Don’t Crown King Roger Just Yet
June 18, 2009 by Corrie Trouw • Print Story •
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.