Sunday, January 31, 2010

Has Federer surpassed Laver?

"For [Federer] to come out and play as well as he did here just goes to show he has stuff to prove to himself, not to anybody else," said Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion. "I'm flabbergasted to understand how he remains so motivated. I certainly couldn't." (via ESPN)
Because that's the question at this point.

Rod Laver won the Grand Slam -- not the career version, but the actual, all-in-one-year kind -- in 1962 and again in 1969. Besides those eight titles, he won three other majors, plus about a squillion other tournaments.

And here's the massive footnote to his record: since he was a professional, he was not eligible to play in the majors from 1963 through the beginning of the Open Era at the French Open of 1968. Two things should stand out about this:
  1. He won 11 majors even though he was prohibited from playing in 21 consecutive majors in his prime.
  2. How do we know it was his prime? I refer you back to the years that he won the calendar-year Grand Slam . . . on either side of the enforced five-year hiatus.
Considering Laver's tournament record during those blackout years, and speaking very conservatively, his career total of wins in major could easily have reached 20. Clearly, Federer's current record of 16 wins is staggering . . . but the idea that he would need four more to reach Laver gives it more context.

Of course, the usual caveats about comparing one era to another apply here, just as they do for baseball, basketball, etc.:
  • Sports medicine and conditioning programs are better today, which means that Federer faces stronger, faster, fitter opponents on the whole.
  • Equipment -- especially rackets and shoes -- are much better today. Light-years better. Which could make Laver's performance all the more impressive. (I love my Adidas Rod Lavers and get lots of compliments on them, but I wouldn't want to play one set of tennis in them.)
  • Laver traveled by the best means available in the 1960s and early 1970s; Federer travels everywhere by private jet.
  • . . .
So, there's some context for the debate.

More than just a note on Pete Sampras: if life were perfect, Sampras and Federer would have been in their primes at the same time. It would have made for some of the greatest displays of speed, smarts, and grit ever seen on any tennis court, and we could have expected these guys to slug it out in many Grand Slam finals.

But, great though Pete was, Federer is better. Some points of comparison:
  • Sampras pulled off the incredible feat of winning major titles over a span of thirteen years. So far, Federer's up to a "mere" eight years. Advantage: Sampras.
  • There's a common theme among the tennis cognoscenti that Sampras played against more great players (Agassi, Courier, Becker, Edberg), but that Federer plays against more good players (i.e. that the average level of play is higher, in part because of better conditioning). That said, it's clear that Federer has found his Agassi in Rafael Nadal, and it's not like Murray, del Potro, Roddick, et al. are a bunch of cupcakes. Advantage: ???
  • Federer has already completed the career grand slam, which Sampras never did, but it goes beyond that: Federer has been in four straight French Open finals, and in three of them he lost to the only men's clay-court player of the past thirty years worth comparing to Bjorn Borg. By contrast, Sampras reached the semifinals of the French Open once, and never reached the finals. Advantage: Federer, by a lot.
  • Sampras won five U.S. Open titles and played in three more finals over the span of a thirteen years (1990-2002); Federer has won five in a row (2004-2008) and played in one more final. Advantage: . . . You tell me: is it more impressive to win five times over a broad span, or in a row? Maybe a slight advantage to Sampras.
  • Sampras won seven Wimbledon titles in eight years. Federer has won six Wimbledon titles in seven years -- and counting. (Recall that the one loss has been called the greatest Grand Slam final ever played.) Advantage: Sampras, but not by much.
  • Sampras won the Australian Open twice and played in one other final. Federer just won it for the fourth time, and has played in one other final (another heart-breaking five-set loss). Advantage: Federer, by plenty.
  • Sampras won two majors in a year four times -- which, when you think about it, is stone-cold awesome. Federer has won three majors in a year three times, plus two majors in a year two other times -- which is more awesome. Advantage: Federer.
  • Sampras is ten years older than Federer, to the week. After the 2000 Australian Open, Sampras had won 12 majors; at the same age, Federer has won 16. Advantage: Federer.
In my view, the overall advantage to Federer is clear -- and it's only growing.

