French Open 2011: After a Loss, Can Roger Federer Still Be the Greatest Ever?

Chris HuebnerContributor IIIJune 5, 2011

The best tennis rivalry ever
The best tennis rivalry everClive Brunskill/Getty Images

NBC tennis announcer Mary Carillo posed the question today after the second set of the French Open Final. “Can Roger Federer be considered the greatest tennis player of all time without being the greatest tennis player of his era?”

Federer has had the most decorated career of any modern tennis player. He has 16 Grand Slam trophies in his cabinet, some of which can be seen being pulled along in a wagon behind Federer as he boards his private plane in a NetJet commercial. He was gunning for No. 17 today, and if he had defeated Rafael Nadal, he would have it.

Instead, another player achieved a milestone involving the number 17. Nadal, in defeating Federer at Roland Garros, won his 17th match against Roger Federer. Overall, he has only eight losses to the Swiss tennis player, and he is an astounding 12-2 against Federer on clay. Clearly, he is the player whom Carillo was referring to as “the greatest tennis player of his era.”

It is fascinating to look back to the 2008 Wimbledon Final and how the legacies of the two players have changed since that match. Roger Federer was the best in the world, in the midst of a 237-week reign at the top of the tennis rankings.

He was the darling of Wimbledon, having won the last five and was well on his way to challenging Pete Sampras’ record for most Slams won by a player. At this point in his career, he had won three times in Australia and four times at the U.S. Open, for a total of 12 major championships won. Many thought that if he won that 2008 Wimbledon Final, he would solidify his legacy as one of the best grass players ever and put himself on track to becoming the greatest of all time.

At this point, Nadal was little more than a clay specialist. He had won four Slams, but they were all at Roland Garros. He was, though, seen as the biggest threat to Federer’s dominance. Heading into the Wimbledon that year, Rafa was 11-6 against Roger. Then, after a grueling five-set match, which has since been named the greatest ever, Nadal was able to capture his first major trophy not won on clay and simultaneously mark the beginning of the end of Federer’s dominance in tennis.

Since that fateful final, Nadal has taken tennis by storm. He has continued his dominance on clay, winning two out of the last three finals at the French. He won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. He has added to his cache of Slam trophies too. He completed the Career Slam after winning his first U.S. Open last fall, and it was noted how much his game had progressed. Now he had the ability to hammer his serve and groundstrokes to win on hard courts in addition to his ability to play incredible defense which won him so many clay court titles.

But Federer has faltered while Nadal has risen. After so many years as the world No. 1 player, he was shoved aside to the third spot by Novak Djokovic. He has not won a Slam final since the 2010 Australian Open. One bright spot was his taming of Roland Garros in 2009, which gave him a career slam. But the final victory came not against his great rival Nadal, but Robin Soderling.

Last night, I believed that Federer would have a chance to win the French Open against Rafael Nadal. A victory in Paris would add so much to his legacy. Obviously, it would add to his impressive total of Grand Slam trophies, but more importantly, it would vindicate him in the eyes of history.

A victory against Nadal on a clay court in a final of a Grand Slam would silence the only criticism that can be levied against Federer: Throughout his career, he has been dominated by Nadal. And as Mary Carillo pointed out, how can a player be considered the greatest of all time if he is has such a glaring gap in his résumé?

Instead of cementing his legacy as the greatest ever, with the loss today Federer has left the door open for Nadal.

If Nadal can finish his career win a comparable number of Grand Slam victories as Federer, then he can certainly be considered the best ever. But the best Roger can hope for, at least in terms of his place in tennis history, is that Nadal does not approach his career numbers. The he will go down as an anomaly, just as that one player who had the style of play that Federer could not beat consistently. But the way that Nadal is playing, it does not look like that will happen.

What do you think? Can Federer still be the best ever? Will Nadal eventually capture that title? Or is it someone else?