London Is Latest Stage For Great Debate: Who Is the Greatest Of All Time?

Lauren LynchCorrespondent IINovember 18, 2010

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Excerpted from www.TennisNow.com

(November 18, 2010) Reverberations from the royal revelry gripping London over Prince William's engagement are rippling around the world. Listen closely between the sound of sneakers squealing across the court of London's 02 Arena next week and you'll hear some former champions considering coronation claims in the latest round of the Great Debate

John McEnroe believes World No. 1 Rafael Nadal is on pace to surpass Roger Federer's all-time record of 16-majors and secure status as the mythical Greatest Of All Time.

In fact, McEnroe says you can make a case for Nadal already laying claim to GOAT status.

"There is an argument to be made that Rafael Nadal may be the greatest player eventually, even possibly now," McEnroe told the media in Doha in comments published by the AP, asserting Rafa breathes rare air as one of the two best pure athletes in pro tennis history.

"The two greatest (tennis) athletes of all time are Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal," McEnroe said. "Federer is one of the greatest players ever, but I don't think he's as good an athlete as those two."

The idea of a man other than the world's top two winning the ATP World Tour Finals championship, which begins on Sunday, may seem as likely as the royal family trading their Buckingham Palace digs to relocate to White Castle, but before you write off the rest of the eight-man field consider the following:

A year ago Nikolay Davydenko defeated Juan del Potro to reign in London.

Nadal, who regards indoor hard courts as his least favorite surface, did not win a set in three round-robin losses in London last year.

Andy Murray has beaten Federer in the last two Masters 1000 finals he's contested (Toronto and Shanghai).

Robin Soderling, who typically plays his best tennis indoors, enters London fresh off his first career Masters crown in Paris on Sunday.

The field features former finalists Novak Djokovic (2008 champion) and David Ferrer (2007 runner-up to Federer).

Consider all of those factors before returning to the realization that Nadal and Federer are not just the best of this time, but they are also competing for the mythical greatest-of-all-time title and are clearly final favorites in London. 

Nadal skipped Paris to rest his sore serving shoulder and presumably should be fresher than the rest of the field that played Paris. Federer, who has won two of the last three tournaments he's entered and failed to convert five match points against hometown hero Gael Monfils in Saturday's Paris semis, is a four-time ATP World Tour Finals champion who arrives in London after playing some of his best tennis since he won the Australian Open in January. 

Despite the fact his favored forehand went AWOL in the final stages of his semifinal setback to Monfils and the fact Federer has failed to capitalize on a series of match point moments this season—against Marcos Baghdatis in Indian Wells, vs. Tomas Berdych in Miami and in the US Open semifinals against Novak Djokovic—Federer has won 16 of his last 18 matches playing at times, dynamic, attacking tennis.

Hall of Famer McEnroe favors Federer in the best-of-three set format for the season-ending  event, but gives Nadal the edge in all foreseeable majors because of Nadal gets better as matches grow longer.

"I would pick Nadal if this were the Australian Open because I think he's much tougher to beat in longer matches," McEnroe told the ATP Champions Tour. "If he remains healthy, he's the guy I would pick for every major right now until proven otherwise. But in the best of three it remains to be seen; I would certainly give Federer more of a chance in a shorter match."

Mats Wilander, who won three of the four Grand Slam titles in a spectacular 1988 season, believes Federer is producing his finest form in years and emphatically endorses the five-time Wimbledon winner to capture his fifth ATP World Tour Finals title.

"I think Federer is on to something. I think he's playing better now than he has in the last three or four years," Wialnder told the ATP Champions Tour. "He's just not winning (recent majors) though it's not like he had a horrible year and I think he wants to cap it off winning the ATP World Tour Finals."

Soderling accelerated on the maturation curve by fighting off match points—and 14,000 French fans—against 30-year-old Frenchman Michael Llodra in the Paris semis before stomping Monfils in a lopsided final. It was a significant step for a man who has sometimes struggled to find a way to win when his best tennis eludes him. Soderling wasn't always at his best in Paris, but competed with composure and propelled himself to a career-high rank of No. 4. Fellow Swede Stefan Edberg suggests Soderling could surprise and overpower the field in London.

"Rafa is gonna be the favorite, but Roger is one of the ones who could win it and Robin Soderling has the potential to be the winner," Edberg told the ATP Champions Tour. "It might be a good one so maybe even I would go for a surprise pick and pick Soderling."

Among the story lines in London to follow next week: 

Nadal has never reached the final round of the ATP World Tour Finals and is 4-7 lifetime in the event. How will he bounce back from the layoff on his least successful surface?

Can Federer continue to play with the aggression he has displayed throughout much of the indoor season?

Arguably the most important moment in Djokovic's career takes place next month when Serbia hosts France in the Davis Cup final. Will Djokovic have enough mental and physical fortitude to excel in the ATP World Tour Finals with the Davis Cup final looming in a matter of weeks?

Will Andy Roddick, who played predictable points at crunch time vs. Soderling in the Paris quarterfinals, be willing to open it up a bit, let the serve and forehand rip and take more risk as he did in dispatching Nadal and Berdych in succession to win the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami in April?

Can Murray summon some of the offensive ambition he showed in beating David Nalbandian, Nadal and Federer to roll to the Toronto title? And will the sometime surly Scot channel the enthusiastic support of British fans into positive energy in his matches?

While some will view London as the latest chapter in the ongoing Great Debate, the six other players in the field will be focused on the task at hand.

Former French Open champion Yannick Noah insists the 24-year-old Nadal, who is 6-0 in his last six Grand Slam finals, can lay claim to the GOAT if he continues to collect majors the way Harrod's draws holiday shoppers.

In fact, Noah says Nadal, at his best, is "unbeatable.'

"Nadal is in great shape. When this kid is healthy, he is unbeatable because mentally he is so strong," Noah said. "It's amazing to watch how strong mentally this kid is so when he's healthy I think he's the favorite."

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