(Thanks to Bryan for suggesting that I write this post.)


(Image via Wikipedia.)


Anonymous said...

Interesting debate...In theory racket technology, private jets and fitness shouldn't matter because these are things that have changed just as much for federer as for his opponents.

Tim Walker said...

The point I was trying to make is that today's players have luxuries that should make it easier for a standout like Federer to remain on top of his game for longer.

Bryan Person said...

Another great post, Tim. It has me fired up to get back outside and resume my own game (admittedly a very mediocre one).

Federer is in the throes of the single most dominant stretch in the history of the game (18 finals appearances--12 of 'em wins--in the last 19 Grand Slams tournaments). As your analysis shows, he's not a slam dunk (mixing sports metaphors here for ya!) as the BEST EVER yet, but he's close. Another year or two of this high level of play, and a few more Slams, from Federer, and this discussion is closed.

It's hard to penalize Laver in the greatest-ever discussion because of his ineligibility during his prime years, but I'm not sure we have a choice. His Slam record is just ... incomplete.

Jim Storer said...

The real question is... Should I pack my racket and sneakers for SXSW? Doubles anyone?

Great post Tim. I learned a lot about Rod Laver that I didn't know. I agree that he would have probably bagged 20 grad slam titles if he'd had the opportunity to compete from 63-68.

While it would have been interesting to see Sampras and Federer play one another in their respective prime, it may not have been good tennis. Sampras was such a serve and volley monster and Federer loves to hit from the baseline. We probably wouldn't have had the awesome displays we saw the other night from Federer because he never would have developed the same rhythm against Sampras.

A guy I think would be better matched for Federer would be Ivan Lendl. He played a similar game to Federer and while he's not quite as good, he had quite a run himself.

- 270 weeks at #1 (since eclipsed by Sampras & Federer)
- Played in 19 singles grand slam finals (eclipsed by Federer in 2009)
- Lost grand slam matches early in his career to guys named Borg, McEnroe & Connors before owning the men's game in the mid- to late-80s.

Anyhow, fun discussion and trip down memory lane.

Thanks TIm!

Tim Walker said...

Thanks for the great comments, guys.

Bryan -- ". . . but I'm not sure we have a choice." Au contraire. If Laver had been banned from tennis as a whole, or if he'd had to play in an entirely separate league -- like Josh Gibson et al. had to -- then, yes, we'd be forced to scratch our heads and wonder.

But in fact, Laver faced off against all the best players of his era, even during 1963 - 1968, and he beat them all pretty regularly. He just wasn't allowed to do it in the majors because of the pro/amateur split.

So we *do* have a good basis for comparison.

Jim -- I'm convinced that Federer would have adapted to Sampras's style. Fed is SO fast and SO smart that he's been able to fit his game to everyone's except (in some cases, esp. on clay) Nadal's. Given Pete's style, a lot of the Fed/Sampras points might have lasted six strokes or less, but I'm seeing five-setters galore.

Lendl would have been a good matchup because of his mechanical flawlessness from the baseline. A Lendl/Federer U.S. Open final might have lasted five hours. (Shades of Lendl/Wilander.)

By the way, you'll like the choice statement from Lendl that I quoted here.

Anonymous said...

A few points were left out: Laver of course had the advantage of playing three out of 4 majors on grass. How Sampras and Fed would have matched up would have depended on the circumstances: in Sampras's days conditions were much faster and better suited to s&v players with big serves, these days it's impossible to play like that with the slower courts and balls.

KFFBOS said...

Federer had ZERO competition and plays in a time of mediocre talent. Even a healthy Nadal only competes on one surface. I just can't see the point in following men's tennis during this time period. This coming from a person who drove to the U.S. Open many, many times and has spent hours upon hours at the Tennis hall of fame in Newport.

Overall I don't think Federer is as good as his numbers suggest, rather that he came along at the right time...when he had ZERO competition.

And yes, I like to play the contrarian role on this blog ;)