Best Tennis Player of All Time: Jimmy Connors. Really?

Who is the best tennis player of all time? Connors? Borg? McEnroe? Nadal? Federer? As is the case in almost all sports, this is an almost impossible question to answer definitively. Is it the player why was most consistent over their career? The player who won the most majors? The player with the best winning percentage in majors? The most dominant head-to-head player?

And how do you compare across eras? Tennis, like all professional sports, has become more competitive over time, with the result being a general improvement in the quality of the players and the game. A top ten player from today could almost certainy dominate a top player from the 1970s, and possibly even the 1980s. The changes in training, raquets, career length and strategy make the comparisons very difficult.

Further, how do you handle career length? Say someone burst onto the scene, thrashed all the great players for twelve months, then decided to wander the globe, like Caine, and stop playing professional tennis. Are they a great player? How do you weight their brief dominance versus someone whose career was a decade or more, like a Federer, or an Agassi?

A new academic paper tries to answer this “best” question, yet again, by applying a network analytic model. It looks at contacts between players in the top tournaments, and then creates a new measure, called “prestige”, that it uses to re-rank players across decades. Here is the author’s description of how the new measure works:

We consider the list of all tennis matches played by professional players during the last 43 years (1968-2010). Matches are considered as basic contacts between the actors in the network and weighted connections are drawn on the basis of the number of matches between the same two opponents. We first provide evidence of the complexity of the network of contacts between tennis players. We then develop a ranking algorithm similar to PageRank and quantify the importance of tennis players with the so-called “prestige score”.

Here are his results, with Jimmy Connors out front, followed by Lendl and McEnroe. Federer is back in seventh spot, behind players like Edberg and Agassi; Rafael Nadal is further back in 24th place, one ignominious spot behind the flowing mane of Vitas Gerulaitis.

best-tennis-1.png

This, of course, entertaining, but an instant argument for anyone who follows tennis. I get that they were more dominant in their era, but is this what we mean by “better”, having Vitas Gerulaitis rank above Rafael Nadal? The latter would have crushed Gerulaitis like a furry bug. Taking a broader view, is Lendl better than Federer? It shows how tricky these inter-generational comparisons can be. Even so, Federer’s 16 wins in the Slams puts him well ahead of anyone else, active or retired, and Connors is nowhere on that list. Granted, Connors has 109 singles titles in total, which Federer will never approach, but those must be hugely discounted against Slams wins.

As an attempt to get around this, the paper closes with another chart. The second one restricts comparison to within individual years, thus avoiding the Gerulaitis/Nadal problem of brief careers in modern era versus long careers in earlier eras.

tennis-2.png

This chart makes more sense, in that the rankings, while not always matching official ones, are plausible within the year in question. Mind you, I’m not convinced Djokovic was the best player in the world in 2009, so that does seem a little awry, but put that aside and the paper’s “prestige” network analytic model doesn’t do too badly.

All of this leaves us with an open question: Is it possible to do credible inter-generational comparisons in professional sports? This paper leaves, while analytically impressive, wide-ranging and thoughtful, leaves me even more doubtful. [-]

Source: Radicchi F. Who is the best player ever? A complex network analysis of the history of professional tennis. 2011:10. Available at: http://arxiv.org/abs/1101.4028.

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  1. Consider the Tennis Player
  2. Grunting and Tennis: It’s All Good
  3. Friday Fun: Tennis Serves and New Balls
  4. Everything I Know About Tennis I Learned from Cow Paths
  5. The Second Serve Problem

Comments

  1. Mike Barnes says:

    One thing people always say is that Connors NEVER WON THE FRENCH. Well, if they would check, in 1974 he won the three others and the ITF (International Tennis Federation) BANNED him from the French because of Team Tennis. He beat Borg on clay and Borg is a Six time French champ. Connors boycotted the French for years after that. In 1991 he had Chang beat in the Semi's of the French but got hurt and retired (while ahead). He got to the semi-finals (he was 39 at the time) of the US Open that same year. Connors is by far the best ever.

  2. TennisNut says:

    I've followed tennis for 40 years and I've always said that no one could beat Connors on his best day. The single greatest moment in all sports I ever saw was a Connor's cross-court backhand that was simply unbelievable. I'm not arguing that he was the best of all time. That is a question for endless debate. Connors was very emotional, with a complex — chippy — personality. And I believe that got in his way on many occasions. But it also let him — on his best days — attain a level higher than anyone else has ever reached — IMHO.

