Three’s No Crowd In the Quest for Tennis Ascendancy

Novak victorious after a grueling battle

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.

Shirt: Terminated

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Posted on January 29, 2012, in tennis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi Morgan, what more can one say…..the ” tennis Terminator” is a good analogy for Novak. He reminds me of trying to kill a cockroach ..ha ha…plays dead for a minute or so then makes a speedy recovery. I feel he more than deserved the win, as he did in the semi’s, when the body was fatiqued he still played great shots.He’s definitely mentally tough, & is tall & strong, which is why he is #1
    Trying to compare past players e.g. Rod Laver with the players over the last 15 -20 yrs is too difficult as they played with small headed wooden raquets for a start, weighing a lot more than the raquets of today, & the technology with the balls has probably changed a lot also.
    However I would compare Bijorn Borg with Roger Federer, two very graceful players to watch.
    I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the men’s tennis & felt quite exhausted after each match over the last week……not just from the late nights…..Mum xx

  2. Yen Sporran Erikson

    It’s clear that Rafael Nadal’s recent domination of Federer calls into question any attempt to crown Roger as “the best ever”, especially now that his career is on the wane. Logically, it doesn’t seem possible to call Roger “the greatest male player ever” due to Rafa’s record against him on the biggest stages. It’s a fact that the tennis watching public has been witness to one of the great sporting rivalries, where there appears to be one clear winner.
    However, I would like to respond to some of the arguments that seem to diminish Federer’s achievement. Firstly, I don’t think the argument that Roger played lightweights in securing his Grand Slams is a fair one. Roger Federer, for example, was the only player in men’s tennis who could deal with the Roddick serve– you can’t discount the fact that Roddick contested consecutive Wimbledon finals and consistently made the last 4 or last 2 of the Grand Slam tournaments throughout the last decade. Roger had the game, the confidence, the tactics and the ruthlessness to dispatch Roddick’s game when it was much too big for the remainder of the men’s draw.
    Secondly, Roger met a variety of players in Grand Slam finals (Baghdatis, Gonzalez, Roddick, Hewitt et al) who simply swept through the best that male tennis had to offer before meeting Roger in the final. These men weren’t number two seeds, but had to beat the number two seed to get there. So the argument that Roger beat inferior opponents to win his titles just doesn’t hold water.
    Federer didn’t play well enough to beat Nadal in their semi the other night, and certainly wouldn’t have been able to beat Djokovic based on his semi final display. Whether he will be able to add to his 16 Grand Slams before the end of his career remains to be seen, but based on his form leading up to the semis, it would be premature to write him off.
    Anyway, in one last defence of any claims that Federer could be regarded as the greatest male tennis player ever, cast your mind back to Wimbledon and the US Open of 2004 (or any year between 2004-06/07). No one had ever played tennis like Federer was playing at this time. His play was simply sublime. There were no easy points on his serve and his ability to put his opponent under pressure with his effortless, error-less play was just incredible. While Rafa justifiably can and undoubtedly will be called one of the greatest players ever to have played the game of tennis, there will only ever be one “Symphony in White”, the great Roger Federer.

    • I hear ya Yen and the ‘symphony in white’ is a concerto that tennis fans are never again likely to hear. But that said, the competition was just not there. That wasn’t Rodger’s fault as such and i’m sure there were times he craved some competition to force him to lift his game. You mention Roddick who is a consistent performer, but you just can’t compare the class of surrounding players when looking at the careers of Sampras & Federer. Just looking at their respective breakthrough grand slam victories.

      Sampras’ came in 1990 at the US Open where he beat the following players
      4th R: Thomas Muster – QF: Ivan Lendl (who had made the previous 8 US Open finals) – SF: John McEnroe – F: Andre Agassi

      Federer’s came in 2003 at Wimbledon where he beat the following players
      4th R: Felciano Lopez – QF: Sjeng Schalken – SF: Andy Roddick – F: The Poo

      Seriously, that comparison is laughable. I hope he can find away to win another slam or two. That would be his way to get back into contention for all time honours. Tough to see it happening though.

  3. Djokovic-Nadal need better nicknames. Proposal: Plastic Man vs. The Incredible Hulk.

    Djokovic is strong, sure, but not more so than the other top players. His defining attribute is his flexibility and those ridiculous contorted shots. Hail Plastic Man!

    Nadal looks like a fount of limitless super-strong rage during the match, then instantly becomes mild-mannered Rafa Banner afterwards. He even has too-short shorts, and a recurring wardrobe problem which makes you wonder if he grows during the match: “Grrr, Hulk’s underwear no fit…”

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