The debate was rekindled in a study recently published in the scientific journal PLos ONE, based on the research of Northwestern University statistical physicist Filippo Radicchi. He wasn't trying to rebuke traditional evaluation of the game's best players; he merely offered a new way of looking at things, basing his rankings on "quality" wins, with emphasis on the number of victories against elite players.
Unfortunately for Mr. Radicchi, his findings come off as the tennis equivalent of statistical claims that Derek Jeter is a lousy shortstop, or that Kobe Bryant is a poor shooter in the clutch. You gotta be kidding, in other words.
But before going further, here's the outcome of his mathematical study:
1. Jimmy Connors2. Ivan Lendl3. John McEnroe4. Guillermo Vilas5. Andre Agassi6. Stefan Edberg7. Roger Federer8. Pete Sampras9. Ilie Nastase10. Björn Borg11. Boris Becker12. Arthur Ashe13. Brian Gottfried14. Stan Smith15. Manuel Orantes16. Michael Chang17. Roscoe Tanner18. Eddie Dibbs19. Harold Solomon20. Tom Okker21. Mats Wilander22. Goran Ivaniasevic23. Vitas Gerulaitis24. Rafael Nadal25. Raul Ramirez26. John Newcombe27. Ken Rosewall28. Yevgeny Kafelnikov29. Andy Roddick30. Thomas Muster
Right off the bat, you're outraged.
Lendl, Vilas and Edberg ahead of Federer: Impossible. Radicchi notes that "players who have yet to retire are penalized with respect to those who have ended their careers," but how can you possibly claim, by any measure, that these guys had more "important victories" than Federer?
Vilas ahead of Borg, who simply dominated him on his favorite surface (clay): Difficult to fathom.
Gottfried at No. 13: And in football, Icky Woods ahead of Jim Brown.
Eddie Dibbs and Harold Solomon, who did their best to put everyone to sleep, ahead of Nadal, Rosewall and Newcombe: Amazing.
Nadal was listed to have scored only 21 victories "against very good players" in his career to date (compared to Vilas' 93). That's just astoundingly wrong.
Raul Ramirez. I'm pretty much speechless now.
Let me step in here to offer the opinions of some real experts. During some down time at the 2006 U.S. Open, I asked Bud Collins, Steve Flink and Joel Drucker -- writers and historians of the highest order -- to rank their all-time top 10. This was only a couple of days after Agassi announced his retirement, and it was determined that current players (Federer, Nadal) would be exempt from the lists, since their accomplishments were ongoing.
Removing their choices from the pre-Open Era days, here's how they voted:
Collins: Laver, Borg, Sampras, McEnroe, Connors, Rosewall, Lendl (Bud had Pancho Gonzalez, Bill Tilden and Don Budge behind Laver at 2-3-4).
Flink: Sampras, Laver, Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Agassi (Sampras and Laver were his 1-2 picks for all time).
Drucker: Sampras, Laver, Borg, Connors, Lendl, McEnroe, Agassi (Drucker also ranked Sampras and Laver 1-2 overall).
For my choices, I'm going to include active players. It would be the list as it stands at this very moment. I don't think there's any point going past the top 20 in the Open Era. I'm very big on reputation within the game, and performances at the majors. I'll start from the bottom, believing each new name has a slight edge on the last:
20. Patrick Rafter. I make him a sentimental pick (over Stan Smith, among others) because he was such a classy, thrilling purveyor of serve-and-volley tennis. He had the misfortune of losing two historic Wimbledon finals: to Sampras (who broke Roy Emerson's career record for major titles that day) and to Goran Ivanisevic (on the epic "People's Monday" when the chanting, blue-collar crowd more resembled a soccer match). But he won back-to-back U.S. Opens in the Sampras era, a spectacular accomplishment.
19. Lleyon Hewitt. I don't much care for the man, to be blunt, but he was (still is, to a degree) a beacon of will power and desire, with a No. 1 ranking and championships at Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
18. Jim Courier. You'd want him on every U.S. Davis Cup team until the end of time, a battler who won two French titles and two at the Australian.
17. Arthur Ashe. This where the algorithms and statistical scribblings go right out the window. Ashe brought social enlightenment to tennis. His 1975 Wimbledon victory (over Connors) was a landmark in the game's history. He also won the U.S. Open (1968) and the Australian (1970).
16. Guillermo Vilas. Dynamic player, symbol of the free-spirited element during the Great Tennis Boom, winner of the French, U.S. and Australian (twice) titles.
