IS ROGER THE GREATEST ATHLETE EVER?
The fans finally stopped screeching. The photographers twisted low to take their last shots. The giddy Swiss couple folded up their “Federer is Betterer” banner. Behind the scenes Roger’s darling daughters, in bright spring frocks, were skipping around and tugging playfully at tournament director Tommy Haas’s arms. And the reporters finally sent out their glowing stories about Roger beating Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 7-5 to win his 90th career title.
Finally, when the blue and lavender confetti settled on Indian Wells’ vast but now empty stadium, there was only one question to ask.
Where does Roger Federer stand amidst the greats – the greatest athletes of all time?
Legs splayed and bringing it at crunch time, Michael Jordan is said to have flashed the greatest athleticism – that’s a slam dunk. Muhammed Ali changed the political landscape more than any other athlete, although Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King had their sway, too.
Way back when, Jim Thorpe excelled in many sports – and Babe Ruth “made” modern baseball. Soccer would not have been the same without the Brazilian Pele.
More recently Usain Bolt bolted out of nowhere, Michael Phelps stroked his way to a golden glory and Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady and a lady named Serena have done wonders. Bo Jackson was great in two sports, and Tiger Woods, Jim Brown and that Cavalier fellow LeBron all are in the conversation.
And Roger should be, too. He’s darned good, with a record 18 Slams won over 14 years. He was No. 1 for a record 285 weeks. His sheer beauty astounds. His balance is balletic. Did Picasso shape his backhand?
What other elite athlete has given us such dreamy artistry, while possessing an arsenal of weapons? His forehand pins and pounds.
His technique should be patented. He plays across the globe. Overall he’s been healthy – and shockingly consistent. His record of reaching 23 straight Slam semis is, to me, his best record. He’s beloved by so many, plus he has a foundation for African kids. He helps his rivals and celebrates his sport’s heritage – just ask Rafa, Rod Laver or Wawrinka. He’s said to have the best “tennis wife” in the game. And he’s funny. He was hilarious in his press conference today when joking about his wretched singing group, “The One-handed Backhand Boys.”
Let’s not even talk about how fabulous a photographer he is – see Instagram – and today’s women’s finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova (sort of) joked that Roger, the father of two sets of twins, is better at reproduction than any of us.
All the while, Roger has grown – more than any tennis player since Andre Agassi.
Plus, lest we forget, he delivers drama. Whether crying after a loss to Rafa or being in the two greatest matches of our era – the 2008 Wimbledon final and this year’s Australian Open final – who else has found himself on the big stage more often?
After the BNP Paribas final, many commented on Roger’s greatness.
Former LA Times Sports Editor Bill Dwyre contended, “Roger’s as close to perfect as you can get. I keep thinking that it’s going to end. I’ve been writing “passing the torch” columns for four or five years now, where I ask will it be Milos Raonic, or Taylor Fritz – who will it be?
“After awhile, I just stopped doing that because this guy is just not going away. We don’t want him to go away, but we think the normal aging process will do that. I don’t think he’s normal. When he dies…I hope they can preserve some of him and take a look because he’s now 35 years old and he’s out there flying around. He’s quicker than all the kids, he hits harder, he’s smarter, and when it’s over he looks at the fans and says all the right things. My wife sent me a text after the first set saying ‘I’m so happy’ with a picture of Roger with little hearts. This is my wife!
“He’s an icon on the level of a Michael Jordan or Pele, the Mannings or Tom Brady. Maybe the numbers aren’t there, but the perception and the vision of what this guy does, how he comports himself, is right up there with all of them.”
Federer’s longtime agent, Tony Godsick, told IT that the keys to Roger’s success are his longevity and his love of the sport. He then spoke of Federer’s authenticity: “Fans look at him and know that he’s never trying to be something that he isn’t. What you see is what you get. People like to see massive stars win, especially after they’ve gone through adversity. And Roger’s won in every region of the world. He loves travel, and being in different countries. He reaches back and honors the greats of the game…[he] has been coached by legends going back to Tony Roche. He knows he owes them a debt of gratitude.”
To Wawrinka, “Everything Roger’s doing on and off court he’s done for more than 15 years. He gives back…and always with a smile. He always does a lot for every tournament he’s playing.
“On court, he’s just amazing. The way he’s playing is just so beautiful, just so nice. Everything looks perfect. He’s moving amazingly well. He has amazing touch. He’s doing everything you can possibly do.”
But could we possibly get Roger himself to reflect on his own greatness? We didn’t dare ask him, “Are you the greatest of all time?” Still, in the flurry of his final Indian Wells press conference, we had this exchange.
“Such an extraordinary achievement,” we noted. “[But here’s] a tough question. Can you talk about your own achievement and where it comes from? Is it from your basic athleticism and skill set or your commitment to the game, your commitment to the physical side? Talk about the building blocks of your career and your greatness.”
Roger replied, “Look, my biggest weakness was [not] to be able to focus every single week and have the same drive for the 25, 30 tournaments I used to play. It’s natural that you will favor certain surfaces over others, or certain continents…I’ve learned how to block that out and just enjoy every week I play. I also play less, which helps. So when I do play, I’m very excited.
“I’ve gotten time away from tournaments, whether that’s a vacation or training…Every time I feel the benefit.
“I can be very thankful to the team that I’ve had for so many years that have…made it easy for me to work hard…It’s not an easy thing, but when you have the right team in the right place with the right people, it actually ends up being a lot of fun.”
What’s also fun is to speculate whether Roger is among the very best athletes of all time. But, of course, it’s even more fun, over all these seasons, to have relished a man who just can’t help but astonish us. Thanks Roger.