Tennis’ favorite argument, the GOAT debate, is now, officially, a mess. Who is the Greatest Of All Time? Tennis might not have a best player ever.
At this point, for this second, and willing to change soon, I’m still going with Rafael Nadal as all-time best, though he’s not even the best now, having lost to Novak Djokovic Sunday in the Wimbledon final. He also hasn’t won nearly as many majors as Roger Federer.
It’s not easy making an argument that sounds ridiculous to yourself when you’re making it.
But I can’t take Federer, because he always loses to Nadal. And I can’t take Djokovic, because he has only been great for seven to 10 months.
In retirement, Pete Sampras is working his way back into this argument.
You can’t judge accurately through history. Would Rod Laver have beaten Bill Tilden? I think so, but how do I know for sure? So you can only go on how well someone did against his own generation, and then try to decide how good that generation was. Or maybe you just use the eye-test.
The dream, in any sport really, is to see all-time greats actually playing against each other in their primes. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus coming up 18 together at Augusta, tied, or maybe Muhammad Ali against Joe Louis. Then it could all be settled.
Well, something close to that is happening now in tennis, and it’s just making things more confusing. Continue reading
Novak Djokovic dropped to Wimbledon’s Centre Court in celebration and then. . .ate some blades of grass. “Well-kept,’’ he said. A few months ago, when he won the Australian Open, he started taking off clothes, throwing them into the crowd, then taking off more. Knowing him, he wasn’t sure to stop before it got embarrassing. But he did.
The thing is, Djokovic isn’t just for comic relief anymore. He is the king of tennis after beating Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 Sunday to win Wimbledon.
Djokovic has been crushing everyone, including Nadal and Roger Federer, all year. But you don’t prove that you’re best in Rome or Madrid, Indian Wells or Miami. It happens at Wimbledon (or the U.S. Open). He is now 48-1 this year, winning two of three majors and beating Nadal five times with no losses.
He officially earned the computer No. 1 ranking on Friday, but proved Sunday that he deserved it.
“Couple good days at the office, yeah,’’ he said, not just holding the trophy, but sort of hugging it. “Really, honestly, the big day of my life.’’
What kind of a day is it for tennis? It is a changing-moment. The game had been led by the greatest individual rivalry in sports: Federer and Nadal. That’s what the casual sports fan wanted to see. Tennis has been living on it since Nadal’s classic Wimbledon win over Federer in 2008.
The tennis world already accepts Djokovic and knows he has ruled the game this year. But without Nadal-Federer at the top, will tennis still sell to anyone outside the club? Continue reading
Then Federer sounded calm, accepting. He said that Tsonga was making shots he normally wouldn’t. So Federer said he could stomach this loss, that the opponent was just too good, that it was just one of those days, that he was “not discouraged in any way.”
Not discouraged? Keep telling yourself that, Roger. You were so discouraged that you stopped fighting. “I thought I played well,” he said. “At least it took a special performance to beat me.”
This is not going to be easy to come back from. A great tennis player relies on his endless fight, his self-motivation. A champion thinks he’s going to win even if his opponent is playing out of his mind.
Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova on the Wimbledon practice courts
It’s the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, and everyone takes the day off. I decided to follow their example. But if you want to know that the place is like, here’s what I wrote from the practice courts on the middle Sunday last year, where the world’s best players either worked hard or messed around. It was like a tennis playground for superstars. This column ran in AOL FanHouse on June 27, 2010:
WIMBLEDON, England — Just two guys out playing tennis at the All England Club Sunday. Sure, their names happened to be Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling, and it’s very possible that seven days from now, those two won’t be on practice court No. 1, but instead a few hundred yards away, on Centre Court, playing in the Wimbledon final in the most important tennis match of the year.
But not today.
“I’m so nervous,” Djokovic said, teasing Soderling, who was about to serve. “It’s unbelievable.”
Soderling served, and then ran Djokovic around the court, back and forth, until Soderling finally crushed a forehand winner. When the ball got past Djokovic, who was on a full-out run, he wound up and threw his racquet all the way across the open court next to them.
“I mean, come on,” he said. “Really.”
The second Monday at Wimbledon, tomorrow, is the most exciting day of the year for tennis, with only the U.S. Open’s Super Saturday as competition. But on Monday, all of the final 16 men and 16 women will be playing. So the order of play includes Sharapova vs. Serena Williams, Henin vs. Clijsters, and also Federer, Nadal, Murray, Roddick.
