With another Super Bowl title for Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots drifting into the rear view, NFL pundits will inevitably spend a great deal of the offseason discussing—endlessly—whether or not Brady truly is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). With nine trips to the Super Bowl and six championships (the most of any single player, passing Charles Haley this year) Brady presents a strong case.
Of course, if Brady were an offensive lineman with the same credentials, he would never be mentioned in the discussion; much like Robert Horry from the NBA, who miraculously accrued seven titles as an integral role player on a variety of championship teams. Horry has more championship rings than Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Magic, Kareem, Wilt, Shaq—pretty much every NBA star that’s ever entered in the GOAT discussion, Bill Russell aside (who, unthinkably, has eleven).
So it clearly can’t be just winning that makes someone the GOAT. In the NBA, the discussion would begin and end with Russell, yet it doesn’t. While I’m not writing here to try and outline schemata to influence the debate one way or another, what I am interested in is the idea that deciding on a GOAT is essentially impossible, given the nature of team sports, and how team sports evolve over different eras.
Russell could never dominate the NBA today the way he did in the late-50s and early-60s, simply due to the three-point line and the increased number of exceptionally skilled big men (a trend that surely won’t reverse). In the same light, going back in time, Stephen Curry’s primary weapon didn’t exist in the era of Cousy and Havlicek (Russell’s teammates), so it’s impossible to know how effective Curry actually would have been then.
What’s happening in the NBA right now is fascinating, in fact, thinking historically. How do we compare Harden’s ongoing streak of 30-point games to Wilt’s? You couldn’t dream up two players whose skill sets manifest on further ends of the spectrum, yet their respective domination and influence on the game feels eerily similar (never having seen Wilt live, it’s what I imagine anyway: a one-trick pony whose trick is so vastly superior to everyone else’s that it somehow succeeds again and again).
Here’s another way to think about it: If you had to bet on one player from today’s game to match Wilt’s 100-point game, who would you choose? Harden, unquestionably. And yet, much like Wilt, who had to overcome Russell’s Celtics for his two titles, it’s difficult to imagine Harden’s game bringing home the hardware for the Rockets, as long as the Warriors remain the Warriors (despite how close Harden got last year).
You could play a similar game with Westbrook and Oscar Robertson, in regards to triple-doubles. What Westbrook has done the last 10 games (and the last two and a half years) is astounding. But is it at impressive as what Robertson did, averaging a triple-double over his first five seasons with the Cincinnati Royals?
One of the joys of the absorption of analytics into the discourse of sports has been that statisticians can write complex algorithms to attempt to account for these complex historical differences (for instance, check out the “Elo rating” system if you haven’t already, developed originally to rank Chess players, now kind of a fun, adaptable player-ranking system used in a variety of sports).
However, there remains, in my mind, an unbridgeable gap specific to team sports that makes GOAT questions unanswerable.
So much of Brady’s success, for instance, depends on his offensive linemen not missing assignments. His success has always depended on this. Every quarterback’s does. Without those five athletes in front of Brady, dedicating and devoting themselves each year to protecting their QE, Brady never becomes who Brady has become. And yet we never learn those offensive lineman’s names (surely there have been a great deal over the years).
This is one of the great crimes in sport, in my opinion: the perpetual anonymity of offensive lineman. Without a solid offensive line, no team can taste success, even remotely. And yet, how many of you can name each of your starting O-linemen on your favorite NFL team?
So if it becomes impossible, as I hope you sense by now, to truly define a GOAT in our favorite team sports, does the same hold for individual sports?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, essentially since Novak Djokovic won his seventh Australian Open title (passing Roger Federer and Roy Emerson for the most all time) at the end of January and delivered one of the most beautiful championship speeches I have seen in quite some time (primarily because of how movingly he thanks his family and praises Rafael Nadal, who he vanquished in the final).
Djokovic played dominating tennis for the entire two weeks and currently holds three of the four major titles (with the French Open looming in late May). Djokovic now ranks third in all time major championships, trailing only Federer and Nadal, all three of whom, unbelievably, are still competing at the highest level. Djokovic’s victory over Nadal in the Australian Open final, in fact, prevented Nadal from becoming the first tennis player in history to have won each major title at least twice (which both Djokovic and Federer will hope to become at the upcoming French).
Given the individual nature of tennis, and the fact that all three of these all-time greats are playing concurrently, the question of GOAT seems like it will offer a much clearer answer in tennis than it can in basketball or football, when these three are finished playing: simply, whoever holds the most major titles among them.
Interestingly, on the women’s side, Serena often seems to hold the GOAT title without much debate, though she still trails Margaret Court by one major, and has surpassed Steffi Graf by only one major (Court: 24; Serena: 23; Graff: 22). Court played in a different era, and Graff and Serena only met twice, in 1999, splitting the matches at very different stages of their career (Graff’s ending and Serena’s beginning).
