“I have nothing to declare except my genius” is a famous quote credited to Oscar Wilde. Fortunately for tennis fans, they have witnessed three more at work in recent years.
Rafael Nadal claimed his 13th French Open title in Paris last Sunday week after beating world number one and fierce rival Novak Djokovic in front of over 1,000 fans at Roland Garros. The aptly nicknamed ‘God of Clay’ emerged victorious on a score line of 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 which marked the first final to be played indoors on the new Phillip Chatrier court. This brings the Spaniard level with Swiss great Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slams while Djokovic stays at 17.
While Nadal’s win further cemented his greatness on ‘the dirt’ it makes the argument far more complicated as to who is the greatest tennis player of all time. At present the aforementioned trio lead the way at the top of the roll of honour with American Pete Sampras is in fourth place with 14 Grand Slams. There are many, however, that would suggest Australian legend Rod Laver would need to be considered in this conversation.
Firstly, one would look at Federer and say that he deserves the title of Greatest of All Time (GOAT) with most viewers describing his style as art and its certainly deserving of this title. A Roger Federer in full flow on centre court at Wimbledon is up there with Messi at the Camp Nou, or Tiger at Augusta with the grass being his world and the ball his oyster. He is an icon of the sport and is frequently at the top of the Forbes highest earning athletes list. In 2011, Federer ranked No.2 on the Reputation Institute’s study of the world’s most respected people finishing ahead of the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. His reputation has also led to a significant increase in prize money for tennis tournaments. For example, winners of the 2004 Australian Open earned 985,000 dollars but by 2018 this was raised to 4 million Australian dollars.
However, with all great players come great rivalries and the Federer-Nadal rivalry over the past 15 years has truly been a privilege to witness. In a sport which is defined by great rivalries this is the greatest of the lot. 40 times these two gladiators have crossed paths with the 2008 Wimbledon final being the highlight of them all. Nadal has shown himself to be the greatest competitor the sport has ever seen with each performance defined by tenacity but also class, stubbornness yet graceful all at the same time.
And what about the bad boy of the sport in Novak Djokovic. Not your bad boy in the typical sense where you either love him or hate him. More in the sense that most fans and pundits alike view him as a man desperate to be liked which has come at a cost to his reputation as a tennis player. Djokovic has taken an anti- vaccination view during the recent pandemic and has long been against the idea of equal pay for male and female tennis players due to his belief that the men’s game brings in more revenue although there is no substantial evidence to back this up. Djokovic is also in the process of setting up a new players union separate to the ATP which has received mixed reviews with the likes of Nadal and Andy Murray against the idea. Combine this with his default at the US Open where he accidentally struck a line judge, Djokovic perhaps does not get the recognition that he deserves.
Djokovic is after all, perhaps the greatest returner ever seen on a tennis court and has also done a huge amount to raise the profile of the sport, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia where he is perhaps most popular. His rivalries with Federer, Nadal and indeed Murray have captivated the sport and brought it to unforeseen heights, this cannot be discounted. The next Grand Slam which takes place at the Australian Open in Melbourne in January will see the Serb aim to win the tournament for the 9th time and is the location for the longest Grand Slam final in history when he defeated Nadal in a classic 5 set match in 2012 lasting 5 hours and 53 minutes.
Pete Sampras comes up short due to the fact that although he has won 14 majors, he never won the French and was seen as being one-dimensional although excellent at what he did which was serve and volley, something we do not see as much anymore in the modern game.
The last player who perhaps has a case is Rod Laver who won 11 majors but could not compete at majors between 1963 and 1968 as this was before the ‘open era’ where professionals were not allowed to play in a Grand Slam before this period. It is widely believed that Laver would have won multiple Grand Slams especially since Laver himself, considered to be at his peak.
All in all, it is impossible to genuinely pick an all-time great out of the players that we have discussed. One thing that is for certain however is that we are in a golden age for men’s tennis and have been for the last 15 years.
Long may it continue.