Rod Laver

The all-time greats, Borg, Sampras, Federer, and Rod Laver.

Well, if the master hadn’t handled the student today.  Roger Federer, seizing on a quick indoor Wimbledon center court, on which he made only ten unforced errors, played the perfect grass court tennis match pretty much, in dispatching Novak Djokovic, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3.  Federer put his big serve to use, pounding second serves, where he also had a decided advantage. Federer won 72% of second serves, and that really got him out of almost all of his deep service games, in clutch fashion.  And when you think about clutch serving and Wimbledon, you have to think about Pete Sampras. Now Federer-Sampras comparisons are nothing new, but the twilight Federer-Sampras comparisons, we feel are very useful in demonstrating how, well, major they are.

The gameplan with Annacone all along was to get back to the top on grass, because that’s where serving and attacking take to the best.  Here they are.  And there Annacone once was with Pete Sampras, on the verge of a 7th Wimbledon title and what was then a record would be 13th major.  For Federer, it’s a Sampras tying 7th trophy, if he can get it, and 17th singles major.  That’s why we don’t see a lot of pressure on Murray in this spot, despite the fact that a British man has not won here in so long.  Since the Wimbledon champion is also commonly known as the champion of tennis, we think it fitting for Federer to be the 7 time champion of all tennis, pretty much the one record in major history that is most cherished and respected.  Murray doesn’t have the pressure on him that Federer does, though Murray is probably feeling it, and must relish a final without Djokovic or Nadal in play, to boot.

But here is where we think Federer has a good chance to come through.  Sampras had a few cracks at US Open trophies late in the game where he had gone out and played six great matches twice and then didn’t get it done in the finals, against Hewitt and Safin, younger guys.  We think in this older-younger matchup, Federer has a decided edge because of service.  Once again, a situation, as well, where Federer has not played one single match against Murray prior on grass.  Or clay, that we are at it.  For shame.  We would love an extension of grass court season, such as the one we will see this year with the Olympics being held next month in London, with perhaps a Masters on grass, at a state of the art place like Halle.  Because it’s better tennis.  We love our attack tennis, and that’s why we feel Federer is in a tremendous spot to handle Murray here and pick up the hardware.  Murray is not an attacker, and despite some big serving, we don’t see him as having the right makeup to attack Roger Federer on grass.  Djokovic is by far a better grass court player, and Federer handled him magnificently today, despite being outplayed at net by Djokovic, we might add.

I think we see the full fruition of the Federer-Anacone partnership right here.  Federer serving his way to major titles.  And it will be another similarity between Roger and Pete, that they came out and served well in big spots late in their career.  We’ve seen Federer capitalize on Murray’s inabilities to claim his most recent majors at Flushing and Melbourne.  In fact, we haven’t seen Federer pick up a major against anyone of Djokovic-Nadal calibre in quite a spell, recalling that the last four majors Roger claimed were against Murray, Soderling, Roddick, and Murray.

Roger must capitalize on this opportunity.  And ultimately, his durabilty, and his laterals are what gets him in this position, and of course, timely serving.  We have always slightly favored Pete because of what we perceive to be lack of clutch factor in Roger’s major finals, letting many nice opportunities go by the board, and unconscionably losing to Nadal in Melbourne on Plexicushion.  It’s why Roger needed an Annacone, and we see the influence on what Roger is doing, and we’ll see it on Sunday, we feel.  Annacone has essentially taken Roger’s two best shots, his serve out wide and his serve down the middle, and made them the staples of his gameplan.  Annacone, in his capacity as Captain of Great Britain’s Davis Cup team, worked intimately with Murray for a few years and no doubt has quite a book on the kid, who we feel is going to feel the enormity of the spot and the matchup/surface disadvanages.  At the heart for Murray, is a refusal to play attack tennis, an achilles heel for Murray throughout his career, which should certainly be exploited by Federer, best perhaps on these courts, where attack tennis should reign.

