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.
Today’s singles tennis requires the fitness (at least) of an NBA basketball player and the strategic abilities of a chess master (well, not quite — but close). It is the duel of duels, particularly at the grand slam level where the men play a grueling best-of-five sets that can run from five-to-six hours, in rare cases even more. (Marathons are run in less than half the time.) They don’t have anyone to help them. No teammates. It’s all on them. Even their coach is of marginal aid during a match. And the season is virtually unending, with only a small time off in December before it kicks off again in January fro the first slam, the Australian. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting.
What seemed, when I was a kid, a genteel sport is hardly that. It’s war. And Roger Federer is the warrior of warriors, never flinching (well, rarely), a veritable Sun Tzu with a racket. He has the work ethic of a Kobe Bryant with far more certitude and more calm. Not only that, Federer has the most perfect tennis game, the most perfect strokes, that I have ever seen.
Nevertheless, I rarely root for Federer. He is just too good, too perfect. I was rooting for Murray to win at Wimbledon today (those folks back in Scotland seemed to want it so much), just as I was rooting for Djokovic two days earlier in the semi-finals.
But as you can see, by the end of the match he had won me over. The man is back, defeating brilliant players five or even ten years his junior. Serena Williams appears to be doing the same thing, at least temporarily, on the women’s side. But her competition is far inferior.
So is Roger Federer the greatest athlete of all time? He is to me. At least today.