By Anthony Zilis
In a matter of days, tennis champion Roger Federer may win his 15th Grand Slam tennis tournament, passing Pete Sampras for most all-time.
If he wins his sixth Wimbledon, Federer’s accomplishments will, undoubtedly, vault him into discussions including the top sports champions of all time. Comparisons will be made to Tiger Woods, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and, of course, Sampras himself.
But even if Federer wins that gleaming trophy on center court Sunday afternoon at the All-England club, I just can’t bring myself to put him into that pantheon of seemingly invincible, unflappable athletes.
When I envision Federer in that group, my mind takes me back to Sunday, February 1, the day of the Australian Open final. After what had thus far been a great match, I watched in amazement as Rafael Nadal dismantled the three-time champion 6-2 in the fifth set. It was the third time in four Grand Slam finals Nadal had beaten Federer, and it was safe to say that Nadal was now, undisputably, the greatest player in tennis.
As Nadal celebrated his victory, both players were summoned to the podium to accept their first and second place trophies. Federer stepped to the microphone to address the crowd, but after fighting through a few words, the sounds just stopped coming. This man, who has been lauded as one of the classiest athletes in sports, known for his eloquence, if not arrogance, in victory, was speechless.
“God, it’s killing me,” Federer said as he tried to hold back tears. “Maybe I’ll try again later.”
That moment showed it all. Federer knew it and we all knew it– the man who had recently been measured against Tiger Woods had been dethroned in the midst of his prime.
Federer eventually came back up to the microphone, and said all of the things he should have said in the first place. But the message had been sent.
This wasn’t a one-match wonder. Nadal had done it on all surfaces. First his favorite, clay, then on Federer’s favorite, grass, and then finally on what had been his Achilles’ heel, the hard court.
Nadal was, inarguably, the better player.
Imagine Woods, in his prime, being beaten consistently by some young hotshot, or Jordan being overtaken by some younger player while he wore a Bulls uniform. Their mystique just wouldn’t have been the same.
As tears streamed down Federer’s face, he surely knew that his legacy had been changed forever.
Yes, he won the French Open, completing the career slam, an amazing feat even with an injured Nadal out in the quarterfinals. And yes, he may win another Wimbledon, with Nadal out. He’ll have won the most Grand Slams ever and he should be known as one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
But in order to get back into the conversation for the greatest champion of all-time, Federer will have to prove, unmistakably, that he is the best of his era. In my eyes, the only way he can do that is to beat a healthy Nadal consistently in Grand Slam finals.
And with a tennis players’ shelf life, that’s going to be difficult. Consider – Sampras turned 29 shortly before the 2000 US Open, when he won his second-to-last Grand Slam championship. Federer will turn 28 before this year’s US Open.
His window may be closing more swiftly than it seems.
If he doesn’t show he can beat Nadal, he’ll be known as a great tennis player. But to be known as one of the greatest champions, an athlete has to uphold nearly impossible standards. That athlete must transcend his sport, while being the best in it.
That athlete may just be a young lefty from Spain.
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