Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

The Case for Federer

Posted on March 03, 2010 by Rob York
Australian Open 2010 - Mens Champion Photocall

Roger Federer's records tower over those of his contemporaries.

I remember the GOAT talk starting when Roger Federer crushed Lleyton Hewitt to win the US Open in 2004, his third major of that season. His contemporaries, Hewitt and Andy Roddick, were clearly not equipped with the tools necessary to stop him, or even to slow him down. He struggled more on clay, but it seemed only a matter of time until he figured that out.

Still, I remember thinking that the field would inevitably evolve to catch up with Federer, at least slowing his progress if not stopping it. To an extent that has happened; Rafael Nadal proved a long-term impediment to Federer’s goals of winning in Paris, while Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro appear more imposing adversaries than Hewitt and Roddick did.

Yet Federer endures, now with wins at all four majors and 16 total Grand Slam titles, two more than any other player in history. Is there any legitimate metric left to deny him the title of the greatest ever?

Rod Laver

Lavers Trophy

Rod Laver's records can't be questioned. Or can they ...?

Since Federer finally captured the one major missing from his collection in Paris last year, and subsequently broke the record for majors at Wimbledon, the Australian “Rocket” Rod Laver has been cited most frequently as his “competitor” for the GOAT designation.

Laver is called upon most frequently because of his truly rare set of achievements: Winning the complete Grand Slam in a single season twice, once as an amateur in 1962 and then as a pro in 1969. That’s twice more than Federer ever has, and Laver was playing doubles full-time in those days!

When non-majors are factored in, Federer’s 62 career titles are certainly a great achievement, but when is amateur and pro titles are added up, Laver is said to have won somewhere in the neighborhood of 200.

There are problems with these stats and how they pertain to the GOAT argument, though. First of all, there is the matter of Laver’s two “complete Grand Slams”: The first of these took place before Laver turned pro, before anyone officially playing for money could enter the four majors. As such, even though Laver won the Australian Championships, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships in 1962, he was not actually the best player in the world.

That would have been Ken Rosewall, who was nearly as dominant in the pros as Laver was in the amateurs during that year. It’s just that when the Open Era began, Laver’s amateur victories were factored into his total (11), whereas Rosewall’s wins in 1962 would not be (he is listed as having won eight as a pro and as an amateur, with all his pro wins before the Open Era discounted).

But don’t take my word for it that Rosewall was better at the time: Laver turned pro the following year and was dominated by the elder Australian. In 1964, Laver had started winning big events as a pro, but publicly deferred to Rosewall as No. 1, at least until 1965.

But the point of this is not that Rosewall was greater than Laver: When Laver took the reins of No. 1, he remained so for years, eventually having won more titles than his countryman and winning most of his head-to-head encounters his Rosewall. The point is that his first “Grand Slam,” while a great achievement, means no more to the GOAT debate than a junior player winning all four junior slams today.

In fact, given the comparative depth in today’s field, the length of the season and the numerous changes in surface, for Federer to have won three majors in a single year is at least as great an achievement as Laver’s having won the complete Grand Slam, and Federer has done so three times. He has now reached 23 straight GS semis, at one stretch reached 10 consecutive major finals, and spent an unprecedented 237 weeks at No. 1.

In fact, as virtually everyone concedes that Federer plays at a higher level than Laver, those who argue in the Australian’s favor usually do so on the strength of his achievements. In context, those achievements may not dwarf Federer’s after all, and when you go back further into the game’s history, you run into some achievements that may be considered even greater.

Bill Tilden

Prior to the 1920s there were no professional tennis players. The game was considered just that: a game, as opposed to a sport. Though today’s sporting press and sports fans are often dismissive of the athletic abilities of tennis players, the idea that anyone could play the game professionally was, at that time, a joke.

Bill Tilden

Bill Tilden dominated tennis in the 1920s like no other man ever has.

“Big Bill” Tilden changed that. Through his huge serving, strategic gifts and unassailable combination of pace and spin, Tilden dominated the game’s biggest events in the 1920s. The Davis Cup was the game’s top event, and the American led his country to victory seven times, a feat still unequaled. After that came Wimbledon and the US National Championships; at the former he won twice in 1920 and ’21, then skipped until 1927, winning his third in 1930 when he was 37.

