Monthly Archives: December 2013

Invented Categories: Diluting the Greatest Player of All-Time Debate

Is it Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, or Roger Federer? Will Novak Djokovic soon be added to the list? In any case, the Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) debate has been alive since the mid-1990s and furiously kicking since the second half of the 2000s. While the debate has mobilized some intriguing research with regards to the history of men’s tennis in the Open era and stirred considerable passion for the sport, the partisanship in the debate has in many ways hurt the objectivity of the public opinion.

The most glaring examples of this “my-guy-must-be-the-greatest” anxiety come in the form of invented or overrated categories that have, in reality, no business in the GOAT debate if reason and objectivity were to prevail. This article will not make a case for any one player; instead, it will attempt to foreground the problems of partisanship’s over-involvement in the debate by pinpointing to a few of those artificially created measuring sticks.

Davis Cup Titles

This is one category that has no place in the GOAT debate, yet through the “if-repeated-enough-people-will-swallow” tactic, it has made its way into the debate as many times as it should have never been a part of it. First of all, no player wins the Davis Cup, officially or unofficially. In the tennis record books, you don’t see that “Borg has won the Davis Cup”; instead, it reads that Sweden has won it. Second, this category is not only inaccurate, but also non-existent. It was born out of the desire of John McEnroe fans back in the early 1980s to lift their player above his main American rival, Jimmy Connors, who regularly snubbed the Davis Cup, and further strengthened in the late 2000s by the wishes of the fans of players other than Federer, with the aim to place their chosen player ahead of Federer in the debate.

There is no doubt that when a player wins both his singles and doubles matches, he plays a major role in his team’s march to the Davis Cup title (for example Borg in 1975, and McEnroe in 1982); but “he” does not win the title!  There are four players and a captain on the team, contributing to the victory, and the country’s name goes on the records as having won the title.  A player wins two matches maximum by himself, which is neither enough to win a single tie nor to win a title.

The fans of this category somehow try to paint a portrait that shows their man winning the tie/title by themselves, which shows disrespect to the team and the country since on the Cup the country’s name is carved and not the player’s name. It also inaccurately assumes that a particular doubles competition — that of the Davis Cup encounter on the middle Saturday — somehow has more value than any other doubles matches or titles. Doubles play no role in the GOAT debate. If it did, one would need to include Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan individually in the debate since they would then have more Slam titles to their names than Sampras or Nadal and more Grand Slams to their names than any other player in the Open era (not to mention their Davis Cup titles — not the USA’s!), and John McEnroe would be looking better than ever with a total of 16 Slam titles and several Davis Cup titles.

But this is not how the GOAT debate operates because doubles’ results are not included in the debate. McEnroe’s doubles titles do not get weighed in when discussing his GOAT status versus Borg or Andre Agassi. Whether doubles should be included or not, that is a debate for another day, but the way the GOAT debate is conducted today, doubles are basically a non-factor, thus so should the doubles match in Davis Cup, effectively erasing any illusion that a single player wins the Davis Cup. But again, one does not have to go that far to see that Davis Cup titles have no place as a measuring category in the GOAT debate. As noted earlier, it is a category that does not exist. A country, not a player, wins the Davis Cup, and so it goes into the records, period.

Slam Titles

This is the most ironic category in the sense that the same group of experts who pushed this category’s rise to the dominant category in the determination of the GOAT probably now regret that they ever did it. While this is certainly not an invented category and should definitely contribute to determining the GOAT, the impression that exists today that this has always been the determinant category could not be more false.

In the 1970s and 1980s, accolades such as the number of Slams won in succession, the amount of time spent at No. 1, and achieving the Grand Slam outclassed the number of Slams won as far as the players and fans were concerned. From mid-1970s to mid-1980s, most top players did not even play the Australian Open, simply because its timing was odd and it was considered too far away. Borg openly said that he would only consider playing the Australian Open if he won the U.S. Open and had a chance to complete the Grand Slam. He never won the U.S. Open, thus he never played the Australian Open, except one time in 1973 as a youngster. As a result, he won 11 Slams in eight years, playing only three Slams per year. McEnroe played the Australian Open for the first time in 1983, and Jimmy Connors never played it after 1975.

The importance of Slam titles got put on a pedestal when Pete Sampras began collecting Slam titles in the 1990s.  The American media galvanized its viewers once they saw that one of their own could come out of the shadows of Borg and Laver that Connors and McEnroe could never quite surpass, and grab the GOAT title by focusing on the number of Slams.  The likes of Bud Collins, Brad Gilbert, Patrick McEnroe and Mary Carillo quickly reduced all statistics-related discourse to the number of Slam titles.

