“They changed a game played at moderate pace into one of thunder and lightning, fire and guts. They were champions.”
Roger, Boris? Novak, Lleyton?
Itʼs a tough call when racquet technologies move on a faster curve than rocket science and tennis balls travel at speeds akin to that domain too.
Only the words above came from the venerated American sportswriter, Allison Danzig, born in the nineteenth century and talking here about the great players he watched pre-1945.
The sport moves ever on, yet the pattern it seems, repeats and begs the question: ʻJust who is the greatest menʼs player ever? Who is the real No. 1?ʼ
Letʼs start near the beginning.
Sir Norman was some player 100 years ago, known as the Wizard and so good they named a trophy after him, the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. Or the Australian menʼs singles crown as we know it.
He won three majors and, remarkably, nine Davis Cups, but kickstarts the argument only. Rene Lacoste played in the 1920s though his seven majors are superseded by his enduring tennis fashions.
Britainʼs Fred Perry claimed eight majors in the lead up to World War Two and Americaʼs Don Budge won six on the hoof including the first ever grand slam in 1938.
Budge was hot, but his compatriot Bill Tilden won nine slam titles the decade before, albeit at the US Open and Wimbledon only. The best effort to-date Bill, but not enough.
Bud Collins covered tennis for 50 years and said at the turn of the millennium, “Tilden, Kramer and Laver would be champions today. Nobody has played the game better.”
Jack Kramer was the man in the ‘40s, the consummate showman and promoter who stole the gameʼs finest to embark on a pro tour of every American small town youʼve never heard of.
ʻBig Jakeʼ took the Wimbledon and US titles after the war and then turned professional, setting up his own circuit, managing and playing, night in night out.
He fought the Californian Pancho Gonzalez, another Samson, on court and off for years and persuaded the worldʼs best players to play with him. Kramer so far, no question, the talk and the walk.
Melbourneʼs Frank Sedgman, with five single slams, was Kramerʼs marquee signing in Christmas 1952, close but not quite. Ditto Ken Rosewall though every playerʼs favourite, Lew Hoad, has a real shout, “the best of the Australian group,” says Sedgman. Five singles slams before he turned professional and before he turned 23 says much.
So Lew or Jack, except Jack defined his era even if it wasnʼt obvious at the time. He also helped set up the ATP in 1973.
But then thereʼs the Rocket, Rod Laver. Twice, in 1962 and 1969, he claimed all four slams. Six years as a pro and banned from the slams, hindered his tally. He claimed 11 all told and would very likely have won more. But how many? Or were his Open era slams won because heʼd improved immensely as a pro? Rod gets the nod, so far.
Next up? It has to be Bjorn Borg, the female vote would alone would give him the crown. Eleven slams, French and Wimbledons back to back, the 1970s personified, Fila and Donnay encased in the minds of his generation. We never thought he would lose yet we also never knew him. Bjorn was cool.
John McEnroe? A genius yes, but not enough. Lendl, eight slams but he lost another 11 finals. Boris wins the best teenager ever, Wimbledon crowns at 17 and 18, yet somehow he was a man even when he was a boy and never made the next leap up.
Pistol Pete? Fourteen slams, seven on grass but underrated still. His long time foe, the louder Agassi, won eight majors across all surfaces, but played in 15 finals. “When Andreʼs on, forget it. He does practically everything better than anybody else,” said Sampras.
“Federer changed the game tremendously,” says Sedgman. “He can turn the defensive into an offensive shot, taking the ball on the rise or half volley. All the other players do the same thing now.”
Seventeen slams but only one on clay. Novakʼs has a way to go, six biggies to-date while Rafaʼs on 13 and has five Wimbledon finals with three hard court slam wins too. Plus all his clays and heʼs still 27. More to come, perchance. Maybe in January.
Rafa has it all, it has to be Rafa. Doesnʼt it?
Note: the ideas expressed in this opinion piece are that of the author and do not reflect those of Tennis Australia or the Australian Open.