Serena Williams is stealing the tournament. Her touching tears of joy after her first round followed by her complaints about being shoved to an outer court after her second round and then her complete domination in the third round, with this proclamation:
“Don’t bet against me.’’
The idea that this is an amazing comeback, after a year away with foot injury and then illness, is hard to argue with. But I always thought she was going to win the tournament anyway. She’s great. The rest of the tour is not. Two statements are being made here.
The question is this: Which is the more amazing comeback? Williams’ or Kim Clijsters?
Clijsters retired for a while, then had a baby, then came back. After two warmup tournaments, she won the U.S. Open. Williams had two surgeries, she said, for cut ligaments in her foot. Then, forced to sit around while she healed, blood clots formed and worked their way up into her lungs. She played one warmup tournament. Continue reading
A bunch of quick-hit thoughts on certain players going into Wimbledon:
Serena Williams: This might not even be that hard. Better beat her early, before she gets momentum. Only concern: When she has trouble catching her breath, will she be able to keep her mind off the blood clots? Prediction: Winner.
Rafael Nadal: This “clay court specialist’’ hasn’t lost a match at Wimbledon since 2007. Won’t this year, either.
Andy Roddick: Conflicting thoughts. Done winning majors; that’s an awfully nice draw. Last chance? (I’ve probably said that about him before).
Venus Williams: Didn’t look that great at Eastbourne. Kind of off-balance. Still good enough to make a deep run, though.
Roger Federer: The big-bashers who were pushing him backward aren’t doing well. He might have figured out Novak Djokovic. If Nadal loses before the final, this tournament could be his. If not, it’s not.
Caroline Wozniacki: Prove it already. Quarterfinals against Sharapova, good place to start. Prediction: Sharapova.
John Isner-Nicolas Mahut: Straight sets for Isner. But stop picking him as a darkhorse. If you can’t return serve, you can’t win Wimbledon.
Let’s do some math. Third-tier tickets (second-cheapest) to Friday’s quarterfinals at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany: 40 euros apiece, or $58 in U.S. money. Take your spouse and two kids, four tickets: $232. Parking, incidentals, meals, snacks, transportation, souvenirs? Let’s say the whole day together, if you’re lucky: $400.
But what the heck, it’s a fun day and Roger Federer is going to play. All the ads have said so for weeks. That’s something special to see.
On Monday, though, Federer withdrew from the tournament, citing a tender groin and fatigue. Really? A tender groin?
Tennis fans are screwed again. Let’s call it what it is: Federer, who signed a contract to play in Halle, and knew tickets were being sold based on his name, just didn’t feel like playing. He had overscheduled this spring and been talking about his exhaustion during the French Open. Then, he went all the way to the finals before losing to Rafael Nadal, wearing out in the fourth set.
OK, fine. He was tired. He has to do what’s best for his chances at Wimbledon, and he doesn’t think that means playing this week’s tournament. But what about the poor guy who made a decision with his discretionary funds in a bad economy? Four-hundred bucks to see Roger Federer.
Look, we have jumped all over Serena Williams for faking injuries in the past to avoid playing in non-majors after tickets have been sold to see her. She also has shown up at non-majors, such as Cincinnati in 2009, and not even tried in front of fans who had paid.
Well, how is that different from Federer pulling out of Halle? How is it different from Novak Djokovic pulling out of Queen’s Club this week because he’s tired? Tired? Did you know you might be tired when you entered the tournament? When officials started selling tickets?
The tour requires you to go to some tournaments, such as Cincy, and others you choose to go to, such as Halle and Queen’s Club. But either way, the fans buy tickets on a promise that’s not kept. Continue reading
We are so used to Roger Federer’s greatness going on and on and on that we forget how quickly things can just go poof in tennis and disappear. I’m not talking about a Bjorn Borg-like disappearance, when he decided one day that it was time to go. More like Pete Sampras, who was great, was great, was great and then one day you looked up and didn’t realize how far he had dropped. Of course, then, at 31, he emerged from nowhere to win another U.S. Open. Then, he really did disappear.
The point is this: I wonder if we’ve seen the last of the great Rafael Nadal-Federer matches.
Maybe Nadal’s 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 6-1 win over Federer Sunday at the French Open will be the last time they’ll meet in a major final. Federer’s age, Nadal’s knees and the fantastic state of the top of men’s tennis make that a very real possibility.
