We’ve all had the debate before. Who’s the greatest (fill in the blank) of all time? Which World Series champion would beat all others? (The 2004 Red Sox, of course.) Which Super Bowl winner is the finest of them all? In tennis, we’ve been talking about the G.O.A.T. since Roger Federer turned in his first three-major-title season in 2004.
As 2008 comes to a close and the best men, minus a banged up Rafael Nadal, travel to Shanghai, ask yourself, how does the current Top 10 compare to similar collections from years past? In terms of titles and accomplishments, this group is barely in the conversation with the best generations. But do they have the potential to rival, say, the 1979 year-end Top 10, which included Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe at the top (see chart)? Or the remarkable 1985 year-end Top 10? The top six players from that year—Ivan Lendl, McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Connors, Stefan Edberg, and Boris Becker—won a remarkable 42 major titles. Right now, the current Top 10 have 20 major titles, 18 of which belong to Federer and Nadal.
But they are young—the youngest Top 10, in fact, since 1994 (average age: 24). Given time, they might achieve nearly as much and, by a not entirely unreasonable stretch of the imagination, maybe more. Here are my generous predictions:
1. Rafael Nadal: Nadal has five majors at age 22. He’s nearly unbeatable on clay and not quite as unbeatable on grass, but close. Only injuries—to his feet, his knees, and his shoulder, to catalogue a few of the problems he has had in his career—will keep him from doubling his current total (say three more at the French Open, another victory at Wimbledon, and a hard court major somewhere along the way). Projected career total: 10 majors
2. Roger Federer: If Federer, 27, continues to slump—that is, win one major a year—he ought to reach 15 before his career ends. Tough to bet against him after his inspired U.S. Open run. Projected career total: 15
3. Novak Djokovic: Djokovic won his first major this year, but he has struggled—and shown signs of frustration—for much of the year. He’s only 21 and his game has no technical flaws: solid strokes, excellent footwork, and multiple weapons. He’s strong mentally, too, but I do sense a bit of impatience from him recently. Compare him to Becker, Edberg, Connors, and Wilander. Does he stack up? If so, he has five or six major titles to go. Projected career total: 5
4. Andy Murray: Murray’s play this year, especially late in the year, caused me to write this column. Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Murray are, to my mind, among the strongest foursomes in the history of the game. Tennis fans have praised Federer’s versatility for years. Murray doesn’t have the same grace or the same caliber forehand. He does, however, have a stronger return of serve, a more reliable backhand, a first serve with more sting, and softer hands at net. The 21-year-old Scot is that good—certainly good enough to win multiple majors. Will he remain healthy enough? Projected career total: 6
5. Nikolay Davydenko: The man with perhaps the most efficient groundstrokes in the game is this era’s answer to Miloslav Mecir, who ranked ninth back in 1985 (and retired at age 26 with a bad back). Davydenko has never reached a major final and isn’t likely to change his fortunes in the future. Projected career total: 0
6. Andy Roddick: Roddick is the most consistent member of the Top 10 (he’s always there) and he owns the most dangerous weapon, the second-best serve in the world (nothing beats Ivo Karlovic’s booming delivery from 700 feet in the air). Roddick could win another major, but it will be a difficult task with so much young talent surrounding him. Projected career total: 1
7. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Here’s a comparison I haven’t seen before that seems dead on: Tsonga and Boris Becker. Tall, rugged, powerful, agile, always moving forward, always on the offensive, always dangerous. Tsonga’s talent is immense; unfortunately, so is his capacity for injury (he had a knee operation this year and suffers from a chronic back condition). Can he play enough to be at his best in the biggest tournaments? Projected career total: 1
8. Juan Martin Del Potro: I had all but written off Del Potro a year ago. He seemed to lack intensity, he wasn’t in the greatest shape, and he suffered from injuries. He also didn’t move well. This year, though, he’s addressed all these concerns to varying degrees and jumped more than 40 spots in the rankings. I have no idea how he’ll respond to the pressure of a major final, but I do think he’ll get there—and even win a couple. Projected career total: 2
9. Gilles Simon: While the wiry Frenchman lacks the flash of some of his compatriots, he knows more about winning, something no top player from France has figured out since Yannick Noah, another member of the 1985 Top 10 list. Will he break the curse? Close, but no cigar. Projected career total: 0
10. James Blake: Unfortunately, one gets the sense the soon-to-be 29-year-old’s best tennis is behind him. I’d love to see him reach a major final, especially in Flushing, but the chances are slim. Projected career total: 0
Total for the group: 40 (three fewer than the Top 10 from 1985)
I admit, these are lofty predictions, but that ought to tell you how highly I think of this crop of players, not to mention a few others (such as Gael Monfils and Marin Cilic) who might well contend for major titles in the future. Of course, these men might not achieve anywhere near this much success. Take a look at the 1997 Top 10, which no doubt seemed strong at the time. Six of those players reached the No. 1 ranking, yet only Sampras won more than two major titles. Moya could have won more than one French Open. Same goes for Chang and Muster. Rios won 67 percent of the matches he played in his career but couldn’t string seven together over the course of two weeks. Bjorkman couldn’t quite get over the hump in singles. In total, this group won a total of 23 majors, 14 of them by Sampras. They could have done much, much better.
When most people talk about talent, they describe it as difficult to identify. Not true, I say. It’s easy to spot talent. Predicted what a person will do with it is the difficult part. Shanghai is a prelude to the answers we’ll begin learn in 2009.