Forget Head-to-Head in Any GOAT-ish Debate

In my most recent blog entry I proposed criteria for a data-driven GOAT discussion. Except that it’s not for GOAT, but for MAP, the Most Accomplished Player. And beyond that, it’s helpful to have a set of criteria to compare any two players. Was Ivan Lendl more accomplished than Jimmy Connors? Who was better, Becker or Edberg? For years I had a running debate with a friend over who had the superior career, Michael Chang or Yefgeny Kafelnikov. There needs to be criteria.

As I mentioned, I would leave head-to-head records out of any such debate. I have a few reasons, which I’m sure will be seen by some as the rationalizations of a Federer apologist. But they’re not. The main reason I would leave out H2H is because it’s redundant. It’s double-counting. I explained this in a January 2011 comment to Jon Wertheim’s Sports Illustrated Tennis Mailbag, just before that year’s Australian Open. Here’s what I wrote:

As Nadal-Federer maybe, hopefully, move toward another Slam final, can we drop this silly debate over how much or not to factor in their head-to-head when considering their places in tennis history? It’s unnecessary. Since most of us look first at Slam wins in the G.O.A.T. discussion, and Nadal and Federer have played eight times in Slams (with Nadal winning six, including five finals), their head-to-head is already factored in. This is neither a pro-Federer nor pro-Nadal argument. It’s just that their matches have had a huge impact on how many Slams they’ve won, so no separate debate is needed. In other words, Federer’s losing record against Nadal hurts his legacy not because he has a losing record against his main rival (would we really care if all their matches were played in Doha or Memphis?); it hurts his legacy because it has cost him several Slams. On the other side, Nadal’s ability to beat Federer has been essential to his success in Slams. Their head-to-head record is organic to their places in history, not separate from it.

Jon’s response was: That’s way too logical. You have no future as pontificator in the comments section.

I use the H2H argument against anyone who contends that Federer’s 4-0 record against Nadal last year made him the best male player of 2017. Federer’s wins against Nadal are already factored heavily into their 2017 records. Because of those victories, Federer won the Australian Open and at least two, if not three, Masters events. (They played in the finals of Miami and Shanghai, but in the Round of 16 at Indian Wells.) If Nadal had won a couple of those matches, say the Aussie and one of the MS finals, he would have been No. 1 in a landslide. Because all of the matches were in Slams or MS events and three were in finals, those wins were a huge part of Federer’s record last year. Without them, there’s not even a discussion that he could have been the best player of 2017.

And so the same is true for their careers. Nadal is 9-3 against Federer in Slams — 6-3 in finals and 3-0 in semis. In other words, their matchups have decided at least nine Slams and as many as 12. The impact of these matches on tennis history, their careers, their Slam totals and their legacies has been enormous. The GOAT debate is a debate precisely because Nadal has done so well against Federer in Slams. Give Federer say, two more of those matches, and he has 22 Slams against Nadal’s 14. The point is, it would be redundant to set up a separate category for H2H. It’s taken care of because of the importance of their matches.


A few other reasons:

  • H2H isn’t an organic objective or achievement. Top players go into Wimbledon, or any other tournament, trying to win it. They’re not going in trying to improve their head-to-head against X player. And you can only play who’s in front of you.


  • H2H can reward players for losing too early. Federer got clobbered by Nadal in the French Open four straight years, three in the finals and once in the semis. That’s because Federer was good enough to reach those later rounds, but not good enough to beat Nadal. Federer, however, was in the finals of seven (!) non-French Slams before Nadal had reached the final of any non-French Slam. In other words, Federer didn’t have the chance to beat Nadal in any of those 2003-05 non-French Slams — when he was a better hard- and grass-court player than the young Nadal — because Nadal was losing too early for them to play each other. You can’t penalize someone if his rival loses before they get to play.


  • No two players’ careers are symmetrical. That is, rivals don’t start and finish at the same time. For example, H2H hurts players who stay on the tour a long time and rewards those who retire early. Connors’ and McEnroe’s records against a lot of players suffered because they decided to play longer than most. The Borg-McEnroe H2H is a study in unfairness on both sides. It ended up 7-7. Borg is almost three years older than McEnroe. If Borg hadn’t retired so young, McEnroe almost surely would have had the better H2H. On the other hand, you could also argue that the H2H wasn’t better for Borg because they never played on clay. If McEnroe had played more on clay and reached more clay finals, he surely would’ve taken some beatdowns from Borg. And yes, Borg was the more accomplished player even with a much shorter career.


  • If the younger of two players isn’t ready for prime time when the older player is highly ranked, the two might not play each other, which hurts the H2H of the elder. For example, Federer is 22-23 against Djokovic. But at one point he was 13-6. If Federer hadn’t played so long, his record would be better. To be fair, Djokovic lost his first four matches to Federer in 06-07, when Djokovic was still establishing himself. But it could’ve been much worse. Federer could make a strong argument that he gets screwed, because he is five to six years older than Nadal and Djokovic and has been playing them into his mid-30s. While Nadal and Djokovic get the chance to beat Federer as he is (supposedly) aging, Federer didn’t get to rack up wins against them on the front end because they were too young. To be sure, Federer lost to Nadal in their only match in 2004, but he didn’t get to play Nadal earlier, when Federer was already a top pro and Nadal was just starting. Federer ended 2001 as No. 13, 2002 as No. 6  and 2003 as No. 2, yet he didn’t get to play Nadal or Djokovic any of those years. That’s not surprising, because the younger two simply weren’t ready yet. The point is that the player who is five to six years older assumes the risk of taking beatings when his career is winding down, but doesn’t get the relative benefits of being older earlier in this career. H2H is too easily distorted by when in their careers players play each other. It’s just too damn random.


  • Not all H2H is created equal. Obviously, matches in Slams matter more than matches in small tournaments. Boris Becker was 25-10 against Stefan Edberg. But Edberg won three of the four times they played in Slams, including twice during the three consecutive years they played in the Wimbledon final. Those finals were by far the most memorable of their H2Hs. Whether he would admit it or not, I imagine Becker would have traded several of his lesser wins for one of those Wimbledon finals or his five-set loss to Edberg in the 1989 French Open semifinal.   

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