal? Novak Djokovic? Bjorn Borg? Or Rod Laver? We may all have a favourite men's tennis player of all time but what are the parameters you feel decide this eternal debate? We take a look at the records, most successful players and stats.

4 min By Jo Gunston l Created 20 September
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal
(Picture by AFP or licensors)

The greatest male tennis player of all time? A contentious issue but it could be the simplest of responses – the man with the most Grand Slams.

If that’s the case, then that’d be Rafael Nadal, who currently sits atop the Grand Slam-winning table with 22. The Spaniard won two Grand Slams in the 2022 season to take him one ahead of Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and two ahead of Roger Federer.

The Swiss grass-court specialist retires from top level tennis this weekend following the Laver Cup in London – a Ryder Cup-style Europe vs USA event in which Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Britain's Andy Murray are taking part – but Djokovic and Nadal are still active players so next season could see a change. But as of right now, it’s Nadal who surveys the tennis arena.

But is it that simple or are there other parameters in which GOAT-ness can be measured?

READ: Roger Federer: How his greatest loves collided at the Sydney 2000 Olympics

Another level

How about most weeks at World number one?

That measurement would crown Djokovic, with a massive 373 weeks at the top of the ATP singles rankings, a huge gap of 63 ahead of next best Federer.

USA’s Pete Sampras (286), Ivan Lendl from the former Czechoslovakia (270) and Sampras’ compatriot Jimmy Connors on 268 make up the top five in this category.

Or is performing consistently at the highest level the ultimate gauge? Federer spent 237 consecutive weeks at World number one, consistently topping the table in an era of quite frankly ridiculous levels of tennis including other potential GOATs, Nadal and Djokovic. Connors has the next best figure at 160 between 1974 and 1977.

Series winners

Only one player has achieved the holy grail of tennis – the calendar year Grand Slam. Australian Rod Laver won all four majors in the Open era – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open – in 1969, and it is a nod to this achievement that this weekend’s Laver Cup has been named.

Other achievements in this category include Djokovic being the only male player to achieve a non-calendar year Grand Slam – from 2015 Wimbledon to the 2016 French Open.

Djokovic and Nadal have claimed two career Grand Slams each, while Laver, Federer and Andre Agassi (USA) have achieved one each.

Agassi and Nadal are also the only two players to have achieved a Career Golden Slam, which includes the four majors plus Olympic gold (tennis has only been part of the Summer Games since 1988).

Early days

Some earlier era players didn’t travel to the Australian Open due to the remoteness of the major until 1983 when Lendl, John McEnroe (USA) and Mats Wilander (Sweden) entered the tournament, moving the major into a different era and an additional Grand Slam players could add to their tally.

So, bearing this in mind, would percentage of Grand Slam matches won be a better indicator of GOAT-worthy-ness?

In this case, the great Swede, Bjorn Borg, a Wimbledon favourite and early retiree at 26 would lead the way, playing 141 matches and losing just 17, a win-loss percentage of 89.2%.

Nadal, meanwhile, lost just 42 out of 313 Grand Slam matches, to leave him on 88.2% with Djokovic (87.7%), Federer (86.0%) and Sampras (84.2%, 203-238) the next best three.

Bjorn Borg Sweden tennis
Bjorn Borg Sweden tennis (2015 Getty Images)

Peer to peer

Maybe the best-of-all-time accolade goes to the one who appears most on these lists, or the one who has the best combination of successes? Or even the one voted by his contemporaries as the best ever?

Federer certainly has a number of 'GOAT' accolades from his peers and beyond following his retirement announcement with the likes of fellow recent retiree and 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams describing the Swiss maestro as the GOAT.

What about the most rounded player? The one who has a relatively even spread of Grand Slam wins on the different surfaces?

Djokovic would arguably lead this category, claiming nine Australian Open titles, two French Open, seven Wimbledon and three US Open to Nadal's two, 14, two and four, respectively, and Federer's six, one, eight and five.

So would this put Djokovic on top of the pile?

Ultimately, the answer for any of us depends on the parameters we individually feel defines the best of all time.

So, who do you feel is the GOAT of men’s tennis?

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