15. Ken Rosewall. His prime years came before the Open Era, but you can't discount his titles at the 1968 French, the 1970 U.S. Open and the 1971-72 Australian. He played the U.S. all the way through 1977, and there must be acknowledgement of that fluid, textbook backhand.
14. Ilie Nastase. I enjoyed seeing Nastase as high as ninth on Radicchi's list, because he had as much pure talent as anyone and won 57 career titles. Fell a bit short at the majors -- one U.S., one French -- but he performed an unforgettable brand of magic between repulsive fits of petulance.
13. Stefan Edberg. Supremely accomplished and unquestioned master of the volley. Had the distinction of winning twice at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Had an impact only once (the 1989 final) at the French.
12. John Newcombe. Why is this man so easily dismissed? He had panache, all-court ability and the classic man's-man qualities that characterized so many Australian greats of his day. He was never a factor at the French, but he won two Wimbledons, two Australian Opens and one U.S. Open (1973) after '68.
11. Boris Becker. Statistics don't measure the true impact of his style and personality on the game. Few players had more adoring fans around the world, and he cashed in with three Wimbledon titles and another at the U.S. Unlike many of the great serve-and-volleyers, he had some pretty fine moments at the French, reaching the semifinals three times.
10. Mats Wilander. Few athletes in any sport have been so underrated historically. You want clay? Three titles at the French. Hardcourts? Three Australian titles and another at the U.S. (1988). He never got past the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, but he carved out a Hall of Fame career on guile, intelligence and a quietly brazen confidence.
9. Ivan Lendl. Strange career, in retrospect. He absolutely owned Jimmy Connors, but Wimbledon owned him. While a number of foreign players (Borg at the forefront) were confounded by the madness of the U.S. Open, he won it three straight times (1985-87) and cashed in three more majors at the French. American fans didn't care much for his style, but he had a fabulous career.
8. Andre Agassi. He was a one-man tennis revolution, breaking new ground in service returns, crushing the ball off both wings, hand-eye coordination and the ability to hold position inside the baseline. One of only seven men (all-time) to win each of the majors, a monumental accomplishment.
7. Jimmy Connors. Might have pulled off the Grand Slam in '74, his greatest year (99-4) if he hadn't been banned from the French Open because of his association with the competing World Team Tennis. And it's a shame that he missed nine French Opens over the course of his career, because he could perform on clay. But he won five U.S. Opens between 1974 and '83, gave new meaning to on-court aggression and was still a pulsating, crowd-pleasing presence in the early 90s.
6. John McEnroe. Falls short on longevity, but set lofty standards between 1979 and '84, when he won four U.S. Opens, three Wimbledons and held the edge over Connors and Borg. Still agonizes over losing the '84 French final to Lendl (7-5 in the fifth). Inadvertently popularized the game by being an irrevent, incorrigible genius, and perhaps the greatest doubles player of all time.
5. Bjorn Borg. There's a lot to say about Borg, who had so much to do with the evolution of the two-handed backhand, but this is all you need to know: He pulled off the French-Wimbledon double, considered a nearly impossible task among today's players, three years in a row (1978-80). That's pure virtuosity.
4. Rafael Nadal. The beauty of Nadal, assuming he can keep his body from falling apart, is that there's so much left. At the age of 24, he already owns nine majors. For kids wanting to know about tenacity and desire, he's right there with Connors among the greatest role models in history. Come to think of it: Since we're playing the fantasy game, who wouldn't want to see a match between those two, each in his prime, on Centre Court or Arthur Ashe Stadium?
3. Rod Laver. I'd rank him higher, perhaps even No. 1, if we were considering the entirety of tennis history. He played the majors only sporadically in the 1970s, but he pulled off the Grand Slam in '69, after achieving it as an amateur in 1962. To see him play, as I did throughout my school years, was to witness a pocket-sized force of nature, the very definition of greatness in every respect.
2. Pete Sampras. Best remembered as the man whose 14 major titles set the historical standard (until Federer came along), and nobody ever hit more clutch shots at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Would probably be everyone's No. 1 if he'd won the French (he reached the '96 semis but didn't clear the second round in his last five attempts). And never forget this: For six straight years (1993-98, he finished the year ranked No. 1, breaking Connors' record. That took a brand of commitment and physical punishment few were willing to consider.
1. Roger Federer. He's lost a bit of luster now, but so did Willie Mays, Johnny Unitas and Oscar Robertson. Think back to the 2004-09 period, when he won 14 majors and had the all-time greats -- Laver, McEnroe, Jack Kramer, so many others -- effusive in their praise, agreeing we'd never seen anything quite like this man before. Such will be the essence of his legacy.