Federer only has to play the opponents who advance to play in the finals.  If he can do that, based on his overall excellence and longevity, he is going to have his chances sometimes against guys who might be tailored made for him at a given time.  Personally, we think it would take a lot for Federer to lose.  This is the opportunity that he lives for, and coming up with the goods against Murray has never been a problem, not at least at a major, where Murray has yet to break his cherry against Federer.  This is looking like vintage time warp Roger, circa 2007, and if he can find this level now, he may be able to find it a few more times before the lights go out.

If Federer wins Sunday, he would tie Sampras for 7 Wimbledon singles titles, and 12 US Open and Wimbledon titles, combined.  If Murray wins, he will become a first time major champion and the first Wimbledon winner from Britain since Fred Perry.

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Stacey Gardner (left, above) and Ester Satorova.

Originally we were going to light up The Tennis Channel for it’s diminished coverage of our beloved Hopman Cup, which is a celebration of tennis, a multi-national competition sometimes decided by our dearly beloved mixed doubles–how novel–and the greatest of New Year’s pick me ups.  It is true that TTC only televised three sessions of the Hopman Cup, but in it’s quest to cover American tennis primarily, and with the blah team of Mardy Fish and Bethanie Mattek-Sands representing America, could we really blame them?  In this day and age, if you can’t find just about any tennis online live, you have no business criticizing the The Tennis Channel anyway.  But criticizing Fish and Sands?  That’s a cottage industry.

Well, if you hearken back to last year when John Isner–a winner–and Sands partnered up to win Hopman Cup XXIII, you couldn’t have been too displeased with Sands, who perhaps had no business tussling with Justine Henin, but who did pull her weight admirably in perhaps sharing with Isner in her greatest tennis glory.  And was it not a sight to see Justine Henin returning serve to John Isner?  Let’s face it, Sands is a middling player at best, a blight on our Fed Cup team, a high socked, neon dyed chubby little picture of bad fashion with the girliest popgun forehand in the women’s top 55, but she is not a disgrace to American tennis.  The girl gets doubles, understands well her limitations, and therefore uses the net, approaches as much as possible with nice touch at net, and again, she came through as much as one could expect her to last year to get USA her sixth Hopman Cup.

It’s not her fault that her meager game gets trotted out so regularly to horrible results by Mary Joe Fernandez.  That would be the USTA’s fault.  So when the Czech sounded the American death knell the other morning, and Sands got obliterated by Kvitova, as she should, and when Fish got abused by Berdych, as expected, we put no blame on Ms. Sands.  After all, the Americans were up a break in the second set of the mixed, and it was no fault of Sands that Mardy Fish blew about ten volleys in 4 games and netted four crosses in the exact same damned spot in the net.  As our mate Fred Stolle aptly pointed out, if Fish were tired from being beaten so badly by Tomas Berdych, that was not an excuse for dead legged tennis in the mixed, crossing like a kamikaze to blow volleys that the 12 year olds over at the NYJTL make regularly in the school yard.  Fred Stolle, who we only get down under and occasionally during mixed package major season, the first seven days of the majors, when we are very lucky.  Fred, why couldn’t you have stayed with ESPN back in the day and that hack Cliff Drysdale have gone?

Fish Fish Fish.  The worst thing anyone could possibly do is to put their faith in Mardy Fish in the big spot.  Now you might say, well, didn’t Fish win the bespeckled tennis ball with a driven Serena a scant few years back?  Yes.  But Serena is so great that she can make Mardy Fish a winner for a week, something we’ve yet to see anyone else do.  She carried Fish, she banged unreturnable serves to the men and women, and her presence on just about any doubles team has generally always produced medals and champion trophies.  It was lucky for Mardy that Serena likes bling so much, was healthy, and so motivated to get another blinged out tennis ball from old Lucy H.  For when Fish had the opportunity to take home the gold, he lost in five sets to…Nicolas Massu.  And he’ll never live that down.

And the excuses abound.  And that’s just tiresome.  Like hearing about Mardy Fish’s ankle all summer.  Let’s face it.  Nadal is more heavily taped up on a day to day basis by a lot, and he only wins majors.  While Fish is rationalizing to the cameras on Hopman Cup that at least Bethanie got in some matches.  Again, Sands is not the dominant player here.  When she won, it was Isner, and when Fish won, it was all Serena.  But can’t Fish state a grand intention for once, even if it’s only at Hopman Cup, where he is a past champion paired with the defending champion?  Instead it’s always like, ‘well maybe I can make the quarters.’

