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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Sep 15, 2010

9/15/2010 1:00:00 PM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Archive |

Good God, the GOAT question.

It didn’t just kick off at 10:02 pm Monday night. Before Rafael Nadal had even set foot on Arthur Ashe this year, the debate was already in full swing. If he were to win the US Open and complete the Career Slam, could Rafa be considered the Greatest of All Time?

The GOAT debate has the rare quality to be both pointless (comparing players in different eras is about as nonsensical and time-wasting to me as getting my palm read by a Bullmastiff) and tasty: in this case, we’re not talking about players in different eras. These guys are contemporaries, facing the same competition. Facing each other. All one need do is look at the stats. 

And are people ever looking.

But why?

Sure, there are those who feel it’s newsworthy. How can you not talk about it? Still others who love nothing more than to throw back a few beers (or pina coladas – we don’t judge here), whip out their stats and measure them against their buddies’ over a few laughs and a roaring jukebox. Roger! Rafa! Roger! Rafa! 

Who's the G.O.A.T?

But there are more than a fair share who attack the GOAT question with unbridled ferocity for the sole purpose of putting down and diminishing the accomplishments of the opposing player.

And that’s obnoxious.

Not only is it obnoxious, it’s not fair.  Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have both accomplished staggering feats in their lifetimes, and they’re responsible for more ooohs and aaahs over the years than a thousand trips to Six Flags. For so many people, they ARE tennis. They’ve each made an indelible mark on the sport, and sports in general. Trying to knock either is like wearing a sandwich board that says “I don’t know nuthin about tennis,” and ringing a really loud bell. 

Simply put, in debating history, you can’t rewrite it.

Still, stats are stats. So let’s look at them. In this corner, Roger Federer. 16 major singles titles.  285 weeks at No 1. In this corner, Rafael Nadal. 9 major titles. 3 Davis Cup titles. Olympic gold. And the most pointed-to stat: a 14-7 head-to-head against Federer.

Let’s also compare where Rafa is compared to Roger at this age.  What do we find? Nadal’s won more matches (460 to Roger’s 390), and lost fewer (98 to Roger’s 119). He won more titles (42 to Roger’s 33) and more Grand Slams (9 to Roger’s 6). He also got to that Career Slam 3 years sooner.

If we’re looking for quality over quantity – a more complete resume - these are some seriously strong arguments for the Spaniard. 

But.

16 major titles. 285 weeks at No 1. Even without Davis Cup glory and a gold medal, those are numbers you just can’t deny. Particularly when (apologies to Davis Cup and the Olympics), majors and week-in, week-out consistency is what holds greater weight in the grand scheme.  But what about that H2H?  How on earth can Roger Federer be the greatest of all time when he’s not even the greatest of HIS time? Easy. The GOAT is measured against all players, not just one. And against all players, looking back at what they’ve accomplished over their careers, Roger has had more success.

You know who agrees with me?  Rafa. When asked about Federer on Monday night, just as he was bathing in his Career Slam awesomeness, he said: "The talk about if I am better or worse than Roger is stupid, because the titles say he's much better than me.  That's true at that moment."

It’s not false modesty. He’s absolutely right. And the truth is, Rafa’s achieved what he’s achieved because he doesn’t allow himself to get swept up in the pomp. Pomp says he’s The Man, that he’s all that and a bag of Quelys. Rafa don’t play that. Rafa’s also a student of the game. It’s his respect for tennis - not some compulsive deference for a rival - that tells him he can’t be so cavalierly dismissive of Federer’s kind of unparalleled consistency. And neither can we.

However, he followed up his assertion that Roger is better than him by adding, “I think that will be true all my life.”

This is where we disagree.  Roger being ahead of Rafa right now is reality, but so is the very real possibility that Nadal will indeed catch up to Roger in the quantity department. Is it a given?  Of course not. But how about we enjoy finding out  - and finding out how Federer responds - without tearing down either one of them in the process? 

In the meantime, Nadal’s US Open victory is hot out of the toaster. Let’s just enjoy the damn thing.  The GOAT of ideas.

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Follow James at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.