Federer the best ever? Not so fast.

Yesterday, Liz Clarke wrote an article in the Washington Post about Rod Laver’s opinion on whether Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time.  Laver was non-committal; saying just being the best in his era should be enough for Federer.  Nowhere in the 565-word article does Clarke even mention Pete Sampras’ name.  This is an egregious omission, even though in the main article about the Federer-Roddick match, she did mention Sampras as one of the greats.

She says, “Both names, Laver and Tilden, have long been bandied about in the debate over who is the greatest to play the game. And a third — that of Roger Federer — was listed alongside even before Sunday, when Federer raised the mark for excellence by winning a record 15th major title.”  Stating “a third” without mentioning Sampras, who won 14 major titles, is very misleading – it makes it seem like there are now three great ones on the Mount Rushmore of tennis.

I’m not saying Sampras was better than Federer, but I think it’s premature to say that Federer is undisputedly the greatest just because he has one more major than Pete.  I am saying that Sampras was equally as good as Federer.  Sampras had Andre Agassi as a rival while Federer had Rafael Nadal.  Sampras was 4-1 vs. Agassi in Grand Slam finals while Federer is 2-4 vs. Nadal.  Plus, Nadal has been great for only a few years while Agassi was a top contender for most of Sampras’ career.  Sampras also faced Jim Courier, who had four major wins, whereas during Federer’s era, no one other than Nadal (six) has more than two.

As for their strokes, they are about even.  Neither had a discernable weakness, while Pete’s serve was a little better than Federer’s.  True, Federer won the French Open and Sampras didn’t, but the surface and balls at the French Open have been changed to give non-clay court specialists a better chance to win.

I also take issue with the talking heads at ESPN who automatically agree that Federer is the best without even mentioning that there could be a debate.  Maybe after all is said and done, Federer will have close to 20 majors and it will be more clear, but not just yet.  Just because someone has more Grand Slam titles than another player doesn’t make him better.  Agassi won eight and John McEnroe won seven.  Agassi also won all four majors and Mac didn’t.  Does that alone make Agassi better than McEnroe?  Not necessarily.  For what it’s worth, McEnroe also won 9 doubles majors.  McEnroe was also much more dominant than Agassi. True, Fed has been more dominant than Sampras, but the field isn’t as good.

By the way, Bjorn Borg should also be in the discussion, though my personal opinion is that his game was too one-dimensional as a baseliner to be considered the best.  Still, he had 11 Grand Slam titles, and he won all of them on the two most diverse surfaces:  five on grass at Wimbledon, and six on clay at the French Open.  Plus, during Borg’s era he had to play against McEnroe, Connors (eight majors), and Guillermo Vilas (four).

A lot of people think Martina Navratilova was the best female player ever even though Steffi Graf had 22 Grand Slam wins and Navratilova had 18 and Chris Evert also had 18.  I personally believe Graf was the best, but the point is, why do people automatically assume that Federer is the best just because he has the most majors, while most media types would say Martina was the best female player, so they use different criteria for women?

Back to the talking heads – Today on Pardon the Interruption, Mike Wilbon said that there was absolutely no debate that Tiger Woods is a better athlete than Federer.  Really?  Tiger walks a course and hits a stationary ball.  Federer is constantly moving for hours at a time and he needs to make a lot of quick movements in a split second.  He faced serves against Andy Roddick at Wimbledon that were up to 140 miles per hour.

It’s not even a debate.  Tennis players are much better athletes than golfers.  Would Tiger be able to move on the court like Federer?  No way.  You can be out of shape and still succeed at golf, but you need to be fit to play tennis.  Tiger may be a great athlete, but don’t say he’s unquestionably a better athlete than Federer.

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