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Federer Is Sublime, But Is He Really The Greatest Of All Time?

While data doesn't lie, it often doesn't tell the whole story either.

21/07/2017 1:59 PM AEST | Updated 24/07/2017 9:05 AM AEST
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"The only way to ascertain if Federer is the greatest of all time would be to build a time machine, so we could see him go head to head against the likes of Laver."

Like millions of others, I was in awe of Roger Federer as he won his eighth Wimbledon title (and 19th grand slam title overall) last week. Clearly his opponent, Marin Cilic, was suffering from stage fright and below his best, but as John Newcombe observed, much of that was down to the way Federer dominated with his sheer brilliance. Not even Nadal at his best would have been able to defeat Federer the way he was playing.

And, not surprisingly, the plaudits have been steadily flowing from all corners of the media, with journalists eager to declare him the 'greatest of all time'.

As someone with a background in tennis, I'm inclined to agree. Federer's breathtaking skill on the court is rivaled only by his reputation as a nice guy off it. However, I can't help but notice how often Federer's G.O.A.T. status is bestowed simply on the basis of grand slam titles.

Take a look at this list of total men's grand slam singles titles published recently:

Roger Federer (SWI): 19
Rafael Nadal (SPA): 15
Pete Sampras (USA): 14
Roy Emerson (AUS): 12
Novak Djokovic (SER): 12
Rod Laver (AUS): 11*
Bjorn Borg (SWE): 11
Bill Tilden (USA): 10

By this measure Federer is clearly the greatest male player -- although the slam numbers aren't up there with some of the female greats: Margaret Court's 24, Serena Williams' 23 and Steffi Graf's 22 singles titles. I'll leave further comment on that to Andy Murray.

But, notice that asterisk next to Rod Laver's tally of 11? That wasn't in the article -- I added that. And this is what appears to be continuously overlooked, or perhaps unknown, by so many people keen to assign the G.O.A.T. mantle.

Every sport has its legends, and nobody really benefits when we insist on elevating one above all others.

Rod Laver started playing grand slam tournaments in the late '50s, back when tennis was an amateur sport. Laver won his first slam at the Australian Open in 1960, followed by Wimbledon the following year, and then all four in 1962, becoming only the second male player and third overall to complete the Grand Slam in singles.

Having achieved seemingly all he could in the amateur game, he joined the professional circuit established by Jack Kramer, where he competed against other legends such as Hoad, Rosewall and Gonzales.

As a result, he was barred from competing in the slams until professionals were readmitted in 1968, when he won Wimbledon again. Then, in 1969, he did the unthinkable and completed the Grand Slam for a second time.

During those five years (1963-67), there were 20 grand slam tournaments Laver was unable to contest. Given his dominance of both the amateur game before he left it, and the professional circuit (he was the first player to amass a million dollars in prize money), it's not difficult to imagine that had he remained an amateur (and, too, those others that turned pro during this period), he would have won at least another 10 slams, taking his tally into the twenties.

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None of this is to suggest that Federer is not the greatest of all time. The only way to ascertain that would be to build a time machine, so we could see him go head to head against the likes of Laver, Hoad, Rosewall, Gonzales and of course, McEnroe. And even then there would be numerous caveats, such as playing surfaces, racquets and equipment technology complicating the issue.

All I'm asking is that we dispense with this need to single one person out as 'the greatest' of their chosen field, and accept that while data doesn't lie, it often doesn't tell the whole story either.

Every sport has its legends, and nobody really benefits when we insist on elevating one above all others. Part of what makes Federer so likeable is his knowledge of tennis history and his reverence for those greats that have preceded him. It's a pity more sports journalists aren't as well-versed on the subject.

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