So we aren’t upset that America lost, considering the roster, and that so many other rosters were much much stronger.  Had a special eye on Bulgaria with our lad Grigor Dimitrov, the best up and coming one hander in the game, and Tsvetana Pironkova, Wimbledon’s mistress–quite a team.  BTW, Dimitrov did not look like a prodigy but rather, a prodigy realized, when he spanked Mardy Fish 6-2, 6-1.  Loved France with super talented one hander Richard Gasquet and two-hander Marion Bartoli, an utter hack but taken with Gasquet, a very diverse tandem.  And the Czech obviously were going to be heavy favorites because they were loaded, with Kvitova a given to win and Berdych sitting very pretty.  If the Americans could have actually stretched it out TTC would have shown us more tennis, but they still had the good grace to televise the final which we happened to catch last night at 4 AM, and despite the lack of drama due to the sweep and the no mixed match which would’ve been a hot contest, we got to see the dominant left hand of Kvitova, the dominant serve of Berdych, and the flair of Gasquet, one the game’s best shot makers.  Gasquet took the backhand early and made many beautiful backhands up the line, made incredible forehand return winners, making for a very interesting match which Berdych took 7-6 (7-0), 6-4.  Berdych is in fine form.  His return game was clicking, popping several huge forehands for winners in his own right, and even on the tacky blue plexicushion, we felt the indoor conditions made the court play extremely fast.  It was bang bang tennis, and both guys should get credit for going for shots, coming forward, and pursuing the attack.

A nice bit of warm spirit after the contest was when Bartoli came down to console Gasquet after the match, and when Kvitova came to congratulate and celebrate with Berdych.  This is a great competition and always has been, in the name of the great Harry Hopman who coached from Laver and Rosewall to McEnroe and Gerulaitis, and who stressed the serve, the overhead, and getting to net and sticking your racquet out.  Unfortunately from a sentimental aspect, the event has had its last run at Burswood, but is sounds like the Hopman Cup is moving to an even better venue in Perth’s new arena.

It’s no real comfort to America, but Fish goes home with Stacey Gardner, so obviously these losses aren’t sweated too heavily.  And Berdych to Ester Satorova.  Damn.  We should’ve had a battle of the tennis babes featuring those two.  But there’s still time.

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We will go through the match for you in a few ways, looking at what the numbers indicate, and our impressions of the actual match–the final of the men’s Italian championship from Rome–in which Novak Djokovic (above), truly to be heralded, defeated world #1 Rafael Nadal for the second straight time on clay, and the fourth straight time overall, in moving his overall record to 39-0 this year.  Now Djokovic is in company with only two other men, Federer and we believe Gaudio, who have beaten Nadal twice on clay, and is the only one to do so twice in the same year.

We hate to go crazy for the Masters Series like this because we are purists and tennis historians who reflect on the years and achievements of players mostly by looking at results from majors, Davis Cup, and the Year End Championships.  That said, they contested two finals in the last 8 days, both on Nadal’s surface, and Rafa did not win a set.  Very rarely does the best clay court player in a season not win Roland Garros.  Djokovic is the best clay court player this season, and even if he should not win there, he has arrived, and will be considered a better threat than Nadal to win there for the next several years.  Guillermo Coria is one guy we can think of who had the strongest clay court season and did not take the major.  John McEnroe, obviously, is another.  We think Federer was the best clay court player in 09 when he completed his career slam.

Hate to jinx it, but we think Djokovic is gonna be the champ there the same way he was in Madrid and today in Rome.  Djokovic may let him get a set in a final we are all set to book for 3 Sundays time, but he hasn’t let him get one yet, not even on Nadal’s home soil.  This brings a lot of questions to mind.  Nadal, the clay court god, has all of a sudden lost it?  Isn’t he the “King of Clay”?  He hasn’t lost “it” but he has lost that distinction.  This is why I love the King of Clay, King of Grass, GOAT, and all of these other tennis nonsense conversations.  None of these discussions can take place until long after these guys retire, unless we hold them out of the conversation and judge only players who are retired.

