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Greatest or Best? The Misconception of Concepts

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Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer. Photo/Graphic: Fox Sports Asia

By Peter Timling, MSc |

Few questions have engaged the world of sports as much as the question about the best or greatest sportsman of all time. Often the acronym GOAT – Greatest Of All Time – is attributed to someone who is the greatest at a certain skill. But often the word ”best” or ”best of all time” is mixed into the discussion and then it gets complicated. Tennis is a good example of this.

The first question to ask is about the difference between ”greatest” and ”best”. Doesn’t it mean the same thing? First of all, greatness is a measure of the merits and achievements over a complete career while ”best” is a perishable that has to be related to a certain time period. If we look back at the second half of 2018 then Novak Djokovic has doubtlessly been the world’s best tennis player. But if you go back in time a few more months you will find a Djokovic at the end of a long period of severe struggles caused by a protracted elbow injury. His self-confidence had hit the bottom and one of the most stable and merited players in history had to accept being beaten by hungry contestants outside the top 100. During the absence of Djokovic, the tennis world was dominated by Rafael Nadal and a reborn Roger Federer. Nadal owned the top spot of the ranking but I recall the comment from Mats Wilander, just after Federer’s second straight win in the Australian Open 2018, where he said that Nadal may be No 1 on the ranking but few would claim that he is the best tennis player now. The words were a tribute to Federer’s incomparable comeback at the age of 36.

The whole point with the reasoning above is that the concept of ”best” has a date stamp to it. During the last 15 years ”the big three” of tennis – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – have dominated the top of tennis. But during the same period other players have peaked and occasionally been “the best”, for example Andy Murray. The ATP ranking system is a fair attempt to rate the players in an objective way. It provides a good indication of how well you have performed over the last year and on similar conditions as everyone else. In the longer perspective, say the last 50 years, it makes less sense to compare players: tennis has become more physical, the players are bigger, stronger and faster, they are better coached, the equipment is optimized, there are more tournaments and the career is longer and the competition is harder. A modern top 100 player of today would wipe Björn Borg and John McEnroe off the court. 

Hence it is a logical fallacy to talk about ”the best player of all time” since ”best” is a snapshot. Or, to use a famous quote: ”Form is temporary, class is permanent”.

Peter Timling is an independent sports writer with a specific interest in tennis and golf. He lives in Sweden and holds an MSc from the University of Bath.

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