Well, he did it. Yesterday, Roger Federer overcame a game and determined — and vastly improved — Andy Roddick to win his sixth Wimbledon title, and to regain the Number 1 ranking that he’d rented to Rafael Nadal for the past ten months. But most significantly, Federer passed Pete Sampras, 15-14 in career majors (commonly but incorrectly called “Grand Slams” — a true “Grand Slam” is winning all four majors1 in the same year), and is now the all-time leader….
Among the men. Margaret Court leads the whole tennis pack with 24(!), but few regard her as “the greatest” because half of her titles came at the Australian Open, which, during the 1950s and 60s, when she played, was but little attended by non-Aussies. (Even Bjorn Borg, for example, who played in the 1970s and early 1980s only competed “Down Under” once during his career). Steffi Graf, regarded by some as the greatest female player ever, has 22 majors to her credit, but to some (see Frank DeFord), her accomplishment is tarnished because her would-have-been principal rival, Monica Seles, basically became a non-contender after her stabbing (by a Graf fan, no less). Seles had been routinely beating Graf and everyone else at majors, collecting trophies like complimentary mints. Oh, and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova each finished their long careers with 18 majors; were they better than Federer?
Is it possible to compare women’s tennis to men’s? Probably not, but the same should likely be said about the effort to decide who’s the best male player. Is Federer “betterer” than Sampras? I’d say yes, as his greater variety and all-court excellence led to the capture of all majors, including the clay-court French Open. Federer: Four French Open finals, one win (three losses to Nadal, a force of nature on clay). Sampras: No French Open finals, even. But some would say Sampras faced tougher competition. I don’t agree, but that’s the point: We’ll never know. Rod Laver won the Grand Slam twice, and doubtless would have captured more than the eleven majors he did win, except that he turned pro at a time when pros couldn’t compete at the majors. How many majors did he sacrifice? Hard to say, because all of the best players were on the pro circuit. And on and on goes the debate, fun but ultimately fruitless.
Whatever the tennis gods think, we can agree that Federer’s accomplishments over the past several years, and yesterday, are just astonishing. His level of consistent excellence — 21 consecutive semi-final or better appearances — is even less likely to be duplicated than Joe DiMaggio’s preposterous 56-game hitting streak.
Watching the match yesterday with a family of divided loyalties, I was — as always — on the Federer side. But Roddick played with belief and heart, and now I want him to win…something big. Maybe the U.S. Open? He’s surely put himself back on the short list. Go, Andy!
Here’s how it ended:
- The Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, and Wimbledon ↩