He won America’s premiere tennis event every year from 1920-25, and once more in 1929.

He never won in Paris or Australia, but those events lacked the stature they have today. But, in the sense of winning all the game’s biggest events, it could be said that Tilden won the complete Grand Slam in both 1920 and ’21, and could’ve done so more frequently had he bothered to show up at Wimbledon in the mid-‘20s.

Plus, some of the stats and anecdotes surrounding his career are almost Homeric: At one point he won 56 games in succession, the equivalent of beating three straight opponents 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, then opening the fourth match with a consolidated service break. Tilden would occasionally throw sets to keep the crowd interested before storming back to victory, and his favorite trick while serving for the match was to hold four balls up for the crow to view, then proceed to hit four aces.

At the end of the decade, even when his results began to wane, Tilden was widely called upon to turn pro, as he had turned the game into one players could make a living from.

Tennis fans surely remember the Pete Sampras-Roger Federer exos from late-2007. Well, in 1941 Tilden played a series of exhibitions with Don Budge, the first man to win the calendar year Grand Slam in 1938, and generally considered the best player in the world.

Budge, 26 at the time, did get the better of the then-48 year old Tilden; one account say the final tally was 43-5, while others say it was 51-7 in Budge’s favor.

Still, imagine Pete Sampras, 10 years older than he is now, facing Roger Federer in his mid-20s. Who can imagine Sampras winning five matches out of 50 in that case?

Pancho Gonzales

In terms of dominance, Tilden’s presence – at least at his peak – loomed larger than any other No. 1.

But at least one player comes close to matching that stature, and did so for a longer period of time.

Pancho Plays On

Ricardo Alonso "Pancho" Gonzales remained a indominable competitor long past his prime tennis years.

Those who sing the praises of Ricardo Alonso Gonzales generally cite his height (6’3” – an even more towering presence in the 1950s than it is today), plus the overpowering serve it gave him and the catlike quickness it could not take away. All these qualities helped him get to No. 1, but what helped him stay there for eight consecutive years (undisputed, anyway; it could be argued that he was No. 1 for 10 straight years) was his fighting spirit.

Some players who came later; namely Jimmy Connors and Rafael Nadal, have shown similar competitive fire on-court, but thankfully will never have to equal it. Though a child of the Los Angeles middle class, his Mexican-American heritage may have contributed to his numerous troubles with the law and his bad conduct discharge from the Navy in 1947, when he was 19.

As a player, it also led to his receiving the nickname of “Pancho,” which he intensely disliked.

But it also gave him an intense desire to prove himself and beat the system that kept him down, and this made him almost unstoppable on the court. Former pro and eventual editor of Tennis magazine Allen Fox once wrote that he never once witnessed Gonzales get broken when serving for a set, much less a match.

In 1970, the 41-year-old Gonzales beat then No. 1 Rod Laver in Madison Square Garden, taking the $10,000 winner-take-all-cash-prize. A little more than a year later he beat the 19-year-old Jimmy Connors at the Pacific Southwest Open.

Connors, whose competitive instincts and longevity inspired the generations of players that followed, later said that Gonzales was the one man he’d want playing for him if his life were at stake.

What about Federer?

Roger Federer

If Federer's winning ways continue, his GOAT status may be undeniable.

If you accept the argument that Tilden was the game’s most dominant player, and Gonzales its fiercest competitor, does that negate Federer’s claim to the title?

Not necessarily; virtually everyone concedes that the Great Swiss plays at a higher level than anyone ever has, and frankly, the dominance of Tilden and longevity of Gonzales probably aren’t even possible in today’s game. Besides, the 28-year-old Federer’s 16th win at this year’s AO, nearly seven years after he won his first Wimbledon, show that he’s not nearly done.

I, for one, am not yet ready to concede that his accomplishments are necessarily greater than Tilden’s or Gonzales’, but if he’s still the game’s best in his early to mid-30s, it will be all but impossible to deny him the designation.

And even now, one suspects that the majority of tennis fans already consider the hugely popular Swiss the best of them all. If only the most hardened of the game’s historians deny it, then maybe he has triumphed already.

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