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Roger Federer is great, but the greatest tennis player ever? Depends on the metric

Another record has fallen, another opponent has been vanquished.

And so maybe the time is right for Roger Federer to take on history.

Do you like his chances against the ghost of Bill Tilden? How about the memory of Rod Laver? Does Federer stand a chance in a comparison with Bjorn Borg, or are you still holding on to the legacy of Pete Sampras?

They are the greatest players tennis has known, and they come together today, not on grass but in theory. Across continents, eras and circumstances, they meet finally to play in the court of public opinion.

The beauty, of course, is that these matches will go on forever. There is no obvious winner, and there is no definite conclusion. You may say Federer broke new ground at Wimbledon on Sunday, but your parents insist there will never be another Laver. Your brother may appreciate the intensity of Borg's brief reign, but your sister believes in the beauty of Sampras' longevity.

The caveat, obviously, is that Federer's legacy is not yet complete. He does not turn 28 for another month, and so there is still time for his stature to grow. Sampras won two majors after his 28th birthday. Laver won five more after turning 28.

By the time Federer is through playing, he could have created quite the gap between himself and those who came before. Or, if he continues to struggle against Rafael Nadal, he could further the argument that he wasn't even the best player of his generation.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is how you prefer to measure greatness. You could go strictly by numbers. You could factor in competition. You might prefer to look at a career in a snapshot or try to weigh it from beginning to end.

In 1950, the Associated Press named Tilden the greatest tennis player of the half-century, and there are those who say Don Budge was even better. But it is fair to say the game has changed much since then, and Laver, Borg, Sampras and Federer are cited most often as the best players of the modern era.

The thing Federer has going for him is that his career is much like his game. It has no real obvious weakness. He may be best on Wimbledon's grass, but he has won each of the Grand Slam tournaments at least once. He holds the record for most consecutive weeks as the world's No. 1-ranked player (237) and has reached the finals in 20 of the past 25 majors.

The rivalry with Nadal is about the only drawback to his legacy. Federer has gone 7-13 against Nadal, including five losses in the finals of Grand Slam events. Granted, most of those losses have come on clay, but it is still a sore point in this debate.

On the other hand, Federer is looking better and better in comparisons with Sampras. He has removed Sampras' greatest claim to fame — the career record for Grand Slam victories — and is four victories away from matching him in career singles titles at 64.

The comparisons with Laver and Borg are trickier because both had abbreviated careers. Borg had 11 Grand Slam titles and 63 career singles titles in an era that included all-time greats Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. But, unlike his contemporaries, Borg left the game at an early age, retiring by the time he was 26.

Laver's situation is even more unusual. He won the Grand Slam in 1962 and '69 but missed five years in between because he had turned pro and the majors were restricted to amateurs. During Laver's exile from Grand Slam events, Roy Emerson won 10 titles. To get an idea of how many majors Laver might have won, he went 14-1 in his career against Emerson.

So how should you interpret all of this?

Any way you like.

Personally, I would probably favor Laver. You may like Borg. Someone else will surely say Federer has now earned the distinction of history's greatest. The only absolute is there is no absolute answer.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Roger Federer is great, but the greatest tennis player ever? Depends on the metric 07/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 6, 2009 7:25am]
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