Martina Navratilova comes in at No. 4 on the Tennis Channel's list of the Top 100 players of all time. (Walter Iooss Jr./SI)
Tennis Channel released its list of the "100 Greatest Tennis Players of All Time" last week. And while the exercise to determine the "G.O.A.T." has been done from living rooms and blogospheres to the highest levels of tennis punditry (the "Yellow Ivory Tower"), Tennis Channel's list takes one controversial stand: It combined genders. That's a difficult analytic and one that seemed to end up skewing the list substantially.
There were 62 men and 38 women on the list, though it was evenly split in the top 10, which is either pure serendipity or a bit of public-relations meddling. Combining men and women here is kind of like my best friend's visceral hate of Inception: She simply couldn't buy into the premise of the movie at all, therefore it was a total waste of time. Same applies here: If you can't buy into the fact that men and women can be compared together on an objective scale, this list probably seems like a complete and utter waste of time.
But if you do buy into the premise of the list (or can at least ignore it enough to take the top 100 seriously), it's a fun one to debate. Stick a copy in your wallet for those late nights out with your fellow tennis fans and whip it out when you're done debating time violations, grunting and why women wear visors at night (hint -- it's to keep their hair out of their face).
Need help getting the debate going? Here are five topics to get you started.
1. Mary Pierce vs. Amelie Mauresmo: Granted, this isn't a huge deal: Pierce is ranked No. 87 and Mauresmo is No. 88. But, hey, if Tennis Channel is saying Mary Pierce is a greater player than Amelie Mauresmo, the debate juices start flowing. Both won two Grand Slam titles, one each at the Australian Open, with Mauresmo winning the greatest trophy in the sport, Wimbledon, and Pierce becoming the last French woman to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen at Roland Garros.
Tied on majors, let's turn to other metrics: Mauresmo had more career titles (25 vs. 18) and reached No. 1. Pierce may have been the more naturally gifted of the two, and she did reach more Slam finals and had a more prolific doubles career. But based on objective metrics alone, Pierce loses out in my book. And if we want to get into the intangibles, Mauresmo was one of few openly gay athletes to come out while they were still active. Don't underestimate how important it was to illustrate to the broader sporting community that sponsors wouldn't run to the hills if you had the courage to come out.
2. Michael Chang vs. Andy Roddick: Is it recency bias? Is it just the massive aura of Andy Roddick, Inc.? Is it the fact that Chang's 1989 French Open title felt more like a fluke than Roddick's 2003 U.S. Open title, which felt like an arrival? I'm not sure. But the fact that Roddick is ranked a mere six spots ahead of Chang (No. 100 vs. No. 94) seems unfair to Roddick.
Both men have one Grand Slam title, but unlike Roddick, Chang never reached No. 1. As of now, Chang has more career titles (34 to 30), but Roddick is a four-time major finalist (one more than Chang) in addition to his one Slam victory, losing them all to the man who, as it turned out, would top this list of greatest players ever, Roger Federer. And in case you're wondering if there's an argument to be made that Roddick could be ranked ahead of players higher on the list: How about Yannick Noah, another one-Slam winner, at No. 85?
3. Maria Sharapova: How do you assess the perceived accuracy of an active player's ranking on this list? For me, I ask: "If his or her career ended today, is the ranking fair?" I'd argue that Sharapova's No. 71 standing isn't. Here's Sharapova's résumé: three Slam titles (at three different tournaments in Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open), a former No. 1, three Slam finals, one Tour Championships title, 24 WTA titles.
Let's compare her to Jennifer Capriati, who comes in at No. 57. Capriati also had three Slams (two at the Australian Open, one at the French Open), was a former No. 1, won an Olympic gold medal and collected 14 WTA titles. Both were young prodigies who struggled throughout their career for disparate reasons (Capriati burned out while Sharapova's shoulder flamed out), but when you set them up side-by-side it's hard to argue, at least to me, that if Sharapova's career ended today she should be ranked below J-Cap. Or Tracy Austin (No. 53), for that matter.
4. Martina vs. Steffi: This is the WTA's version of "Roger vs. Laver" and one that leaves a lot of broken windows in its wake. Who exactly is the greatest female tennis player of all time? Is it Steffi Graf, with her 22 Slam singles titles (second only to Margaret Court's 24) and 107 singles titles overall? Graf is the only player, man or woman, to complete the Golden Slam, and she spent 377 weeks at No. 1, the most of any man or woman.
Navratilova, on the other hand, won 49 total Slam titles (18 singles, 31 doubles) and holds the record (men or women) for most titles won (167). Graf won 89 percent of her matches compared to Navratilova's 84 percent (though people will always wonder how that power duo would have been altered had Monica Seles' career not been derailed after that brutal stabbing).
In my mind, the debate between these two women has broken down very simply: Martina is the greatest all-around player the women's game has ever seen. You can't deny her doubles and mixed success, much like you can't deny John McEnroe's. But Graf was the greatest singles player in the women's game, and if we value singles over doubles as we appear to (notice no doubles teams on the Tennis Channel list?), that makes Steffi the greatest female tennis player of all time.
5. Steffi vs. Roger: Is there a debate to be made that Graf might actually be the greatest player of the Open Era? This is where the mixing of genders complicates things. By almost any objective metric, Steffi wins out: She has more Slam titles (22 to 16) than Federer, more tour titles (107 to 73), more Slam finals (31 to 23), a higher winning percentage (89 percent to 81 percent), more weeks at No. 1 (377 to 285), more years finishing at No. 1 (8 to 5), an Olympic gold and silver medal in singles, and the calendar Golden Slam. On objective metrics alone, this seems like a no-brainer. Yet this is where a mixed gender list complicates things.
With that résumé, Graf is still ranked only No. 3 behind Rod Laver and Federer. If the playing field isn't level to begin with -- that is, comparing the women's game to the men's game isn't an apples-to-apples comparison -- then what's the point? This isn't an issue of a close race where the nod goes to the men because we generally accept that the men's game is more physical and played at a higher level. Graf's stats when compared to Federer's aren't even close. If a player like Graf can't even crack the top two given the career she had, it seems to me that Tennis Channel's list already had a glass ceiling built into it.
I don't say that to mean the list is necessarily sexist (though your mileage may vary). My point is simply this: The men's game and the women's game are different beasts. Trying to compare them head to head is unfair to both sexes.
Some stats and figures from Tennis Channel's list of the Top 100 players of all time.
166: Total Grand Slam singles titles among the list's top 10.
62: Men on the list.
38: Women on the list.
10: Active players on the list.
Top Countries Represented
38: Americans on the list.
17: Australians on the list.
7: French players on the list.
6: Brits on the list.
4: Spaniards on the list.
4: Czechs on the list.
4: Russians on the list
What do you think of Tennis Channel's list? Sound off in the comments with your thoughts, revisions and the top player of all time.