The greatest there ever was is gone. Almost gone.
Not gone-gone, as in completely gone, just done, retiring from the game next week.
Designating any athlete as the greatest is tricky business because how does one come to that conclusion? Is it strictly numerical? Is it about total number of wins? Is it about longevity? Is it about an individual at the peak of his or her powers, when a sustained series of moments that player performed was at a near-perfect level, a higher level than anyone else ever has reached?
Was John Stockton a better point guard than Magic Johnson because he had more career assists, more career steals? Or was Magic better because he won more championships, because he was bigger and more dominant, because he was a better leader, because he was just … better?
It’s like beauty … in the eye of the beholder.
But as one who watched thousands of hours of tennis in my time, at all levels, Roger Federer is the best I ever saw.
If you disagree, I’m not saying you’re wrong. If you prefer Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, each of whom has more Grand Slam wins, or Rod Laver or Serena Williams or whoever else, OK, then.
But for me, the combo-pack of Federer’s 20 Grand Slams mixed with his athleticism, his timing, his talent, his style, his demeanor, his on-court acumen, his flawless backhand, his elegance, for lack of a better word, his overall abilities, is what makes him the greatest.
On top of all that, how does anyone not like this guy? I’m sure there are those who have found a reason not to, but from my corner, far beyond just the public-relations vids and soundbites, Federer demonstrated mostly grace, humility, gratitude, respect for the game, respect for fans, and, on the court, all-around greatness.
I read in one story that Federer had appeared in a record 65-straight majors until he slipped while giving his daughters a bath during the 2016 Australian Open, injuring his back and preventing him from playing in that year’s French Open. That started a string of subsequent injuries.
If that sounds like I’m man-crushing on RF, no, no, no, that’s not it. In fact, I have every reason to dislike the dude because my lovely wife, Lisa, had a woman crush on ol’ Roger. She rarely missed a televised match Federer was a part of. When she posed for a photo while Roger was in the background on a practice court at a tournament in Palm Springs, she texted the whole family the pic, with her smiling, and saying: “He’s just 15 feet away!”
Give me a freaking break.
“I just love the way he plays the game,” she said.
When I told a well-known national tennis broadcaster during a radio interview that my bride had a bit of a thing for Federer, he said: “Tell her to take a number and get in line.”
Sorry for the personal aside.
Not only did Federer in his best moments take tennis to heights heretofore unseen, he kept doing it, even after he was far past prime tennis age. He won three slams after turning 35. Nobody does that, nor had anybody ever done that. Over a seven-year stretch in the heart of his career, he won 16 of 27 major tournaments. He won Wimbledon eight times. He was ranked No. 1 in the world for 237 consecutive weeks.
When he announced his retirement on social media, he said:
“Of all the gifts tennis has given me over the years, the greatest, without a doubt, has been the people I’ve met along the way: my friends, my competitors, and most of all the fans who give the sport its life. … I consider myself one of the most fortunate people on Earth.”
In a hyper-competitive world, inside and out of sports, in severe need of appreciation, grace and gratitude, Roger Federer stands out. That’s one of the reasons when he walked into packed stadiums at big events from New York to Paris, from Melbourne to London, he captivated the crowds and the crowds cheered for his success.
“I want to thank you all,” he said, “from the bottom of my heart, to everyone around the world who has helped the dreams of a young Swiss ball kid come true.”
Really cool. Really great.