As his career comes to a close, Roger Federer is preparing for the next stage of his life, and for many, he will walk off the court for the final time as the greatest to ever wield a racquet. Some will bring up names from long past, but in absolute terms, there are few that can hold a flame to the Swiss master, with probably only Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic able to stand alongside him and claim an undisputed spot atop tennis’s Olympus.
Likewise in Melee, we have seen many greats down the years, from Ken "SephirothKen" Hoang to Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, and Joel "Isai" Alvarado to Zain Naghmi, but most conversations about the GOAT come down to two names — Joseph "Mango" Marquez and Adam "Armada" Lindgren. Like Federer and Nadal, they both have a claim to being the best there ever was and command fanbases that will rabidly defend their claims to the end of the earth, as much out of love as logic at this point.
Who is Melee's GOAT after all?
So, how do you decide on which is the greater player? The phrase "greatest of all time" is extremely nebulous, and can be fit into a number of different sets of criteria depending (largely) on the outcome you want to arrive at. Do you rate consistency over peak performance, for example? Do you use the famous "eye test", or allow the stats to speak for themselves?
Just as with tennis, you can stay on paper and look at numbers, but those are only half the story. Novak Djokovic is now just a single Grand Slam title away from surpassing Federer’s record, leading some in the tennis community to put him above Federer or Nadal, while others take a more nuanced view when arriving at conclusions and include the context, rather than pretending all titles are equally hard to win, and therefore equally telling in these terms.
Beating the enigmatic legend of American Smash was the ultimate test any player could set themselves.
For Melee though, the Federer and Nadal chat has a lot of parallels with the Mango vs Armada one, and the first point may be controversial to European fans. While Armada was unarguably on Mango’s level, there is a case to be made that he might never have been as great were it not for the existence of the American, just as Nadal might never have been the player he was without Federer.
In the recent Melee documentary "Metagame" by Samox, Armada speaks about his desire to travel to America and prove that he (as well as Europe) was just as good as the greats of the states, and anyone who knows Melee knows that Mango is the greatest of all American Smashers. Armada’s greatness generally is not in question, but to get to the point where he became the machine, he had first to set his sights as high as possible, and beating the enigmatic legend of American Smash was the ultimate test any player could set themselves.
Likewise, Nadal was already king of his own domain when he set out on possibly his most challenging quest: learning how to beat Federer on grass. For those that don’t know, the Spaniard is indisputably the greatest clay court player of all time, but for years it was considered that Federer was just as untouchable on the Wimbledon turf, due to the way his talent synergized with the conditions in London.
Nadal’s greatness on clay was absolute, with Federer never managing to beat his rival at Roland Garros, but for Nadal the idea that Federer couldn’t lose on grass was unacceptable. Years of grind and determination saw Nadal adapt and improve to the point where he was able to overturn the genius on Wimbledon’s green flats, a task many considered impossible, and which may have shortened Nadal's career with the intensity of the effort required.
Nadal and Armada achieved miracles, but in some ways, they both had to do it in a world defined by their greatest competitor.
That is not to say Nadal is not great in his own right, but like Armada, he measured himself against another god, and like Armada, he overcame impossible odds to achieve his goal. Both may also have burned themselves out in doing so, with Armada unable to motivate himself to keep his level of practice up as time went on, and Nadal destroying his knees with thousands of hours of grind just to reach the levels Federer did without breaking a sweat.
In fact, it’s fair to say that without Mango and Federer, the worlds of Melee and tennis would simply not be the same as they are today. Prior to their coming the games were being played at a certain level, but neither will ever be the same after the coming of The Kid, or the Swiss. Nadal and Armada achieved miracles, but in some ways, they both had to do it in a world defined by their greatest competitor, which made their path that much more challenging as a result.
Mango vs. Armada: Man vs. Machine
This also feeds into the second comparison, of the "natural", as Samox called Mango in his first Smash doc, versus the machine-like Armada with the impeccable punish game. As much as today’s top Europeans would have you believe they are unable to compete due to their location, Armada is proof that hard work and dedication will take you just as far as any gift. Armada honed his craft through countless days spent engraining his punish game versus CPUs, his little brother, or any other willing victim.
Meanwhile, Mango is famous for his hedonistic lifestyle, a part of which is an image perpetuated by the player himself, and that plays into the idea he didn’t have to try as hard as other players. This isn’t true, of course, with many of his school years sacrificed on the altar of Melee, and countless hours since spent evolving and learning, but when it comes to the grand final he looks like a man that understands Melee on a whole different level, just as Federer did, creating the impossible without raising an eyebrow.
Instead of engaging in vitriol, we will simply celebrate the fact we got to see them play and be grateful that we lived through the golden age of the sport.
There are amazing moments for Armada too, including a famous parasol combo that none who saw it will ever forget, but his legacy is more about a determination to win that enabled utter dominance over almost every opponent. Where Mango makes moments that last in your mind, Armada created records that almost defy belief, and can only really be understood by breaking them down and looking at the bald facts, much like Nadal’s untouchable record when fit at the French.
In the end, though, your own GOAT will be the one that lives in your heart, as both Mango and Armada deserve the title in their own right, just as Federer and Nadal have equal claim. One man may be the progenitor, but the other took what was possible and stretched it, even creating greatness that surpassed their inspiration, and for that reason, it’s impossible to say which is truly better.
What is true is that both tennis and Melee would be unrecognizably worse off without the presence of these legends of the game, and in Melee’s case, we might not even have a scene were it not for the Mango/Armada rivalry. Instead of engaging in vitriol, we will simply celebrate the fact we got to see them play and be grateful that we lived through the golden age of the sport, or esport, to witness true greatness.
Images by: Todd Gutierrez for BTS, Alliance