Assessing players greatness by number of championships feels like a fairly silly thing when, in most popular sports, an individual player’s team success is heavily influenced by the team. It makes sense when you think of it: a player can have significant influence on the outcome but if the coaching or teammates are limited, the team is limited. And we are getting better at this understanding. You look at, for instance, the conversation around Lebron James and his place among the all time greats. Ten years ago (or ten days ago in Chicago), folks would say “he doesn’t have six ringzz so he can’t be better than Michael Jordan.” But now there is growing acceptance that the career work of Lebron James has him in the conversation, likely to a greater player than Jordan despite the championship differences.
We also have grown in understanding that the winner of a playoff may not have been the best team from the season. Particularly single game elimination events (NFL playoffs, NCAA March Madness) or even a cold spell in a short series. The LA Dodgers finally won a championship in 2020 but many could say they were the best team the last three years.
At the core of this is the idea of a singularity around being the best. The top of the mountain. THE NUMBER ONE. That’s why it strikes me as befuddling that we don’t carry that same assessment in individual sports, particularly our focus on majors over, well, world rankings.
I am going to walk through a simple argument: If I had to choose between winning the most majors ever and most weeks at number one, I’m choosing world rankings EVERY time.
What makes Grand Slams Special?
The tennis Grand Slams (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open) are usually the tournaments that come with the greatest notoriety, highest prize money, largest fields, and are the longest in duration. Some of these elements are inconsequential in practice but hugely influential on the public consciousness. Most people only watch or know the slams even though the ATP Masters 1000/WTA 1000 are probably more exciting. But in practice, we need to assess two elements.
First is the field. Most tournaments (those 1000 level events mentioned above) have 96 entrants. Grand Slams have 128 people in the field. That, plus no first-round byes, means winners have to play seven matches to win a Grand Slam instead of six if they are unranked (five if they are ranked) at a lower-level tournament. Not playing two additional matches is incredibly notable. Additionally, a larger field means more stumbling blocks along the way. Surviving a two-week gauntlet is pretty different than a weeklong event. That is why the points are greater for winning the majors.
What makes Grand Slams not so unbelievable?
I don’t have any big issue with Grand Slams. Doing things differently for greatest prestige is fine in sports. My issue is their use as the standard to assess player greatness. But, specific to Grand Slams, there are some shortcomings. First, the 128-player field is bigger and that theoretically means more landmines. But it also means a field that is diluted early. And the early results show that top tier players are one and off court with ease in the first two rounds. Yes, upsets happen (don’t @ me UMBC Men’s Basketball team) but they are exceedingly rare in tennis. So, I am not that moved by the larger field though I like the idea of no byes for the participants.
Relatedly, the two-week tournament length means there are rest days between events. That would make sense given the alleged slog of the Grand Slam. But, and stop me if you’ve heard this from me before, the deviations between the Men’s and Women’s game is huge here. Playing five-sets strikes me as worthy of a tournament that is listed as bigger and better than the others. That the women’s game continues to play three-sets at the slams really doesn’t make the slam distinct from literally all the other events on the tour. That men play five-set matches at four events but three-sets at all the other events on the tour is notable, but it is the exception not the rule.
**Note: I think the grand slams should be five-sets for Men and Women. I’d be happy it the men went back to three sets. But the imbalance is silly and rooted in sexism.**
Case for most weeks at number one
I don’t want to assess the greatest of all time based on how they perform at four events and disregard how they perform at 20 other events with a less diluted field. I think the four events should be part of how we think about years of performance against their peers at a range of events. We don’t have time to discuss the merit of the world ranking system, defending points, and the importance of tournament selection bias. What I (maybe we?) can say is that winning a major or two but not being successful against your peers at most events isn’t that impressive. It’s not as if the other tournaments don’t have the same competitors. And you get a range of surfaces (two speed hard courts, clay, grass) around the world.
Ultimately, we spend all day arguing about sports to discuss who is the best and, unlike team sports, we can look at a year’s worth of performances and figure that out easily in individual sports. We have a ranking system that takes major performance into play, weights it accordingly, but also doesn’t dismiss the OVERWHELMING majority of events against players. To say you’re the best in the world is a bold claim. To have the number one next to your name for years makes that claim not as bold, but still incredible.
I would love to see a player win some majors along the way but if year in and year out, I cannot be moved off the top of the mountain, then let me live in history as the loneliest person at the top of the mountain.