x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Federer not on list

Here is a tough question. Does Roger Federer, winner now of a record-breaking 15 grand slam titles, deserve a place in any list of all-time sporting greats?

Roger Federer has some way to go before achieving a certain level of emotional involvement.
Roger Federer has some way to go before achieving a certain level of emotional involvement.

Here is a tough question. Does Roger Federer, winner now of a record-breaking 15 grand slam titles, deserve a place in any list of all-time sporting greats? I was faced with this question on a radio programme where I was asked, in the wake of Federer's triumph, to nominate five great sporting icons whose names will live on in history.

Reluctantly, I omitted Federer - and Tiger Woods as well - because despite their phenomenal professionalism, I feel they are not yet ready to take their place in the pantheon. In my view, a sports person needs something beyond trophies and records to etch his or her name in history. I need to see something in them as performer and human being - even a flaw, in some cases - that enables them to transcend the confines of their sport, and reach out to people with absolutely no interest in sport.

On that basis, here are the five names I suggested. It is a little like choosing your favourite songs or films. On another day, the names would be different, and, if you are playing the game at home, I am sure you could argue convincingly against my choices. Not my first one, though. Muhammad Ali performed with speed, skill, and grace in the toughest game of all, the only sport where the whole object of the game is to hurt your opponent. Outside the ring, he showed similar resolve, taking on the US government over Vietnam. To cap it all, he was a funny man, and has borne his recent health problems with dignity.

Pele was another sportsman who displayed remarkable grace under pressure in an era when defenders were given latitude to launch terrifying assaults on talented attackers. He was virtually hacked out of the 1966 World Cup, and one can only imagine what he might have achieved in an era when ball players were given proper protection. For sheer beauty on a football field, though, you would go far to match George Best. In the depths of an English winter, on pitches like paddy fields, he seemed to glide above the surface, mesmerising defenders. He had every asset a footballer needs. He could tackle, head, pass with devastating accuracy, and was one of the best finishers I have ever seen. The depth of his talents was sadly matched by his flaws, but to witness him at his peak was sheer bliss.

During Wimbledon, the name of Fred Perry, the last British winner of a men's singles title, has often been invoked, and he joins my list, not for his triumphs at Wimbledon in 1934, '35, and '36, but for challenging the tennis establishment. He went his own way, embraced professionalism, and eventually moved to America, where, among other adventures, he had a relationship with Marlene Dietrich. That alone guarantees him a place on my list.

I was looking for sports people with a story, and my final choice has one of the most moving stories in sport. Lou Gehrig played 2,130 consecutive games for the New York Yankees in the 1930s, until his powers began to wane because of a wasting disease, and he voluntarily stepped down for the good of the team. When he returned to a packed Yankee Stadium on July 4 1939, already dying, he declared himself "the luckiest man alive" for having had the privilege to play sport at the highest level. I defy anyone to watch the speech without a tear in the eye.

You may disagree, but Federer and Woods, I feel, have some way to go before achieving that level of emotional involvement. mkelner@thenational.ae