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The tennis GOAT debate: Roger Federer? Rafael Nadal? Novak Djokovic? Or Pete Sampras?

Between them, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won 56 Grand Slams. Getty Images

Welcome to another edition of ESPN's lockdown diaries, where we put down our journalist caps and let the sports fan inside take over.

This week, we step away from football and towards tennis. Where football has Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo for its GOAT debate, tennis has Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal. (And Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe, before senior colleagues shout out recency bias). Oh, and there's Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi. At this point, a certain Serbian is also cupping a hand to one ear, as he often does while playing, wondering when he's going to hear the support for himself.

For the purpose of this discussion, it is agreed to keep Serena Williams -- winner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one of which was won while pregnant -- out of consideration and stick to men's tennis. Lest this contest turn into a blowout. Also, ESPN's Senior Editor Sharda Ugra is along, mainly, but not only, to moderate the discussion.

The debate begins with opening arguments in favour of each player. Like a Nadal serve, it takes a while to get going.

Debdatta Sengupta: Federer for me. There hasn't been a player as versatile as him, at least in the last 20 years. He's been playing for 22 years and continues to hold the record for most number of Grand Slams won (20, among the men) at the age of 38. Have you seen the way he plays? It inspires awe. No one in men's tennis comes even close.

Manoj Bhagavatula: Why Nadal? 19 Grand Slams. Greatest single major/surface record, but so much more than that. The intangibles -- the best at constantly improving his game and, I would argue, the key to the golden age of The Big Three as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are collectively known. He forced the other two to improve while doing a whole lot of that himself.

Team Djokovic, much like the player's return of serve, begins emphatically.

Karthik Iyer: Djokovic (is the GOAT). Let's get back to work.

Exactly 13 minutes (an ominous sign, perhaps?) since the discussion began, the moderator joins the fray, possibly with American loyalties.

Sharda Ugra: I am happy to be on Team Serena and Team Sampras. And this (the other picks) is such 21st century exceptionalism. I am not going into records and numbers for Sampras, but I will say this: He was the one who set the standard. The last proper serve-and-volley player, one who didn't hang around for 54-shot rallies from the back of the court.

Whose record (of 14 Grand Slam singles titles) had to be broken? Sampras'. He was the one who set the benchmark. Without Pistol Pete, all these young children of today wouldn't be showing off their stats.

Scrutiny of Sampras' record begins, with Manoj seeing something sinister in the absence of 'records and numbers'.

Manoj: The records and numbers don't make Sampras look very good, do they?

Debdatta: Sure, Sampras set the standard. But Federer was the one who initiated the golden time of tennis. He pushed hard enough to go beyond the 'standard'.

Sharda: That is like saying, "Chhee, Don Bradman didn't score 10,000 runs and 100 centuries." Kya (what) logic? Obviously, none of you are old enough to have seen Sampras' running forehand down the line. Uff.

Karthik: I think I am. I saw a fair bit of Pete. I just wish he took clay more seriously. The 1996 French Open was his, until he tanked against Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

This is a serious knock on the chances of Sampras, who won zero French Opens and three titles on clay in his career. Sharda doesn't think so, though.

Sharda: Okay, now see, clay is the warm-up of the tennis season.

Manoj: You cannot be serious.

Sharda doesn't have stats on her side, but she does make a point that no numbers can convey.

Sharda: Seriously, you people. Stop going on about a golden age. We didn't see the time when they played with wooden rackets, which was also a golden age. Or Borg v McEnroe, which was the golden age with such uber-cool-ness it would make the Millennials and Gen Z and Gen X and Gen Whatever Else go pale with envy.

In the midst of all this, other, smaller exchanges break out. The #Fedal bromance is a very real thing, but there seems to be no love lost between their fans in this discussion. Manoj stirs the pot.

Manoj: Have you seen Nadal give the figurative middle finger to the laws of physics with that forehand of his? That's what does real justice to the word 'awe'.

Debdatta: I'd much rather watch paint dry, to be honest.

Manoj: Isn't that what watching Federer's game is like already?

Debdatta: Are you really a tennis fan? Because I highly doubt that right now.

Manoj: As amazing as Federer's game is, the level of passion and emotion is just not the same as Nadal. It's almost like it's too Swiss.

Karthik: Passion and emotion is no standard. Nadal can be as robotic as the next...

Debdatta: Nadal's game is too much effort. It hurts the eye (and ears) after a point. Watching Federer is like watching something effortless, magical.

Manoj: I'll give you the effortlessness. Not everyone is as talented as Federer. Which is what makes Nadal's achievements all the more remarkable. They've been summoned through sheer force of will.

Debdatta: No one is taking away from Nadal's achievements but he doesn't exactly stand a chance if his contenders include Borg, Federer and Serena.

Manoj: Borg and Sampras are nowhere close. Federer is only a slam ahead, Serena obviously way in front.

Debdatta: You've got to be kidding me. Other than on clay, Nadal won't be able to defeat these guys at their best on any other surface in a Grand Slam final (if he reaches that far in the first place).

A common criticism of Nadal's stake to the title of GOAT is that his resume is too claycourt-heavy. Cue Manoj's exasperation.

Manoj: This minimising of clay has to stop. As if it suddenly doesn't count or counts for less. Nadal has five majors on hard courts and two on grass. If you're going to have people with around 20 slams, there are going to be one or two events they really dominate. That is true for every single contender here.

Sharda: Minimising of clay also because it only requires one kind of play (return to my previous comment about 54-shot rallies).

Debdatta: That's what. He can only be the GOAT on clay. But tennis isn't played on just one surface.

Karthik re-enters chat.

Karthik: Except Djokovic (who you all have conveniently ignored until now). He's dominated on two surfaces, and has pretty much held the wool over one of your GOAT contenders at Slams this decade.

Sharda: Karthik, did you leave the conversation because no one is showing Novak any love?

Karthik: I mean, there's no other contender. He's better than Federer for sure. Nadal has a very fair shout, though.

Debdatta: Are you kidding me? Federer has won the most number of Grand Slams. How even are Djokovic or Nadal 'better'?

Karthik: Djokovic leads the head-to-head versus both Federer and Nadal. I'm willing to step aside for Nadal or Borg as GOAT, but Federer? Come on. He's been found out every time playing big-match Djokovic. Two Championship points weren't enough (in 2019 Wimbledon final), the crowd wasn't enough. Your king is dead.

Debdatta: Federer got to a Wimbledon final at 38. We'll see what Djokovic is doing at that age.

Sharda: I think he'll be playing on the Seniors Tour and doing those faux, sending-my-love-to-you bows to the crowd.

Debdatta: Don't even get me started on those bows. Epic cringe.

Karthik: He'll be retired, having beaten every record there is (except at the French Open).

Manoj: Does that include the record for playing possum?

Karthik: Djokovic is the best superstar package I have ever seen. Whiny, brilliant, all-surface, dominant, anti-vaxxer, robotic, winner, champion, great.

Manoj: Look at you spinning an anti-vaxxer stance as an eccentric quirk.

Debdatta: Whiny idol he is, yes. Also, this package makes a good resume for a WWE wrestler.

So, who is the GOAT finally?

Sharda: See, Serena has 23 Grand Slams. Argument over.