“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.”
- Muhammad Ali
By the time the day is through, we’ll know whether or not Roger Federer has equaled Pete Sampras’ record of the highest number of Wimbledon singles titles won (7) by one man. But no matter what happens in the 2012 final, a majority of tennis fans of a certain age will insist Federer is the greatest ever Wimbledon men’s champion – and tennis player – the world has ever seen. But that’s like saying Sachin Tendulkar is by any stretch of imagination the greatest batsman in the history of ODI cricket.
Apart from Federer and Sampras, there are two other worthy contenders in the race to decide the pre-eminent singles champion on the grass courts of Wimbledon in the open era, which, incidentally, began in 1968.
One of these two many time Wimbledon champions was, of all things, a rock solid baseline metronome who reached six consecutive finals (1976-1981), while the other was probably the greatest serve and volley specialist of all time who managed to blast, snort, spit, cuss, and dive his way to seven final appearances over the course of eleven years (1985-1995).
On both counts Federer, who glided to seven out of seven Wimbledon finals from 2003 to 2009, and is now in his eight (an all time record for final appearances) tops them. But setting aside sheer numbers, it might be interesting to consider Federer at Wimbledon in relation to Sampras, Bjorn Borg, and Boris Becker. Let’s delve a little deeper into their Wimbledon records to arrive at some conclusions.
There are many fine cricket thinkers who vehemently insist Sir Vivian Richards was a better batsman than Tendulkar. Others will feel the same way about Brian Lara vis-à-vis the Indian. Imran Khan is even reported to have held the opinion that Inzamam-ul-Haq was better than his great Indian contemporary. Now one may or may not agree with these assessments, but there are grounds for taking such positions.
Here are a couple of thought-provoking reasons for your consideration. For one, the folks in Richards’ corner insist that since their man never wore a helmet in any form of cricket, he is superior to Tendulkar. Others say that Tendulkar opens the innings in ODIs, which makes it much easier for him to score runs than for those coming lower down the order. Neither point can be dismissed easily. Can we put forward similarly solid arguments in support of Sampras, Borg, or Becker versus Federer?
In order to properly answer that question, it might be useful to look at the names of the men these four great Wimbledon champions bested in the finals. Sampras beat Jim Courier, Goran Ivanisevic (twice), Becker, Cedric Pioline, Andre Aggasi, and Patrick Rafter in seven out of the seven Wimbledon finals he reached. Borg beat Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors (twice), Roscoe Tanner, and John McEnroe, and lost one final to McEnroe. Becker beat Kevin Curren, Ivan Lendl, and Stefan Edberg, and lost to Edberg (twice), Michael Stich, and Sampras. Federer has beaten Mark Philipoussis, Andy Roddick (thrice), and Rafael Nadal (twice), and lost to Nadal once.
Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Agassi, and Nadal would definitely qualify as all time greats in the history of the game. Borg beat two of them on his way to his titles. Becker, Sampras and Federer scalped one each. On the other hand, Sampras and Federer beat grass court specialists like Ivanisevic and Roddick more than once in finals. Becker, however, holds the record for the most matches won by an individual player at Wimbledon (71). But only Borg and Federer have won five Wimbledon titles in a row, which makes them a little more special than the others. What tilts the final verdict in favour of Borg, at least, as far as this writer is concerned, is his gob-smacking achievement of winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year three times in a row. By way of comparison, Nadal snaffled both titles in 2008 and 2010, whereas Rod Laver and Federer managed this twin feat once in 1969 and 2009 respectively. Pray, why is winning these two Majors in the same year so special?
Well, if you know your tennis you’ll know that the French Open and Wimbledon are held within a month of each other on surfaces that are poles apart. What most people don’t know, however, is that to be able to calibrate one’s game in such a short span of time so masterfully on vastly different battlegrounds requires a level of control and ability that borders on superhuman. (In cricketing terms, it’s almost like scoring a hundred or taking a fifer on a dustbowl and a green top in back-to-back Test matches.) It’s why so few people have managed it.
Borg reached the final round of four French Open and an equal number of Wimbledon Championships consecutively from 1978-1981. Federer and Nadal did so from 2006-2008, and Federer, by himself, from 2006-2009. But only Borg won seven of these eight finals. And this is why Borg might well be the greatest Wimbledon champion of the open era. He, better than any other champion, was able to make the adjustment from clay to grass. What’s more, Borg’s game was designed for clay courts. Still he was able to train his mind and body to win big within and without his comfort zone. This is what makes him the ultimate Wimbledon men’s champion. And to think he retired at the ripe old age of just 26.
The writer tweets @Armchairexpert. You can follow him if you’re into that sort of thing.