Pistol Pete Sampras firing down ace after ace. Dominating Wimbledon after Wimbledon. Edging ever closer to the records of Roy Emerson, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver. Edging ever closer to becoming, officially, the best tennis player ever. The amount of grand slams you win as a player has always been the conclusive benchmark, the sure fire way of quantifying greatness, win the most and you become the best, simple.
Sampras, a player who never reached the final of the French Open, was considered The Greatest the moment he won his thirteenth slam. He won fourteen in total. He is also the only player to win 8 consecutive grand slam finals. He has won Wimbledon more than any player, ever. He was world number one for a total of 286 weeks, another record. Pistol Pete, with a serve you could only dream about, and a mind that allowed him to fire down second serve aces, break point down, deserves to considered one of the greatest grass/hard court tennis players to have ever picked up a racquet. But not the greatest tennis player, ever. He might not even be the greatest grass court tennis player, ever. That title, although we were all ignorant at the time, especially when he lost in the next round to Tim Henman, belongs to Roger Federer.
A young 19 year old, playing Pete Sampras (who was on a 31 match winning streak at the time) in the fourth round, stepped up and returned Sampras’s serve with almost predictable regularity. It went to five sets, and two of them were tie breaks, but he just knew where the ball was going, anticipated it and put it back, gracefully. No more Max Power tennis, no more shrills of excitement when the rally passed the 3 shot mark. This new whipper snapper was majestic, gliding over the game of tennis, imposing himself on The Greatest, on his home turf, and saying Pete “enjoy that title, because in a few years, they’ll be saying Pete who?” He was that good. He made the crowd swoon, he made Sue Barker foam at the mouth with excitement and made Henman cry into his Robinson’s squash cup. Along came this Swiss artist, taking the game of tennis to a new level, seeming to discover new angles to hit the ball back, generating levels of spin that would be lauded by Alastair Campbell and balancing it with such precise power that even when he went for a full blooded forehand down the line, the amount of effort he was expending was minimal. That’s Federer’s special talent, everything was always so effortless. He wasn’t trying, he didn’t need to.
He also won the French Open in 2009, alongside his other 15 grand slam titles, giving himself the ‘career slam‘, a must for any player who claims to be The Greatest. However, despite his brilliance, and dominance, there was another challenger to his throne; Rafael Nadal.
Rafael Nadal, a beast of man. The Beast of Men. Nadal was only 15 when he won his first ATP Tour match. He was only 17 when he first played Federer. He beat him in straight sets. In 2005, Nadal played his first clay court season, winning every single match he played, including a semi-final victory over Federer at the French Open. In 2005, Federer (81-4) won 95.27% of his matches, he was on his way to becoming The Greatest, except their was always this thorn in his side, causing a slight discomfort, a niggling pain. Federer craved perfection, he knew he had to complete the set – win all the slams and beat everybody along the way. Nadal turns up, playing like a man possessed, returning everything, with arms like an Olympic weight-lifter and the endurance levels of marathon runner, oh, and he has The Forehand. A shot he can hit on the run, a shot he can hit with so much top spin ‘whip’ it resembles the Wembley Arch, he can hit it flat down the line and on the clay, in particular, he’ll use the slice forehand to attack or defend. Controlling points on a surface that requires tactical patience more than powerful winners. Federer has played Nadal four times at Roland Garros, Nadal has won four times. Nadal has lost just once (the 4th round to Soderling in 2009) in 46 matches at the French Open. He’s won the title six times. Rafael Nadal is simply The Greatest Clay Court Tennis Player, ever. He’s won ten grand slams at the age of 25.
If Federer had taken tennis to a new level, and was playing at his peak, then surely, at least once, he has to beat The Greatest Clay Court Player on his own surface? The truth is he couldn’t, and may never get the chance again. If no one ever wins 17 grand slams, and Federer is named The Greatest, he will always have that nagging doubt, that he didn’t complete the game. There was always one level he couldn’t discover. How it feels to beat Nadal, at The French.
The Greatest Grass Court Player: Federer or Sampras
The Greatest Clay Court Player: Nadal
The Greatest Hard Court Player: Federer (9 hard court slam titles)
The Greatest Tennis Player: Novak Djokovic
“What the…” I hear you cry. Hear me out. This isn’t Talk Sport, I’m not pretending to have an opinion so you’ll send me angry texts before I mind warp you with a jingle-a-thon journey through radios most infuriating adverts, no, this is based on a belief I apply to all sports. Taking your sport to a new level. That’s what makes you The Greatest.
