February 5, 2020

The Measure of a Champion

I'm not a regular watcher of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, so I know very little about Tony Kornheiser's style or credentials. I'm sure he's very well respected and has a lot of breadth and experience in sports journalism. But his recent argument that Novak Djokovic doesn't stack up as a potential GOAT in tennis is frankly preposterous.

Now I usually try not to revisit the same topic in consecutive posts, but this one seems like an elephant that needs to be addressed. Kornheiser's thesis is based on two points: 1) that Nole "only" dominates at the Australian Open, the "least" important of the four Majors and 2) that the success somehow doesn't count because he's getting his wins against "old men" like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Where do I begin?

Let's start with the first part. Novak may have earned eight of his 17 Major trophies Down Under, but that means he's still won more elsewhere -- his five Wimbledon crowns trail just Fed and Pete Sampras in the Open Era. Plus he's got an 80 percent win record at each of these events throughout his career -- that number rises to 85 percent if you look at his record since 2010. And unlike some players who focus only on the Majors, Novak is a force throughout the year -- he's a multi-trophy winner at Masters events like Miami and Indian Wells, and he's just one trophy away from tying Nadal's record 35 titles at these tourneys. And though he's "only" won one French Open, he's got 13 other trophies on the surface to prove his all-court caliber.

(Of course, Kornheiser obviously also ignores the fact that Nadal "only" dominates at Roland Garros, where he's won twelve of his 19 Major titles. Though, to be fair, he wasn't asked where Rafa lands in the GOAT discussion, and he may well believe he's undeserving of such a title, too. As much as I love the Spaniard, I'm probably more willing to be persuaded on this point, but I also argue that Nadal's talent on hardcourts is vastly underrated and that if you're talking GOATs, all three of these guys are worthy of consideration.)

And how about the second half of that first clause? Does Melbourne really rank last among the Slams? Well, to an American, it's certainly the hardest to follow -- with most of the matches played overnight for us, casual fans are probably not watching most matches in real time, and even I have to play catch up to get the latest scores every morning. Still, Australia counts just as much to a player's ranking as the other Majors and awards even more prize money than the French Open, trailing Wimbledon by just a hair.

As the first Slam of the year, Australia also catches most players before a long and grueling season has worn them out. Yes, there are some who have to miss out on the circuit with injury, but by and large we're treated to the cream of the tennis crop in Melbourne. Many players -- sincerely or not -- call it their favorite event, and as the only Major in the Eastern hemisphere, it arguably gives the sport a global audience -- and importance -- it might not reach otherwise. Sure, I'd love to see the Asian Major played in, you know, Asia, but if this is as close as we can get for now, we need to recognize its importance.

But the biggest offense of Kornheiser's statements comes with that second leg of his argument. It sounds like his "old man" jibe is trying to suggest that Nole is taking advantage of these guys as their careers are flagging. Forget the fact that Rafa is only a year older, we've long talked about how the Big Three have dominated the sport for years and years -- together they've won the last 13 Majors and have 59 titles between them, and it's been 15 years since anyone has posed any sustained threat to their stranglehold on these events. But that's not because the younger generation can't keep up, it's because these three are just that good.

A decade ago -- when none of these guys could be accused of being "old men" -- Djokovic jokingly lamented that he was born at the wrong time, that back when he was just a one-time Slam champion, he would have (could have, should have) been winning a lot more if not for the duopoly his rivals had on the game. He did eventually break through of course, and now he's part of that unbreakable wall. After his final loss to Nole at the Australian Open this year, Dominic Thiem acknowledged that winning a Major while these guys are still in the mix means so much more than doing so after they've gone -- after all, you become a champion by beating the best, not by taking walks in the park. Getting a win, therefore, isn't like getting a bye -- it's an honor.

Now where we ultimately end up in the GOAT debate is still a question to be answered. Honestly these days I'm surprised when Djokovic isn't the top seed at an event that includes Roger and Rafa. Over the years he's not only caught up to both of them in their head-to-heads, but has surpassed them: he's 10-4 against Fed since 2015 and 10-3 versus Nadal. Roger, of course, still sits atop the Grand Slam leaderboard and has the most diverse set of trophies of the group. He's also shocked the world, picking up three in the years since most people wrote him off. But Djokovic and Nadal have a couple years more to catch up to him and, despite some concerns early on have had their bodies hold up remarkably well. And there's no way to eliminate all the variables and see exactly how these guys would compare at their primes.

But in my humble opinion we're all lucky that we're able to watch all these greats play not only in our lifetimes but against each other. And when the next crop of stars finally does break through -- that day is, after all, inevitably coming -- I'm just hoping they give us a fraction of what these three have.

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