Roger Federer’s victory at the French Open this past Sunday has given new life to the debate as to “ Who is the greatest player of all time ?” Previously , the lack of a French Open title was trotted out as a reason to downgrade Federer’s credentials . Now that that hole in his record has been filled , the armchair critics and amateur statisticians have come out with new arguments as to why Federer is not the best, though they are divided as to who is the greatest. One fan goes so far as to say that Rafael Nadal is better than Federer because he has a better head-to-head record against him.This chap conveniently ‘forgets’ that most of those victories have come on clay, Nadal’s favorite surface. Except for his successes at the Australian Open 2009 and Wimbledon 2008 where he defeated Federer by the slimmest of margins, Nadal has flamed out early in tournaments on surfaces other than clay . Their head to head meetings have been mostly on clay where Nadal is the undisputed King.
“The Greatest Ever” ? It is a fruitless debate that nobody can win. Each of us will plump for his favorite player while marshalling arguments to prove that all the others are inferior. This is only natural but what is saddening is the surprising number of fans who are only too eager to tear down Federer and question his greatness. I suppose that too is human nature ; an eagerness to pull people down rather than build them up.
In any case,this debate will never be settled since it is impossible to compare players from different eras. There is no single yardstick by which to measure greatness. However, it is interesting to examine the various contenders and their claims. I think most everyone will agree that the greatest players of the modern era are ( in no particular order) are Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Lew Hoad. In the earlier era , when pros were not allowed to compete with amateurs, the greatest names were Pancho Gonzales, Don Budge and Bill Tilden. I can’t think of anyone else though I might have missed one or two others; I don’t claim to be all-knowing.
One measure of greatness is the number of Grand Slam titles won in a career and , by this standard, Federer and Sampras, who are tied with 14 wins apiece , are the tops. Between the two, Federer would have to be considered superior to Sampras because a) he is still active and figures to win several more Grand Slams before he joins Sampras in retirement and b) he has won all four Championships wheras Sampras never advanced beyond the quarterfinals at the French.Advantage Federer.
One could make an argument that Sampras faced stiffer opposition during his years of glory while Federer had only Nadal to contend with. True but I think that it is carrying it too far for one fan to sniff that”the AP came up with this list of Slam winners that Sampras faced: Agassi, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Sergi Bruguera and Gustavo Kuerten. It would be easy to add to it….Goran Ivanišević, McEnroe, Lendl, Chang, Kafelnikov,Muster, Safin, Hewitt, Roddick and more. (Not to mention many distinguished Slam finalists such as Todd Martin, Pioline,Rusedski, Enqvist…I agree that Agassi, Edberg,Becker,McEnroe and Lendl were among the greats but Sergei Brugera? Gustavo Kuerten ? Thomas Muster? Todd Martin?.. Gimme a break. Still, Advantage Sampras.
Rod Laver too deserves serious consideration. After all he completed the Grand Slam in the course of a calendar year. Neither Federer nor Sampras has been able to do this ; Laver did it not once but twice ! In terms of total Grand Slam titles , Laver has ‘only’ eleven but consider this : His career straddled the beginning of the Open era .At the beginning of his pro career, he was not allowed to complete against the amateurs. Consequently, there was a period of about five years at the peak of his career that he was unable to add to his records. Had it not been for that , he would have won several more Grand Slams without a doubt.Federer would probably have still been chasing him in terms of total Grand Slams. Advantage Laver.
Becuase Laver played only amateurs in the early part of his career, his opposition did not measure up to that faced by the other two. Deuce.
The playing surfaces have changed the years and they are not as different from each other as they used to be . The grass courts at Wimbledon are not lightning fast as they once were while the clay at Roland Garros seems to be playing faster. This has made it easier for Federer than it was for Laver. Advantage Laver.
The other modern players who are sometimes named in the same breath have one or the other drawback in their credentials. Great as Borg and McEnroe were , neither was able to win a career Grand slam. Roy Emerson has a good Grand Slam record but he was a supremely fit player who was consistent rather than great. Ditto Ivan Lendl.Lew Hoad won three grand slams in 1956 but lost in the U.S Open final to his compatriot, Ken Rosewall. He had all the tools but his career was cut short by back problems. All of these players would have to be considered a step below Federer, Sampras and Laver.
In discussions of this subject, there are three factors which I have never seen discussed and which are responsible for pre-1950 players being precluded from consideration of The Greatest.
First is the difference in equipment and training methods. Greats such as Tilden , Budge and Perry played with wooden racquets , a far cry from today’s composite frames . Modern racquets can be strung to a much higher tension and consequently today’s players are able to hit the ball much, much harder. Furthermore, modern players have a support group with full time coaches , and even psychologists; the oldtimers were on their own.
Second, in the amateur era, athletes had very short careers. Unless they were independently wealthy or able to generate money off the court they had to earn their living. Consequently, they can’t compete with the moderns in terms of Grand Slam triumphs. Another contributory factor was that travel was much more difficult in those days ; few players would undertake the long sea voyage to compete in the Australian Open.Thus Grand Slam opportunities were fewer.
Thirdly, because their careers were so short , old time players did not have the time to fully develop their skills and win on all different types of surfaces. They were either serve-and -volley types who flourished on grass courts or baseliners who reigned supreme on clay.
Taking all this into consideration, I think that there are three other players who rank right up there with Federer, Sampras and Laver. They are Pancho Gonzales , Don Budge and Bill Tilden.
Richard “Pancho” Gonzales who won the U.S oOpen twice, was the # I player in the world for eight years in the fifties and sixties. A fierce competitor with a blistering serve and catlike agility, he was the mainstay of the pro tour and regularly beat greats such as Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura ,Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, and Lew Hoad. Even towards the end of his career , when he was well past his prime, he beat Rod Laver. William “Big Bill” Tilden dominated tennis in the twenties and thirties, winning seven U.S Championships ( 6 of them in a row) and three Wimbledons. He was competitive against the best players in the world well into his late forties and won the U.S professional doubles championship when he was 52! Don Budge won six Grand Slam titles in the late thirties including an unprecedented Calendar Grand Slam in 1938. He was the #1 player in the world for five conscutive years and ,after he turned pro, he regularly beat the likes of Fred Perry and Ellsworth Vines.Had it not been a wartime injury he might have gone on to even greater heights.
I think that any discussion of “The Greatest Tennis Player of all time would have to include these three players along with the moderns ( Federer, Sampras and Laver). However, to say that any one of them was The Best is impossible and is more a personal preference than a reasoned selection.