Why It Is Impossible to Pick the Greatest Male Tennis Player of All Time
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Men's tennis is enjoying a renaissance unlike any other. For starters, this is an era shared by two men who will undoubtedly go down as two of the best players to ever play the game, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
It also includes a third man, Novak Djokovic, who instead of dwelling in the misfortune of being born into the same era as those two has taken his game to a level that very, very few have ever reached.
It also includes a young challenger from Argentina, Juan Martin del Potro, who already has a Grand Slam title under his belt as well. Andy Murray serves as the obligatory representative from Great Britain who gets the country riled up over a British Grand Slam champion before assaulting their hopes and dreams at the very end.
The current era has really raised the bar set by even the great eras of the 80's and 90's, when guys like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, and Stefan Edberg won multiple major titles all over the globe.
The Sampras-Agassi rivalry, once considered by many to be the greatest rivalry in the history of the sport, has been eclipsed by Federer and Nadal. Combining modern technology with advancements in sports nutrition and health care, today's level of play may be higher than it ever was.
However, such a resurrection for a sport that badly needed one has seen one misfortune arise from its comeback: the constant comparisons and debates over who is the greatest player of all time.
It is an impossible argument to make, one that cannot possibly have one right answer. Yet, instead of enjoying the quality of tennis that has been brought to the forefront by the likes of Federer and Nadal, fans can't help but compare them to their predecessors.
The argument began when Federer was chasing Sampras' then-record 14 Grand Slam titles. "Who's better, Sampras or Federer?"
"Federer beat him the one time they played, but Sampras was on his way out and Federer was just coming in."
On and on the argument went, and with Nadal's emergence, the debate took on a life of its own, with guys like Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg even entering the discussion.
It's just unfair to do this. After Federer broke Sampras' record with his 15th Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2009, Laver said it best: you can only compare eras, and it's impossible to cross-reference players.
All of these players have a weakness, or a "knock," on their legacy. For Sampras, it was clay and the French Open. For Agassi, it was his inability to beat Sampras when it counted. For Federer, it's becoming his inability to beat Nadal when it counts. For Nadal, it's his health. For Laver, it was a lack of consistent competition. For Borg, it was early retirement.
Ok, for argument's sake: Who do YOU think is the best player of all time?
To simply point at Federer's 16 majors and dub him the best is also unfair. Before Sampras broke the record in 2000, Roy Emerson held the record. And I'm pretty sure that there was never a point in time when anyone considered Emerson to be the best, especially ahead of guys like Laver and Borg, who were behind in the "scoreboard."
So why use that as the ultimate deciding factor now?
In his autobiography "A Champion's Mind," Sampras considers his feat of finishing No. 1 in the rankings for six straight years to be his ultimate measure of greatness. It is a record Sampras still holds, along with the records for most total weeks at No. 1 and most Wimbledon titles. But again, such measures rely heavily on the competition at the time, and we are back to comparing eras.
There will never be a "Greatest of All Time." For those itching to give that title to Federer, he still does not have many of the treasured records that Sampras has. And although he has more Grand Slams, a tournament like the Australian Open only recently became mainstream and was even routinely skipped by many of the top players not too long ago.
For those that want Sampras to have it, they need to understand that Federer has also staked a strong claim to that title by winning all four majors, making the most major finals, and having his remarkable streak of most consecutive major semifinals and quarterfinals.
Many have even been quick to hand Nadal the title simply because of his success against Federer, but the 25-year old Spaniard has his own list of shortcomings that do not put him above the ghosts of the past, namely his injuries and lately Djokovic.
It does not take a couple of years for someone to suddenly become the best at a sport, but Nadal's contributions to the game and his resume are certainly very unique and admirable.
Instead of trying to answer a question that will never be answered, enjoy what we are witnessing right now. Djokovic's win over Nadal at Wimbledon has opened up the playing field at the top even further going into the summer hard court season and the U.S. Open. And with the NBA and NFL facing lockouts, a lot of casual fans may even jump in for the ride.
They'll do it to focus on what happens between the lines and on the court. Not what happened years ago.
You should, too.
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