In this tactic, they saw the means to quicken the process of officially naming their man the GOAT.  As soon as Sampras surpassed Borg’s 11 Slam titles, he was essentially declared the GOAT; the 13th and 14th titles were the icing on the cake.  The American media clung on the number of Slam titles as long as it could, in the name of keeping an American as the GOAT.  The reality was that by the time Roger Federer won his 12th and 13th Slam titles, his list of accomplishments was already superior to that of Sampras, including titles on a surface that Sampras never came close to mastering.  But all that mattered was the number 14, and the American media reminded the public at each opportunity, through eye-catching graphics and colorful vocabulary, that Sampras was still the GOAT due to his 14 Slam titles.

The irony is, several years later, what Federer fans considered a farcical tactic to keep their man behind Sampras in the GOAT debate became their biggest asset when their man began collecting loss after loss against his main rival Nadal.  It seems that in the next couple of years, the number of Slams will remain Federer fans’ biggest ally.  Once again, the partisanship in the GOAT debate has accorded a category more importance than it deserves.  The number of Slams was not the most important category for two and a half decades into the Open era.

Even after two decades of a powerful push by the American-led tennis media, the number of Slams should still not be the central factor in determining the GOAT.  Sampras should not have kept the GOAT status when Federer had 12 or 13 Slam Titles, and Federer should not keep the GOAT status simply because Nadal’s titles (possibly) remain below 17.  On a similar note, I would not hesitate to already put Nadal ahead of Sampras, albeit by a small margin, even though the latter has more Slam titles to his name.  Nadal’s ability to win on all surfaces and his career Grand Slam, along with his record as the most Masters Series titles should at least be enough to trump Sampras’ one more Slam title over Nadal.

Head-to-Head

While this category shows who you may pick in a match between two players if your life depended on it, it does not say much about which player should be considered in a higher status than the other in the GOAT debate.  A given player becomes great not by consistently beating one player, but by consistently outperforming the rest of the field against which he is competing.  Once again, this is an invented category that Nadal fans cling on to due to their player’s fantastic head-to-head record against Federer.

Currently, it will matter in roundtable debates since both players are active and their fans can banter on message boards and blogs.  But tennis historiography shows that, twenty years from now, it will matter very little.  Guillermo Vilas, the player that history considers as one of the top 5 clay court players in the Open era had a 5-8 record on clay against Manuel Orantes, with one of the five wins coming in a walk-over, and another on an abandoned match.  Despite this one-sided head-to-head record, history would hardly consider Orantes a better clay-court player than Vilas.  Would anybody consider Vitas Gerulaitis ahead of Ilie Nastase in the ranking of the best players in the Open era?  I hardly doubt it and so would most tennis historians.  Yet, Gerulaitis had a crushing 10-1 record against Nastase, simply because he would endlessly chip-and-charge to Nastase’s backhand force ‘Nasty’ to use his weakest shot to pass him, the one-handed backhand topspin off of a slice that stays extremely low.  The bottom line is that history accords, and rightfully so, very little importance to the head-to-head record between two players.  Tennis rankings are not determined by how well a specific player does against another specific player; they are determined by how a player performs against the rest of the ensemble of ATP players.

I am sure others can find more frivolous, overrated, or invented ‘false’ categories if needed.  The truth is that partisanship consistently hurts the older players on the hand – how many ‘Laver fans’ or ‘Borg fans’ remain today compared to Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic fans? – and hinders analysis based on facts by diluting the debate with unhealthy emotions and inaccurate (and sometimes false!) data on the other.  It is understandable that fans of particular players fall into this trap.  After all, they have the right to be emotional, which is a major component of fandom.  However, it is utterly worrisome that the leading figures in the tennis media fall into this trap and wrongly influence the public opinion.

Coaches for Top Players: Necessary, Not, or Not Necessarily?

Last week Gasquet revealed that he had come to an agreement with Sergu Bruguera, the two-time French Open Champion (1993-94), and that the Spaniard will begin his duties in February of 2014. This is on the heels of a bizarre development during the ATP Tour Finals in London, when Ricardo Piatti abruptly walked away from coaching Gasquet after his second loss in the round-robin matches. Gasquet admitted to being in shock as much as anyone else, especially considering that he was closing the curtain on his career’s most successful season that culminated in qualifying for the year-ending even in London, reserved for the top eight players of the year. By the way, Gasquet also employs Sébastien Grosjean as a coach with whom Piatti was splitting his duty. Thus, Bruguera will become co-coach with Grosjean, probably spending more time with the player over the year. Why? Because Grosjean is also the Davis Cup Captain for France, and he can’t quite be a full-time coach for a single player. In fact, he is the one who recommended Bruguera to Gasquet, meaning a coach suggested to his employer which co-coach to hire. Are you, the reader, keeping up with this? Because, you better get used to it. Coaching changes are coming at increased frequency, co-coaching has been the new trend for a few years, and some coaching changes are done quicker the replacement of a light bulb. Player-Coach duos like Li Na & Carlos Rodriguez (pictured below) who stayed together through the 2013 season are progressively in the minority.