Buzz Bissinger wrote today in the Daily Beast that Nadal vs. Federer “has become the Ali-Frazier of modern-day sports. And it is terribly needed. . .Every match they play, and they have fought it out 25 times, sizzles with that electric wattage that something incredible is about to happen.’’
Their contrasts have a way of attacking all senses. Lefty vs. righty. Classic vs. modern. Floating vs. storming. Rock vs. classic. It is the best individual rivalry in sports, which might explain why NBC’s overnight rating for the French final was up 63 percent in the U.S. over last year’s final.
Nadal is only 25, but has put hard miles on those knees with his style. He has missed long stretches because of them, undergone blood-spinning treatments. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic has climbed to Federer’s and Nadal’s level. Juan Martin del Potro, who beat Nadal and Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open, has just about fully recovered, and found his conditioning, after wrist surgeries. Andy Murray is lurking.
Without Nadal and Federer at No. 1 and No. 2, you can’t even count on them being on opposite sides of the draw, allowing them to meet in the final.
Already it had been more than two years since the last time they met in a major final. Two-plus more years and Federer will be pushing 32.
I have been chasing a Federer-Nadal match for a few years, with comically bad results. Incredibly, I’ve never seen them play each other live. The gods are conspiring against me.
This is the look of dominance. Roger Federer is not the best anymore. Novak Djokovic is not the best today. Juan Martin del Potro might be the best later. They are all great, but keep your focus on the right place and the right time.
Rafael Nadal beat Federer Sunday 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 6-1 to win the French Open. His sixth French Open title, tying Bjorn Borg’s record. Nadal holds on to his No. 1 ranking, goes into Wimbledon as the defending champ and favorite.
And, oh yeah, he also validated himself. Huh?
Two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated proclaimed Djokovic “The Most Dominant Athlete in the World.’’ Four days ago, Nadal previewed the Federer-Djokovic semifinal by calling it the greatest player of all time vs. the greatest player of today. Nobody blinked. On Sunday, Nadal won his fourth major in the past 12 months. He has won four of the past five majors.
Best today? Yes.
Best ever? “No. For sure, no,’’ he said. “What Roger did is almost impossible to improve. He is best player in history in my opinion. I am 25; this victory is very important for this year in my career.’’
Nadal has won 10 majors now, to Federer’s 16. But he has beaten Federer in 17 of their 25 matchups.
To me, Nadal is the best ever, as things stand. His best is better than Federer’s. But Nadal’s story is nowhere near fully played out. Federer’s greatness lasted much, much longer than Nadal’s has. Nadal has owned Federer, but what if, say, del Potro owns Nadal over the next four years? Or what if Djokovic does? Continue reading
Roger Federer beats Novak Djokovic at the French Open
There are moments in a sport’s history when everything turns and you can see it right in front of you. It’s a long process, really, but things build up into a moment that’s as finite as a baton being passed in a track relay. Sure, a lot of work led up to that pass, but the moment defined it or solidified it or something.
That’s what Novak Djokovic was doing at the French Open, looking to take the baton from both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, to become the best. Instead, the page of history refused to turn. Federer beat Djokovic 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5) Friday in the semifinals in one of those classic matches that leaves fans jittery throughout. Both players held their nerve, for the most part, and by the end, they were playing in the dark like kids who won’t go home until the score is settled.
It ended with Federer serving an ace, and then holding up his index finger, shaking it and smiling as if to say, “Don’t write me off just yet.’’ And what do we get in Sunday’s final? Federer-Nadal, of course. Enjoy it. History’s pages will turn soon.
“I haven’t disappeared. . .’’ Federer said. “I wasn’t lying on the beach.’’
The loss ended Djokovic’s 43-match win streak, 41 to start this year. Both marks fell just short of records. Djokovic described it as the best five months of his life: “It had to end sometime. Unfortunately, it came in a bad moment. This is sport. I will keep working hard.’’
He will be fine. This match meant much more to Federer. It was a special moment for him, on this side of his career arc. Some analysts are already asking if this is Federer’s biggest win outside of major finals. I’ll say this: It’s bigger than some of his championships, because it served to discover and to prove something. Continue reading
Greg Couch is an award-winning sports columnist based in Chicago. He covers college football for BleacherReport.com, NFL for RollingStone.com and freelances at several other places, including The New York Times. Lots of tennis, mostly here. He has traveled the world covering tennis and is a member of the International Tennis Writers Association. A former sports columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, his tennis writing has been in the book "The Best American Sportswriting."