Can you be the best tennis player ever if another player beats you six times in eight Grand Slam finals matches?
It’s an open question.
Roger Federer has won 16 Grand Slam titles, two more than anyone else. But Rafael Nadal, four years Federer’s junior, has 10 titles of his own and has been winning them at a near-Federer pace. (Roger had 11 Grand Slams when he was Rafa’s age.) Perhaps more importantly, Nadal boasts a 6-2 record against his elder rival in championship matches of the most prestigious tournaments.
The sixth win came yesterday in the French Open final. It was the fourth time in six years that Nadal beat Federer to win a title at Roland Garros. When Federer was up a break in the first and appeared to be in control of the match, I was preparing my superlatives: beating Nadal in Paris is the one thing that Federer hasn’t done. When Rafa took over and won the match in four sets, I had to rethink the two players’ places in history.
Can one make a case that Rafael Nadal is, or will be, the greatest tennis player ever?
At the age of 25, he already has more Grand Slam titles than Agassi, Lendl, and McEnroe and more than Guillermo Vilas, Arthur Ashe, and Ilie Nastase combined. He has an Olympic Gold Medal and is one of four players in the Open Era to have won a career Grand Slam.
We are blessed to be living at a time when we can watch two terrific tennis players, each of whom could make a convincing argument that he is the greatest of all time. But the GOAT conversation doesn’t start and end with Federer and Nadal. It’s quite possible that the best tennis player ever isn’t from Switzerland or Spain, but from Illinois, right across the river from St. Louis. That’s where James Scott Connors was born in 1952.
Two years ago ESPN Page 2 columnist David Schoenfield made the GOAT case for Jimmy Connors. At the time, I thought the idea was absurd.
Schoenfield used a points system, awarding 5 points for a Grand Slam title, 3 for a win over one of 11 all-time greats in a Grand Slam final, 2 for a loss in a Grand Slam final, 1 for a loss in a semi-final, 1 for every 10 wins in Grand Slam tournaments, 1 for each year that the player reached a Grand Slam semi-final, 5 points for finishing a year ranked #1, 4 points for #2, 3 points for #3, and 15 points for a career Grand Slam. Using this formula, Connors was #1 all time, followed by Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, and Roger Federer.
There was nothing scientific about Schoenfield’s system, and I wondered if he had created point values that would give him the result he was looking for.
(If Schoenfield was guilty of creating a system that would produce a desired result, I don’t judge him for doing so. Eleven years ago, my friends and I founded the Indiana Tennis League, which consisted of 11 twenty-somethings playing pick-up matches at high schools and public parks. I was responsible for one of the two computer ranking systems that we used. After I’d seen enough matches to have a good idea of who was better than whom, I started tweaking my formula so that the rankings would look the way I thought they should. That formula changed at least three times during the summer of 2000.)
Using Schoenfield’s point system now, Federer (who was #4 when the article was written) has climbed to #1 with 190 points, ahead of Connors (171) and Sampras (169). Nadal (who was #11 two year ago) has risen to #6 with 136 points, behind Lendl (160) and Agassi (143), but ahead of Borg (127) and McEnroe (125).
So Schoenfield’s argument has been defeated by the formula he used to support it. (In Schoenfield’s defense, he predicted that such a thing would happen.)
But after doing some research (mostly on Wikipedia), I’ve decided that Schoenfield’s best-ever case for Connors wasn’t absurd then and isn’t now.
I understand that Federer (16) and Nadal (10) and Rod Laver (don’t forget Rod Laver) all have more Grand Slam titles than Connors, and that Federer, Nadal, and Laver have a career Grand Slams on their résumé while Connors does not. (Laver won all 4 Slams in 1969.) If professional tennis were nothing but the four major tournaments, there would be no argument: Federer would be the greatest of the Open Era and Connors would be fighting with Sampras, Nadal, Agassi, and Borg for spot in the top 5. (Much of Laver’s success predates the Open Era.)