If we were to do that, we’d have to say Rod Laver is the best player of all time, that Roy Emmerson is very, very close, that Bjorg and Sampras, in no certain order, should probably come next in the discussion, and that just about everybody else is on a lesser tier.  To Emmerson’s credit, he won 16 doubles majors, and won the French twice, but all of these guys, even the ones on the other tier, have immense major immeasurables or specific achievements that further enlighten their careers.  Frankly, Djokovic doesn’t have any, but that’s not for this discussion.  With the Djoker, he’s the best right now on clay and slow hards, and we’ll see about the rest soon enough.

But Nadal does not have the weapons to penetrate Djokovic any longer on clay, and scampering around from 15 feet back of the baseline and pushing the ball back is not going to get it done for Nadal against Djokovic any longer.  The mighty forehand of Rafael Nadal went whole half hours today without producing a winner, as Djokovic easily won on the winner count today off both wings, hitting about 12 more winners, and winning 8 more total points.  It was the difference in the match.  The guy who could step up into the court and hit a winner is the guy who won.  Nadal actually had an edge in net play that had he exploited better, he could have won.  Only, how do you get to net when you are so far back of the court?

Unlike last week’s performance which we considered fairly dominant, considering the opponent, we thought that this week Djokovic looked more average.  The fatigue was more apparent from the Saturday semi and from the week.  And Djoker was walking gingerly all second set, and kept stretching out his legs, which our friend Robbie Koenig was saying was a hip flexor.  Usually a great sign for an opponent–a gimpy Djoker.  Only, these things don’t seem to matter anymore, like he’s superman, especially in the best of three set format.  Djokovic got down in actual games, especially on his own serve, though he never actually trailed, but he played with the knowing confidence that when he had to, he was going to jack the ball and take the point from Nadal out of a haze of loopy topspin.  This wasn’t done on serve, either.  Djokovic served no aces.  These were crushing groundstrokes, the likes we have not seen probably, since the Soderling run in 09.

Last week, Nadal can go in and not sweat too much, because he can still have the attitude that it’s one match, in case he loses.  This week, Nadal knows all week that he’s gonna have to play much better to win, and that should be a big edge to him, but it’s not, and he’s even less of a favorite.  Nadal stayed close with Djokovic the whole way, unlike last week when he was quickly down 4-0, but Djokovic just upped the level on the big points today, hit the groundies a little harder, a little gimpy or not.  It’s still going to take a great effort to beat Nadal at
RG, but that’s Nadal after 6 more matches, this time of the best of 5 variety.  We think it works against him poorly, and always does, when he plays too many essentially meaningless events.

Now do they really help him, long term or short?  No, save for financially.  Nadal, the master of Masters, has more shields than Federer, Agassi, Sampras.  He has the most.  But being the best week to week is not as important as being the best at the end of every season, which players thinking more about winning majors have in the forefront of their minds.  For a guy who runs as much as Nadal, and who has wheels issues so much, the play should be to pick and choose, and that would leave him fresher for majors.  A few weeks ago, Nadal plays Sabadell, wins it, ends up picking up a few points, which ultimately isn’t going to keep Djokovic from taking his ranking, and adds 5 matches and about 8 needless hours of court time to his joints.

We see him as tired going into Roland Garros, and more tired going into the final weekend.  He could still win, and we’d respect that immensely.  But either way, the guard has changed, and since we can not stand his passive pusher style, we think it an excellent thing.  Now that doesn’t mean that Djokovic’s play translates exactly to grass next month, meaning Nadal will be a strong favorite on the lawns of Wimbledon.  But we’d bet Djokovic will play very well on grass, and that his and Nadal’s extended period of excellence this year, winning or final-ling at just about every event, will take a toll during the dog days of summer, that a glider such as Federer might afford.  Djokovic does do his share of pushing now, we might add.

As for the imeasurables, the Djoker might be about to get in the books.  Today marked his 39th straight win from the start of the year.  If he gets to the round of 16 at RG, he will have surpassed John McEnroe’s 42 matches straight from the year’s start, and by winning RG and his 2nd round match at Queen’s Club, he will tie Guillermo Vilas’ string of 47 straight wins to start the year.

