September 16, 2006

Is Roger Federer the greatest ever in men's tennis history?

By H Natarajan

Roger Federer seems a player who has come alive from sepia-toned pages of a pristine past - an anachronism among the bazooka blasters of the ATP circuit. His demeanor has the serenity of Buddha, and his game, the musical richness of Beethoven. Watching Federer is a surreal experience; the symphony of shots that cascades off his racket elevates the game to a breathtaking level of artistry.

He has garnered Grand Slam titles the way Osho collected Rolls Royces! Having one Rolls is the envy of the jet-setting glitterati; Osho had at his command well over 90.

Federer’s victory over Andy Roddick at the US Open on Sunday was the ninth Grand Slam singles title of his career – and the third of the year. Only five players – all retired - have won more majors than Federer: Pete Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12), Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg (11 each) and Bill Tilden (10). And there is none remotely in striking distance of Federer.
What’s so awesome is that Federer is still only about halfway through his sensational career. At 25, Federer would have at least seven more years in the game in which he will have a total of 28 opportunities to increase his tally of Slams.

But will he have the motivation, the desire, the hunger to be good enough for that long to win Grand Slams? Most importantly, nobody can be sure of the wear and tear his body could suffer.

Federer’s nine Grand Slams have come within the span of four years. How does that compare with the others ahead of him? Sampras’s 14 Grand Slam titles came in a 13-year time span, Emerson’s 12 took seven years, Borg's 11 took eight years, Laver’s 10 took nine years and Bill Tilden’s 10 took 11 years. By any calculations, Federer is sitting pretty and looking to set the kind of record that will be hard to beat.

But Federer knows that he has to win the French Open if he has to gain wider acceptance as the best-ever player on Planet Earth.

The French Open has been a major disappointment for many greats. The genius of John McEnroe was not good enough to win him a title at the French Open (he also did not win at Melbourne). Sampras, too, failed in 13 visits to Paris. Jimmy Connors was another great American who failed to master the clay of Roland Garros.

Likewise, many of the clay courters had an aversion for grass. Ivan Lendl said that “grass if for cows”. Andre Agassi, too, hated grass. He stayed away from Wimbledon for long, but most importantly he won it in 1992 – the first and only title on grass in a career spanning 21 years in which he won 61 titles. Lend reached the final twice, but lost in straight sets on both occasions.

That’s where Bjorn Borg scored over his other great rivals like McEnroe and Jimmy Connors; he won the French Open six times and Wimbledon five times in a row. But his CV, too, had holes as he failed to win the US and Australian Opens; he lost fours US Open finals and played the Australian Open just once and lost in the third round.

Winning all four Grand Slams is a feat achieved by just five players — Donald Budge, Fred Perry, Laver, Emerson and Agassi. And among those who ended their careers by failing to win one of the four include…Ken Rosewall, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker.

Only two men – Don Budge and Laver - won all four titles in a single calendar year. Laver won it twice – as an amateur in 1962 and then as a pro in 1969. Agassi won all four, too, but not in the same year. When Laver won his four in 1969, three of the Slams were played on grass and one on clay. The degree of difficulty in winning it today is far greater as it means mastery on four different surfaces.

The biggest hurdle between Federer and the French Open title is 20-year-old Rafael Nadal, who won the title on his maiden appearance at Paris last year and produced an encore this year. The left-handed Nadal has established himself as a formidable force on slow courts with a men’s Open Era record of 60-match winning streak on clay. He has also won six of his seven meetings against Federer, though four of those have been on clay. Federer, however, made the French Open semis in 2005 and final in 2006 and has won five titles on clay.

On any other surface, Federer is streets ahead. For most mortals playing on grass against Federer means a mere formality of staying on court between the handshakes at the start and end of the match.

Currently, he has held the No 1 spot on the ATP rankings for 137 successive weeks - the third longest streak in history, behind Lendl and Connors.

Players are known to suffer from bad patches – a bad season, a bad month, a bad tournament or a bad match. Federer, too, has his bad patches – a bad game or two. He dropped two sets enroute to his ninth Grand Slam title. James Blake and Roddick can tell their grandchildren that they won a set each against the Swiss juggernaut.

Federer’s latest US Open victory means he has now won nine of the last 14 Grand Slam singles.
How one wishes there was a magical potion to help Sampras gain his youthful powers! It would have been a sight for the Gods to see Sampras and Federer at their best on either side of the net. It’s a pity that Sampras career ended when Federer’s was just beginning.

One man who was eminently qualified to talk on both players is Agassi – Sampras’s famed rival, who retired at the end of last week’s US Open. Agassi once said: "Pete was great. But there was a place to get to with Pete; you knew what you had to do. If you do it, it could be on your terms. There's no such place like that with Roger."

It will take somebody were brave or very foolish to label a current player “The Greatest”. There is very little argument that Federer is a truly great player, but would anybody label him “The Greatest” yet? One would like to believe that the tag will eventually be his in the years to come, though there are some who are convinced he has already earned that right.

Rod Laver, who many believe to be the greatest ever, says: “I would be honoured to even be compared to Roger. He is such an unbelievable talent, and is capable of anything. Roger could be the greatest tennis player of all time.”

There is one respectable voice in world tennis who sums it up eloquently. The legendary John McEnroe believes, Federer is “the most gifted player” that he has seen in my life. “I've seen the (Rod) Lavers, I played against some of the great players - the Samprases, Beckers, Connors', Borgs, you name it…He's probably the greatest player that ever lived…He can beat half the guys with his eyes closed!”

What a player!