x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Federer is courting greatness

Only the imperious Rod Laver can now be nominated as a tennis player to rival or even eclipse Roger Federer.

Roger Federer, who won his 14th grand slam triumph at Roland Garros, is on the crest of a wave.
Roger Federer, who won his 14th grand slam triumph at Roland Garros, is on the crest of a wave.

Only the imperious Rod Laver can now be nominated as a tennis player to rival or even eclipse Roger Federer after the Swiss master's record-equalling grand slam triumph at Roland Garros. Most of the legends of the game have been left in the slipstream of the outstanding Federer, now that he has filled the one remaining void in his life and triumphed on the clay of Paris to supplement his five Wimbledon, five US Opens and three Australian Open titles.

The career Grand Slam, as it is referred to, gives him the edge over Pete Sampras the man whose record of 14 major titles he has been pursuing for the last few years. Sampras swiftly acknowledged that after watching his friend and former rival create history on Sunday. Holding more grand slam titles than everybody but Sampras also means that Federer can look down on all other contenders for the honour of being regarded as the greatest player of all time - all except Laver.

Laver's decision to pursue the riches that his exquisite talents could bring him meant the "Rockhampton Rocket" spent seven years in the wilderness from the main amateur circuit - seven years that would almost certainly have brought him many more major titles, such was his dominance of that era. When Laver turned professional in 1962 he had just become only the second player after Donald Budge in 1938 to win all four major titles in the same calendar year.

Seven years later, with the sport now "open", the Australian repeated that tremendous feat to raise his grand slam titles haul to 11 - and nobody has done so since. Greatness must also be measured by the quality of the opposition. In Laver's era, fellow Australian greats like Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe were snapping at his heels. Since American giants Sampras and Andre Agassi - the previous player to complete the career Slam - retired, Federer has had only Rafael Nadal threatening his dominance.

Nadal, the current world No 1, has made a pretty good job of usurping the great man by building up a 13-7 record in their confrontations and defeating Federer in all five of their grand slam finals they have contested. In Federer's favour in the debate against Laver is the greater depth of talent nowadays in the men's game. Any player from the top 100 is capable of eliminating the top seed from a big tournament and shocks are indeed plentiful in the modern game. Seeding upsets were much rarer when Laver was at his peak.

So if the jury is still out on who is the best of all time, Federer is in the advantageous position of being able to present more evidence to pursue his case while the 70-year-old Laver looks on from his California armchair. Wimbledon is at the mercy of Federer again this year in view of defending champion Nadal's fitness doubts. A sixth triumph on the lawns of the All England Club would then make the Swiss favourite to add a sixth US Open title to the fifth he won by defeating Britain's Andy Murray in the New York final last year.

Still only 27, there are several more major appearances for the Swiss to look forward to and several more potential titles for him to aim for. And, as he emphasised after Sunday's emotional Roland Garros victory over Sweden's Robin Soderling, he will be playing with greater freedom for the rest of his career after removing the monkey from his back which the French Open had become. Even if he is denied further glories on the four big stages of the tennis world Federer will retire happy.

"I'm very proud of my career, obviously," he said. "I achieved more than I ever thought I would. My dream as boy was to win Wimbledon one day - and I won that five times. "But the French Open has sort of grown on me. It became my focus over the last few years when I realised what a great player I could actually become. "I always believed I could do it here. To get it at the end as the last remaining grand slam, it's an incredible feeling. I'm of course very proud at this moment."

wjohnson@thenational.ae