Weren't we just talking about bonus points the other day? They may not be used on the tours anymore, but they made a big comeback this week when we got the news that a computer had decided that Jimmy Connors was the greatest tennis player of the Open era. Programmed by someone named Boffin Filippo Radicchi, it awarded bonus points for wins over highly ranked opponents. Connors' longevity obviously helped him beat a high number of those players, more than, say, Roger Federer, who came in at an absurd No. 7, has had a chance to play. The programmer even said that younger players will be punished for not having played as many matches as the legends. This is clearly the case when it comes to Rafael Nadal, who may be the top quality-win player ever-he has 14 of them over the guy I think is the best of all time, and who has been ranked No. 1 for as many weeks as anyone.
Jimmy Connors may have been the most successful, over the longest period, of any Open era player so far. Nobody took as many punches and got off the mat as many times as he did. But he's not the best of the last 40 years. The flaw at the digital heart of this program is that it rewards players for beating certain opponents, while the players themselves care about winning certain tournaments much more than they do about beating highly ranked players-it is kind of fitting that Connors, who loved to make matches personal, should fare the best under this system. Otherwise, it makes for some pretty good laughs: Guillermo Vilas, Bjorn Borg's whipping boy, ends up six places ahead of Borg himself; ditto for Andre Agassi, who clocks in three spots ahead of his nemesis, Pete Sampras. And poor Ivan Lendl, who is ranked second, might be wondering what he had to do to get ahead of Jimbo-Lendl only beat him the last 17 times they played.
That a computer could be so off-base shows again the logical impossibility of any GOAT debate. In 2005, for the 40th anniversary of Tennis magazine, the editors did a countdown of the 40 best players of those four decades. We looked, roughly, at Slam wins, time at No. 1, and total titles. There were some misunderstandings along the way-we judged Rod Laver only on his record within those 40 years, from 1965 on, so he ended up being No. 8, I think, one behind Connors, a fact that set a lot of people off. And to make it more fun, and more trouble, we mixed men and women. It was obviously tough to compare them. In the end, we had to choose between Navratilova, Graf, and Sampras for No. 1. Graf and Navratilova had the stats (I tried my best to keep the thought of Seles' stabbing out of my mind, even though it almost certainly elevated Steffi's totals), but we thought Sampras' achievement relative to his competition was greater, so we went with him. More outrage. Someone wrote to tell me that I had done irreparable harm to the sport by choosing Sampras over Graf-I wrote the Sampras entry, so I guess that's why I was blamed. And it's true, Steffi's at-least-four-wins-at-all-four-majors stat is hard to argue with.
Later that year, a statistician and tennis fan who was outraged by the seemingly arbitrary way we went about this came up with a purely statistical method for finding out who "the best male player never to win a Slam" was. Except that, as with Boffin's computer, a human had to decide which stats counted most and which could be ignored. In other words, it wasn't any more "pure" or logical than six editors sitting around a table batting names back and forth. His stats ended up being weighted in favor of shorter careers, so Miloslav Mecir, who had his cut short due to injury, was determined to be the best never. Stats don't lie by themselves, but they also don't exist by themselves. Someone has to choose them, and everything is subjective after that.
To "play for your life" you want someone tough, a gutty competitor who knows how to win; someone, above all, whom you can count on. Connors himself chose Gonzalez when asked this question, then later added John McEnroe to his list (he put a lot more trust in his old rival Johnny Mac than I thought he would). I might say Sampras, but he would have to be "at his best"; often he wasn't. Jimbo is a solid choice, as long as he's not playing Ivan Lendl. Or Borg. Or McEnroe. From that era, I would go with Borg over Jimmy; the Angelic Assassin was a killer in his own right. Federer? He's the best, he's the GOAT-but for my life? When the chips were truly down? I'll take Nadal.
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