Best-Ever Arguments Tedious, Pointless

I don't take joy in repeating myself, but it seems I must. I have covered this topic exhaustively already. But many writers and commentators have failed to shed their myopia and approach sports with a sense of perspective and balance.

Because here we go again.

Now that Rafael Nadal has completed the career Grand Slam at 24, many sportswriters are claiming that he belongs in the argument as Greatest Of All Time. This comes just a year after many of these same commentators figured Nadal's career was over - or at the very least that he'd never be able to survive on hard courts - because of his repeated knee problems. Countless experts doubted the incredible Nadal's ability to transcend his game and produce championships on all court surfaces, even if healthy.

Of course, refiguring the GOAT argument with Nadal comes on the heels of five years of the nearly hypnotic incantations of so many in the tennis community -- Repeat after me: Roger Federer is the greatest player to have ever wielded a racquet. To have thought or said otherwise was heresy in some circles.

When Federer was being accorded GOAT status with near unanimity, I asked all along how one could be declared the best of all time if his main rival, Nadal, owned a dominating record against him. In sports it's about winning, plain and simple, and Federer hasn't beaten Nadal in a Slam event since Wimbledon in 2007. In total Slam meetings, Nadal holds a 6-2 edge, with seven of the eight matches occurring in finals.

But in no way would I contend that Nadal is the best of all time. It's utterly impossible to compare players from different eras when the game in all facets - technology, competitive balance, tournament priorities - is too variable. It's just a simple and often lazy parlor game that should be an annual discussion and not part of daily sports analysis.

Comparing players in the same generation is suitable. Saying that the best of each era belong in an elite category is fine too. But to declare with authority that so-and-so is the greatest of all time is amateurish.

So since the tiresome subject of GOAT is being brought up again, a better question is: Why? Why this nearly obsessive need to arrogantly portray the current era as possessing the finest, the greatest, the best? Is it an insecure reflex to legitimize the overimportance of sports?

This all was ratcheted up exponentially with Michael Jordan. During the 1990s, the Bulls superstar was treated with reverence, creating a must-worship sports culture. It's almost as if it has become a cottage industry, this compulsion to always anoint a current star as the greatest ever. Maybe it's due to more media outlets, resulting in more hype.

And it isn't only sports. Just examine a subject as routine as the weather. Weather and sports do share an obsession with records and a tendency for immediate exaggeration.

Consider March 1993, when a massive snowstorm blanketed the Northeast and was dubbed "the storm of the century." Never mind that the storm paled in comparison with previous blizzards. Yet since that time there seems to be a new "perfect storm" every few years. All this does is delegitimize the instances - such as Hurricane Katrina and the first "perfect storm" off the New England coast in 1991 - that actually merit such grandiose description.

Who knows? Maybe Nadal will end up with 20 Slam titles, surpassing Federer and playing with such dominance that it would be impossible not to say he was the finest player of our lifetime. But then again, Juan Martin del Potro might return from his injury-plagued 2010 and win the Australian Open, defeating Federer and Nadal en route to the title. If this were to happen, surely del Potro would have to be in the GOAT argument, since he will have defeated both Federer and Nadal in a Slam twice, a feat never accomplished.

It just goes on and on ...

Tennis note: The notion of "the ugly American" has been in circulation since William Lederer and Eugene Burdick wrote a book by that name in 1958. At first meant to explore the boorish and counterproductive manner of some American foreign-aid workers in contrast to their well-meaning and helpful colleagues, the term has morphed into a description of any American who exhibits pretentious, loud and disrespectful behavior in the presence of foreigners or in a different country.

Yet I must turn the tables on such a stereotype and defend my American journalist brethren. During the U.S. Open, I was stunned by the large percentage of the foreign press who enthusiastically cheered their players of choice. This is of minor import, as it's just sports, and outward rooting for a countryman is the accepted norm for many writers in other countries. Nonetheless it is an interesting example of American restraint and objectivity.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports. His work has also appeared in,, and Tennis Week. Email:

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