2009 US Open: Defining Greatness

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2009 US Open: Defining Greatness
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The 2009 U.S Open is upon us once more. The time of the year when Roger Federer picks up his ‘guaranteed’ grand slam. In 2008, Federer’s annus horribilis , when even his cherished Wimbledon deserted him, his queen from Queens was the only one who stayed true to him.

Roger Federer practically owns the U.S Open. And he is going for the record books this year by going for his sixth consecutive title. If he does indeed go on to win it, he will add yet another piece of support to his Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T ) resume.

Yet by some measures, Roger Federer is not the greatest of all time. Not even close.

Before I alienate all the Fed-fans on this site, allow me to explain.

How does one define greatness? In this highly subjective (and often tiresome) topic, there are several yardsticks for measuring greatness. And most point to one man: Federer.

  1. Number of grand slam victories? Check.
  2. All-court dominance? Check.
  3. Career grand slam? Check.
  4. Aesthetic game?  Check.

So why don’t I rank him at the top? How about we ask this: Who would you pick for playing for your life? More pertinently, who would you pick for playing for his own?

The G.O.A.T debate has been raging in the tennis world since well before the Open Era.

‘Big’ Bill Tilden, who strode the tennis world like a colossus in early part of the twentieth century, was the first great tennis champion. He is the person whose record of consecutive U.S Opens Federer is going for.

In his eminently readable book, “A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played” author Marshall Jon Fisher describes how back in the Golden Twenties, Tilden simply was tennis. Here’s a record that is unlikely to be ever broken: In 1926, over the span of two tournaments, Tilden won 57 games in a row. That is 9 consecutive sets with a score-line of 6-0 over top professionals. Tilden was winning amateur and professional tournaments well into his forties.

Don Budge, one of the other two men that Fisher writes about, was the first man to win the coveted Grand Slam. Admittedly, this was at a time when three of the four tournaments were played on grass and there was less variance between surfaces, but on the flip side players had to endure a grueling travel to go to Australia.

Budge revolutionized tennis with his tendency to take the ball on the rise, as opposed to hitting it on its way back down. He had it all – a booming serve, a powerful backhand (probably the best in the history of the game), on-court grace, and chutzpah. It is said he once waved to the queen of England, when the norm of the day was to bow to royalty.

More memorably, he was involved in what Fisher argues (and I agree) was the greatest tennis match of all time, in a Davis Cup tie between America and Germany. This was when the Davis Cup was the world’s pre-eminent tennis tournament.

And then there is Gottfried von Cramm, the German aristocrat with a game whose beauty was apparently matched only by his grace and old-world charm. He once apologized to a line judge who called a foot-fault on him.

He was Budge’s opponent in that fateful match at Wimbledon in 1937 (during pre-war times, it was common for Davis Cup ties to be played in neutral venues). Known as "The Baron", the handsome and erudite Cramm led a life that most of us living today can only dream of.

But the course of his life was inexorably changed when he and his fellow Germans (sans Daniel Prenn, the second-best player in the country who was barred from representing Germany by the Nazis because he was Jewish) came to play America in that Davis Cup tie for a place in the finals.

Cramm had lost the Wimbledon finals to Budge a few weeks prior to that Davis Cup tie, and was not expected to pose a serious threat to Budge’s all-court offensive game. But he did, and how.

For many years, Cramm was being watched closely by the Gestapo and his status as a national tennis icon was the only thing that kept him away from their clutches. But since the arrival of Budge and his powerful game, Cramm’s graceful game was reduced to second-best (shades of Federer vs Nadal?). It was essential for Cramm to win this tie and take Nazi Germany to the finals, pleasing the Nazi leadership.

Cramm was literally playing for his life.

Cramm lost. But not before he made Budge produce the best tennis of his life over five scintillating sets. Cramm walked up to the net to congratulate his good friend and was smiling. Magnanimous in victory, graceful in defeat.

Throughout the war, Cramm never endorsed the Nazi party, though he was personally greeted by Hitler after his victory at the French Open. For this he was accused of homosexuality (a crime, in those days) and was incarcerated.

Greatness. Man’s ability to attain it is defined by his ability to stay true to his principles even when everyone else is taking the path of least resistance. As a player, it is the ability to play one’s best when the stakes are the highest imaginable, and show grace after crushing losses.

In this rarified world of greatness, victory and defeat are meaningless. Only one thing matters: Moral fortitude. By this measure, Gottfried von Cramm was the greatest player of all time.

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