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Is He the Greatest of All Time?

June 15, 2009
June 15, 2009

Table of Contents
June 15, 2009

LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
LAKERS-MAGIC
  • Kobe Bryant was the center of attention as the Lakers and the Magic faced off for the NBA title, but it was a less glamorous story line—the chess match under the basket—that was determining the course of the Finals

TENNIS
STANLEY CUP FINALS
PRO FOOTBALL
  • He meets with former presidents, counsels the U.N. and, oh, yeah, makes more than any NFL player, but Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha can still walk unrecognized through America's biggest city. Not for much longer

BASEBALL
JEFF KOMLO
Departments

Is He the Greatest of All Time?

Roger Federer won the French Open, completed his career Grand Slam and tied Pete Sampras's record of 14 major singles titles. Cue the debate about his place in history

The other manalmost didn't matter anymore. Roger Federer had summoned enough of his olddominating self to defang the once-dangerous Robin S√∂derling and make him a bitplayer in the final act of the 2009 French Open, but let's face it: No one, noteven S√∂derling himself, had expected much trouble from the big Swede. Instead,it was the odd stuff, the x factors that can throw a player mentally, that hadbeen Federer's real opponent all tournament, and at Sunday's final they allcame at him in one fast and furious test. ¬∂ First his father, Robert, feverishfrom a virus, bolted from the grounds before the match and was forced to watchhis son's legacy-sealing performance on a hotel TV. Then came a swirling windthat starched the flags atop Court Philippe Chatrier; a charcoal sky thatdeposited mist, spit, drizzle and showers during play; and, just when Federerwas cruising, 6--1, 2--1, a lunatic, who hopped onto the court and rushedstraight toward him. No one reacted in time to slow the man down—and no oneknew what he intended. "That gave me a fright," Federer said later,"just seeing him so close right away."

This is an article from the June 15, 2009 issue

Really, though,history was the biggest bogeyman. Not only was Federer trying to equal PeteSampras's record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles in this, his fourth straightFrench final, but by winning his first championship at Roland Garros andsecuring his career Grand Slam he was also breaking the tie: Sampras had nevergone past the semis in Paris. And then there was the matter of that ladysitting in the stands and waving a banner bearing the big words, RAFA ESTAAQUI.

Indeed, RafaelNadal may have been resting his sore knees poolside on Majorca, but in spirit,anyway, the world No. 1 hovered over the court, his dominance of Federerconstituting the loudest "Yes, but ..." in any argument about Federer'sbeing the best player of today, much less of all time. It's no wonder that, allmatch, Federer struggled to beat back thoughts abuzz in his brain—What if Iwin? What does that mean? What will I say?—while going about the business ofmaking S√∂derling look helpless.

Now it was past 5p.m. Federer had all but done it, fended off each distraction. The lunatic hadwanted only to place his red cap atop Federer's head, and Federer had rightedhimself, served out the next game and finally blitzed S√∂derling in thesecond-set tiebreak. Then, handling S√∂derling's blistering ground strokes withease, Federer opened the third set with a break and carried it all the way tothe final changeover, leading 5--4. He sat down, soon to be serving for themajor title that had eluded him longer than any other. He stared up at thecrowd and then scanned the stadium where Nadal had beaten him three straighttimes—and a year ago had humiliated him in straight sets.

Federer stood, thenwalked to the service line. A chorus of shhhhhhs coursed through the stadium.His thoughts were out of control now; almost in tears, he wished S√∂derlingwould spray four errors and make it easy. "It was almost unplayable forme," Federer said after the match. He cannoned a swing volley 10 feet longto set up only the second break point for S√∂derling all day. S√∂derling—wishgranted—skulled a forehand, and then Federer massaged his way through afive-stroke rally to set up an easy volley and championship point.

The voices of16,890 fell silent. Federer bounced the ball, then cracked it down the T.Söderling dumped a forehand into the net and fell back into obscurity 6--1,7--6, 6--4.

It was 8:09 a.m. inSouthern California, home of Sampras and Rod Laver, the two men Federer hadjust passed to become, yes, the greatest player in tennis history."Regardless if he won [in Paris] or not, he goes down as the greatest ever:This just confirms it," Sampras told the Associated Press. "Itcertainly puts him in a class by himself," Laver says.

Historians willlook at Federer's résumé—at least five U.S. Open titles, five Wimbledons, threeAustralians and one French—measure it against Laver's 11 and Sampras'sFrenchless 14 and declare him supreme. But there's also the matter of Federer'sunparalleled consistency: Federer has made an astonishing 20 straight GrandSlam semifinals (compared with runner-up Ivan Lendl's 10) and has appeared in10 straight finals and in 15 of the last 16. Laver's longest string ofconsecutive finals was six, Sampras's three.

Of course,Federer's case will be complicated, in some minds, by the vast difference inequipment and competitive depth among tennis's various eras, by the conflictingstandards of amateur and pro tennis before 1968 and by the varying speeds ofthe surfaces over the years—not to mention the fact that Laver never played aGrand Slam event on hard courts. "I'm not saying he's not the bestplayer," former Wimbledon champ Pat Cash says of Federer. "I'm justsaying you can't seriously compare [players from disparate eras]. Differentrackets, different shoes, different techniques, different ... everything. Nadalis the better clay-court player, and I think Sampras is the better grass-courtplayer. So if Federer is No. 2 on grass and No. 2 on clay, does that make himthe best? There are all these ifs and buts."