Needless to say, if Serena doesn’t end up passing Court, I wonder how the debate will settle as more time passes. It’s quite possible we hear the moniker GOAT for Serena during broadcasts because she is still playing, and commentators like to say such things.
Contemplating these questions of greatness, and realizing how unbelievably lucky and unprecedented in sports it is to have (possibly) the three greatest male tennis players of all time competing against each other regularly (for upwards of twelve years now, since Djokovic joined Nadal and Federer as a force to reckon with in 2007-8), I grabbed David Foster Wallace’s compilation of tennis essays, String Theory (published in 2016 by Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.), in the hopes of learning more.
And my goodness was there a lot to learn!
Though David Foster Wallace died before Djokovic came on the scene, his essay on Federer attempts to pinpoint exactly what about an athlete launches him or her into the upper upper echelon of athletes, amongst a huge pool of already upper echelon athletes. The term GOAT never appears in Foster Wallace’s book, but it is the subtext of nearly everything he writes about in regards to Federer.
How is it possible for a human being to ascend to the level of greatness Federer regularly displays? Is it because Federer, in fact, possesses suprahuman abilities?
The essay on Federer (“Federer Both Flesh and Not”) is only one of five, however, that comprise the book. DFW (as he is commonly known) played junior tennis, fairly successfully, and wrote about the sport regularly throughout his adult life, commissioned by magazines such as Harper’s, Tennis and Esquire for profile or investigative pieces.
The other essays recount DFW’s tennis-heavy youth on the regional circuit growing up in Ohio, his love for Tracy Austin and his subsequent dismay on reading her biography, an intense pondering over Michael Joyce’s life (ranked 79th at the time) while he attempts to qualify for the Canadian Open, and a blistering account of the 1995 U.S. Open, primarily in regard to its unrelenting exhibition of commerce and capitalism.
For anyone who’s wavered or cringed at the thought of navigating DFW’s notoriously difficult (though seminal) novel Infinite Jest, his essays provide a more accessible entrance point into his writing style and aesthetic, while still offering a glimpse at the endless rabbit holes DFW perpetually invites his readers down. The footnotes in these tennis essays, for instance, are generally as enlightening and encompassing as the main text of the essay itself.
Moreover, given the unfortunate story of DFW’s life (he killed himself in 2008 after years of depression, at the age of 46), the softness of the essay on his youth is most welcome. The great despair that runs through much of DFW’s work is pushed far to the background, simply to invite memory in, and the fact that DFW loves tennis so much makes readers feel they are glimpsing back on some of the happiest moments of DFW’s life—that a Midwestern youth really did have something to offer him.
While the essay on the 1995 US Open and the essay on Tracy Austin (more accurately, the ineptitude of sports biographies in general), squarely land in the mode of deep cynicism, the essays on his youth, Federer, and Michael Joyce do not, and the latter two essays break ground on the entirely intense lifestyle one must actually lead, from very early on, to become a professional athlete.
The humbling moment when DFW realizes (despite being a fairly successful junior player himself) the astronomical gap between he and Michael Joyce speaks to the superhuman nature of professional athletes in general, let alone the ones we remember. And the ones we remember, DFW contends, are simply the top few. Michael Joyce is barely surviving on the professional tennis tour, no one has heard of him, yet he is “the 79th best tennis player on planet earth” (43).
DFW writes, “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard” (44).
While the Joyce and Federer essays were published ten years apart (1996 and 2006, respectively) this inquiry after the “best in the world” spawns both, and it’s beautiful to watch DFW’s mind unravel when confronted with Federer, an athlete who might actually be the best in the world (even the best ever) at what he sets out to do. DFW ventures into the realm of kinesthetic ability, and invites mystery and metaphysics as “closest to the real truth” (127):
“The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws” (127).
DFW is seeking after what makes a GOAT a GOAT (scientifically, spiritually), and he is such a gifted writer, first and foremost, that these essays come off unlike any other sports essays ever written. Moreover, his knowledge of tennis is both intimate and vast, so the essays satisfy on many levels.
The history and evolution of the game is discussed extensively as simply a byproduct of some of the points DFW is trying to make. The tennis court dimensions, and shot and racket angles, are minutely described in the hopes of demonstrating how impossible it is to comprehend what the greatest players are able to do. These are only two tangential examples among many.
What a joy, to wade through these microscopic investigations of the sport, from the super-brain of DFW. Essentially, it is difficult to argue with the blurb on the back cover (from The New York Times Book Review): “The greatest tennis writer ever”; a funny moniker however, given that many who have read DFW (at least not avidly) could be totally unaware these essays even existed.
Finally then, while questions of the GOAT continue to entertain, and likely will as long as sports remain an integral component of modern society, it will be interesting to see, many months from now, if Serena has passed Court (and Serena’s a mother now no less – such inspiration!), and which of the big three male tennis stars finish the season on top.
Something DFW would surely have loved to witness.