The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time


Roger Federer is, as of this writing, the greatest (male) tennis player who’s ever played the game1. That may seem like a bold statement to some, but I can prove it. Not only that, I can provide you with an ordered list of the top 154 players who have ever played.2, 4

If you want to see the entire list, just click on this link. It’ll open up a Google Doc spreadsheet I created to settle this question once and for all. However, if you’d rather skip it for now, here, for your browsing convenience, are the top 10 players of all time:

Remember, the chart below shows a player ranking in that category, not the number of titles, wins, weeks, etc. To wit, Roger Federer clearly has more than 1 Grand Slam title, that’s his rank in that category. Lendl didn’t spend 3 weeks at number one, he’s #3 on the list of most weeks spent at number one. Etc. etc.

Player / Rank

GS Titles

GS Finals

GS Surfaces

Total Wins

Titles

Finals

Weeks #1

Consecutive Weeks

Avg

Roger Federer

1

1

1

6

4

5

2

1

2.63

Ivan Lendl

6

2

2

2

2

2

3

3

2.75

Jimmy Connors

6

5

2

1

1

1

4

2

2.75

Pete Sampras

2

3

2

8

5

7

1

4

4.00

John McEnroe

7

6

3

4

3

3

5

9

5.00

Andre Agassi

6

5

1

5

7

6

8

12

6.25

Björn Borg

4

4

3

5

7

6

14

6.14

Rafael Nadal

5

5

1

10

10

7

10

6.86

Guillermo Vilas

10

8

3

3

6

4

5.67

Stefan Edberg

8

6

2

7

8

10

6.83

Federer, Lendl, Connors, Sampras, Agassi, Nadal; all the usual suspects are there, but maybe not in the order you expected. So if you’re curious – and you should be – here’s how the list was created, and why it’s the right way – the only way – to go about answering the question of which tennis player was the greatest of all time.

Note: This is a list of the top male players. I haven’t attempted to do this for the women, though it wouldn’t be that hard to do.

Sometimes asking the right question is half of solving the problem, and so it was in this case. In this case, the right question to ask was not, “Who’s the greatest player of all time (The G.O.A.T.), but rather, “Who is number one of all time?” It’s essentially the same question, but the latter provides a framework for answering it while the former does not.

Currently, Novak Djokovic is the greatest player in the world. That is, he is number one. We know this because his ranking is a matter of public statistical record. To verify for ourselves, we need only to look it up. But Novak wasn’t always the #1 player in the world; other players have held that title as well, so answering the question of who was the greatest of all time immediately brings a players career into the discussion. It forces us to consider the big picture. How dominant were they, and in how many categories? This was the key insight for me. I realized that if we could identify which categories were important in determining greatness, we could then answer the ultimate question (“Who is number one of all time?”) by verifying a player’s rank in that category.  Then, by combining the ranks, we can average them out to see who has the lowest rank. The spreadsheet I created does just this.

So here are the eight3 categories I used to answer the question, Who is number one of all time?

Grand Slam Titles (GS Titles)
Grand Slam titles are an obvious category. The fact that some players have won Grand Slams while other players have not immediately highlights the importance of this category. Every informed reader knows that Roger Federer is currently ranked #1, with 16 Grand Slam singles titles. Pete Sampras is #2, with 14. Roy Emerson is #3 with 12, etc., etc., etc.

Grand Slam Finals (GS Finals)
This may not seem like an obvious choice, but I think it’s important. It seems particularly unjust to refer to the finalist of a slam – a player who won 6 matches to even get in the finals – as a loser, so I also gave credit to players who advanced to finals. I didn’t attempt to dig any deeper than the top 10 in this category. Obviously, if you’re not in the top 10, you certainly aren’t going to be GOAT-worthy, a point which I hope is self-evident.

Grand Slam Surfaces (GS Surfaces)
This is another important category. The fact that only seven men have won slams on all four surfaces is telling, so this is a very important category in deciding who the GOAT is. The seven players who have won on all four surfaces are all tied for first place, so they’re all ranked #1 in this category. The eighteen players who have won slams on three different surfaces are all ranked #2. The nine players who have won on two different surfaces are ranked #3, and the 3 players who have won on just one surface are ranked #4.

