I’ve been fascinated this year by the subject of men’s and women’s tennis, and who is the greatest of all time.
This season has been all about two athletes breaking records.
Roger’s start to the year in Australia, winning a Slam and Indian Wells, has re-ignited the discussion about whether he is the greatest of all time.
Serena’s win in Australia confirms that she is, in my mind, going to break Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slams in the near future. Then she’ll become the greatest of all-time on the women’s side.
That poses the question: who is the greatest player of all-time?
One thing that is unfair in this discussion is why isn’t Rod Laver mentioned? Or Bjorn Borg? Jimmy Connors with his 109 singles titles? Pete Sampras has got to be in there too.
Surely Margaret Court with her 24 Grand Slam titles is currently the greatest female player of all time? But what about Martina Navratilova, or Chris Evert in her prime? Billie Jean King with her 20 Wimbledon titles? Steffi Graf, in my mind, could have won another five Majors, making it 27 if she had had the motivation to continue.
It is unfair to suggest that one player is better than any other across the sport, because they haven’t played with the same equipment – you have wood versus graphite racquets, cat gut strings versus modern poly or nylon – there are so many variables that have changed. All you can do as an athlete is stand up there and beat the opponent on the other side of the net that day. Do that enough and you become the best of your era.
This is something people forget: are the legends of the game hung up on this issue? Yes. They want to be known as the best of their era, and feel disrespected at being overlooked in this conversation.
All of these legendary players have had great confidence in their own abilities, which is in essence their ego. I don’t think that they are prepared to admit that they couldn’t compete with – or wouldn’t be as good as – modern-day athletes.
That’s even the case with doubles combinations.
The Woodies; we think we could compete with any pair that was put out in our time. But then the Bryans broke all of our records. When I finished I think I held every record there was: number of tournament wins, Slams in the Open era, number of Wimbledons… all those things. Then the Bryans come along and they had a benchmark to aim for. Through their skills and determination, they broke all of those records and become the greatest doubles pair of all time.
Therein lies the heart of this argument: when each of those champions finished they owned that title. They set a benchmark for someone else to come and break.
For Roger and Serena, that’s the motivation to keep going.
As I said in a recent article, I think Serena will struggle when she goes past Margaret Court’s record. I believe she’ll say ‘I’m done; this is what has driven me and I’ve achieved it.’
Roger, however, already owns those records. But he senses that there are players who can go past him. Novak Djokovic has twelve Majors, Rafa 14 – both have a legitimate opportunity to catch him. It’s huge that Roger tries to extend his records if he wants to retain that position and protect his legacy.
So while it is a redundant conversation to compare Roger and Serena, can you imagine what a promoter’s dream this would be: Madison Square Garden, Serena Williams versus Roger Federer. Let’s say three weeks after the US Open this year, when they both are in form having won Majors this season. I think the outcome of that match would be pretty one-sided and would disappoint a lot of fans, because you can’t compare the men’s and women’s game.
So rather than try to pick greatest of all time, let’s celebrate two champions who have defined an extraordinary period in our sport, much like the champions that preceded them.
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