Why Roger Federer is the best player ever to swing a racquet, even if he never wins the French

As Wimbledon commences today, and Roger Federer walks out to defend his title, which if he does would make it five straight — equaling Bjorn Borg’s five in a row from ’76-’80 — there will still be some scattered chatter about Federer’s place in tennis history. With the French Open title still eluding him after this year’s loss to Rafael Nadal, his one and only nemesis, the pundits (it’s specifically the ones on the telly that I’m thinking of), in their infinite wisdom, will hesitate bestowing him the honor of “Greatest of All Time”; the talking heads currently believe that Australian Rod Laver currently holds this distinction.

Many would argue, myself included, that this year was Federer’s best opportunity to win at Roland Garros: he’d had two past experiences of playing (and losing to) Nadal on this big stage; he was in perfect health and relatively fresh; and he got a confidence boost by beating Nadal on clay for the first time, in the final of the ATP Masters event in Hamburg the week prior to the French. But all that wasn’t enough to overcome Nadal.

Even with this most recent loss, there’s no question that thus far Federer is the greatest, and here’s why: he is and has been dominant in a field of insane depth, on all surfaces except for one, one which is being dominated by the greatest player to ever play on that surface.

Allow me to elaborate. Currently, there are at least 1500 players who have an ATP ranking. In 1968, when the Open Era began and the professionals finally got to join the amateurs, the Wimbledon draw had 128 players, just like this year. However, the pool of tennis players to draw from at that time was infinitely smaller, and, while tennis even then was international, the countries represented in ‘68 were for the most part the usual suspects: the top 16 seeds at that year’s tournament were represented by six Aussies, four Americans, two Spaniards, a Dutchman, a Croatian, and a South African. This year, the top 16 seeds (mind you, now 32 players are seeded) include two Americans, two Spaniards, two Russians, a Swiss, a Serbian, a Chilean, a Czech, a Scot, a Cypriot, a French, a German, a Croatian, and an Aussie. Tennis’ global march has spread the talent far and wide, and you don’t have to be an expert in trickle-down Reaganomics to recognize that tennis depth runs from the community courts and the clubs to the junior tournaments and all the way up to the top. So I guess in this case it’s “trickle-up.”

This year’s Wimbledon qualies not only includes familiar names, but players with current and/or past grass street cred: Niclolas Mahut, who just lost in a tight final with Andy Roddick at Queen’s Club, made it through; as did Dick Norman (Belgian) and Wayne Arthurs (Aussie), both dangerous on grass; Arthurs made it to Wimby’s fourth round in ’99. Pick any given year in the last five, maybe ten years, and you’ll find this kind of depth on display on all surfaces. Not so in the 60’s or 70’s.

The name that always comes up when it comes to Federer and history is of course Rod Laver. Laver was dominant in his era, too, and carries the mantle of ‘greatest ever’ in the eyes of the media. He pulled off the Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur, went professional (which meant he was prohibited from playing the Slams, which at the time were for amateurs only), was invited back to Wimbledon at the start of the Open Era in ’68, and then proceeded to win the Grand Slam again in ’69 as a pro. Who can touch a record like that? Federer never will. But as great a player as Laver was (you can get an idea of Laver’s style of play from this YouTube clip, there was no Guillermo Vilas, no Mats Wilander, no Ivan Lendl, let alone a Bjorn Borg or a Nadal, standing in his way. Rod Laver won 11 Grand Slam titles and two calendar Grand Slams, but I’ve never hear the pundits say much about his competition — have you?

Speaking of domination: can one imagine a more dominant clay court player than Rafael Nadal? And he’s been even more so at the French. Now, many won’t be surprised if Federer never wins the French, myself included. If you’re one of those types who like to ponder fantasy matches between the top players of today and those of the past, then go ahead, be my guest: Nadal against Vilas? Sure, put a wooden racquet in Rafa’s hands. Nadal vs. Borg? Ditto. How about Wilander, Lendl, Courier, Kuerten? You’re kidding, right? I’ll take those odds. The point then, is that player who’s keeping (and has kept) Roger Federer from holding all four Slams at once (and arguably holding them twice, a la Laver) is simply the best clay court player of all time. But please don’t call Nadal a clay court specialist: you’ll feel like a fool when he gets back into the Wimbledon final. Okay, maybe those aren’t the best odds. But I’ll take Federer as greatest player ever at 1:1. Now can we move on please?

