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Is the GOAT of Tennis a Meaningless Competition?


As the Australian Open will be played in Melbourne from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29, it is time to consider an interesting question on Quora that observers of the tennis world will be interested in: “Isn’t the whole GOAT debate in tennis just pointless and a waste of time? Any true tennis fan would not go on about it.”

However, the reality is that whenever a Grand Slam tennis tournament is staged, the big, as yet unanswered, question as to who will be the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) professional tennis player inevitably comes up in the media.

There are three candidates for this accolade: Roger Federer, with 20 Grand Slam victories; Novak Djokovic, with 21 Grand Slam triumphs; and the present record holder, Rafael Nadal, who boasts 22 Grand Slams on his palmarès.

Federer announced his retirement from the sport and, therefore, he is no longer in contention for the GOAT title. This leaves Djokovic and Nadal as the remaining viable combatants.

Djokovic missed two major tournaments last year, the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, because of his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccination. This led commentators to speculate that, if he had been allowed to play, he would already have overtaken Nadal.

Nadal unsuccessfully started his preparation for this year’s Australian Open, losing narrowly in the United Cup against Cameron Norrie (Great Britain) and Alex de Minaur (Australia).

Both players registered their first and, thus far, only victory over Nadal. However, these losses do not mean very much for the Australian Open since this lead-up tournament simply enables Nadal to amass enough playing time to mount a credible challenge to his opponents when defending his title as the reigning champion.

Federer and Nadal
Federer and Nadal
Switzerland’s Roger Federer (R) and Spain’s Rafael Nadal attend a training session ahead of the Laver Cup tennis tournament at the O2 in London on Sept. 22, 2022. (Kin Cheung/AP Photo)

Nadal triumphed in the Australian Open last year in a hotly contested final against Daniil Medvedev in five sets, a match that lasted over five hours.

In contrast, Djokovic won convincingly the matches he played in the Adelaide International tournament. He prevailed at the scintillating final against a surprisingly tenacious Sebastian Korda in three sets—Djokovic’s 92nd tournament win, a phenomenal statistic.

So, these two legendary, talented players, Djokovic and Nadal, will again be the main contenders for the GOAT title.

Time to Pass the Baton to the Newer Generation?

Of course, it is conceivable that neither Djokovic nor Nadal will win the Open because a new generation of players are becoming more prominent and eager to score a Grand Slam victory.

These include Alexander Zverev, Felix Augur Aliassime, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini, Denis Shapovalov, and possibly other contenders.

Both Djokovic and Nadal belong to the older generation: Djokovic is 35, and Nadal is 36. Their unabated and continuing determination to excel at tennis is amazing and deserves to be celebrated by lovers of the sport.

But it may well be pointless to dwell on the GOAT issue, considering that it is difficult to compare players of different eras.

Also, the technology, the provision of medical assistance, nutrition, physiotherapy, equipment, coaching, and tournament formats have changed significantly during the last half-century, making the contest an unrealistic and deficient comparative exercise.

Moreover, it is simplistic to expect that the GOAT will be decided by the greatest number of Grand Slam victories. Indeed, other criteria might or should, be taken into consideration, including a player’s skill, style, and temperament.

If so, Federer might well be deemed to have won the race, even though his competitors are still playing professionally.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
An Australian Open branded tennis ball is seen on court ahead of the 2015 Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 11, 2015. (Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Additionally, it is difficult to evaluate the impact of Djokovic’s removal from Australia last year on his determination to succeed at the Open this year. But the incident may well be an incentive for Djokovic to try to win his tenth Australian Open crown.

Of course, it is not altogether unlikely that he may be heckled by those who believe that the Australian government prematurely restored his visa to return to Australia.

This is because, in the usual case, a person removed from Australia, even if they leave voluntarily, cannot be re-admitted for three years, and they have to reimburse the Australian government for the expenses associated with the removal.

Djokovic’s opponents may well characterise his re-admission as involving the unjustifiable use of administrative discretion. It falls to be seen what, if any, will be the effect of this unfortunate saga on his determination to become the tennis GOAT.

However, any genuine tennis enthusiast will welcome the participation of Djokovic in the Australian Open and his quest to become the GOAT.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning the final match against Sebastian Korda of the U.S., at the Adelaide International, in Adelaide, Australia, on Jan. 8, 2023. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

Waste of Time?

This contest will certainly not be finally decided at the Australian Open because, even if Djokovic is able to regain his crown, he would only have tied with Nadal, each having 22 Grand Slam victories.

The first Grand Slam after the Australian Open is Roland Garros, which has been won by Nadal a staggering 14 times—Nadal is the King of Clay. So finding the eventual winner of the GOAT contest may take more time.

But, from an objective point of view, the re-emergence of Djokovic at the Australian Open is excellent news for the sport. Many tennis enthusiasts believe that the Open without the Serbian Champion demeans the competition.

Nevertheless, a GOAT critic may well ask why it matters to pursue this flawed contest. After all, sport is entertainment: it is far more satisfying and thrilling to admire the formidable skills and fortitude of tennis athletes than it is to chase a meaningless title.

Hence, the GOAT question certainly raises a valuable point when it asks rhetorically whether we are wasting our time on it. For many people, the pursuit of the GOAT title is a journey into a pointless, even distracting, future.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël Moens

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (2020) and “The Coincidence” (2021).

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