Don’t Crown King Roger Just Yet

Genius is a tricky, spritely gift, eluding capture by any means we know of. We can't mass-produce it, bottle it, and sell it to a market clamoring for it. We can't transfer it from one person to another. We're not even that good at measuring it when we know we're staring right at it.

Consider how IQ tests measure genius. The average score is 100, and the vast majority of the population cluster around that mean. So for people who score in that neighborhood, getting one question right or wrong only changes their IQ scores by a few points. However, the outliers on the high end are subject to the punishing whims of the extreme. In the cruel climes of the top few percentiles, every misstep results in wild shifts.

Now consider the trials of genius to which we subject our sports greats. Was Pete Sampras the greatest of all-time? Well, the prosecution points out, he never won the French Open. What about Rod Laver and his consecutive Grand Slams? Critical witnesses would question the quality of his competition and his 5'8" frame, Lilliputian by today's standards.

So what of the latest greatest, Roger Federer? By capturing the 2009 French Open a few weeks ago, Federer completed his career Grand Slam and tied Pete Sampras for the most major titles in the modern era of men's tennis. And with those milestones, many were ready to proclaim Federer the greatest tennis player who ever lived.

Ultimately, Federer will be remembered as a Jim Brown-like figure, a star that burned brighter than any other in its galaxy if only for a shorter span of time than its heavenly peers. Sampras announced himself at the U.S. Open in 1990 and retained his relative greatness for the entire decade, if not through his career bookend-victory at Flushing Meadows in the 2002 Open. Federer, by contrast, took the throne atop the men's game later relatively in his career. His breakthrough at Wimbledon 2003 marked the beginning of his reign, and while he has maintained as high a level of performance as we should dare expect, it would be dishonest to argue Federer has matched Sampras' longevity.

The ugly truth is Federer relinquished his place atop the tennis world at least by Wimbledon 2008, but more realistically earlier than that. After being pushed to five sets by Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon 2007, Federer suffered a decisive defeat to Novak Djokovic at the 2008 Aussie Open and then at the 2008 French, only mustered four games in an embarrassment at the hands of his personal conquistador, Rafael Nadal. Barring a miraculous run of role-reversing victories over Nadal, it's safe to say Federer's career will be made of more days on which he was not the best player on the planet than days that he was.

In the afterglow of Roland Garros, Federer flashed a sense of relief over finally harpooning his white whale of red clay, suggesting that he will feel far less pressure over the remainder of his career with the Terre Battu finally conquered. I have a hard time believing that.

For a player who competes as much with the ghosts of tennis legends as the mortals who stand across the net from him, the pressure of legacy cannot be brushed away like an errant strand of hair. In fact, I think upcoming Wimbledon 2009 presents a more important crossroads for Federer's career. While finally winning the French is a novel jewel in his crown, Federer's throne, castle, and kingdom have been built from the grass of the All England Club. Nadal's encroachment into that territory a year ago demands a rebuttal campaign, otherwise the questions and pressure Federer has battled in swarms over the past 18 months are just one defeat to Nadal away from reincarnation.

And that is precisely the tragedy of comparing greatness. No matter how much respect we pay to the accomplishments, we're forced to split the tiniest of hairs to distinguish among those at the top of the heap. And yet, it's the most natural question to ask in a world that exists solely for competition: of all these players trying to be better than each other on any given day, who was the best at being better? It may yet be Roger Federer, but his ascension right now would be premature.

Comments and Conversation

June 17, 2009

kansri:

Ok, for your idea, I could think Fed can be GOAT but it must happen after Nadal is, right? If so, you are the one who worship Nadal the most in the world!

June 17, 2009

Steve:

The author of this article evidently does not follow tennis very closely as he misses many important facts. Furthermore, he seems to be a little biased against Federer. In any event, who cares. The GOAT debate cannot be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction, ever, but one thing is for sure, the most beautiful and technical tennis ever played is that of Federer. No one who is honest can deny that. As for GOAT, one has to wait until Federer retires to begin making comparisons. I still remember when commentators would say something like, “well he just has 8 … well he just has 9 … well he’s got 14 now, but Nadal beat him last year … well ….” Kinda silly. When all is said and done one thing will be for sure, and that is that no one has ever dominated the sport of tennis the way Federer did, ever, and no one has ever been as consistent as he has, and no one has played as beautifully as he has. Whether that is GOAT or not, who cares.

