|Posted by Aneesh P V on November 18, 2009 at 10:30 AM||comments (0)|
There are those—thecurmudgeons, the logicians, the irritatingly level-headed—who will tellyou that we “can’t compare tennis players from different eras.” Intheir minds, the sport has been so thoroughly transformed over thedecades that each generation’s greatest champion lives alone on his ownisland of excellence. To which the majority of sports fans, whose headsare rarely level about anything, might come back with a two-partretort. First, tennis is still tennis; whatever athletic and cosmeticchanges it has undergone, you still use a racquet to hit a ball over anet. Second, and maybe more important, we have no choice in the matter.Even if the logical half of our minds were to grant that the game BillTilden played in the 1920s is not precisely the game that Roger Federerplays today, the fanatical half will go ahead and pit their careersagainst each other anyway. We’re sports fans because we want to knowwho’s going to win, even if the matches play out only in our daydreams.Why should we rob ourselves of that pleasure?
Logical or not, “Greatest Ever”parlor games are an enduring staple of all sports. But this summer inparticular was a boom season for them. That’s because Federer, afterfive years of near-total domination and peerless consistency, made adouble-barreled assault on the record books by winning his first FrenchOpen and his sixth Wimbledon. In a month and a half, he passed twolandmarks on the road to tennis immortality: In Paris, he became thethird man in the Open era, after Rod Laver and Andre Agassi,to win all four Grand Slams; and at Wimbledon, he broke Pete Sampras’record for most major titles among men by taking home his 15th.
With irrefutable proof of bothhis versatility on all surfaces and his unmatched proficiency at thebiggest events, the question can now be asked: Is this 28-year-oldSwiss with the goofy smile and penchant for cheesy fashion gimmicks thegreatest player in history?
The conflicting responses tothis question start right at the top, among the three men who are mostoften mentioned alongside Federer in this debate. Sampras conceded thatafter Federer’s victory at the French Open—the one major the Americanfailed to win—he deserved to be called the greatest in history. Butwhen asked to make a similar pronouncement at Wimbledon, Laver andBjorn Borg demurred, saying there could be no definitive answer.
The argument for Federer restsfirst and foremost on his 15 Grand Slam titles. It has long been agreedthat these events are the truest tests of tennis supremacy, and Federerowns more of them than anyone else. Who can argue with that? Many have,of course, from cantankerous traditionalists to cultists of Laver,Borg, Sampras and Rafael Nadal. Whatever their agenda, their arguments against Federer coalesce around four issues. Anyone hoping to make a case for him as the greatest in history needs to counter all four.
1. Federer hasn’t won a calendar-year Grand Slam, the ultimate achievement in tennis. Don Budge won one, and Laver won two.
There’s no denying that winning all four Slams in one year is thesport’s Holy Grail, and that Federer came up one match short of it inboth 2006 and 2007. Nevertheless, this is a single-season achievementrather than a career achievement, and we’re measuring lifetimeaccomplishments. If you believe that Laver’s two Slams—he won the firstas an amateur in 1962 without having to face professionals like LewHoad, Pancho Gonzalez and Ken Rosewall, who were banned from themajors—alone make him untouchable, you must ask yourself this: If Laverhadn’t won a single match in any other season, would his career stillbe greater than Federer’s? The answer, obviously, is no.
2.Speaking of the Rocket, Laver won 11 majors, but as a pro he wasn’tallowed to play them from 1963 to ’67, the prime of his career. Healmost certainly would have ended up with more than 15 if he hadn’tmissed those five seasons.
It is more than reasonable to thinkso. Laver won four straight majors before his ban, and five of thefirst seven that he entered upon being reinstated in 1968. But rememberagain that the first four came against amateurs only, and that if hehad been allowed to play the majors throughout the ’60s, his rivals onthe pro tour would have been battling him all the way.
More important, however, is the“if” in the question above. No one knows what would have happened toLaver in those events. That’s a topic for another parlor game, “WhatIf.” In the greatest-ever debate, the only thing we have to go on arethe statistics in front of us. Once we allow for an if, where do westop? Do we have to consider the fact that Borg, who also finished with11 Slam titles, only played the Australian Open one time?
3. That brings upanother point: In the past, top players didn’t sit around countingtheir Grand Slam trophies. Borg played the Australian once, JimmyConnors played it twice. Why are majors the be-all and end-all in thisdebate?
True, the Slams have gained in significance in thelast 20 years. Sampras elevated them to their current Olympian statusby saying they were essentially all that mattered. Still, from Tildenon down, players have always focused their efforts on the Big 4. Moreto the point, the Slam-title record is hardly Federer’s only claim onhistory. Here’s a short list of others: From 2004 to ’08 he was rankedNo. 1 for 237 straight weeks, a record; in 2006, he recorded a seasonfor the ages, finishing 92-5, reaching 16 finals in 17 events, andwinning 12 titles; he’s the all-time prize-money leader, having earnednearly $50 million by age 27; from 2005 to ’07 he reached a record 10straight Slam finals (Laver’s best was six, Sampras three); and cominginto the U.S. Open, he had reached 21 straight Slam semifinals, a men’srecord that will likely stand longer than Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streakin baseball.
4. OK, forget the past: How can we call Federer the best ever when he has a 7-13 record against his primary rival, Rafael Nadal, and has won only two of their seven major finals?
You might say every Superman has his kryptonite. While Nadal has ownedthe Swiss for long periods—he beat him five straight times from thespring of 2008 to the spring of ’09—their head-to-head record seemsmore damning to Federer than it really is. In one sense, he’s beenpunished for doing better on Nadal’s favorite surface, clay, than Nadalhas done on Federer’s best surface, hard courts. Federer is 2-5 againstNadal in Slam finals because he has lost to him in the championshipround in Paris, on clay, three times. Nadal has never reached the finalon the hard courts at the U.S. Open, and thus never faced Federer wherehe’s the five-time defending champion.
While the 23-year-old Nadalleads their head-to-head and is ahead of Federer’s Slamtitle pace, allthis proves is that in fi ve or 10 years we may be talking about a newgreatest of all time. But not yet. The best players compete to winprestigious tournaments, not to beat certain opponents, and that’s howthey should be judged.
The curmudgeons andlogicians have it right in one way:
The only method for ranking playersfrom different eras is to compare the cold, hard stats. There’s nothingto be gained from looking at old clips of Tilden and Budge and thinkingthat Federer would wipe the court with them. All you can ask is that aplayer beat the guy across the net, not a theoretical opponent of thefuture. Still, the particular brilliance of a champion can’t be fullycaptured in numbers. From Tilden’s theatrical authority to Laver’srazor-sharp explosiveness to Borg’s icy calm to Sampras’ ruthlesspragmatism, each maps out a unique path to mastering the sport.
Is this also true for Federer? Afew years ago he recalled his reaction to a bad loss early in hiscareer. He was outraged because he had been beaten by a player whocouldn’t approach his “beautiful technique.” Federer linked theaesthetic quality of tennis technique with results, something rarelydone in the power era. He was onto something about himself.
Watch him watch the ball socarefully onto his strings. Watch him extend his backhand swing withoutletting his body come out of its stance. Watch him transition forwardwithout stopping to set up for the ball, yet without running throughit. More than any other player in history, Federer makes elegance,which in tennis means playing with stylish correctness, a formula fordominance. At a time when the law of raw force seemed undeniable, hehas reconnected tennis with its origins in aristocratic gracefulnessand made power tennis safe for traditionalists. Call it a new ideal forthe sport: Federer has shown us that the most beautiful technique cancreate the most explosive, the most effective, and, yes, the greatestplayer that tennis has ever seen.