But tennis isn’t just Grand Slams. The ATP oversees the World Tour Finals, 9 Masters 1000 tournaments, 11 500 Series tournaments, and 40 250 Series tournaments. Aside from points for year-end rankings, Schoenfield’s formula takes none of these events into consideration. While your average 500 Series tournament doesn’t have nearly the collection of talent that you’d find at Wimbledon, plenty of good tennis is played at second- and third-tier events. So far this year the Masters 1000 has seen four championship matches between Nadal and #2 Novak Djokovic (with Djokovic winning all four) and one between Nadal and #6 David Ferrer. This season’s 500 Series has included championship matches between Djokovic and Federer and Nadal and Ferrer.
(The Masters 1000, 500 Series, and 250 Series are names for tours that have been established since Connors played. During his career the ATP had the Grand Prix Championship Series, Grand Prix Super Series, and Grand Prix Regular Series.)
No one has had as much success in these tour events as Jimmy Connors. Connors won 109 ATP tournaments. By comparison, Federer has won 67 (#4 all-time), McEnroe won 77 (#3), Sampras won 64 (#5), and Agassi won 60 (#8). Ivan Lendl is second all-time with 94. Nadal has 46.
Connors’ record number of 109 singles titles may never be surpassed, and he won another 40 tournament championships that aren’t recognized by the ATP.
All told, Connors won 1,242 ATP-recognized matches in his career. That’s the most ever and 171 more than second-place Lendl (1,071). Federer currently has 777. Connors’ winning percentage in ATP events is third all-time, behind Nadal and Borg and slightly ahead of McEnroe and Federer.
While Sampras and Agassi impressed us by playing at a high level well after the sport’s conventional wisdom said they should be over the hill, Connors’ longevity is even more impressive. Connors ended 14 seasons ranked in the ATP top 4 and 16 seasons in the top 10. In 1991 at age 39 (that’s 93 in tennis years) and coming off of wrist surgery and a season in which he only played three tournament matches, Connors advanced to the US Open semi-finals.
Image source: Krakov.net
If you don’t buy my argument, maybe you’ll listen to a guy named Flippo Raddichi. Earlier this year, Raddichi, a post doc physicist and statistician at Northwestern released a study based on 43 years of ATP data showing that Connors was the greatest player of all time.
The Yahoo! article about the study says little about the formula that Radicchi used to arrive at the conclusion that Connors was the best ever (and that Federer is 7th and Nadal 24th). But Radicchi explains, “In this particular ranking system, it’s more important to win a single match against a very good player than many matches against not-so-good players.” Connors, for his part, played against plenty of very good players: Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, and Nastase all peaked during the years that Connors was winning Grand Slams, and Ken Rosewell was still playing at a very high level when Connors came onto the scene.
Radicchi’s study supports my case for Jimmy Connors, but I have trouble taking seriously any all-time ranking system that puts Rafa 24th, behind (among others) Michael Chang (16) and Goran Ivanisevic (22). And I say that as someone who counts Chang and Ivanisevic among my all-time favorites. While I have faith that one can create an algorithm that adequately compares schedule strength and quality wins among contemporaries, I’m skeptical that any algorithm can do the same across generations.
One knock against Connors is that he never won at Roland Garros. In 1974 Connors won 15 tournaments in all (a record at the time), including the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, the latter two in straight sets. That year, the ATP and French Open officials barred Connors from playing in the French Open because he’d signed a contract to play World Team Tennis. (The Roland Garros power brokers didn’t like WTT because they were afraid it would interfere with the summer tournament season.) 1974 might have been Connors’ best chance in win in Paris, but unlike Sampras, who never won a Grand Slam championship on clay, Connors won the US Open in 1976, when the Open was played on clay courts at Forest Hills.
Do I think that Jimmy Connors is the greatest tennis player ever? I think he belongs in the conversation. (Also in that conversation: Federer, Nadal, and Rod Laver. If you want to make a case for Sampras, Lendl, or Agassi, I’ll listen.) Connors has set records that may never be broken. And when you consider all of his matches—not just those played in Melbourne, Paris, Wimbledon, and New York—you’ll see that there’s no one quite like him.
Correction: Federer had only won 9 Grand Slams, not 11, when he was Nadal’s age (not quite 26). So Rafa is ahead of Federer’s pace. I apologize for the error.
Correction #2: Nadal is 25 years and 3 days old. When Roger Federer was 25-years-and-3-days old, on August 11, 2006, he had won 8 Slams. Shortly thereafter he won his ninth, the 2006 US Open.
Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley or send him an e-mail.