Total Wins
Obviously, no GOAT criteria would be complete without ranking players by their on-court results: how many matches they won. Jimmy Connors is the all time leader in this category with an amazing 1,217 match wins. The fact that a player as awesome as Federer (who is the GOAT, after all) is still nearly 400 wins away from this record (Roger currently has 829 wins after his victory today against John Isner) is testament to this.

Titles
This is another hugely important category. It’s great to win matches, but to be in the discussion for the GOAT, you must win titles. Just ask Brian Gottfried. As with total wins, this category is dominated by Jimmy Connors, who won an astounding 109 titles!

Finals
Same rationale as Grand Slam finals. Let’s give some credit to the finalists.

Weeks at #1
In any GOAT discussion, this simply cannot be overlooked. It’s one thing to become the king of the hill, but it’s quite another to stay there. The longer a player stays there, the more GOAT-worthy his case becomes. Pete Sampras leads this category, with 286 weeks at #1. There are only 52 weeks in a year, so that works out to 5 and a half years at number one! Federer, as many of you are probably already aware, is 2nd in this category, at 285 weeks. Just one week away. So close, and yet – with Novak & Rafa now in the way – so far!

Consecutive Weeks at #1
This is important because it really highlights how dominant a player was. Although Sampras was number for the most weeks overall, at 237 consecutive weeks, Federer was number one for the longest, unbroken stretch. To put that in perspective, Sampras’s longest stretch at #1 was for 102 weeks, less than half that of Federer’s!


Notes:

  1. The footnote for this is too important to be relegated to a footnote, so I’ll follow it up with another post later on. If you’re curious, navigate to the “GOAT-10” tab, which includes 10 criteria for the GOAT, instead of just 8. The 10th criteria: Success at the Olympics. The GOAT under that scenario: Andre Agassi. Federer is 2nd, using that criteria.
  2. So when Tennis Channel runs their “100 Greatest of All Time” series, you’ll know whether or not they got it right.
  3. I actually created scenarios where I used more than 8 criteria, which I’ve referred to above, in footnote #1. The 9-category version includes Masters 1000 series titles, and the 10-category version includes the Olympics. Again, this is all included in the spreadsheet.
  4. The spreadsheet originally had 108 players. I’ve since expanded it to the top 154 players. (4/9/2012)
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6 Responses to The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time

  1. Viral Dhakan says:

    woahh … great statistica analysis
    always wanted to know about it in this way

  2. Barbara says:

    VERY interesting analysis. Thanks! Roger is the GOAT – no question – and you’ve proved it.
    But may I point out a couple of small things? Ilie Nastase won GSs on 2 surfaces, not just one: the USO (Forest Hills) in 1972 on grass (!), and the FO in 1973 on clay. So he should have a 3, not a 4, in that category. He also won the hardcourt indoor Masters – now the WTF – 4 times, which sadly is not counted here at all. So arguably he should be higher than No 13!

  3. Mac Alexander says:

    Roger is the GOAT in everyone’s book except the haters like Nadal & Djoker fans.

    Great Analysis & good perspective, however this only applies to players after the 1968 Open Era, Rod Laver & Roy Emerson are some of the greatest of all time and here they are ranked far below Djokovic & Nadal, and even Vilas & other nobodys like Kuerten and Roddick, etc.
    Laver won all the 4 Grandslams twice and Roddick just won a single U.S. Open in his life time.

    Also, the only time the top 8 players go head to head is in the Masters Finals, where Federer has won a record 6 titles and Nadal has always lost, just one appearance in the finals and Joker has won only once, Fed should get credit for that.

    And Fed should get credit for being the greatest sportsman of all not a tactical cheater like Nadal with medical time outs and all the crap he pulls in slowing down the momentum when he is losing.

  4. Pingback: Federer’s Diamond Standard(s) | The Tencap Tennis Blog

  5. Gab says:

    Hi I like the concept and the article. Still I think there a couple of flaws :

    The number one, and the ranking system only exist since 1973. Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Donald Budge, Bill Tilden would never appear on this chart.

    The second one would be, consecutive title and consecutive GS. Rod Laver held all 4 GS twice in his life. No one has been able to do it since.

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