For most, though,the Nadal question looms largest. That "freak of nature from Majorca,"as Andre Agassi calls him, has a 13--7 record over Federer. Federer's firstinstinct on the day after Nadal's fourth-round loss to Söderling was to say,"Of course, my dream scenario is to beat Rafa here in the final." Not asoul in Paris believed that Federer really wanted to face Nadal.

Federer spent allspring also being harried by No. 3 Andy Murray and No. 4 Novak Djokovic, whohad combined for a 6--0 record against him since the U.S. Open last fall. Asore back forced Federer to take six weeks off before the early hard-courtseason, and his lackluster results at Indian Wells and Miami left him puzzled."People talked a lot about me having lost [my] grip, and to some degree Iguess it's true," he said after the win. "All of a sudden my gamecompletely left me. I don't know why."

But a shockingstraight-set win over an exhausted Nadal in the Madrid tune-up—Federer's firsttitle of the year—had buoyed him heading into Paris, and when Djokovic waseliminated by Philipp Kohlschreiber during the first weekend of Roland Garrosand Fernando Gonàlez dispatched Murray in the quarterfinals, Federer's path tothe championship suddenly looked wide open. Once past his five-set struggleagainst unseeded Tommy Haas in the fourth round, he surveyed a field of fivemen against whom he held a 38--1 record. The 23rd-ranked S√∂derling? Federer hadplayed him nine times and lost only a set.

Still, Federer wastroubled by lapses throughout the tournament—the most dramatic coming when hetrailed fifth-ranked Juan Martín del Potro two sets to one in Friday's semis.Federer will turn 28 in August, and from his rough patches and his newfoundreliance on drop shots, which he once called a sign of weakness, there emergeda vivid portrait of a genius making his inevitable deal with time. Afterfinding his form and beating del Potro in five sets, Federer paid no more lipservice to missing a chance at revenge.

"Maybe you'regoing to miss him," he said after his semifinal of Nadal's absence from theFrench final for the first time in five years, "but not me." Andsecretly? "I knew the day Rafa won't be in the finals I will be there, andI will win," Federer said on Sunday evening. "I knew that, and Ibelieved in it."

Even though thismight have been his last, best shot at winning the French, Federer was hardlythe most nervous player in Paris. The recently crowned women's No. 1, DinaraSafina, came in desperate to justify her ranking and make up for her twoprevious collapses in Grand Slam finals. Instead, on the evening beforeSaturday's dispiriting women's final, the 23-year-old Safina was so overwhelmedby the occasion that she shut herself off from her trusted coach, ZeljkoKrajan, and anyone else who tried to get her to relax.

"Straight afterthe semis, [Safina] was done," Krajan said after Svetlana Kuznetsova, aspecialist herself in high-pressure meltdowns, cruised 6--4, 6--2 to claim thetitle. "She was lost in her head, and it was impossible to get to her.Before the match she could not even [eat] dinner. She had to cry for fourhours. Emotionally she just collapsed."

For yearsKuznetsova, the 2004 U.S. Open champion, waged her own battles with her head.Like Safina she had folded in her two previous Grand Slam finals, and she hadcome close to quitting tennis in '08. But last fall Kuznetsova, also 23,embraced her roots by moving back to Russia from her longtime training centerin Barcelona, and it revitalized her. "I want to go out there and havefun," Kuznetsova said last Friday. The next day she proved it, caperingabout Court Philippe Chatrier, pounding forehands, mixing in drop shots,waiting for Safina to disintegrate. "She plays with too much pressure,"Kuznetsova said after the match. "I've learned about the pressure. It's notmy thing."

Still, uncertaintycan creep into even the soundest mind. Last summer at the Beijing Olympics,Kuznetsova was having second thoughts about moving to Moscow; friends saidshe'd be distracted there. But the Russian basketball players asked if shecould set up a photo for them with Federer, and Kuznetsova spoke with him forthe first time. She told him how she was tired of living in Spain."Look," Federer said, "you can only depend on yourself. If you canconcentrate and live in Moscow, do this."

That Federer, whogave little credence all spring to advice that he change his game to beat backNadal, should champion self-reliance is no shock. On Sunday, as Söderling'sfinal forehand hit the net, Federer sank to his knees and dropped his head intohis hands. But he stood up quickly, mouth trembling, and smashed a ball intothe sea of cheering fans. Another rain began.

Agassi, whose ownlegacy had been transformed 10 years before by victory on the same court,handed Federer the trophy, and the champion held it over his head beforebringing it down for a long, hard kiss. During the Swiss national anthem, tearsrolled down his cheeks. "Now for the rest of my career I can playrelaxed," Federer told the crowd. Then he put down the microphone and thesky opened up and the red clay turned to mud, but it felt like Paris wassmiling. Roger Federer has nothing to cry about anymore.

Now on SI.com
Check out Jon Wertheim's 50 final thoughts on the French Open atSI.com/bonus

Federer had made 20 consecutive Grand Slam semis and 10straight finals. Laver's longest string of finals was six.
"Maybe you're going to miss him," Federerfinally said of Nadal's absence from the French final, "but notme."
PHOTOPhotograph by BOB MARTINNERVES AND VOLLEYS Federer overcame erratic play in several matches and anxiety in the final to win the major title that had eluded him the longest.PHOTOBERTRAND GUAY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by BOB MARTINFRENCH LESSONS Kuznetsova (left) schooled Safina in the women's final as expertly as Federer (above) handled Söderling.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by BOB MARTINTENNIS FREAK A man brandishing a flag and a hat for Federer disrupted the match before security hauled him away.