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com

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Comments

  1. says

    I suspect that I will continue to be one of the few remaining curmudgeons who dispute Federer’s title even long after he may have settled the dispute in real fashion.

    I have my doubts about the depth argument. After all, the same argument that applies to Laver (that he had no Ivan Lendl or Mats Wilander) clearly applies to Federer. Federer has no competition. In fifty years, his career will look a lot like Laver’s, except minus that who two Grand Slams business. There is no rivalry for Federer. Nadal isn’t a rivalry. At least not until Federer or anyone else can beat the kid at the French. While it’s easy enough to say “that’s because he’s so good” we can never know for certain. How many majors could Sampras have won if he didn’t have a series of opponents strong enough to beat him?

    For that matter, how many would Borg have won is a) he played the Australian Open and b) he didn’t quit so early. And remember that Laver and Borg both had to win all their titles on grass or clay, the two most varied and difficult surfaces to master. Federer has dominated on grass for four years, but grass has grown increasingly slow and is now only barely distinguishable from hard courts. He has not won the French Open ONCE, much less six times.

    And all of that aside, I’d argue that there is only one real answer to the great “Who’s the GOAT?” question: Martina Navratilova.

  2. says

    This is an interesting question….if he would have won the French, there would be no doubt…..until he wins the French, this question will be up for debate…

  3. Mordecai says

    Federer would’ve won the French (twice) if not for Nadal. Sampras never even came close.

    “GOAT” should be defined based on overall performance, not isolated shortcomings.

  4. says

    I would want to see Roger win the French SOMEDAY, but as for now, please, I’m not ready to witness all the greatness, it’s too much emotion here and there.

  5. Rosemary says

    If he IS the greatest player ever, i would say that you have got to be great on all surfaces and be able to win all grandslams. Winning the french open (the ONLY grand slam that has eluded him) would truly make him the greatest tennis player ever!!!!!!! but i still think rafa can win all 4 grand slams :P

  6. Grafight says

    You can’t ignore the fact that simple logic suggests that with many more people playing tennis all over the world, with the masters of the past to build on, and with modern gear and rackets, todays level is higher than ever.
    Many tournament organizers, players and coaches agree. I’ve been observing classic matches of one or two decades ago and I notice a lot more unfoced errors, double faults, less rallies, less variety of shots, less extreme angles of play and lesss spectacular long rallys per match as I do in matches today.
    We are spoiled in this day and age to the amazing feats of the top players and we almost take them from granted until we see a whole match (not just higlights) from the past.
    A good bridge player between 2 generations is Agassi. He player both Sampras and Federer and he considers Federer the greatest ever. I agree.

  7. Len says

    “but please don’t call Nadal a clay court specialist: you’ll feel like a fool when he gets back into the Wimbledon final. ”

    And at the rate Rafa is playing right now in his 2008 Wimbledon Semi Final, this guy is en route to a third consecutive Wimbledon final…seems to be trying to match the feat of that other clay court specialist called Bjorn Borg ;-)

    As for the thought of RF being the best ever, I totally agree (being a Federer fan just enhances that opinion)…but not in a biased manner. My arguments are primarily based on the greater depth of players today, the greater advantages available by differing racquet technology, and the fact that in Laver’s day he played three of four GS Tournaments on grass. Roger has to deal with four different surfaces year in, year out and his record speaks for itself with his (as of Wimbledon 08) 17 consecutive GS Semi Finals and 12 of the last 13 GS Finals! Insane.

    For those who argue that Roger’s competition is not as strong as recent generations / eras, then that would suggest that at least one other player should at least be making the same number of consecutive semi finals as Roger, no, given they are good enough (like Rafa) to be #2 for 3+ years?

    Sadly, this G.O.A.T argument will never see a single, unanimous choice (unlike Ali in boxing, Jordan in basketball) as the greatest players their sport has known. The inter-generational comparisons will never cease, as pointless as they are. Too many variables and “what if” scenarios.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  8. HMD says

    When you tag a player as the greatest ever, you must not overlook the quality of opponenets he has faced. Let me put some facts below.