June 17, 2009

Jeff:

Well I think with all the glory you’ve given Sampras, even he (or laver) would have trouble recovering from mononucleosis…

June 17, 2009

Chris Ford:

I don’t care about GOAT. Borg, who retired at 26 with 11 Majors would have to be in the discussion. I do know that Rafa and Roger are both champions to the bone and absolute joys to watch for what each offers. And the men’s game has 6-7 more almost as good as those two. The men’s game is now in it’s 2nd Open Era Golden Age.

June 18, 2009

TennisMasta:

“The ugly truth is Federer relinquished his place atop the tennis world at least by Wimbledon 2008, but more realistically earlier than that. After being pushed to five sets by Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon 2007, Federer suffered a decisive defeat to Novak Djokovic at the 2008 Aussie Open and then at the 2008 French, only mustered four games in an embarrassment at the hands of his personal conquistador, Rafael Nadal. Barring a miraculous run of role-reversing victories over Nadal, it’s safe to say Federer’s career will be made of more days on which he was not the best player on the planet than days that he was. “

That sums up your bias very well. I will make a guess - no matter what Federer does or not you will conjure up these kind of disparaging words to undermine his accomplishments.

See, when he dominated from 2004 to 2007 like no one else (yes, including Sampras) people like you complained that there was no competition.

In 2008 Federer suffered with mono. People like you endlessly talk of Rafa’s knees or his fatigue, but don’t talk about how Federer still had an incredible season winning a slam, reaching the finals of two and a semis, and staying at #2 despite his illness.

You will not point out that Federer barely lost Wimbledon. He could very well have won it. You don’t talk about how he came back from two sets down and took it to 9-7 in the fifth.

Nadal had an incredible year and there is no shame in being #2 behind him. In fact it is commendable. Saying otherwise is insulting Nadal. You talk as though Federer dropped off the regular ATP tour like Agassi did.

You talk of “Sampras announced himself at the U.S. Open in 1990 and retained his relative greatness for the entire decade”. I agree with that. But you imply that Federer did not do that.

You might check the facts. How do you define greatness? 20 straight semis is not greatness? 237 weeks in a row at #1 is not greatness? 10 straight slam finals is not greatness? Being the second best clay court player for the last five years is not greatness?

Ok, how about this. Federer is voted the ATP fans’s favorite for the sixth year in a row. He is voted the Edberg Sportsman by his own peers for the fifth year in a row. Sampras never got these accomplishments. I say this not to demean Sampras, but to argue against your concept of greatness.

Finally, Sampras himself said that Federer is the greatest ever. That shows the greatness of Sampras.

June 18, 2009

TennisMasta:

“Nadal’s encroachment into that territory a year ago demands a rebuttal campaign, otherwise the questions and pressure Federer has battled in swarms over the past 18 months are just one defeat to Nadal away from reincarnation. “

So we can simply throw away everything Federer accomplished so far. If he loses to Nadal again then he is nothing.

At least you are not discreet with your prejudice. I applaud you for that, Mr. Trouw.

June 18, 2009

Franco:

Good article, very realistic and factual. Don’t let the Federer fanatics deter your fair journalism. Well done, Mr. Trouw.

June 18, 2009

Rick:

I am neither a Federer’s fanatic nor a Nadal’s. I do know that Nadal’s technique is in NO way near the “higher” levels of Federer.

I admire Nadal for exactly that reason. Roger is a natural, Nadal isn’t. So who is the greatest? In my mind Federer has to be, because he is probably the most technically sound player with finesse that is hard to come back.

Nadal is a fierce competitor and great match player, a quality not in abundance amongst many players. Statistically EVEN if he surpasses Federer, I don’t think he will ever be technically sound; When I watch Tennis, I watch it for myself, if I enjoy watching a player, In my mind he becomes the best there is.