If you have not heard, in 2013, Sharapova let Thomas Högstedt go after the second-round loss at Wimbledon, despite having a successful season until that loss, and having the best results of her career since Högstedt began coaching her in 2010. She hired and fired Jimmy Connors in less than a week, after one loss to Sloan Stephens in Cincinnati, in one of the quickest turnarounds in coaching-changes history, with Connors getting the news one day after announcing that the loss to Stephens was a bump on the road and he was looking forward to working with her. Sharapova has since hired Sven Groenefeld, and Högstedt has moved on to coaching Caroline Wozniacki.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, split from his coach Roger Rasheed in August because of, get this: “language barriers and geographical issues”. Uhm, how did they manage to collaborate for ten months with those kinds of complications? Why not simply announce “for reasons undisclosed”, “or private reasons” than produce such a tall tale? In any case, Rasheed moved on to Grigor Dmitrov since, and Tsonga recently hired Thierry Ascione and Nicolas Escude, – yes you guessed it: co-coaches. They also coach another Frenchman, Nicolas Mahut, joining a rare category: co-coaches simultaneously coaching their co-employers.

In the meantime, Simona Halep just split with her Coach Adrian Marcu following the most successful season of her career; Samantha Stosur hired the ex-Murray coach Miles McLagan after splitting with long-time coach David Taylor. I could go on and on, and I have not even mentioned Jelena Jankovic who certainly must hold the record for most coaching changes since her career rose to prominence.

The increasing frequency of coaching changes, the reduction in the durations of collaborations, the ever-expanding ‘co-coaching’ concept, and the results that some players have had without a coach begs the question, how much is the coach’s role in the player’s success? Moreover, who is helping whose career? Did Nick Bollettieri help Andre Agassi’s career more than Agassi ultimately helped Bollettieri, and his floundering academy, come back to limelight? Similarly, did Brad Gilbert help Agassi’s career or did Agassi actually make Gilbert’s career? In a more obvious and contemporary case, is Patrick Mouratoglu helping Serena’s career more than Serena is helping his?

There are no black-and-white answers to the preceding questions, but in any case, I would maintain that thinking that a coach is absolutely can lead to more disastrous consequences than choosing to be without one. Hiring a coach that does not fit the frame of what the player needs is more likely to happen if hiring a coach is seens as the only and absolute road to success. Roger Federer had arguably the best season of his career in 2004, and spent most of 2007 & 2008 without one. It is true that Severin Lüthi has supported him, but only since 2007 in any significant amount, and anybody who is familiar with that partnership will tell you that Lüthi’s function approaches being the ‘solid foundation’ of his team more than acting uniquely as a tennis coach. Tsonga spent over a year coachless, resulting in possibly the best 12-month period of his career in terms of results. Did Serena really have a successful year because of Mouratoglu or was it another routine year for Serena who has had 13 Slam titles and ‘Serena Slam’ far before she hired him? For now, I am more inclined to agree with the latter.

Gone are the days of long-term successful coach-player relationships, such as Bjorn Borg & Lennart Bergelin, Boris Becker & Ion Tiriac, Stefan Edberg & Tony Pickard, Steffi Graf & Pavel Slozil, and Sampras & Tim Gullikson, each lasting more than five years, at least. Currently, the only high-profile players who would fit that type of description are Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Lo and behold, they are the top two players in the world; and Serena Williams, the current number one women’s player in the world, got there years ago in the first place coached by the same person with whom she began playing tennis as a child. Thus, the question is not “does the coach serve a purpose?” The answer is obviously, yes! However, my answer to the conventional belief that a player is always better off with a coach than without one would be “not necessarily.” Not necessarily, because finding the right fit comprises of a tedious process that requires more than a trial-week at the local courts with a prospect coach; not necessarily, because if the right fit is not found, the time spent together can not only turn to waste, but it can regress the player’s development; not necessarily, because a player who feels rushed to get a coach will hire one after another for short periods of time until finding the right fit, and will face continuous adaptation periods, confusion, and interrupted developments in technique. On the one hand, I agree that any player will thrive with the right coach who aims for long-term success and knows the player’s ‘soul,’ because coaching is not just telling the player to ‘follow-through’ or ‘move the feet.’ On the other hand, a player without a coach, and spending that period of time to reflect on his/her game while taking the time to do a sensible search for a new coach, has a better chance of success than a player who hires a coach simply due to the belief that having a coach trumps not having one.