Let the Debate Begin: Federer as Greatest Ever?

Douglas Robson – USA Today

Copyright USA Today
PARIS — Let the debates begin.
Roger Federer’s coveted victory at the French Open on Sunday against Sweden’s Robin Soderling will launch a cavalcade of bar stool and Internet chat-room discussions about whether he is the greatest male player of all time.
The Swiss No. 2’s first Paris win presents a strong case: It tied him on the all-time leaderboard in majors with Pete Sampras at 14, and also pushed him past Sampras as one of six men to complete a career Grand Slam — winning each of the four majors, Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Federer, 27, has done so over an astonishingly short span since winning his first of five Wimbledons in 2003.
“I didn’t think it would take seven years to tie it,” Sampras said in a statement to ATPWorldTour.com. Sampras won his last major at the 2002 U.S. Open, and he told news organizations the Paris win confirms Federer as the best of all time.
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If Federer’s missing Roland Garros title “settles the debate” according to Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob, it’s an argument that is far from airtight.
“I don’t think you can compare eras,” said Australian Rod Laver, the only man to win two calendar-year Grand Slams and who is often cited as the standard-bearer of greatness. “You can be the dominant performer of your time, but I don’t think anyone has the title of best ever.”
Like Laver, Federer accomplished what Sampras never did: A win at Roland Garros. The American had some success on clay but his best result in Paris was the semifinals in 1995.
Federer, of course, has been a force on clay. Were it not for archrival Rafael Nadal, he might own more than one French Open crown.
The Swiss star — whose résumé also includes five Wimbledons, five U.S. Opens and three Australian Open titles — has been the second-best player on clay of his era, reaching the last three Paris finals and the semifinals the year before. Each time, he fell to Spaniard Nadal.
But playing a speculative parlor game of hypotheticals doesn’t necessarily provide answers.
“What Laver did is god-like,” said Andre Agassi, who completed his career Slam at Roland Garros in 1999 and who handed Federer his coveted Coupe des Mousquetaires men’s trophy Sunday. “To win all of them in the same year twice — how do you argue with that?”
At the same time, Agassi said, Federer’s consistency across all surfaces — his 20 consecutive appearances in Grand Slam finals is twice as long as the second best — and his Slam mark are unmatched.
“I wouldn’t be on that side of the argument,” Agassi said of downplaying Federer’s greatness.
Many variables come into play when comparing eras.
Laver won his first Slam in 1962 as an amateur and his second as a professional in 1969.
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Like many of his peers, the Australian known as the “Rocket” joined the professional barnstorming tours of the day and was ineligible to play the majors for a large chunk of his career because they were reserved for amateurs only until the post-1968 Open era.
Laver might well have won many more than his 11 major titles had he been able to play from 1963-67.
Similarly, some of his greatest rivals such as Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad and Pancho Gonzalez already had turned pro, meaning Laver faced lighter competition for some of his wins. Players such as Hoad and Gonzalez, meantime, had few chances to stockpile their own cache of majors, even though many consider them among the best of all time.
“I won a lot when Hoad and Rosewall and Gonzalez weren’t able to play in those tournaments,” Laver said.
It’s even dangerous to make comparisons in modern times.
Until it grew into prominence in the 1990s, the Australian Open was often an afterthought. Eight-time major winner Jimmy Connors played it just once more after winning it in his debut in 1974. Bjorn Borg, an 11-time Grand Slam champ, trekked Down Under just once, losing in the third round.
In the last three decades, surfaces have changed.
At one time, three of the four majors — the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S Open — were played on grass. Today, they are played on three different surfaces, clay, grass and hardcourts.
Sampras’ coach, Paul Annacone, said: “How many majors would Pete have won if he were playing three out of four on grass?”
Critics could point out at least two glaring holes in Federer’s sparkling record: his lack of a Davis Cup title and his 13-7 losing record against main foe Nadal.
“Roger’s numbers are hard to disagree with,” Agassi said. “And then you have a guy who’s beaten him almost twice as much. Sounds like an Achilles’ heel.”
Though no fault of his, some say Federer has had few great players to push him until Nadal, while Sampras battled numerous multiple major winners such as Agassi, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Sergi Bruguera and Gustavo Kuerten.
As Annacone points out, records and best-ever discussions come with a built-in escalation factor. Who’s to say whether Federer’s 14 majors are superior to Sampras’ unprecedented six-year run of finishing the season No. 1 from 1993-98, or whether the measuring stick of greatness will shift?
“To me, that’s more impressive than 14 grand Slam titles,” Annacone said.
Roy Emerson of Australia was infrequently mentioned as the greatest of all time when Sampras passed his mark at the 2000 Wimbledon, largely because he won his 12 majors as an amateur in the pre-1968 era when professionals were competing elsewhere.
This much is certain: there can no longer be any shortlists of greats without Federer’s name attached. He joins Fred Perry, Donald Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Agassi as the only men to win all four majors in their careers. Only Agassi and Federer did so on three different surfaces.
Asked in his postmatch news conference where he stands in history, a proud Federer mostly dodged the question.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever know who was the greatest of all time, but I’m definitely happy to be right up there, that’s for sure,” he said.
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