OK, I’m going to throw my two cents worth in here about “The Greatest Tennis Player of all time’’ argument.
The conventional wisdom these days is to stay in the present and go with the Swiss Sensation Roger Federer, holder of 14 Grand Slam titles. Sometime on Sunday, July 5, he’ll likely break the tie with Pete Sampras to become No. 1 alone in all-time in Slam wins if he captures what would be his sixth Wimbledon title.
Even Sampras calls him the greatest and congratulated him by text message after Federer won the French Open title earlier this month. Now, Federer’s chances at Wimbledon improved even more when his biggest rival, Rafael Nadal dropped out three days prior to the tournament with tendonitis in both knees.
But I’m old school.
My man is Rod Laver, the Rocket from Australia. Yeah, he’s three behind Federer and Sampras in Grand Slam titles with 11. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
I go with the Rocket because he twice won two Grand Slams in a calendar year – 1962 (as an amateur) and 1969 (as a pro), virtually two eras apart. No one in history has more than one in a calendar year.
I go with Rockin’ Rod because I think he would have won at least 20 Grand Slam events but couldn’t compete in his peak years (1963-67) because he turned pro in ’63 and pros weren’t allowed to play at that time in “amateur’’ tournaments, which included Grand Slam events.
Laver, the lefty, who is 70, was age 24 through 29, his peak years, during those six years he missed competing, which comprise 24 Grand Slam tournaments. You’d have to think Laver would have won close to nine of those. And he surely would have won considerably more than the 47 ATP titles he holds.
Only one other man – Don Budge –won the Grand Slam in one calendar year, and he did it but once in 1938. Only six men have won the career Grand Slam – Budge, Fred Perry, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi, Federer and Laver.
A great player, the best of all-time, should be great on all surfaces. A great grass-court player, Laver won the on the clay court surface of France twice. Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and, until June 6, Federer, had never held titles on the Paris clay courts.
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Wimbledon, Australia and U.S. were all played on grass courts. Later, the U.S. and Australia changed their surface to hard courts.
Bjorn Borg has to be the greatest European player. All 11 of his Slam wins came at Wimbledon (5) and France (6). But he only played Australia once (losing in the third round) and never won the U.S. Open, going 0-4 in the finals.
One can make a case for Connors, whose 109 singles titles are by far the most ever, particularly in terms of endurance. He played into his 40s. But he never won Paris.
Speaking of endurance, some mention should be made of one of the game’s all-time nice guys, Stefan Edberg of Sweden, who played in 50 consecutive Grand Slam tourneys.
As for Laver, it wasn’t for lack of competition and a big rival. He had plenty of guys back then who could serve him up a dose of humble pie on occasion. They included fellow Aussies Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Tony Roche, Lew Hoad and the U.S.’ Chuck McKinley and Dennis Ralston, to name a few.
Laver led Australia to four straight Davis Cup titles (1959-62) and another in 1973, and, had pros been allowed to play Davis Cup from 1963-72, probably several more.
Pound for pound, he was the best.
Hey, if Federer goes on to win 20 Slams, maybe I’ll change my mind. But that argument is for another day and well down the road.
Grand Slam singles
Top 10 tennis leaders (Open era)
Roger Federer. Switzerland 14
Pete Sampras, U.S. 14
Roy Emerson, Australia 12
Rod Laver, Australia 11
Bjorn Borg, Sweden 11
Bill Tilden, U.S. 10
Andre Agassi, US 8
Jimmy Connors, US 8
Ivan Lendl, Czech 8
Fred Perry, Britain 8