Who is the greatest male tennis player ever? Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Bill Tilden, Rod Laver … Gonzales, Perry, Borg, McEnroe…
The argument rages eternal among tennis players and fans and, aside from cyber-imagination, there are no ways for us to level the playing field, turn back time and compare objectively. Part of the argument is obscured by the emotional attachments one develops having grown up with such and such a player. Perhaps the more interesting debate might be around the best rivalries. A great player without a top notch rival is a less exciting affair. In my time, watching the duels between Borg-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi and, among the women, Navratilova-Evert, clearly make my judgment a little partial. It is all confused by massive changes in material (racquets, balls), training, tour organization, surfaces, not to mention the arrival of money into the equation.
Tennis fans have to love the fact that we can get closer to an answer, even with a five year hiatus and a ten-year age difference, when Sampras can play Federer. The two men have played three exhibition games over the last week in three different cities on three different courts. Ignoring a first, relatively easy 6-4, 6-3 victory for Federer in Seoul, the second game was exceedingly close 7-6 (8-6) 7-6 (7-5) in Kuala Lumpur for Federer; and in the third match in Macau, Sampras managed an upset win, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4. Aside from the marketing hoopla that goes with such a match-up, by all accounts, it looked like exciting good tennis. It is worth remembering that Federer beat Sampras in their only truly competitive match at Wimbledon in 2001. What’s in it for Pete in these exhibition matches (other than the money)? I suspect he has the motivation to promote his legendary brand name and PeteSampras website? In any event, even if Roger had little to gain and much to lose, it would seem that the closeness of the matches — despite Pete’s disadvantage of match rustiness and age/fitness — gives fuel to the fire that the greatest ever may not be Federer… perhaps the level of competition for Roger is just not enough to take him to the top of the heap? For a comprehensive statistical match-up, check out this site.
As for my own choice on the topic, due to my limited knowledge of the players prior to the 1970s, I am bound to select a modern era player. I think Federer will more than likely eclipse Sampras’ 14 major titles. Surely, he’ll pull out a win at Roland Garros at some point too — it is a surface that is better suited to Federer than Sampras, after all. But, these records are all there to be beaten… and taken out of context, will lead to some erroneous conclusions. In any event, my vote for all-time best goes to Bjorn Borg for the singular feat of winning Wimbledon five times in a row from the base line. He did had many other achievements. I salute his sense of competitiveness and levelheadedness. And even if his post-career life has been up and down, he did make for an amazing model. My all time favorite player is John McEnroe for bringing such spontaneity to the game; and you have to love Mac the commentator. The most elegant player may well be Federer — considering the frenetic world we live in, his aplomb is inspiring. The best crunch-time player I have to give to Sampras. The most combative spirit goes to Connors. And the best reinvention goes to Andre Agassi.
For further debate on the topic, scroll down on wiki’s entry of “greatest player ever” on tennis. One of the more enjoyable blog posts I have found on the topic is here with Tony Goodson. Here is Bud Collin’s spin on it: not yet Federer. And, I enjoyed this inventive piece from the Philippines’ Sun Star Cebu.