Unlike most sports, singles tennis can rationally make a claim for being able to determine a GOAT (greatest of all time). It’s a solo endeavor. Two men or women stand opposite each other, battling until the better player wins. The great ones can do this many times, competing with each other over and over for as long as decades. There are no teammates to cover for them or spell them for a few minutes. No one passes you the ball or vice versa. You’re on your own.
Mano-a-mano or, as Robin Williams put it, “chess at ninety miles per hour.” You have to be unbelievably fit, as fit as a point guard in the NBA or a wide receiver in the NFL, but with more endurance than both.
For men, a Grand Slam match can go to five sets over nearly five hours, as did Sunday’s Wimbledon final between Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Switzerland’s Roger Federer that Djokovic won 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3). That last set went 13-12 because of the mandatory 7-point tiebreaker at 12-12 instituted this year.
The whole match was one extraordinary phantasmagoria of highs and lows with brilliant tennis interspersed with some dead spots. But, oh the highs. It takes a remarkable athlete to play at the level these guys do and did, GOAT-like abilities, for on this day two GOATs were playing each other.
These days tennis has three potential GOATs jockeying for the honor — Federer, Djokovic, and, of course, Rafael Nadal, whom Fed defeated in the semi-finals. The sport, many acknowledge, is in its golden era, in fact quite obviously so. Arguments are made for Rod Laver and Pete Sampras, but Rod, great and often unbeatable as he was, played in the era of wooden rackets when the sport was considerably less athletic and Pistol Pete never won all four Slams, a disqualifying factor in comparison with the others. Besides, his 14 Slam victories, once thought unassailable, are beginning to pale next to Federer (20), Nadal (18), and Djokovic, who just won his sixteenth and has to be rated the favorite for the US Open in September.
What happened Sunday was spellbinding. Federer, only a month short of 38 years of age, in every way one of the most perfect examples of homo sapiens extant, celebrated by Rolex, Mercedes, benefactor of African children, etc., outplayed Djokovic in nearly every aspect of the game — and lost. This is the genius of Djokovic, who may be one of the greatest mental athletes of all time. He just refuses to lose.
He is often hated for this and for being the Johnny-come-lately who rained on the beloved Federer-Nadal parade. Almost everyone, other than Serbians and other Eastern Europeans, watching the match Sunday was rooting for Federer. Clearly, that was true of the fans in the stands at Wimbledon who cheered at every opportunity for “ROG-JAH” (no “RO-ZHAY” for them) and shouted their approval when Novak double-faulted. (This was once considered a huge faux pas when tennis was a more polite game and Brits were Brits.)
Perhaps, because I am something of a contrarian, I admit to being a Djokovic fan, but I greatly admire and enjoy the play of all three GOATs. I get why people might prefer one to the other but they’re all such amazing athletes it’s hard to understand why one or the other is despised. These aren’t dictators or child molesters. They’re sportsmen. Indeed all three have won the Laureus World Sports Award (the Oscar for best athlete in the world) several times.
Still, the future looks best in THE GOAT DERBY for @DjokerNole. At 32, as the song goes, “ti-ime is on his side… yes, it is.”
And speaking of GOATs, I would like to make the announcement, assuming you’ve been reading this far, that I have written a novel entitled THE GOAT. Yes, it’s set mostly in the world of big-time tennis and will be published and available September 1 in concert with the US Open. I wasn’t even going to mention it for a while but the excitement around the Wimbledon final prompted me to jump the gun. You’ll be hearing more about it later, but here’s a teaser from the flap copy:
Whatever happened to Dan Gelber — the divorced screenwriter who journeyed to Nepal in his seventies only to plunge to his death off of Mt. Everest?
And just who is Jay Reynolds — the mysterious twenty-year-old tennis prodigy who appears out of nowhere to battle Rafael Nadal at the French Open and Roger Federer at Wimbledon and become the new hope of American tennis, possibly the greatest of all time?
Roger L. Simon — co-founder and CEO emeritus of PJ Media — is a prize-winning author and an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter.