Is Roger Federer the Greatest Tennis Player Ever?

“There is no rule passed in sports, especially for immortals, that they have to beat the other top guy to make history. What you do is show up and play who you play.”

Mike Lupica, New York Daily News

Roger Federer won the French Open Sunday for the first time, completing the career Grand Slam and tying Pete Sampras with 14 Grand Slam titles.

In the process, Federer reopened his application to be tennis’s greatest player ever. He and Sampras are tied at the top in terms of Grand Slams (with apologies to Rod Laver, who missed much of his prime because of NCAA-ish rules on what constituted an amateur at the time), and Federer’s win in Roland Garros—a place Pete never even made the Finals—would seem to be the tiebreaker.

There’s one problem, though: The guy Federer beat Sunday wasn’t Rafael Nadal. It was Robin Soderling.

This is the first of many instances in which I will disagree with Mike Lupica, the author of today’s epigram. Because immortality is only bestowed and history is only made when you do beat the top guys and not just who happens to be on the other side of the net. It’s not as if beating Hakeem Olajuwon without having to go through Jordan would have truly vindicated Patrick Ewing, in the same way that a World Series victory without beating the Yankees couldn’t have ended any curses in Boston.

Can Roger Federer truly be considered the best his sport has seen if he loses the majority of his matches to his prime rival? Rafael Nadal has won 13 of their 20 career meetings, including the last four in Grand Slams. He has beaten Federer on all three major surfaces; the one-time King of Clay has become an imperialist.

Their last two meetings in Grand Slam finals have constituted mesmerizing, must-see television. Nearly as entertaining has been their post-match interaction, highlighted by Federer’s tears in Melbourne. It was as raw and revelatory a moment as we’ve seen in professional sports in some time, largely because Federer knew he hadn’t just lost the Australian Open. No, he had likely lost a large part of his legacy: The man long considered on his way to GOAT status coming to the realization that he had now been beaten on every surface by the same rival—one that was not only younger and primed to continue that domination, but also one that, at times, appears to offend Federer’s tennis sensibilities.

It was a moment we never saw from Jordan and likely never will from Tiger.

It is a moment that, for now, defines the rivalry between Federer and Nadal—the best and most compelling in sports, if only for the psychological drama intrinsic to a sport played exclusively one-on-one. S.L. Price’s excellent article in Sports Illustrated details both how Nadal caught Federer and the latter’s seeming unwillingness to respond:

“Born to rule, [Federer] has never been interested in fighting for power; that’s why in his current exile he looks less like Napoleon plotting on Elba than like the puzzled Czar Nicholas II waiting for the world to right itself and restore his throne.”

It’s things like this that make this rivalry so gripping and relevant to cursory tennis fans such as myself. It’s Federer’s technical precision countered by Nadal’s recoiling forehands, his spiffy white cardigans and suit jackets adorned with his own serifed logo against the Spaniard’s tank top and capris. (Seriously, look at that photo: Federer is wearing pants!)

Federer’s claim to the throne may very well be in the process of restoration this month, as Nadal’s Melbourne-minted supremacy was undercut by Soderling at Roland Garros and knee tendonitis that will, at best, hinder his game at the All England Club. So even if Federer were to win back the title at Wimbledon and surpass Sampras once and for all, how legitimate would his reign be? Does he have to beat Nadal, does he have to do it at full-strength, and does he have to do it more than once?

They are questions that were unforeseen a fortnight ago, when Federer’s “downfall” was considered complete and permanent in both Price’s piece and a Tim Keown article in ESPN: The Magazine that extolled Nadal.

So, cue the DVR now for Breakfast at Wimbledon July 5. Then, Federer and Nadal won’t just be gunning for Wimbledon; they’ll be gunning for history.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Nice article. Though I agree that multiple wins over Nadal on a major stage would further solidify Federer’s legend, it’s not wholly necessary. Nadal needs to take care of his knees and get back to 100% ASAP so he and Fed can have a longer, deeper rivalry. This is a new chapter in Federer’s legacy. Moreso, this is also a very new (and exciting) chapter in Nadal’s legacy as to how he will rebound to this crazy hiccup.

    Can’t wait til Wimbledon ’09!



  2. Posted by achu on June 15, 2009 at 9:28 AM

    yes.he is inarguably the greatest of all times…..


  3. […] Nadal although Price probes deeper into the Nadal/Federer rivalry–as did NPI when it asked, “Is Roger Federer the Greatest Tennis Player Ever?” Of course, any time we read a story about tennis, we can’t help but think of how David Foster […]


  4. […] seeding—the prepositional qualifier here may be redundant—are null. Think Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player ever? Better back up that statement with more than “14 Grand Slams,” because none of those count. […]


  5. […] “Is Roger Federer The Greatest Tennis Player Ever?” by Tim. This post was one of Tim’s best breakdowns of the sports world—which is saying a lot—and was really the first thing to run on NPI that I thought was truly great. For anyone who thinks sports journalism is just about games: read this. […]


  6. […] Is Roger Federer’s run as a great player officially over? That seems to the be the feeling following his surprising loss at Wimbledon. It was just two years ago, though, that Tim was wondering if he’d cemented his status as the GOAT. […]


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