Laver, not Federer, is the greatest ever player
“He is the most beautiful player I’ve ever seen and I don’t get tired of watching him. Rod Laver is my idol, Pete Sampras is the greatest grass court player ever, but Roger Federer is just the greatest player of all … I would probably say the 23 semis or better in straight Majors in a row is the best record of them all.”
McEnroe was talking to the Swiss media before his own appearance in a new APT Champions Tour event in Zurich.
There may have been an element of telling the local media what they want to hear in McEnroe’s pitch. It also came at a time when Rafael Nadal was struggling with injury, which allowed Federer to take out his first French Open, a tournament that Nadal had dominated over Federer for years.
You wonder if McEnroe would make the same sort of sweeping statement now that Federer has been overwhelmed in the latest Australian Open.
There was discussion in the commentary box that unless Federer moved to a more powerful racquet, his days of winning Grand Slam tournaments might be over.
If Federer does not win another Grand Slam tournament he will finish with 16 Grand Slam tournaments, two more than won by Sampras. How will this effect how future generations look on his record? And what if Nadal actually wins a calendar year Grand Slam?
The point about all this is designations of “the greatest” tend to be a moveable feast. There are very few sportsmen or women whose career records can be expected to stand into the foreseeable future, if not forever. Don Bradman’s batting statistics will never be emulated.
Probably, too, no female tennis player will ever win 24 Grand Slam titles, like Margaret Court.
Although, Steffi Graff came close with 22 titles.
In the men’s, Nadal, particularly, and possibly Federer, will improve on his current record. How many more Grand Slam titles, though, is the crucial point.
Nadal would need to double his present collection, in my opinion, to be in the running. And even then there would be serious impediments to his claims.
Those impediments go to the type of game he plays, which is essentially defensive, retrieving everything from the baseline or many metres behind it, and using the angles to hit final, conclusive winners.
When you are talking about the greatest in anything (I know this is all subjective) a crucial consideration has to be the style of the person concerned. The greatest tennis player, in this sort of calculation, needs to have all-court, varied game with strengths in every aspect of play.
This sort of dictate eliminates Pete Sampras, for instance.
It is fatal, right now to any consideration of Nadal (although the proviso here is that he is in the middle of his career). And it makes the case for Roger Federer (not finished in his career but closer to its end than its middle) doubtful, too.
Look at Federer’s record and you find he has won six Wimbledon’s, five US Opens, four Australian Opens and one French Open.
Compare with Rod Laver, my nomination for the greatest tennis player of them all: four Wimbledons, three Australian Opens, two US Opens and two French Opens.
Laver was terrific on every surface.
He also won two Grand Slams, as an amateur in 1962 and as a professional in his next chance in 1969. As a professional, he won every major title in 1967, the so-called “Professional Slam.” Ken Rosewell was the only other professional to achieve this in 1963.
Did Laver have the all-court game we demand from ‘the greatest?
The famous broadcaster, Dan Maskell, opined: “Laver was technically faultless, from his richly varied serve to his feather-light touch on drop volleys plus a backhand drive carrying destructive topspin when needed or controlling slice when the occasion demanded it.”
I had the pleasure of watching Laver make his professional debut in White City against Lew Hoad. Hoad, a tremendously talented player and on his day totally dominant, won in two sets to one. But as soon as Laver got up to pace with the professional game, he then consistently defeated Hoad and Rosewell and the other talents on show night after night around the world.
There is a very detailed analysis of GOATS, Greatest Of All Time, on Wood Tennis. It runs to over 20 pages of text. J.Oesch, the author, lists his greatest in this order: Rod Laver, Bill Tilden, Pancho Gonzales, Don Budge, Randall Vines, Jack Kramer, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Fred Perry, Ken Rosewall, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Lew Hoad, Rafael Nadal.
This list is unduly biased, in my view, to the eras before tennis became an open game. The modern players like Federer, Nadal, Aggasi and Lendl should deserve a higher ranking.
Before tennis became an open game the dominant tennis countries (aside from France in the 1920s) were the United States and Australia. But as the last Australian Open demonstrated, there are a number of other countries (which provided no champions before the open era) that have emerged as tennis powers.
The effect of this is to increase the competition. So a grand slam victory now is achieved against opponents from a much wider world of talent than in the past.
Having said that, I once saw Gonzales, well past his prime, playing at Wellington in a familiar gale. Gonzales served heavily-spun balls that bounced so high they were unplayable by his opponents. He had a lethal, cat-like agility and a variety of shots that has probably never been equalled. He was a big man, too, and could turn on the power when he wanted to.
My guess is that Gonzales and Hoad were the two greatest players at their best on their day. But as longevity and dominance over a period of years must be part of the final consideration, together with the accumulation of trophies, neither can be the all-time number one. Gonzales was eight times world professional champion. But most of the the best players at the time were amateurs.
Laver’s first grand slam in 1962 did not involve the professional players, who were then much better than the amateurs. But his second grand slam in 1969, when tennis became an open sport, was achieved against the best of the former professionals and amateurs.
So he has my vote for the greatest tennis player ever.
So far …
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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