  3. Chris Stone says:

    Interesting paper, generating an interesting debate.
    Being an avid tennis fan across the entire time period and a half decent player, I think the Connors conclusion is fair and somewhat a result of the way in which the rankings were put together. Also, realize Connors won multiple grand slams on grass (US, Aus. and Wimbledon) as well as on clay (US), and hardcourts (US), which certainly factored into the analysis, along with his long career. In 1974 he would have likely won the Grand Slam, making this much less of a debate. He got to 15 grand slam finals, winning 8, losing 7. Qualitatively, he beat a lot of great players at the top of their games in big tournaments: Laver, Rosewall, Borg, McEnroe, Vilas, Lendl. In my mind the greatest upset in tennis history is when he lost to (got destroyed by) Ashe at Wimbledon in 1975. I simply could not believe the result when I heard it, as, at the time, Connors was essentailly unbeatable. As far as Nadal-Connors, I think Connors' funny game (lefty, no spin flat ball, use the opponent's pace, pound the back hand) would give Nadal fits and he would destroy Nadal on all surfaces except clay, on which they would have an even match, thanks for reading…

  4. bythehue says:

    Raul Ramirez. and Rod Laver not even in top 30.

  5. Byron says:

    My opinion may be driven by my being a rabid Connors fan ever since I was a kid(now 49). I think that the guys from the era of Connors, Borg, McEnroe, and Lendl were every bit as good as the guys today. The game today is so one dimensional because of the equipment-it is nothing but power. Connors could match their power with the Wilson T2000. The aforementioned players could do it all-serve, volley, power, finesse, everything. The players today only know how to do one thing-baseline. When was the last time you saw a true serve and volley player? I remember some years ago the commentator on Wimbledon asking Bud Collins who would win if Sampras and McEnroe could play in their prime and who would win. I don’t remember who it was, but it may have been Dick Enberg. Without hesitation, Collins said that McEnroe would “have Sampras on his knees in about five minutes trying to figure out what to do”. I agree. McEnroe had the most raw talent ever, no question. But, I think Connors was a greater player(not necessarily the best) because of his longevity, his pure passion for the game, and his never say die attitude. Connors would fight to the end with one broken arm. Borg usually came out on top with Connors, but he tanked matches against some people, as did Lendl. Connors vowed, in reference to Borg, “to follow that son of a bitch to the ends of the earth”. That is what made Connors the greatest. He never quit.

    • peter says:

      Can' t agree at all about Mcenroe having the most raw talent. He was a left hander witha very akward serve.

      Because of his personalty people assume he was a " flawd genis " this was not the case at all, he was a great player, but in terms of style , he would not have the " the best raw talent " label , had he been less controversal.

      Federer has shots that Mac coiuld not dream of. Borg was the more fluent gracefull player. McEnroe did not hit as many winners or sublime passing shots, he had the better serve.

  6. Will says:

    I guess I go back to emotional memories from childhood, and some results of course. Rod Laver won the the same year Grand Slam twice. If he had played in a generation that was all open or not, what would he have done? To me, the best criteria considers the dominance in major tournaments in a generation. Of course Federer would surely trample Bill Tilden, if they played face to face in their prime.

  7. ShiftyEyedDog says:

    I think one thing you have to assume is that the really great players would adjust to whatever era, whatever style of play, whatever location, and to different surfaces regardless. If you take that as a given, the ones that immediately spring to mind, in terms of basic innate ability that would most likely adapt itself to any circumstances, are Federer, Laver, Sampras. Poetry in motion on the court, effortless like they were born to it. Also, these player didn't have tennis parents who pushed them into it and drove them. It happened naturally, organically. Many of the top players, especially in the last 20 years, are obsessive-compulsive types, some of whom were made that way by their parents (read Agassi's bio). These players are no doubt talented, but their basically unnatural and arguably unhealthy process of entry into the sport disqualifies them, to me, from being put in the absolutely top tier.

  8. Oliver Schmitt says:

    I think it's a endless debate that we here do. The statistic said that Connors is GOAT because of his long career were he beat a high amount of high ranked players. He beats all from Laver over Newcombe over Borg over McEnroe to Lendl. He has no wins against Sampras, Becker or Agassi but these Players came on tour when he was at the end of his career. He has won more tournaments and matches as anyone else but it is impossible to compare a sportsmen of the seventies/eigthies to one of the 2000…. Would anyone compare Pele with Messi, Ali with Klitschko or Mark Spitz to Michael Phelps? The sport is in evolution in athletics, technic and such things. You can compare the talent, the possibility. What would Federer make with wooden rackets or Connors/McEnroe/Borg with todays rackets and trainings technics? I bring Laver, Federer, Sampras, McEnroe, Borg and Connors on the same level, a foodstep infront of Agassi, Lendl and Nadal. The GOAT is impssoble to name objektively.
    Oliver, Germany

  9. GEOFFREY GAMMON says:

    I agree that the GOAT is impossible to establish objectively. However, Filippo Radicchi's diffusion algorithm must be fundamentally flawed to cause him to rank players who never won a major above Wilander(7) and Nadal(10).Since 1972, 11 players have won six or more majors and have all been ranked #1. They are Federer, Sampras, Borg, Nadal, Agassi, Connors, Lendl, McEnroe, Wilander, Becker and Edberg; Sampras, Federer, Lendl and Connors have all had over 200 weeks at #1; McEnroe, Borg, Nadal and Agassi over 100.Tentatively, I would place Federer marginally ahead of Sampras; just below, a group comprising Borg, Connors, McEnroe and Lendl; then Agassi and Nadal, who could well move higher; and then Becker, Edberg and Wilander.

