Who’s the GOAT? What the stars of the sport have said

It’s the debate that keeps rolling on – who’s the GOAT? All of the Big Three still have their cheerleaders – we take a look

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Laver Cup 2022 Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Laver Cup 2022 – © Antoine Couvercelle / Panoramic

Who’s the GOAT? It’s a question that has consumed observers, fans, coaches and players for years since the rise of the Big Three – is Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer the greatest player tennis has ever known?

We take a look here at what some leading tennis names – and some from outside the sport – have said on the debate.

Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2021

They said Federer

Mats Wilander (Eurosport October 2023)
“You know I don’t like the saying who is the GOAT, because ‘greatest of all time’ is one thing, but ‘best of all time’, we will give to Novak Djokovic these days. The ‘greatest of all time’, I like to give to Roger Federer because I think he put tennis in everyone’s TV set.”

Lindsey Vonn (on social media after skiing with Federer, February 2024)
“No matter what the statistics say, you’re the forever goat (greatest of all time),” she posted, later adding: “The post wasn’t a comparison, it was a tribute to my friend who has made a big impact in my life. Everyone just freaks out when the term GOAT is used. He can be my goat no matter what other people think.'”

Roger Federer (Sui) and Rafael Nadal (Esp) and Novak Djokovic (Ser) at the 20222 Laver Cup

They’re undecided

Andy Murray (June 2023, to Sky Sports)
“The thing that for me has been really special about those three guys is their [ability to dominate certain] surfaces. Rafa on the clay, I don’t think anyone can doubt who’s the best clay court player of all time. For me, Novak is clearly the best hard court player of all time and then grass is kind of still to be decided, between probably [Novak] and Roger. But yeah, what all those guys have achieved is amazing…If you just go on Grand Slam titles, then you’d have to give that to Novak but for me, it’s just slightly more nuanced than that.”

Toni Nadal (to ClayTenis.com, July 2023)
“I think Federer and Nadal have transcended their sport more than Djokovic. And Federer has transcended his sport more than anyone else,” said Toni in an interview with Clay.

“When it comes to categorising who is the best, we would have to establish clear standards that are always a bit open to opinion, because who is the best, the one who holds the (Grand Slam) world record or the one who wins the Olympics? I don’t know.

“I think the one who has managed to play at a better level and do more difficult things is Federer, the one who has won more is Djokovic and if we were to count all the things Rafael hasn’t played because of injury, he would probably have won more than the others.”

Martin Jaite (to Clay Tenis, February 2024)
“It’s very difficult for me to put a ranking of the best players of all time, because there are a lot of important players that I didn’t see play.

“For example, many people talk about Laver, and I didn’t see Rod Laver play. I started watching tennis with Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas and all that bunch.

“Then, you have to go by the number of titles won and the number of Grand Slams. In that sense, one might think it’s Djokovic, but for me, the duels of Federer and Nadal were stronger than the duels of Nadal and Federer with Djokovic. It’s very difficult to take sides with any of the three.”

Ivan Ljubicic (to Sport Klub, June 2023)
“I feel that Novak is the most successful already, but the word ‘greatest’ implies subjectivity and personal preference. I think that’s good, to be honest – everybody has a preferred GOAT and let the discussion begin.

“If we look at other sports, for example is there a (definitive) GOAT in football? In basketball everybody agrees that it’s Michael Jordan, but he’s not the one with the most trophies. It’s someone that most influenced you personally: for a third of the world it’s Federer, for the other third of the world it’s Nadal and for the final third it’s Novak.

“If Novak wins a few more Slams – which seems likely at this point – then the debate becomes meaningless. If Novak ends up having five to ten more than the others, we won’t have conversations like this any more.”

Djokovic and Nadal

They said Djokovic, but…

Roger Federer (in Halle, 2023)
(On Novak) “What he has achieved is absolutely gigantic. It could be sufficient. But I think as long as Rafa is still playing, too, you can’t answer that definitively yet.”

Nick Kyrgios (during commentary on Eurosport at Australian Open, 2024)
“I mean the greatest of all time is definitely Novak, but that doesn’t mean – if I said who would I want to go out there and want to watch, Roger Federer is the nicest to watch. He’s the most talented, makes the game look effortless, like the Michael Jordan of tennis.

“Without Roger, would there have been a Novak, a Nadal, someone to chase? But statistics, it’s hard to have a conversation any more.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas, September 2023
“He is no doubt the best, going by numbers. He breaks record after record. He also has a thirst, even though he has nothing to prove anymore. That’s how he’s wired.

“He’s never happy; it’s like he’s always trying to prove something to someone. I don’t know what or to whom. It’s like he always wants a rematch. He has that glint in his eye.”

But when asked who has had the biggest impact in tennis, Tsitsipas said: “It’s Federer, by a landslide. The finesse and beauty he brought to tennis, his magic on the court. I don’t think anyone else will ever match him.”

