I love rankings. I can't get enough of them. I want to rank everything -- even where it's inappropriate. When I told my wife a couple years ago that I wanted to establish a Friends Hall of Fame in our basement, she laughed. I was incredulous. You mean posting pictures of our favorite friends would be rude? How? What about the others, she said.
Ah. The others.
I've been a tennis fan as long as I can remember. I love the sport for its underrated physical demands without requiring you to be some athletic beast, and its way of exposing who can handle pressure and who can't. Like golf, it's just you out there. Unlike our team sports, there's no misreading who's better than whom. Is such-and-such a quarterback only great because of his coach, offensive line or defense? Would such-and-such a basketball star have been a champion without his great supporting cast? In individual sports you have none of these quandaries.
You of course do have never-ending conversations about who the Best Player Ever is. It always was a bit of a disappointment to me that when Roger Federer eclipsed Pete Sampras' record for Grand Slam titles it seemed to settle the issue. That's it, they said. Federer is the greatest of all time.
Maybe. I've had two issues with that sentiment, one of which has grown since that win in 2009. One is that it downgrades the great Rod Laver. Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962 and was then disallowed from playing in the "majors" for six years because of his turning pro. Then in the advent of the so-called Open Era, when pros were allowed back in, Laver won the Slam again, in 1969. He was the best player in the world for six years yet played in none of the sport's 24 "majors". Conservatively, I'd say he'd have won eight of them. That would give him 19, more than Federer.
Secondly, Federer has two contemporaries that have beaten him down in the biggest of matches. Rafael Nadal is 18-10 against Federer and has beaten him in finals in three of the four Slams. Novak Djokovic doesn't have Nadal's career edge over Federer head-to-head, but he'd beaten him in the majors four out of five times.
Then came along Wimbledon 2012. Nadal lost early, and Federer took out Djokovic in the semis en route to winning the title. To me, this victory is huge for Federer's legacy. It had been three years since he'd won a major and he'd been flattened too often by his top rivals, begging questions about his superiority. But he won this one, and he beat the world's top player along the way. Federer, who played at a very high level in this tournament, especially late, deserves full credit for the achievement.
But I say he's still not the best ever. Laver is. Nadal's years of burying Federer in finals stands out. I do agree with most analysts that Federer is capable of shot-making that no other player in history was. (Part of this is attributable to advances in equipment.) And there is no joy in watching tennis quite like when Federer solves a seemingly impossible angle.
This Wimbledon win to me doesn't add a postscript to Federer's candidacy as the sport's preeminent player, it re-opens it. And really, the conversation is all I want.