It’s strange how normalized greatness is during something’s golden age. If you look at music for example, hip-hop peaked in the ’90s for a lot of people like classic rock did in the ’60s and ’70s. However, even when 2Pac and Biggie were at the apex, rappers like Nas and Jay-Z weren’t in the picture for the title belt. (There was a two-year stretch from 1968-70 when The Beatles and Led Zeppelin were still together, Jim Morrison was still alive, and The Rolling Stones were active.)
You could argue all four produced their best albums — Ready to Die, Reasonable Doubt, Illmatic, All Eyez on Me — over a two-year period from 1994 to 1996, but Nas dropped out of the GOAT conversation long ago (Ed. note: The view expressed here is solely that of the author and does not reflect the feelings of our staff as a whole). It’s also impossible to quantify a rapper as one of the greatest ever, because music is subjective and album sales are more of an indication of popularity than quality. Plus, people stopped buying albums a few years ago.
Enter sports, where everything is measurable by data and most arguments can be solved through competition. There have been many golden eras: The MLB had the 1950s, boxing had the 1970s, some would say the NBA’s greatest run was the 1980s into the ’90s.
But tennis, well, tennis right now has the Golden GOAT of golden ages.
You can take your pick between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic for best men’s player, but when you add in Serena Williams, the GOAT in tennis regardless of gender, there’s not an era that even comes close to what we’ve witnessed (and are still witnessing) in tennis over the past two-plus decades. Williams, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have 85 Grand Slam titles and 123 Grand Slam finals between them. One of the four has won a Grand Slam every year since 1999.
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We’re at almost a quarter century’s worth of these players mattering more than the rest of the field. I can’t think of another era involving anything where the subject’s Mount Rushmore is made up of people who were simultaneously active.
It would be like if Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell spent a couple decades battling it out and each walked away with six to eight titles a piece, which isn’t even possible.
When I was first pondering this idea, I thought of maybe limiting it to just the men, but Williams contributed to tennis’ feeling of inevitability more than the other three. You knew one of Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic was going to win; it was a matter of which one. With Williams, it was shocking when someone else kept up with her, let alone won.
Fans of the Andys — Roddick and Murray — revere them despite their lack of Grand Slam dominance simply because they competed with the best to ever do it. It’s similar to the way people regard Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, and the rest of the NBA greats in the ’90s who made Jordan work for a title.
Instances of tennis’ level of greatness happening in other sports don’t exist. I reluctantly agree Tom Brady is the best football player ever. Who’s his competition though? If you rolled Eli and Peyton Manning into one player, combined Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, and melded Aaron Rodgers with Brett Favre, then you’d have what tennis just had — and that’s only quarterbacks.
Boxing comes close for a variety of reasons, chief among them is the sport going from punch drunk to just drunk in the ’90s and 2000s. It’s Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and then your pick of two between George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Tommie “Hit Man” Hearns, and Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran. However, any boxing list that leaves out Mike Tyson becomes moot faster than an Iron Mike KO.
You really have to search for legit comps, and skiing came close. Lindsey Vonn and Marcel Hirscher recently retired, but they were still skiing and winning races when Mikaela Shiffrin started her run. They hold three of the top four spots on the all-time World Cup wins list, and had Ingemar Stenmark been born in the ’80s as opposed to competing in them, skiing would’ve had its own golden age worthy of rivaling tennis.
In the ’50s, baseball had Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial. That’s a pretty great group considering baseball’s history. If the slate of 1950s-era pitchers had a few bigger and better names, and baseball had fewer great players, you could make the case — especially if you cut out the entire steroid era.
Golf has a similar following to tennis in that both are immensely popular with a certain lasting demographic despite operating on the fringe of sports conversations. So unlike baseball, basketball, and football, the interest rarely rises or dips dramatically enough to affect the quality of the sport. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Tom Watson kind of overlapped, but Palmer’s last major victory came in 1970, a year before Watson turned pro. And of course you can’t talk golf GOAT without Tiger Woods.
Competing GOATs (as far as career goals records are concerned) derail hockey’s chances as Wayne Gretzky and Alexander Ovechkin each carved out their own eras. Same goes for the NBA with Jordan and James. If we’re strictly talking about programs, Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma had a nice monopoly on the College Football Playoff. That said, I’ll die before my fingers leave ’90s Nebraska off of any list ranking the greatest college football teams of all time.
I keep going back to other, actual renaissances, including the Renaissance. Donatello’s ass jumped the gun by a few decades or he and the rest of the Ninja Turtles would have a shot.
Anyway, cheers! To the GOATS!