Each generation of sportsmen has a champion who gains talismanic status but it is very rare that this champion is considered peerless. Currently, Tennis is lucky to have two heroes competing for that status. Golf with Tiger Woods, Swimming with Phelps, Sprinting with Bolt are some of the other sports that have true GOAT candidates in this generation. Pele/Maradona in Soccer, Jordan in basketball, Bradman/Sobers/Warne in their respective cricket roles, Kasparov/Fischer in chess are some of the GOAT candidates from previous eras. So what makes a GOAT candidate? I think the following criteria is very important
1. Complete dominance of the Sport in terms of winning the major trophies
2. Creative supremacy , taking the game to higher levels. Not only should the player play good but should be artistic and pleasing to the eye
3. Being in a generation that has enough “great “competition
4. Ability to do the seemingly impossible at will – fighting back from the brink, against physical constraints etc- ie showing champion qualities consistently
Federer till some time back and Nadal currently are close to achieving all these. Nadal right now is just 24 and is perfectly poised for a long reign, his only drawback maybe in the creativity factor. If Federer can get his game to the next level and beat Nadal in a few tournaments , he would have a shot too. Though Rod Laver with 2 Grand Slams has a stranglehold on the tennis “GOAT” still.
However, while it is interesting to pit one generation against the other, the discussion is purely academic. We cannot surely say that one is better than the other and opinion polls will always be skewed towards the current generation.
Each time has it’s uniqueness and heroes and equally enjoyable. We can enjoy a generation with no GOAT candidates too like the cricket teams of late 70s & 80s, the Becker/Edberg battles, Johan Cryuff with his total football and Anand’s lightning Chess.
The GOAT debate however is important because it brings forward so many viewpoints from forgotten generations which is like golddust for a true student of Sport.