    Federer has defeated:

    1) Philipousis in Wimbledon Final (1st Wimbledon Slam) who never won a grandslam.
    2) Roddick in Wimbledon Final (2nd Wimbledon slam) who rarely dominated tennis for a a longer period and has won only one grandslam in a decade.
    3) Marcos Baghdatis in Australian Open Final (1st Australian Open slam) who never won a grandslam.
    4) Fernando Gonzales in Australian Open Final (1st Australian Open slam) who never won a grandslam.
    5) Marat Safin in Australian Open Final (1st Australian Open slam) who has not dominated tennis in the last decade.
    6) Roddick,Hewitt in US Open Final. Hewitt has not won a grandslam after his disposal from world number one spot.
    6) Agassi in US Open Final who was at the end of his career.
    7) Andy Murray in US Open Final who never won a grandslam.

    Federer has won almost 11 slams against such opponenets. The only thawn in his way is Rafael Nadal. He is single handedly defying the invincibility of Federer from

    day one. Emulating him results in the emergence of Djokovic and Murray who are thwarting him. Rafael Nadal has won 5 out of 6 grandslams by beating the so called

    ‘invincible’ Roger Federer. Nadal has denies him French Open for four years and has dethroned him from Wimbledon glory. He defeated Verdasco in 5 hrs thriller and

    then beat Federer in a 4 hr match in Australian Open.

    Now look at the era of Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl. The opponents; Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, John Mcenroe, Mats Wilander, Villas, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg all

    collected around half a dozen or more grandslams. Federer has collected 14 Nadal 6 whose next significant. Hewitt has won two but is almost finished since his

    plummet from World No. 1 Spot.

    Jehangir Khan is the greatest squash player ever because he did not loose a single match in 5 years, won British Open successively 10 times and World Championship

    consecutively 6 times. Steffi Graf is the greatest player ever because she was a ferocious player in her teens in the era of Navratilova and Evert, dominated in

    her prime, and stood still at the end in the emergence of William Sisters, Hingis, Capriati, Davenport and Others.

    Federer saying that Nadal and Djokovic 4 hr epic in Madrid Semifinal was exaggerated because the players took alot of time between points reflects his jealousy.

    His whinning in the Australian Open Final speech reflects his helpless struggle to dominate Nadal.

    In a nutshell, Federer is not the greatest player ever. If he is the best Nadal is better than him.

  9. Pete says

    All this nonsense about greater competition in the past. I think it is a biased opinion. Just don’t rule out the shortcoming of Sampras on clay. The real competition Sampras had were Agassi and Courier in his prime, and perhaps Krajicek who was better than him (head to head). Edberg, Lendl and Wilander were all over their top when Sampras came around in 1993. And when Sampras was past his prime (late 90’s), other players like Rafter, Kuerten, Hewitt and Safin took their fair share.

    Federer is just more dominant than any other player. If Federer was less dominant, Agassi and Hewitt would probably have taken two more majors, and Roddick three. Even if we take a look at the rankingpoints Sampras earned in 1998 for example, which were considerably lower than Federer’s in 2008, Sampras sealed the year nr.1 and Federer nr.2 with a very close Novak at nr. 3. Nadal, Fed and Djokovic all had above 5000 points in this year. Sampras had between 4000 and 5000 and was nr. 1 in 1998. Talk about competition..

    Federer in his prime was better than Nadal, but not on gravel. The red dirt causes his trailing situation versus Nadal. If we look at the statistics he is still better at grass, tied at hardcourt, and we are talking 2009. Also, Federer can go on taking more records because his playing style is not about strength and he doesn’t have many injuries.

    Furthermore: Laver, Sampras and Agassi all state that Roger is the best of all time. That says enough for itself.
    I think both players are great in their time but I’d give the edge to Federer because of his all round game and dominance.

  10. Nate says

    Saying federer is not the greatest of all time is ignorant. If you question his competition you obviously know nothing about tennis. Andy Murray, djokovic, roddick, etc aren’t competition? That’s a joke. Not to mention all the young studs like monfils and cilic. Especially saying they aren’t good because they didn’t win grandslams. They didn’t win any grand slams because fed was winning them all. If any one was as good as federer in the conners, borg, McEnroe era none of them would have as many grand slams as they do.

  11. Josh says

    Hmd did you forget about the years federer dominated? Just because nadal dominated lately does not mean hes the better player over their careers. Also nadals violent play style will likely shorten the prime if his career where federers smooth style allows him to keep playing.

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