Three’s No Crowd In the Quest for Tennis Ascendancy
Sitting in the murky hollows of a bar in Shoreditch a few years back, I entered into a discussion-come-expletive-laden argument on who was the best tennis player of all time. Not the first alcohol fuelled debate on this topic, and after the enthralling Australian Open final, it is sure not to be the last.
My standpoint back then was that Grand Slam titles speak louder than megaphones and Rodger had not long before claimed the record. Pistol Pete Sampras, the man who was previously acknowledged by many of the game’s insiders to be the ‘greatest ever’, had recently anointed the Fed Express as a better player than himself. Rod Laver, the other candidate for the crown had refused to compare the players from different eras and in doing so remained boringly neutral on the issue, perhaps an unspoken nod to the Swiss. But with Federer passing the grand slam record and playing during his prime with an ease and fluidity that had never been seen before on the tennis court, I felt he had done enough to warrant the ‘best ever’ tag.
But by the rationale of my adversary on this matter, there was no way I could conclude that Federer was indeed, the best of all time, as his man Rafa had clearly built an unquestionable edge over him in head to head battles. Nadal had even beaten the him ‘in his own backyard’ when he dethroned Federer on grass in the epic 2008 Wimbledon final. Then a year later in Australia, Nadal induced tears from the Swiss Master where it became apparent that despite being held in such high esteem by so many from a historical standpoint, Federer was clearly not even the best player on tour anymore. How could the ‘greatest ever’ be so clearly dominated by another from his own generation?
Federer may have been slightly past his prime at this point but he was clearly no tennis pensioner, Nadal had been beating him on clay since 2005, and now had his measure across all surfaces. In term of overall head to head matches (helped by many of them occuring on clay courts) and particularly in slam tennis, Nadal had the wood on him to the extent that he could have doubled as a tree lopper.
My pal then pressed his point by adding that the class of opponent was also a relevant talking point, as much of Federer’s sucess had come at the expensive of Baghdatis, Roddick, Hewitt & Safin. Not exactly Agassi, Becker, Courier & Edberg who were the competition that Sampras had to deal with.
After the mist had risen, the logic of his argument began to settle and from then on, I switched my worthless vote to Team Rafa.
But I sit here today, a terribly confused tennis fan. Because if I choose to follow this very same logic, am I now to consider Novak Djokovic as the best ever player to hold a racquet?
After the monumental tussle with Nadal in Melbourne, the big serving Serb has now beaten the Spaniard in the last 3 grand slam finals, but it is this victory that the Djokovic will be drawing from in the future and that Rafa will be trying hardest to forget. Although Nadal still holds a slight edge in their overall record, Djokovic has now won their last 7 encounters and has taken his game to a level which appears unattainable for Nadal and his injury prone body.
The scariest part of all is, this could just be the beginning. For me, Novak resembles some kind of Tennis Terminator, and although Rafa did his best T-1000 impersonation, complete with body contorting liquid metal forehands, he was left with only the runner up plate & thoughts of Hasta la Vista.
But when the two players undoutedly meet again, it is difficult to fathom just how Nadal might go about toppling Djokovic from his perch. In much the same way Federer let his ascendancy slip back in 2008 on the grass of SW19, this loss in Melbourne could really represent the changing of the tennis hierarchy as it was a contest that will permanently etch itself into the psyche of both of these champions.
The match made for fascinating tennis and was a topsy-turvy encounter with both players looking destined for victory at different stages. Despite starting the stronger of the two, Nadal looked a shadow of his usual self in the 4th set, and faced 3 break points at 3-4 down with Novak seemingly cruising toward victory. But displaying the tenacity that’s led the us to revere the Spaniard, Nadal rose from the dead and had all the momentum going into the 5th set. Like a dazed heavyweight, Djokovic could barely walk through the closing stages and it looked a virtual impossibility that he could conjure the strength to continue as the match inched towards 6 hours. But he somehow found the energy and secured his 3rd Australian Open crown with a cool head and some big hitting. Nadal must really be wondering how he can beat Novak, knowing that he had the huge advantage over his opponent with an extra days rest and the fact that Djokovic’s semi final was also an epic, energy-zapping 5 setter.
So lets make the relatively safe assumption that with his amazing serve volley style, Sampras reached a level of grand slam success that left the likes of Laver, Borg & Emerson behind and hence, was anointed the greatest ever player. Federer eclipsed this record with his effortless ground strokes and an eerie ease that led him to take over the greatest ever title. Along came Rafa and with his intestinal fortitude, mental strength and superior head to head record against Fed, he snatched the tag for the briefest of moments. Enter No-Djo with his robotically consistent ground strokes and his ability to put the ball within a few inches of the line with amazing regularity, and as he now has the clear edge on Rafa, can lay claim to the title of the best of all time. Seems like decent sporting logic to me.
There are many out there that say, why don’t we just shut the hell up and enjoy the tennis. Quit swabbling about the greatest of all time & stop and smell the can of freshly cracked tennis balls. But the debate is sure to rage on like the homophobia burning in the soul of Margaret Court. Given that it is a sport that is based around an, albeit a somewhat flawed, points & ranking system, the question will inevitably arise.
Maybe Rocket Rod did have a point in that it is difficult to compare those from different eras. But we are now in the unique situation that 3 of these guys are still currently duking it out against each other, so the question seems more relevant than ever. If the Tennis Terminator continues on his path of Grand Slam destruction and maintains this phenomenal level for the next few seasons, when it comes to this reoccurring debate over the greatest ever tennis player, it must be – advantage Djokovic.