To paraphrase the greats Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe sports page, it's time to empty out the sports drawer desk of my mind.
Roger Federer defied the odds and the oddsmakers the past two weeks at Wimbledon, winning his seventh title here and tying his boyhood idol Pete Sampras. His accomplishment deserves all sorts of short-term and long-term analysis.
What does it tell us about where he is now and will continue to be?
In the short term, his win reminds us yet again of how much we take this man and his tennis for granted. Even as in the last two years, he slipped from No. 1 to No. 2, then No. 3, the fact remained that he continued routinely to make semifinals and the final at virtually every tournament.
The psychic and physical fact remains that three, and often, if not, always four of the semifinalists at virtually every tournament continue to be Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. They expect to reach the top, and that expectation, as well as their consistent performance, firmly keeps all other players in the lower echelon of the sport.
Last year, Djokovic gained the top, raising his fitness, mentality and game to a new level. Most surprisingly, he got into the head of Nadal, the mentally and physically toughest player on tour and the one player who had gotten into Federer's head.
Djokovic, this year, came back to earth a bit, Nadal regained some of his confidence and we're left with an uncertain reality in which each of these greats feels they can beat the other, with varying levels of confidence, depending on the surface and other variables.
What gets talked about less is the extent to which Federer subtlety, but significantly, raised his game. He still serves and volleys too little for my taste, but he now plays much more aggressively and consistently off the backhand. You almost get the feeling that he committed to the sort of regimen that Bill Tilden talked about.
He described going to an indoor court one winter in long-ago Providence and hitting nothing but backhands until his stroke became a machine—one consistent and reliable enough almost to match his forehand. In the past, critics knocked Federer for his Swiss conservatism. He quietly, but forcefully, showed that he continues to work on his game.
His win renews the always entertaining conversation topic of who's the "Greatest of All Time." Here, we should differentiate between qualitative and quantitative considerations. Quantitatively, it seems no contest. The only real rival to Federer's current record should be Rod Laver's 11 titles, considering that like Ted Williams’ wartime loss of five years, he missed five years in the prime of his career.
It should also be said that Federer's win yesterday reminds us of Laver's greatness, given that he won the only men’s Grand Slam in the Open era at the age of 31—an incredible accomplishment.
Qualitatively, the problem with the conversation stems from all of the variables. The wooden racket era ended with John McEnroe, and the serve-and-volley era ended with Pete Sampras. How would any of the contemporary racket players stack up against Tilden or Laver or Don Budge? We can only guess.
Similarly, the match of the moderns I would most like to see would have been Sampras vs. Nadal—pure offensive power against pure defensive power. The greatest criticism of the contemporary game remains its essential sameness. Everyone, pretty much, plays the same game—just at varying levels of skill. No one consistently plays in the frontcourt, serving and volleying.
This reflects another variable that affects our consideration of "Greatest of All Time." If the Slams had continued to be largely grass affairs, can you imagine how many Sampras would have won? Or Federer? If on the other hand, you took the supersonic rackets out of the hands of the likes of Nadal, how would he have fared against baseliners like Bjorn Borg?
Finally, there exists the most random variable of all, which remains contingency.
Monica Seles' career would likely have been completely different if not for the trauma of her knifing incident, which affected both her and Steffi Graf, who would likely have won fewer Slams. Borg walked away from the game at 26, whereas Nadal continues to motor on, affecting the results at the French.
Where does all of this leave us? One man's opinion is that Laver and Federer remain the two greatest all-court, all-around players of all time—the two men with enough moxie, virtuosity and versatility to make pretty much any shot, from anywhere on the court.
Sampras remains the greatest server and volleyer of all time, though one must consider the impact of technology on his sheer power. Borg and Nadal remain the two greatest backcourt clay specialists. I'm not willing to give the conclusive nod to Nadal because of the changes in technology, though his greater longevity should be counted in his favor, not against him.
In the end, as much fun as this mental Strat-O-Matic game is of pitting different players of different eras against each other, every player competes against his peers, more than he does against history.
And here, Federer's astonishing consistency separates him against everyone else. Semifinalist, finalist, champion, he's been at the top of the game now since 2003-2004—a record unlikely to be reached again. No one can take that away from him.
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