A befallen Andy Roddick gazed through teary eyes on Centre Court of Wimbledon on Sunday before looking up at the parade of past champions that had congregated on tennis' biggest stage. He looked at Pete Sampras, the last great American player, and pleaded, "Sorry Pete, I tried to hold him off."
No worries, Andy. You had actually done just fine. Because although numbers will say one thing, Roddick's epic 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 16-14 loss was the latest evidence to show the assembly of legends that Roger Federer may not be the best player of all time.
Sure, there is the argument that Federer has won 15 Grand Slams, more than any man to walk the planet. But before Sampras broke the old mark in 2000, it was held by one Roy Emerson. While casual fans know the names Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver—and even Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Andre Agassi—Emerson never registered a blip on the radar of tennis greats.
Until Sampras took the mark less than a decade ago, holding the Grand Slam record had never meant anything when it comes to deciding who is the best ever.
While Laver, when asked that very question in the wake of Federer's record-setting victory, wanted to be reserved in his statements, even he suggested that you can only compare players to others in his era and not those before or after him.
But we can certainly compare eras—and when compared to Sampras', Federer's era is far weaker.
Some may attribute the fact that only one man, Rafael Nadal, has beaten Federer in a Grand Slam final as proof that Federer is the most dominating player in history. But over the course of six years, from 2003 to today, the fact that not one other player has been able to even sniff Federer on any surface is truly alarming and more of a testament to the state of men's tennis today.
While Nadal has been glorified as the "kryptonite" to tennis' Superman from Switzerland, the Spaniard is simply the Agassi of this generation.
Just as Agassi dominated the slower hardcourts of the Australian Open, Nadal has been a monster on the clay courts of Roland Garros. Both men have career Grand Slams, both are known for being flamboyant and marketable off the court, and both proved to be the biggest rivals for the best players of their respective generations.
Except Sampras beat Agassi like a drum. Sampras burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old in 1990 by picking Agassi apart, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 at the US Open final, his first Slam. The man known as "Pistol Pete" was 6-3 against Agassi in Grand Slams, including 4-1 in finals.
Instead of being the one being demoralized, Sampras was doing the demoralizing, as his win over Agassi in the 1995 US Open final sent the latter into a downward spiral that took him to 141st in the world and a free-fall into temporary oblivion.
Federer, on the other hand, is 7-13 all-time against Nadal, including 2-6 in Grand Slams and 2-5 in Slam finals. That includes a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 demolition in the finals of the 2008 French Open finals that was hardly befitting of a player being dubbed "The Best Ever."
How can Federer be the best player to ever pick up a tennis racquet when he is not even the best player of this current decade? How can he think of being the best when he knows that there is another man alive right now that he just cannot beat?
While Sampras had some cupcakes in his era, he had to get past some Grand Slam champions to accumulate his 14 Grand Slams. Other than Agassi, Sampras had to drop two-time US Open champion Patrick Rafter to win his record-setting seventh Wimbledon in 2000.
When he first broke through in 1990, Sampras also had to beat Ivan Lendl—who had made eight consecutive US Open finals going into that tournament—in the quarterfinals.
Two-time French Open champion Jim Courier also showed the strength of American tennis at the time, but Courier was a prop to Sampras whenever the two butted heads. Carlos Moya was a 1998 French Open champion, but he was assaulted by Sampras in the 1997 Australian Open finals.
Even German legend Boris Becker—a six-time Grand Slam champion and three-time Wimbledon champion—was mowed down in four sets at the lawn of the All England Club in 1995.
Federer, on the other hand, has had a blast beating the likes of Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez, Robin Soderling, and a washed-up Mark Philippoussis in Slam finals. The best American player of his generation—Andy Roddick—would be well behind Sampras, Agassi, Courier, and even Michael Chang in the American pecking order if he was born 10 years earlier.
Yet here was Roddick, giving Federer the match of his life, a struggle that Sampras never encountered as he rolled to seven All England Club titles. Outside of one hiccup at the quarterfinals of the 1996 Wimbledon against Dutchman Richard Krajicek, Sampras was 53-1 at Wimbledon over an eight-year span and never lost a final there, a distinction Federer failed to earn after losing to Nadal at the All England Club a year ago.
So celebrate Roger Federer if you must, especially in a sports world that has become so dominated by numbers. Fifteen may be larger than 14, but it's also easy to stockpile Grand Slams when only one man in the world has the tools to even compete with you.
The numbers may say that Roger Federer is the best of all time, but after looking at who he has had to beat, he is simply the best of a poor and washed-up generation.
And if Nadal has even one more say in the US Open this September, Federer may not even be the best of this generation either.
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