I enjoy Federer’s finesse and talents, I also enjoy Nadal’s humble nature and how he plays hardball on court.

Corrie, I think you need to relax and do a less “emotional” piece and provide both sides of it.

I don’t understand why reporting today has become so biased and opinionated;

June 18, 2009

kenneth loch:

Roger is actually the anti-genius.

June 18, 2009

DC:

1)”The ugly truth is Federer relinquished his place atop the tennis world at least by Wimbledon 2008, but more realistically earlier than that.” - well, on the same lines, though federer was officially ranked #1 in Feb 2004, he actually would have started playing like a #1 in Feb 2003, so i dont buy your logic.

2)Federer has broken or matched almost all the top 5 records ( consecutive weeks on #1, number of GS, Career GS). Major records he hasn’t broken are “4 consecutive GS / calendar GS”, max weeks on #1. He has 3 of the top 5 records in tennis which makes him a GOAT
I suspect Nadal might not be able to touch any of these top 5 records.

June 18, 2009

DT:

Corrie, your article and view are so biased. When things don’t go right for FedEx, you guys or most of you anyway (journalists) bag FedEx and make a big deal out of it. When Nadal lost the Fench Open this year in the 4th round to a little known player, so little coverage of his lost or none of you guys blow it out like you did when FedEx lost the Wimbledon final to Nadal, the 2nd bext player in the world at the time, and it was a close lost! OK, a lost is still a lost. back to FedEx lost, after his wimbledon lost, the world media said it was the end of FedEx career. Wake up, he’s only 27 and is no where near the end of his playing career. Give FedEx a fair go. He and Nadal deserve alot of credit for their achievement even though it hurst to see Nadal beat FedEx a number of times, mostly on clay.

June 18, 2009

smart_Alek:

last year, people were writing Federer off, that he’ll never win another grandslam after his 2008 Wimbledon loss to Nadal. Federer then went on to win the 2008 US Open.

this year, many people still doubted him especaially after his heart-breaking loss to Nadal in the 2009 Aussie Open final, that he’ll never win another major (read: French Open—this being Nadal’s territory). well, just a couple of weeks ago, he went on to bag the 2009 French Open crown. it’s not Roger’s fault Nadal couldn’t meet him in the final.

i have 4 words for people who are flagrantly biased against Federer—foot in mouth disease.

June 18, 2009

Eelco:

My two cents:

I think GOAT is complete nonsense. You simply cannot compare players from different eras. Nobody who lives now has seen player from 100 years ago. Not many have watched players from 50 years ago.

Most successfull? Definitely Federer in my opinion. All the GS, 20 straight semi-finals, 14 GS tournaments overall, etc., etc.

Most talented? I have my doubts about either Sampras and Federer. I liked to watch McEnroe play (but his behaviour was very poor). Therefore, my vote as most wonderful player I have seen goes to Miloslav Mecir.

June 18, 2009

KingKong:

This article is very biased indeed. I think the author on purpose tried to twist the facts, to incite hateful reactions, may be his ego needs attention so badly that it doesn’t care how it gets it. Anyways, its obviously a very poor attempt and see-through in its purpose.

June 18, 2009

Corrie Trouw:

Thank you, everyone, for the thoughtful comments. I write on a wide range of subjects, and I don’t hesitate to say that tennis fans provide the most thoughtful and spirited debates. I love writing for Sports Central because debating with my audience is very accessible. So regardless of whether you agree or disagree, please keep the posts coming! I read them all.

Addressing a few of your topics…

First, speaking to the bias/opinion issue: This is a column, not a nuts-and-bolts news story. My job is to develop a thesis and back it up. If this were the post-French news wrap, it would be wildly inappropriate, but as an opinion piece, it’s, well, opinionated. You might not agree with it, but when I wake up with a dozen or so posts, I know I at least chose my topic well.

