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