With a good run at Roland Garros, Roger Federer can cross another achievement off of his list. He will surpass Pete Sampras’s mark of 284 weeks at number one. Pete, a legend in his day, is now all but forgotten, and those tennis voices who decried that he was the best all sing a new tune–that the best, or what we tennis junkies refer to as the GOAT–greatest of all time–is Swiss Roger Federer, who has made 23 consecutive major semifinals, an amazing 10 straight major finals (the previous record was 4), and has appeared in 18 of the last 19 major finals.
I’ve heard many times the great American tennis commentary and legendary player, John McEnroe, say over and over on ESPN, USA, and CBS that Roger is the best player ever. Nowadays, it would be one of the first things falling out of his mouth if asked about Roger. And then on Sirius radio, who then broadcast Britain’s Radio One that covered Wimbledon with probably the best tennis coverage anywhere, I heard John McEnroe with good friend and doubles partner Peter Fleming, who now works for the BBC, and who teamed with McEnroe for 9 mjor doubles victories, pretty good considering they hardly made it to Australia if it all during their prime. Fleming asked McEnroe pointed questions about Federer’s game. McEnroe was more honest on the BBC in his responses about the great Roger Federer.
Hypocrite? I don’t know if I’d be that harsh. To American audiences he’s selling tennis by touting Roger, and he’s not obligated to tell the truth about how he feels, though one can feel how genuine he is most of the time. If America is the country that hypes their sports, treating tennis as nothing more than a potentially big ratings earner, and caring little for the audience consisting of the hardcore fan, then Britain is the capital of evolved tennis talk, a real treat for the real fans of the game, who know its history, and can remember a day when Roger Federer wasn’t a name on the landscape. McEnroe, talking to old friend Fleming, a few years older than Mac, the young phenom, who used to beat sure to be pro Fleming at their home club in Long Island even though Mac was 4 years younger. With Fleming, McEnroe was more critical of Roger’s game, and talked about how guys didn’t have the right game plan, and that Roger couldn’t handle the big serve and decisive point attack.
“The big game”, McEnroe called it. Federer couldn’t handle the big game, and that a guy like Pete Sampras, and maybe himself, would be able to beat Roger. No one really pressures Roger, except Nadal, only with an altogether different style. But it is true that few players play a pressure game these days, and the few who do don’t have the talent to do it against Roger. He wasn’t saying a lot of guys could beat him, but he did feel pretty good about himself, and about Pete.
In watching Roger play a few matches against Radek Stepanek (the 2 are seen below shaking hands at net after a Federer victory), probably the best attacker near the top twenty, I noticed that a lot of good old fashioned tennis plays work on Roger, like serve and volley, and slicing and coming in. You know why? Because they’re good plays. They will work for all time because cutting off your opponents’ angles gives you a significant advantage. Nobody did it more than McEnroe and Pete, and as spectactularly. Except of course for Rod Laver, two time winner of the Grand Slam, whose developmental coach was the great Harry Hopman, who also taught McEnroe, Fleming, Patrick McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, and Mary Carillo here in New York.
Roger is beatable, and I believe that McEnroe, Sampras, and Laver would have beaten him, more times than not, despite Federer’s all-time consistency and record in majors. Roger does not do much on first ball returns of serve, and a true attack player could take advantage of that. Federer slices back a lot of his returns, and slices are the easist balls to come in on, because they arrive slowly. They work great for him against most because most are uncomfortable at net, so they don’t make the right play, which is to come in. Most of the time, it leads Roger’s opponents to take the ball back too far, and leads to errors. The big S and V three would have come all the way forward and hit a winning volley on the next point. The slice gives players the most critical element of tennis: time.
Roger Federer, the best in the game at taking time away his opponent’s time, doesn’t look so good when his time is taken away. Like last Sunday, when Roger, so rushed by Nadal when down a match point, that he hurried through his forehand, and missed the ball completely. And as much as this isn’t meant to be an argument that compares Nadal to Federer, facts are facts. Nadal is a player with Federer’s number, and has beaten him 14 times and lost just 7. Nadal has beaten Federer in a major final on every surface, so this isn’t just a clay court thing. And for those who would call the head to head between Federer and Nadal skewed because 9 of the 14 matches have come on clay, I’d say you have to play the opponents, the surfaces, and the calls, as the great Rod Laver liked to say. Federer is only 3-2 versus Nadal on a hardcourt, and they have each won a five set match from each other. Federer has never beaten Nadal in a 5 set format on clay, less blemish than fact, but here we are at Roland Garros, and who among us likes Roger’s chances to get that first 5 set victory over Rafa?