As for bias, I have to respectfully disagree. My point in this column—and a few of you even quoted this above—was that comparing greatness to greatness is implicitly unfair. Federer, Laver, and Sampras all did so many great and amazing things that they basically cancel themselves out until you have to pick on their very few and very minor shortcomings. Last time I wrote about Federer for this site, I compared one of his season’s to one of Tiger Woods’. I grouped him here with Laver and Sampras. Heck, as a rabid Cleveland Browns fan, I paid him the ultimate respect by comparing him to Jim Brown! I felt like there was a rush to finally accept him as the greatest after winning the French, but I just don’t see what’s so different now.

A few of you mentioned the pointlessness of the GOAT debate (credit for that acronym to Jon Wertheim, right?); and there’s a lot of validity to that. What should the greatest be? Is it the man who played the best tennis at his best? If so, I think that is Federer. Is it the man who accomplished the most in his career? That could also be Federer, but I think you have to extrapolate Laver’s a little bit given his amateur status issue. Is it the guy who was “king” for the biggest portion of his career? I think that would be Sampras.

Federer is definitely great, and he is judged by a different set of standards. But the double standard is because he’s great. He’s the best player of the 2000s, case closed. He’s one of the best 3 players of all time, case closed. The only debates start at that point. How crazy great is that?

The one thing I can’t shake about Federer is the relative brevity of his greatness. At the most generous, you can say Federer was the best player in the world for five and a half years. What he did during that time was amazing, but when the epitaph of his career is written, I think it would have to admit that he spent less of his career as the best player in the world than he spent as the best. I know, that’s very picky. But that’s my point!

As for Nadal himself, I agree that he’s treated with kid gloves from time to time. But can you blame them? Nobody other than Nadal and maybe Djokovic now and then steps on the court with Federer expecting to win. It has taken guts for Nadal to believe he could beat Federer on the non-clay surfaces, because nobody else has.

Again, thanks for the comments. I’m sure we’ll chat again shortly.

June 18, 2009

Eelco:

Hey Corrie,

Nice to comment on the comments. Three observations:

I am not aware that Federer has quit the game. So your comment about the brevity of his careeer seems a bit odd.

Secondly. I am not sure that it really is that relevant. Is a composer like Mozart less great than Bach for that reason? (I do think Mozart is less than Bach, but not for the brevity of his career).

Thirdly: Another problem with the GOAT issue is that we cannot look in the future. GOAT in reality would be GOAT up to now.

June 18, 2009

Rick:

Corrie,

personally, for me GOAT is one who is unbeatable even when her/his opponents in the “zone”. I guess you could say Federer and those 4 years beat every one hands down in that respect.
Trophies dont count for me … if we start doing that then off there will be record breakers and no one will appreciate the actual “talent” in the sport.

Just a few thoughts.
Rick

June 19, 2009

Corrie Trouw:

Eelco, Rick, you both make very valid points about the GOAT. There’s no “formula” for determining who it is, so everyone is going to look at something different. And, yes, it should be the greatest of up until now, but GOATUUN doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

My point about Federer is obviously not that his career is over, but the period where he just dominated everyone is. He’s been historically good for going on six years running, but it’s impossible to get over the record against Nadal.

I might be reaching a little here, but the best analogy I could think of in another sport is poker (bear with me here). Phil Hellmuth holds the record for most World Series of Poker bracelets (11), but they’ve all come in Texas Hold ‘Em events and mostly against large, dilluted fields. His results when he plays less popular games like Razz or Omaha, where the fields tend to have many fewer amateur players, is not impressive. Like Federer, Hellmuth is probably the most accomplished player in his sport. However, his performance against his peers is the mark on his resume.

To be fair, Federer’s “peers” in this analogy is a group of one, Nadal. That’s a really exclusive club. But, again, this was the point of my original comparison to the IQ scores: Sorting out a pecking order at the extremes is really, really picky.

June 20, 2009

football man:

Rafael Nadal is the best, he will prove it as time passes by.

June 26, 2009

Eelco:

Coriie,

With my remark about Federer not having quit the game I meant that Federer might end his career with a positive H2H after all. Maybe Federer will beat Nadal the coming 4 years 8 time in a row (I don’t really think he will by the way).

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