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Serena clutching her singles championship trophy on Rod Laver (above).

Unfortunately for the tennis world and for American tennis, Serena Williams, still not properly healed from a foot injury suffered at a World Cup viewing party in which Serena stepped on broken glass from a coffee table, has pulled out of the prestigious Hopman Cup exhibition in Perth, scheduled for the 1st week of the New Year.

Serena, a two-time Hopman Cup champ, was scheduled to partner with John Isner.  The Hopman cup is the only tournament aside from the majors that features mixed doubles.  Serena, now out since Wimbledon, fears missing her second major due to the very unfortunate injury she suffered while watching soccer of all things.

No replacement has yet to be named for Serena, but we wouldn’t be surprised if Isner ends up playing with another Georgia product, Melanie Oudin, who played the Hopman Cup last year. 

the Hopman Cup gets its name from legendary Aussie coach Harry Hopman who coached the Australian Davis Cup team at the height of its prominence during the Rosewald, Emmerson, and Laver years.  Hopman then moved to Long Island, NY and was instrumental in the development of John McEnroe, Mary Carillo, Patrick McEnroe, and Peter Fleming.

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Forget the mid first set call by Chair Pascal Maria (above) that he seemed to change in favor of Federer when the great man grumbled to Maria under his breath.  Ask anyone.  In tennis, you play the calls.  Once upon a time in the 2008 Open final, a green Andy Murray failed to put his arm up for a review on a ball that seemed clearly beyond the baseline, and went on to lose the game, the match, and to this day, the British heir apparent is still major-less. 

Back to Soderling, who we are not about to absolve for the beating he took last night on account of Pascal Maria being possibly intimidated by Federer.  The comprehensive, clinical beating doled out by Federer, who flashed perhaps his finest form since routing Murray in the Australian Open final almost 8 months ago, had to be a real treat for Federer fans nervous about Soderling’s prowess going into the match.  The trip to the woodshed that Federer took Soderling to on one of the windiest Open nights perhaps in the history of the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows did more to re-inforce Federer’s immense advantage he has when playing in Flushing, where he is now 46-1 in his last 47 matches.

And anyone going in thinking that Soderling would somehow be better equipped to deal with the wind than Federer, who ran his record in night matches on Ashe to a ridiculous 16-0 last night, wasn’t smoking the right stuff.  Federer, perhaps the greatest player since Rod Laver and definitely the best player since Pete Sampras, had such a great handle on the conditions that the fabulous announcing team of Patrick McEnroe, John McEnroe, and Pam Shriver could not help but marvel as they continually remarked on Federer’s greatness.  And every platitude fit Roger last night, who took the match over in the first set by serving so well with and against the wind, whereas the hard thumping Soderling who Johnny Mac billed as having perhaps more power than any other player he has ever seen, did not hit an ace until the 25th game of the match–a stunning reversal of fortune from the Federer-Soderling quarter-final at Roland Garros that broke Federer’s run of 23 straight major semi-final appearances.

Here are the match stats from last night’s bloodbath:

  Match Summary
     Soderling(SWE)   Federer(SUI)
  1st Serve %
54 of 93 = 58 %
58 of 91 = 64 %
  Double Faults
  Unforced Errors
  Winning % on 1st Serve
36 of 54 = 67 %
50 of 58 = 86 %
  Winning % on 2nd Serve
20 of 39 = 51 %
15 of 33 = 45 %
  Receiving Points Won
26 of 91 = 29 %
37 of 93 = 40 %
  Break Point Conversions
2 of 6 = 33 %
5 of 6 = 83 %
  Net Approaches
9 of 17 = 53 %
6 of 15 = 40 %
  Total Points Won
  Fastest Serve Speed
136 MPH
129 MPH
  Average 1st Serve Speed
119 MPH
119 MPH
  Average 2nd Serve Speed
92 MPH
95 MPH

Soderling’s 16 winners and 2 aces, compared with Federer’s 36 winners and 18 aces go along way in explaining Roger’s total edge on points, 102-82.  John McEnroe, who was also in rare form, argued with little brother Patrick over why Soderling was serving so poorly, and insisted that Soderling was having trouble safe serving or as we tennis nerds like to call it, “spinning it in” over PMac’s objections that Soderling was going for too much on his serve.  The average first serve speed of Soderling (119 MPH) would seem to support Johnny Mac, as Soderling usually averages in the high 120’s on first balls.

