One day before Roger Federer nearly hiccuped away a chance at a remarkable seventh Wimbledon title to Colombian journeyman Alejandro Falla, The New York Times posed a question that tennis purists have been, and will continue, debating in both the present and distant future. How can Roger Federer be considered his sport's all-time greatest player when Rafael Nadal keeps beating him?
It's one of the most intriguing questions in athletics today, and it does not transcend to any other sport. The most important reason being the existence of teammates, and the dependence even the greatest of players will always have on them.
Federer and Nadal play tennis. A sport most appealing because of its confrontational nature. You're going right at an opponent, not a formidable golf course or brick wall defense. It's just you and your opponent on center court in a showdown that tests both ability and will. The only other sport worth comparing is boxing, but due to shady political backhanded dealings, the sweet science fails today to consistently pit the best against the best. There are no tournaments to crown a champion, just Pay Per View contracts and advantageous promotion. In golf, the sport most widely associated with tennis due to its country club aura, players rarely face off in head to head competition. The Masters is not Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson, it's Everyone vs. Augusta.
A rivalry in tennis is beautiful. Logical debate to say who the better player is fails to exist when one consistently beats up on an opponent. But if that's the case, then Nadal, who sports a 14-7 lifetime record against Federer, must be the better player.
Of course it isn't this simple. Federer has the most grand slam titles in the history of tennis. Apart from Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, his dominance over the past eight years is unmatched by every athlete in the past quarter century.
To irrefutably be considered the greatest ever in virtually any capacity, you must dominate your peers. Michael Jordan did this and so has Tiger Woods. A generation of supremely gifted talents: John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Barkley went without a ring because Jordan happened to be in the league. Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Vijay Singh were destined to trade a decade's worth of green jackets had Woods never been born.
It's a similar situation for Federer, who has dominated all who cross him. The long list including players from Serbia, the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, Spain, Sweden, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Croatia, Australia, Cyprus, and Switzerland, the nation in which he was born. Former professionals have described his style of play as being it's own near-perfect form. According to John Mcenroe, his forehand is "the sport's most dangerous weapon;" his epic play comparable alongside the work of a young Rembrandt. To put it simply there's no shot he hasn't mastered; the man has no visible weakness.
But no weaknesses fail to make him peerless. Nadal, four years Federer's junior, shoots tennis balls out of a cannon. His technique? An almost unfair combination of brute power and deft touch. And as comprehensively dominant as Federer has been, his achievements pale in comparison to Nadal's work on clay. Nadal is 203-16 on the surface in his career, once going two years, or 81 straight matches, without losing. For the Spaniard, Paris' Roland Garros is home-court advantage.
Whenever Nadal and Federer meet in the finals, the anticipation is sport's equivalent to J.K. Rowling's penning of another book on wizardry. It goes beyond tennis and magnetically draws the most casual fan to their television. With the recent play of Federer pitting concern in the minds of everyone but himself, and Nadal's growing vulnerability to injury, nothing is guaranteed, but still more than likely. Their 2008 showdown at Wimbledon is widely regarded as the greatest tennis match ever played. Nadal won the war in five rigid sets.
Should a similar result take place a few weeks from today, even more substance will be added to tennis' great query. Is Roger Federer the greatest player ever? Or is he simply the second best of his generation?