Let’s not be so quick to crown Roger the Greatest
Any debate about the greatest player of all time in a given event is naturally laden with ‘what ifs’.
Roger Federer’s tearful victory in the French Open final on Sunday prompted an undignified queue of pundits and former players to conclude that the elegant Swiss was undoubtedly the best tennis had ever seen. But what if…
What if Rod Laver hadn’t been in professional exile in the years before 1968?
What if Rafa Nadal hadn’t come along and had the temerity to stop Federer winning everything in sight?
What if Bjorn Borg hadn’t retired at 26?
What if Pete Sampras had truly applied himself to winning at Roland Garros?
What if my PE teacher hadn’t grabbed the racket from my hand said ‘stick to your swotty stuff’?
I jest of course but looking at the surfaces Federer has won on and the ever-increasing strength of the men’s game it is hard to argue against his position on the podium summit.
Or is it?
I’ve lost count of the number of times I rolled my eyes when my father reminisced about the Australian great Rod Laver. But he had a point.
The Rockhampton Rocket won 11 grand slam singles titles — three fewer than Federer — despite being unable to play in any of the majors for a six-year period when, at the peak of his game, he played on the professional circuit.
Laver, who won unique calendar slams in 1962 and 1969 either side of his amateur exile, like Federer was grace and power personified off both wings, foxing his opponents with devilish topspin and a canny knack of retrieving the irretrievable.
Now you might say that when the rain is pouring at Wimbledon and they show Pancho Gonzalez play Charlie Pasarell in that epic 1969 match, the tennis looks about as high quality as the limp-wristed efforts my PE teacher palpably failed to see through.
But “You can only beat your own competition” as Tim Henman said to Reuters in an interview last week and as such I stand by Laver being the best there’s ever been.
Much as I respect Federer, it’s hard to give him the moniker as the best when he has such a poor career record against Nadal, and even a losing record against Andy Murray. Laver beat all his rivals, on every surface. Period.
Let the dust settle on Federer’s career first before he is put ahead of the game’s ultimate behemoth.
PHOTO: Roger Federer hugs the great Rod Laver after defeating Marcos Baghdatis in the Australian Open final in Melbourne, January 29, 2006. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV