Conceptualising "greatest of all time" in the GOAT debate


Among tennis followers there is a key debate – who is the greatest of all time or GOAT, for short. Asked in a press conference if he was indeed the GOAT Federer responded, “I don’t know why. [….] Some fans call me that, I don’t call myself that.” We must remember that “greatest” is a concept that we have tagged onto the matches and encounters between the big three – our actors in this play of meaning – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. It's an accolade that doesn't really exist, unless we want it to. Ardent fans of other players have suggested that there are alternative contenders, mostly players who have also won grand slams like Murray, del Potro and Wawrinka. But for the most part the debate is a choice between the big three. The purpose here is not to decide who is the GOAT, but to examine what does greatest of all time mean, is it even a useful description and what is the starting point for fans to argue for their particular player? Firstly, greatest of all time is a contradiction in terms. If we were to pick Nadal for instance and say he was the GOAT, someone else long after the Spaniard had retired could play with more fire, win more French Open titles and statistically in every way, have a superior career to Nadal. By the same token that fans valued Nadal and called him the GOAT, they might say this new player is the GOAT. Nadal could not have possibly been the greatest of all time if he had been superseded at a later date. How can we say that a player is the GOAT when all time has not yet passed? If the world suddenly came to an end, meaning the end of tennis, then in our last moments we might be able to look upon all the key players in contention and pick from there. At the moment therefore, GOAT is a temporal paradox. So we’ve reached the end of the world. Marvellous. Now we’re ready to pick the GOAT. But what do tennis fans mean when they say "greatest"? The claim is presented as an inductive argument. From observation (usually a statistic though there are qualitative variants as well), it can be concluded their particular player has demonstrated superiority in the sport, and can therefore be determined the greatest. For example, Djokovic leads in head-to-head matches versus Nadal and Federer. Therefore he is a better player, enabling us to call him the GOAT. Or, Federer has the most grand slam singles titles with twenty, he must therefore be the better player and is the GOAT. Induction, in most cases however, is used as a justification for an argument that is made before evidence is observed, commonly based on normative reasoning instead. Each tennis watcher has their own values that they identify in other players. To name a few, Federer has his grace, Nadal has his fire and Djokovic has his mental calmness in the face of defeat. The choice of "greatest" is determined primarily by an individual's emotional response to qualities they value and spot in the external world. Then any evidence or observable phenomena is used to buttress the argument, especially if confronted by an alternative viewpoint. Because no one really wants to admit that they like a particular player just because they do. Perhaps it would be more compelling to say I feel that a player is the greatest, rather than think.

The inductive argument can also take the form of using these values as qualitative observations - Federer is the most graceful, therefore he is superior and the GOAT. At first this looks very similar to the normative reality. However the inductive argument assumes that grace, or whatever the prized value, equates to superiority. Why gracefulness means superiority remains unclear; it is a logical jump that is not explained. It is difficult to explain why gracefulness is sufficient to call one player better than another. We might say that one player is observably more elegant than another, but not that they are superior because of it. The only way this logical-misstep could occur is if the individual axiomatically valued gracefulness, not being able to express in language why this was the case, then logically try to justify an emotional response.


The GOAT debate overall is slightly problematic, as its ability to convey meaning about our external world is limited. Its strength however lies in what it is able to tell us about ourselves. When someone suggests that their player is the greatest, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that by identifying a quality in a player with which the fan resonates, that player more than any other, is making them feel great. Two opposing fans in this debate aren't trading external fact and phenomena with each other, but their own internal values instead.


Cover photo: Lev Radin, “New York, NY - August 30, 2019: Roger Federer (Switzerland) in action during round 3 of US Open Tennis Championship against Daniel Evans (Great Britain) at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center”, Shutterstock.com.



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