It all started with Ronnie O Sullivan. He might never win seven world titles, he might never win four in a row or go five years unbeaten at the Masters, but when Stephen Hendry played O Sullivan in the semi-final at Crucible in 2004, a match I watched live, Ronnie gave a perfect performance of all round snooker. He took it to a new level. It was century after century, potting with both hands, not giving Hendry a sniff of a chance. The whole package. An exhibition in competition. You don’t see it often, but when you do, you never forget. O Sullivan won 17-4. With two sessions to spare.
Tiger Woods did it at Augusta; Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson at the Olympics; Nadia Comaneci achieved actual perfection, she literally couldn’t do any better, and they couldn’t build a suitable scoreboard to deal with the achievement, that’s greatness.
And, if you get chance, have a look at the achievements of Babe Didrikson Zaharias
…she was accomplished in just about every sport – basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling.
Not only did she have to cope with attitudes like Joe Williams (Richard Keys’ hero) who wrote in the New York World-Telegram,
It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring
but she entered the Hall of Fame in multiple sports,
Didrikson came to national attention later in ’32 during Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, winning gold medals and breaking her own world records in both the javelin and the 80-meter hurdles.
She began her second Hall of Fame career on the amateur golf tour, in 1934. She would go on to 35 career victories — 10 of them majors, including three U.S. Opens (1948, ’50 and ’54) — and an unprecedented 17 consecutive tournament titles from April 1946 to August ’47. She was one of the founding members of the LPGA in 1950.
Novak Djokovic, during the last 12 months, has taken tennis to another level.
In 2011, as the Nadal/Federer rivalry was hotting up to burning point (that Nadal currently leads 18-9) the world of tennis was expecting another season of The Greatest versus The Greatest II, in a ding dong battle of the courts. Djokovic had other ideas.
He started the season as world number three. He won the Australian Open, beating Federer in the semis and Murray in the final. He lost one set, on a tie break, in seven matches. A 43 match winning streak took him to Masters Series titles in Nadal’s favourite hunting grounds of Madrid and Rome, on the clay. He came up against Federer in the semi-finals of Rolland Garros, and lost for the first time in 2011. His winning streak had come to an end, normal service had been resumed and the Federer/Nadal axis had restored tennis equilibrium. The narrative could continue. Nadal beat Federer in the final. But that was the last time “Nole” lost in a grand slam championship. He went on to win Wimbledon, beating Nadal in the final; he won the US Open at Flushing Meadows, beating Nadal in the final; and at the end of January, he won the Australian Open, again, beating Nadal in the final, again.
He’s beginning to break the records set by Federer. If Nadal is the thorn in Federer’s side, then Djokovic, who beat Rafa six times out of six, must be like the annoying cough that doesn’t cause much bother initially but soon turns into full blown flu. There is no physical deficiency with Nadal, but there is a ‘completeness’ about Nole’s game that is causing him serious discomfort. There is no weakness. Djokovic’s brilliant on both sides of the court, his serve is accurate, powerful and with plenty of variety, he can volley when he needs to and his touch and panache help him manoeuvre – similar to Federer, players around the court. He’s The Greatest because at the moment, he’s dominating the other two claimants to the title. I can’t comment on Rod Laver’s dominance, or the standard of player he was playing against, but others have, and no one has suggested the level of competition is anywhere near what it is today. If Djokovic is The Greatest, then this is, without a shred of doubt, The Greatest Era in tennis history, just ask Andy Murray. If Nole beats Rafa in the final at Rolland Garros, at the next grand slam, the argument is nearly settled.
For some, it already is:
Fans can only wonder how things might be had Sampras come along a bit later. Imagine the epic levels the men’s game would reach if he were in today’s mix with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and new U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic, who is 64-3 in 2011.
“At least in my lifetime, the best ever,” Sampras called Djokovic’s year. He also labeled it “one of the best achievements in all of sports.”
Djokovic’s mental approach has been the key, Sampras said.
“I always thought Novak was a bit temperamental and would go through these lapses that would prevent him from winning majors,” Sampras said. “And now you look – he lost the first two sets against Roger and boom! He recovered within a couple of minutes. He’s got a short memory now. He’s progressed into this great champion.”
Or Boris Becker
“I would consider that to be one of the very best years in tennis of all time,” Becker said in an interview yesterday in London. “He’s won three Grand Slams, he’s beaten the No. 1 player at the time in six consecutive finals. That has never happened.”
Or, listen to man on the end of most of the beatings, Rafa Nadal:
“It’s probably the highest level of tennis that I ever saw,” Nadal said of Djokovic who has beaten him in six finals this year on three different surfaces.
That must hurt Roger?
So must watching this… ‘The Greatest Match’
He’s also got character, or ‘personality’ as the BBC like to call it.