Here’s the thing. Consistency is not the mark of excellence. A younger man has come along in Nadal, who has managed to beat the best player ever 14 times, during Federer’s prime. You know who beat Pete Sampras 14 times? Andre Agassi. Only took him 14 years to do it, and sure, Pete came out on top of the rivalry, with a 17-14 record, and 4-1 in major finals, 4-0 in the majors that matter most (Wimbledon and the US Open). Sure Sampras was not the player that Federer is on clay, but then again, Sampras did beat 3 Roland Garros singles champions at the 1996 French Open in the 5 set format, before losing to eventual champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semi-finals.
Federer as GOAT is the popular notion, but it’s a neo-tennis concept, excluding the very unpopular sport of doubles tennis, where both McEnroe and Laver also excelled, in many cases, on the same day they played a singles match. What is the best doubles team of all time, was the question once posed to Peter Fleming. “John McEnroe and anyone else” was his reply. McEnroe, who recorded perhaps the best year ever in modern professional tennis, went 82-3 in 1984, winning 13 singles titles and 7 doubles titles. McEnroe is also perhaps the best player ever in Davis Cup–gruelling 5 set tennis–even in doubles, and he and Fleming only lost 1 doubles match in Davis Cup. Ever. And then there’s the Rockhampton Rocket, Rod Laver.
Rod Laver is second all time to Roger in consecutive major semi-finals appearances with a paltry 10. But how many people are fully aware of the fact that Laver was excluded from playing the majors in his prime because he had to turn pro to earn a living, and was prohibited from playing the majors or any open tennis for 6 of the best years he had? Didn’t stop Laver from winning 2 natural slams (winning all 4 majors consecutively in one calendar year). One in 1962, and the other, after his exile, in 1969. Laver won Wimbledon as a pup in 1961 and 1962, and then as a lion, in 1968 and 1969, albeit one whose best years were spent toiling away on the pro circuit, where he played about 150 singles matches a year, and played doubles as well. How many Wimbledons would he have won, and won consecutively, had his open career not been interrupted? Laver, along with the rest of the guys on the pro tour at the time, paved the way for players like McEnroe, Sampras, and Federer by driving, himself, from tournament to tournament, by cooking his own meals and doing his own laundry, and by playing, well, just about anywhere they could slap down white lines and peg a net into the ground.
Laver was the true all courter, playing on astro-turf, cow dung, synthetic grass, grren clay, red clay, cement, sweaty courts affixed to hockey rinks, hardwood, etc. Laver was the true player’s player, having such major immeasurables to his name such as his 2 grand slams, while playing in the singles, doubles, and mixed competitions. In fact, Laver won 5 majors in 1969 when you account for his Australian doubles title as well. He clinched the slam at the US Open on a rain soaked, dangerous field, the likes of which, Roger Federer has never had the temerity to set foot on. And he did it with tennis elbow. For muchh of the ’69 season, Laver spent his off court hours with a hydroculator on his left elbow, a device then thought to provide therapeutic benefits.
Unlike Federer or Nadal, today’s greats, he never complained about the elbow. Never had his uncle out grandstanding to the media about his knee, never sent his business manager out there to tell the world he had mononucleosis. Pete Sampras played his entire career with a rare blood disease that affects men of mediterranean descent called Thalassemia, which inhibited his conditioning–always the biggest criticism of Sampras–and which he never divulged he had.
Sampras also had 3 Davis Cup victories to his name, and a priceless 12-1 record in major finals while in his prime with the only loss coming to Agassi in Australia, in a match that could be chalked up to Pete’s conditioning. And Pete had down cold the most important shot in the game, and the only one a player completely controls: the serve. It’s the only shot in the game that isn’t coming back at you off another’s racquet, and it is the shot that betrayed Roger at the 2009 Australian Open when Nadal broke him twice in the fifth set, and at the US Open final in 09, when Juan Martin Del Potro broke Federer twice in the final set.
Is Roger really the best? Of all time?