Andy Roddick (on Served with Roddick podcast, February 2024)

“What’s making this GOAT thing so weird is that we never really get anything that’s like final. The [Michael] Jordan/LeBron [James] debate is like, ‘Ok LeBron has less, but he played this’. There are other factors involved where it’s like, this conversation is largely like math doesn’t care about your feelings. It doesn’t care about your vaccination status. If you line up these three resumes (Djokovic, Nadal and Federer), and if you choose any of them but this one (Novak), you’re an insane human. Very simply, that’s the way it is.

“Everything else is about preference of what you like to watch. You like the ballet/artistry (of Federer), you like the blunt force trauma of Rafa. I’ve always said what Novak does so well doesn’t immediately jump off the screen to an untrained tennis eye.”

Christopher Eubanks (to Amazon Prime, August 2023)
“The thing is, ‘GOAT’ conversations are so subjective. It’s all dependent on what you like. The same thing could be said for [Michael] Jordan, LeBron [James]. It’s like, who means more to the sport? Who has had the biggest impact on the sport,” explained the American.

“You can make an argument that it’s Federer, because Federer changed the way that, you know, professional tennis players were viewed globally. He was a global icon. But in terms of just being a tennis player and titles, records, weeks at No 1, prize, whatever, you name it – he [Djokovic] has the numbers.”

Novak Djokovic at the ATP Finals in Turin

They said it’s Djokovic – full stop

Goran Ivanisevic (September 2023)
“The G.O.A.T. question will always remain open as it depends on personal preference. Personally, I will remember him as the greatest player of all time and a man who broke all the limits.”

Daniil Medvedev (at Wimbledon, 2023)
Even on these bad days, he manages to beat the opponent. It’s actually tough because it’s one against one. Both of them want to win. I don’t know how he’s doing it. That’s why he’s for me the greatest in the history of tennis. But this is basically, of course, debatable.”

Darren Cahill (on Advantage Connors podcast, September 2023)
“To win 24 Grand Slams, I mean the guy is the greatest I have ever seen, I don’t think there is any question about this anymore.

“We could all have our favourites, Roger, Rafa, Rod Laver for me, winning two Grand Slams (Calendar), last one in ’69, which was a remarkable effort. But to do what Novak has done and come from way behind when Rafa and Roger had a big Grand Slam total, and actually pass them on the Grand Slam total, remarkable performance.”

Juan Carlos Ferrero, (November 2023, to Marca)
“With Djokovic’s numbers there is no debate. You may like Rafa more, you may like Federer’s style more, but in terms of numbers the best in history is Novak,” he said in an interview with Spanish publication Marca.

Tim Henman (to Eurosport, after RG 2023)
“He (Djokovic) has ended the debate over who is the greatest male player of all time. He just loves and embraces the challenge. This is not his best surface, but he finds a way to win. He wants more and more.”

Henman on Eurosport in October 2023
“There are two different conversations to be had about the greatest player, the best player, that comes down to a numbers game and Djokovic will win that. If you are talking about impact and popularity, it is a one-horse race and there is no doubt that Federer is the most popular player that has ever played our sport. Overall, Djokovic is the best of all time on the numbers, but many will still pick Federer because of what he contributed to the game on so many levels.”

Pat Rafter (at launch of Brisbane International, September 2023)
“To me, [with] 24 [Grand Slam singles titles], it’s pretty evident that he’s best player of all time. He’s got the record and he’s probably got the best win-loss record against all the players against each other as well, and against the other top players.”

Jannik Sinner (November 2023, to Eurosport Italy)
“You find yourself in front of someone who has won 24 Slams, three out of four this year alone. In terms of results, he is the best that this sport has ever had,” Sinner said of Djokovic in interview with Eurosport Italy.”

Andy Roddick, column for Betway, September 2023
“It’s an impossibility to make a statistical argument against him being the best ever. It’s like proving gravity at this point. He’s now tied Margaret Court on 24 Slams but he wants all of the records, so he’ll want to get to 25.”

The American added: “It’s not even close to hyperbolic to say that he’s the best athlete on earth right now.”

Rafael Nadal (February 2024, to la Sexta)
“The image he [Djokovic] projects is worse than what he really is. He is a good person, with his mistakes. But much better than what he looks like.

“Novak breaks the racquet but at the next point he is one hundred percent, that’s why he is the one who has achieved the most in the history of our sport.

“The numbers don’t lie, he is the best in history.”

Patrick Mouratoglou (May 2023, to Canal+)

“In my opinion, the G.O.A.T. is Novak Djokovic. If you want to be objective, the G.O.A.T. will be the one with the greatest roll of honours and obviously he is the one in the best position to continue to win Grand Slams.”

Patrick Mouratoglou (October 2023, to Tennis Majors)

“The only debate people can have now is, ‘who is my favourite player?’ Who is the best? No more debate. Playing in the same era as Roger and Rafa says how great Djokovic’s achievements have been.”

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