By Jason Keidel
John McEnroe got embroiled in a pseudo-controversy last month, when he was pseudo-tricked into giving a misogynist answer to a misleading question about Serena Williams.
There are people who don’t worship Serena Williams, many for the wrong reasons, based on race, gender and all kinds of galling bigotry. But McEnroe, an earnest and honest admirer of Ms. Williams for years, isn’t one of them.
But no matter where we place Williams on the men’s circuit, there’s now no debate about who belongs at the top of tennis, for eternity.
That would be Roger Federer, who keeps defying physics, logic and time.
Those of us who recall the halcyon years of tennis — let’s say 1977-1984 — when it was bursting with all-time talent, led by McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Conners, Guillermo Vilas, Ilie Nastase and a conga line of greats, still miss those years when you could name the top-10 players without pause. But because the talent pool has been drained, and the galling dearth of decent American players, it feels like tennis has devolved back into a niche sport, somewhere next to boxing.
Then tennis regained a pulse, particularly in the United States, in the ’90s, when Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras replaced Borg & McEnroe as the rivalry du jour. Then once they faded, there was a handful of young studs ready to replace them, led by Federer, then Rafael Nadal, soon joined by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
And it seemed like Federer finally met his match — literally — with Nadal, who somehow had the key to the most maddening tennis puzzle ever. He could not only beat Federer on the court, but Nadal seemed to be the only player who could fluster Federer, much the way McEnroe somehow cracked Borg’s epic equanimity.
And between 2011 and 2016, Federer won just two Grand Slam titles, losing four other finals, adding to the historical certainty that once a tennis player exits his 20s, he essentially leaves the top spot in the rankings.
But not only did Federer finally figure out how to play Nadal, he kept the younger lions (Djokovic and Murray) at bay. Despite being on the wrong side of 30 for some time, Federer keeps playing at a sublime level. He’s long past the age when other players, even the greats, swap their rackets for microphones, the hardwood for the studio.
Federer won his first Grand Slam 14 years ago. It was Wimbledon, fittingly, as he is about to play in another Wimbledon Final — his 11th. And he turns 36 in three weeks. Should he win this weekend, he will pass Pete Sampras with eight titles at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, an endless acronym for The Championships, which is the formal version of Wimbledon.
But with all due respect to Sampras, Federer has long since passed the American on the charts and in the archives. Name another player who won any Grand Slam 14 years apart, who, at 35, can play with Federer’s skill and will.
Federer already leads the pack in Grand Slam titles, and would make it 19 with a win against Marin Cilic.
McEnroe was 25 when he won his last Grand Slam, the 1984 U.S. Open. Borg was 24 when he won his last, the 1981 French Open. Connors was a bit of an outlier, winning his last at 31 (the 1983 U.S. Open). But if you look at the clusters of titles among the best players, they all come during their 20s. Not Federer, who, despite his age and wage, despite never needing to work a day the rest of his life, is able to keep up with the rigors of time and travel and somehow maintain the hunger needed to compete with players nearly half his age.
Federer was also able to avoid the trap doors of fame that devoured McEnroe, who famously flamed out in his prime. Connors enjoyed one of the longest and most prosperous careers in tennis history, playing in 15 Grand Slam finals, a staggering number. This weekend, Federer is playing in his 29th. And unlike McEnroe, who could never conquer the red clay of the French Open, or Borg, who could not slay the hardcourt dragons of the U.S. Open, Federer has mastered all surfaces, all conditions, all opponents.
Perhaps Federer is most like Borg in terms of temper and consistency. Except Federer played twice as long as Borg. Just as McEnroe was finding the cracks in Borg’s armor, he quit the sport. As Nadal became Federer’s eternal tormentor, Federer went back to the lab and got better. Generally speaking, in all sports, money and fame are impediments to legacy-building, as we often try hardest when we’re hungriest.
It makes you wonder, which is more amazing — Federer’s talent or temerity? Are his wins what define him, or his ability to learn from his losses? Perhaps only he can answer those questions. But when it comes to who’s the greatest tennis player in history, we can answer that for him — Roger Federer.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.