"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:
- He won 11 majors even though he was prohibited from playing in 21 consecutive majors in his prime.
- 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.
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.
- . . .
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.
(Thanks to Bryan for suggesting that I write this post.)
(Image via Wikipedia.)