July 6th, 2009

The Greatest

Is Federer the best? The record book says so. Fifteen majors- one more than Pete Sampras.   He wasn't at his most inspired yesterday- and he was facing an opponent who was playing out of his skin-  but he still won. He makes victory look not easy exactly, but fated.

It was, as one of the papers said, an "ugly" win. There wasn't much artistry about it. Muhammed Ali, the prettiest fighter of them all, also won ugly towards the end of his career. Great champions are like that. When beauty deserts them they keep going on whatever's left in the locker- craft, character, will-power. There's something awesome, almost supernatural about the way a champion past his prime keeps on racking up the victories.

But Rafa wasn't there. Rafa was someplace else.  Maybe he was on his fishing boat, puposefully not thinking about what might have been.  And if Rafa had been there....?

You can only be the best on the day- against the opposition that presents itself.  Federer was the best yesterday- on a lot of yesterdays- but there are many opponents he'll never meet.  He will never meet Laver in his prime or Borg in his prime or any of those other great champions of the past- and we can only theorize about the outcome of such impossible encounters. We shouldn't let his greatness overshadow theirs. They too were the best on the day. The best on many days.

We like to make lists, grading things in order of merit.  We find it comforting . We crave certainties.  It's almost a religious thing.

But the certainties wobble when you look at them closely. Federer's pre-eminence is all about counting beans, about the number of days on which he turned up and was the best.  He gets a prize for consistency. That's something, but does it add up to absolute greatness? The questions pile in. What if Laver hadn't lost 5 prime years to the the amateur-pro controversy?  What if Rafa had been at Wimbledon this year?   Thank goodness they do; otherwise we'd have nothing to talk about.