Tiger Woods once called Roger Federer the greatest athlete in the world.
But that was several years ago, before Federer eased out of his friendship with the scandal-ridden Woods.
More importantly, it was also before Federer won his seventh Wimbledon today (tying Pete Sampras’ record), his seventeenth grand slam victory overall (already record-breaking), elevating him once more to number one in the tennis rankings, a position he has now held for 286 weeks and counting (again breaking Sampras’ record). All this at the age of thirty, almost thirty-one, when most tennis players are supposed to be heading out to the country club farm or learning how to do TV commentary à la Joh McEnroe (non pareil in the area).
The match he played today against the unfortunate Andy Murray was one of Federer’s best. Several shots and rallies, including one deft net approach curveball to win the second set, will be replayed by tennis aficionados into the future.
At the moment, Federer again looks unstoppable. Of course, that could change. He has terrific competition, some of the best in the history of the sport, from Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
But even if it does, what Federer has accomplished over his career, from the initial victory over the waning Sampras back at Wimbledon in 2001 until today, is quite remarkable. It’s easy to agree with Woods that since 2001 he has been the greatest athlete alive. There is, however, a yet greater claim to be made.
He is the greatest of all time — not just in tennis, but in all sports.
What? Greater than Michael Jordan and Rafer Johnson and whoever else you might want to put on the list? Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb? Jesse Owens? Roger Bannister? Pheidippides?
Well, we all know it’s impossible to assess the comparative greatness of athletes in different sports across different eras and that this is the ultimate in biased assertions (and, yes, I admit to pro-tennis bias — a sport I have been playing since the age of six and still play, three times a week, in my sixties), but I will try to make the case.