  10. skeptic says:

    Coulda, shoulda, woulda

  11. skeptic says:

    Sorry, but this list is a joke. Rod Laver not in here? With 11 Slams and not one but two Grand Slams? And then you have a guy like Chang with one? Are you friggin kidding me? I don't care what fancy schmancy method they used, this is ridiculous.

    Virtually ANY tennis expert considers Slam count to be the number one indicator of tennis quality. Arguing otherwise is like arguing that the soccer world cup is not the most important indicator of a country's prowess in the sport. Nobody would argue that in a best ever in soccer, you put Brazil 1st with Germany as a faint possible contender. The equivalent of this list in soccer is like putting, say, Wales, ahead of Brazil or Argentina because of some odd factor of logevitiy or what not.

    In any GOAT discussion in tennis there are precious few names that would appear and they are pretty much between Federer or Laver (add Gonzalez, Borg or Tilden to the list if you will). No tennis expert would even remotely entertain Connors. It was Connors himself while praising the current era and Federer's versatility that said: "In an era of specialists, you're either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist…or you're Roger Federer."

  12. Edmaster says:

    Nadal, definitely the no 1. At 25, he won 10 grand slams. Will probably win another 4-6 majors. Is better than Federer head-to-head, plus his career grand slam is without a doubt the most impressive ever, having beaten Fed both on hard court, clay as well as the holy grass. Federer's 2009 recovery (winning the French and Wimbledon after the Aus open defeat) would not have taken place had Nadal been fully fit. Anyone who puts Sampras in the top 2, does not understand how important it is for tennis players to win all majors. Pete was a sub top player on clay, and never managed to improve his game enough to win the French at least once (in fact, he never even came near the final). That disqualifies him for sure to be even close to being considered the all time greatest.

  13. Matlabaraque says:

    I love your description of very old champions like Jimmy Connors. It's a true contribution to the debate. I actually love this never-ending debate, however it seems to me important that emotions shoud not enter into account. For instance you can't blame Lendl for not being sympathetic. Or praise Edberg just for being fair play. You can't neither say that some periods were less competitive than others.. Tennis has always been popular enough to impose a great competition. Isn't Murray as a great champion as was Vitas Gerulaitis or Guillermo Vilas ? Facts and performance must lead the way.
    Then comes the discussion…
    What is more important ? The number of grand Slams ? The number of tournaments won ? The ranking … etc… Can't players before the Open Era get a fair comparaison with recent players (especially those who were over both periods) ? Should the very ancient Davis Cup count ? Should the Olympics be part of this crazy calculation ?
    Come on folks, suggest a proper ranking !
    Matlabaraque – France

  14. matlabaraque says:

    I gave it a try … Here's the top 50 –

    1-Roger Federer
    2 – Pete Sampras
    Ivan Lendl
    Jimmy Connors
    5- Rod Laver
    6- John McEnroe
    7- André Agassi
    Bjorn Borg
    Rafael Nadal
    10- John Newcombe
    Roy Emerson
    Ken Rosewall
    13- Stefan Edberg
    Boris Becker
    15- Mats Wilander
    Novak Djokovic
    17- Guillermo Vilas
    Lleyton Hewitt
    Ilie Nastase
    Jim Courier
    Stan Smith
    Arthur Ashe
    23- Andy Roddick
    Pancho Gonzales
    Jack Kramer
    Lew Hoad
    27- Yvegueny Kafelnikov
    Gustavo Kuerten
    Mickael Chang
    Marat Safin
    31- Juan Carlos Ferrero
    Vitas Gerulaitis
    33-Goran Ivanisevic
    Patrick Rafter
    Michael Stich
    Andy Murray
    Jan Kodes
    Tony Roche
    39-Thomas Muster
    Manuel Orantes
    Carlos Moya
    David Ferrer
    43 -Roscoe Tanner
    Pat Cash
    Sergi Bruguera
    Yannick Noah
    47- Johan Kriek
    Alex Corretja
    49- Jonas Bjorkman 1710
    50-Jan Okker
    Tim Gottfried
    Richard Krajicek