Federer: the greatest tennis player on Earth

At a time when sporting greatness has become a devalued currency, the Swiss champion shows the way.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

How many current sportsmen can truly be described as great? People you’d give your eye teeth to watch. I’m talking true champions here. Living legends.

Usain Bolt is one. I’d pay top dollar to see the fastest man on the planet. Shane Warne, although now semi-retired, is another sporting great. Kaka and Lionel Messi are quite handy with a football. That strutting Portuguese ponce Cristiano Ronaldo ain’t half bad either. But, for me, none of these footballers has yet done enough to be admitted to the pantheon of sporting greats. If golf was a proper sport I’d probably add Tiger Woods to my shortlist. But it isn’t, so I won’t. And then there’s Roger Federer. Quite simply the most sublime tennis player of this era. Now, after winning the French Open, Federer is being hailed as the greatest tennis player of all time.

Sporting greatness has become a devalued currency in recent years. In Britain we heap honours on our sports stars far too cheaply. When England’s cricketers regained the Ashes in 2005 they were all awarded gongs. Even Paul Collingwood received an MBE despite his bit-part role in the final test. Shane Warne took great delight in ridiculing Collingwood when England toured Australia the following winter. ‘You got an MBE, right? For scoring seven at the Oval? It’s an embarrassment’, mocked Warne. Four years later, with England having slipped to fifth in the ICC test rankings, how many of the 2005 squad would be awarded gongs today? How many can be regarded as cricketing greats?

There’s no such argument about Federer. He is without doubt a great tennis player. He has earned the right to whatever the Swiss equivalent of a knighthood might be. The statistics speak for themselves. He’s equalled Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slams. He’s the sixth player in history to win all four slams – a feat which eluded Sampras who never won at Roland Garros. You can’t argue with all that silverware, can you?

As we rush to scatter flowers at the Swiss maestro’s feet, it’s worth pausing to remember how Federer was being written off as a spent force only a few months ago. Last year he had lost his Wimbledon crown to Nadal. Then he lost his ATP number 1 world ranking to Rafael Nadal. When he lost in five sets to Nadal in this year’s Australian Open, his post-match blubbing said it all. ‘God, it’s killing me’, sobbed Federer. The man who bestrode the sport for the best part of this decade had been brought to his knees.

Before his victory at Roland Garros on Sunday, Federer’s claims to sporting greatness had been questioned by some because he had yet to win the French Open. In 2006 Mats Wilander said that it was premature to declare Federer a great because he kept choking against Nadal on the clay. ‘Sports is about balls and about heart and you don’t find too many champions in any sport in the world without heart or balls’, said Wilander. ‘He might have them, but against Nadal they shrink to a very small size and it’s not once, it’s every time.’ Ouch!

You’ll still find some purists who don’t think Federer’s French Open title really counts because he didn’t beat Nadal. I think that’s a bit harsh. Federer’s game might be better suited to grass and hard courts but he’s no mug on clay. Mats Wilander told BBC tennis correspondent Jonathan Overend that he rates Federer as ‘the third or fourth best clay-court player of all time’.

Most people, bar a handful of curmudgeons, would agree that Federer is a great player. But the greatest ever? Pete Sampras thinks so. ‘Now that he’s won in Paris, I think it just more solidifies his place in history as the greatest player that played the game, in my opinion’, said Sampras. It’s difficult to argue with the stats. But does that make Federer greater than Borg, Sampras, McEnroe or Laver? Rod Laver was before my time but some tennis veterans will swear that he was the greatest in history. He is the only player to have twice won all four slams in the same year. He won 11 Grand Slams but would almost certainly have added to that tally had he not turned professional in 1962 (professionals were debarred from entering Grand Slams until 1968).

On the other hand, as Sampras has pointed out, in the modern era, ‘the competition is much more fierce than Rod’s’. Comparing Federer to Laver – players from two very different eras – seems too problematic. Moreover, never having seen Laver play, I don’t think I’m in a position to judge. Yes, you can pore over the statistics and count the trophies. These are indicators of greatness for sure. But, to me, greatness isn’t just measured by trophies. It’s not just about how many titles you rack up. It’s also about how you win. The artistry. The beauty. The glory. Changing our perceptions of what is humanly possible. The Cruyff turn. The Maradona shimmy. That funny trick that Ronaldinho does with his foot that doesn’t really have a name.

Simon Barnes, writing in The Times (London), says: ‘I expect we can all remember that first Federer moment, the time we saw, blinked and muttered in disbelief: “This could be the greatest tennis player that ever drew breath”.’ (1) He’s right. I can remember my Federer moment clearly. We were in a holiday park in Dorset watching Federer take on Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon semis in 2003. Roddick, with his big serve and power game, had battered his way to the last four dropping just one set en route. Federer demolished him. Outmanoeuvred him. Made him look leaden-footed and one-dimensional.

Federer is no longer the invulnerable übermensch that he was three years ago. Nadal has bludgeoned his way to the No.1 spot and Federer may struggle to dislodge him. However, for me, even without the French Open, I’d still rate Federer as the greatest tennis player I’ve seen. He’s the most complete tennis player of the modern era. Some play baseline rallies; others play a serve-and-volley game. But Federer plays total tennis. He can vary his game to fit any surface. He can trade powerful ground-strokes with the baseliners but also has the serve-and-volley game for grass.

Greater than Rod Laver? I don’t know. The greatest tennis player I’ve seen in my lifetime? No doubt about it.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Roger Federer, greatest of all time, ensures statistics back up unrivalled artistry, The Times (London), 8 June 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today