John McEnroe also classicly trashed the New York Rangers at one point in the broadcast.  Pam Shriver was interviewing Wayne Gretzky who was in the crowd, and Gretzky called McEnroe “one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen.”  McEnroe countered by saying that he hoped someone spoke to him about coaching the Rangers while he was in New York, and then mentioned that Soderling was good friends with Rangers star net keeper Henrik Lundqvist, who McEnroe said was also on hand.  But Mac called the goaltender “Henrik Lundstrom”, before making the necessary correction.  After taking John’s ribbing for most of the night, PMac shot back when the camera flashed a visual of music producer Clive Davis, and Patrick McEnroe told John to expect a call from the mega-producer about his music career.  Johnny Mac, quick on the retort, said that Davis did call him, but it wasn’t about music.  “He was seeing if I wanted to hit some tennis balls.” said the 4 time Open Champion.  And the two brothers took ample occasion to rib Pam Shriver, who is quickly becoming one of the best tennis analysts I have ever heard.  On a strange play–a serve by Federer which bounced up big off the net cord and nearly hit Soderling on the baseline–the trio debated as to whether it would have been Roger’s point had the ball hit the Swede.  The McEnroe brothers said the point would have gone to Roger had it hit Soderling, but Shriver argued that it would have been ruled a fault and a second serve for Roger.  The McEnroe brothers laughed Shriver off, and John McEnroe remarked that Shriver wouldn’t know and that she “never even graduated from high school”, knowing full well that Shriver was already an excellent professional tennis player by the age of 15.

McEnroe, who picked Nadal to win the event prior to its commencement, made no mention of that pick last night.  Instead, it was Federer of whom he spoke with complete reverance, citing the great man’s serve with and against the wind, and the gruelling conditions which Federer handled with aplomb, as testaments to Federer’s greatness and to the US Open, which McEnroe definitively called “the toughest major to win.”

We have long agreed with McEnroe on that score.  The players come in to The Open after playing 8 months, almost non-stop, and then are asked to brave Flushing’s heat, or last night’s wind and cold.  And Federer usually looks the best here despite a season’s worth of wear and tear, the conditions, and the big time pressure on Roger to win.  Federer used the conditions to his advantage all night, but on two highlight reel shots in particular–one, a forehand drop shot into the wind on a break point that made the throng go “ooh!” and another, a hard backhanded slice lob into the wind that made them go “aah!”

In fact, Federer was deep into his bag of tricks last night, despite only winning 4 points at the net, a play that neither player seemed too willing to tackle.  But the most memorable volleys of the night came off of Federer’s racquet.  One, when the puppet master brought Soderling in on a drop shot, and then followed it in and volleyed the reply right at Soderling’s body, who had no chance on the play.  The other was one for the ages, when Federer again used a drop shot to bring in Soderling whose two-handed reply hit the net cord.  Federer, caught between the baseline and the service box, picked up the net cord somehow, held the ball on his racquet for the extra split second, and then flicked the 3/4 court forehand volley cross court for a winner that was a signature Federer shot, in my mind, way more impressive than the tweeners he pulled off here this year and last year.

To Federer’s credit, when asked about the wind after the match by Pam Shriver, the Swiss master said “I’ve been practicing my serve my whole life.  If I can’t serve in the wind, it’s a problem.”  No problem, as it turned out for Roger, who is yet to drop a set at this year’s US Open.

A command performance by the master.  Federer, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in 1 hour and 56 minutes.  At least the loser had Jenni Mostrom to comfort him afterward.  No small consolation.

Allez Roger!

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Roger Federer’s beautiful one hand backhand (above).

“You don’t have that room for movement with the 2-hander that you do with the one hand.”–Martina Navratilova


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?


–Crack (