Monday, June 8, 2009

The most dominant athletes in the world.

Photo by Lionel Bonaventure (AFP)

Yesterday, Roger Federer won the French Open for the first time in his career, becoming only the sixth male tennis player ever to win all four of the Grand Slam tournaments, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Australian Open and the French. He is now tied with Pete Sampras for the most Grand Slam championships in his career with fourteen. Many now consider him the greatest tennis player of all time, and none will argue that he has been the most dominant player of this century.

Americans don't pay that much attention to the French Open because Americans suck at this tournament so bad. It is one of the most difficult tests in all of sport, because it asks athletes to completely change their game. On grass or on regular hard surfaces, men's tennis is about the serve and the return of serve. On clay, the game is about endurance and ground strokes. Many of the greatest players of the last forty years, the era when professionals were allowed to play at the biggest tournaments, never won the French Open. The list of people shut out on the clay of Roland Garros includes Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors, John Newcombe, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras. The Swedish great Björn Borg is still included in the conversation as one of the greatest of all time because he could dominate both on the clay of the French Open and the grass at Wimbledon. Borg never won the Australian Open, which he only played once. The glaring omission in his career is no championships at the U.S. Open, where he made the final four times, losing twice to Connors and twice to McEnroe.

Luck in a tennis tournament is the luck of the draw, the list of people you have to play to win. Federer got lucky this year, because a relative unknown crushed the tough competition on the other side of the bracket. Robin Soderling, the 23rd seed in the tournament, beat Rafael Nadal, the best clay court player in the world, and also beat several other good players to get to the final. Soderling's lifetime record against Federer before the tournament started was 0-9. It's now 0-10, as Federer crushed him in three straight sets.

Americans lose interest in a sport when the best players aren't Americans, but there's no denying it. Roger Federer is the most dominant tennis player in the world, and could be the greatest of all time.

Photo by Mike Munden (AP)

There wasn't a major golf tournament on the schedule this week, but Tiger Woods, who gets to pick and choose when he plays, always shows up at The Memorial, the tournament founded by Jack Nicklaus, the only other person in the conversation when it comes to the greatest golfer of all time. Woods has returned from surgery this year, and his play hasn't been as sharp as we've come to expect. In many tournaments since his return, he has looked like just another good golfer instead of the most dominant athlete in his sport. On Friday, he shot a two over par 74, his worst round of golf in several years. He played better on Saturday, but was still in sixth place, four shots off the pace starting play on Sunday. In the final round, he shot a seven under par 65, with an eagle, seven birdies and two bogeys to win the tournament by one stroke. He birdied the final two holes to post a score in the clubhouse no one could match. While he has one tournament victory prior to this one since his return from surgery, there were serious doubts abut whether he could still dominate. The U.S. Open begins a week from Thursday at the very difficult Bethpage Black golf course, where Tiger has won before. As of today, no one doubts he can dominate at the Open. As to whether he will or not... stay tuned.


Splotchy said...

I recently read this nice piece on Federer by David Foster Wallace in the NYT, which you might want to check out:

Federer as Religious Experience

Matty Boy said...

Thanks for the link, Splotchy. I've been promising myself to read more Wallace. I'm only reading math books right now, so getting a book of his might be a good choice for the break I'm on right now.

ken said...

Don't forget Hogan.

Matty Boy said...

You're right, Ken, people have forgotten Ben Hogan now that number of majors is all that counts. Likewise, Rod Laver winning all four Grand Slam events in the same calendar year against the best competition available isn't shown as much respect as dominating most of the tournaments for years on end.

Bobby Jones gets short shrift as well, as does Walter Hagen.

sfmike said...

Pete Sampras is the all-time greatest cuz he was also the cutest and Federer usually looks like he's just encountered some stinky cheese. Watched the Memorial tournament yesterday on Tivo. Tiger was superhuman and his shot into the green on the 18th was mind-blowing. He's the most exciting professional athlete out there even though he is playing the numbingly boring game of golf.

Lockwood said...

Hey Matty! Off topic, but I found a post for you and your people here. Enjoy.

Matty Boy said...

Hey, Lockwood. Thanks for the link.

Mike, I'm surprised at your candor about golf, especially since I know you love to play the game. Personally, I don't find it boring to watch on TV because it can build up a nice slow drama. It's perfect for a lazy summer Sunday afternoon.

Anonymous said...

Loved Stan Smith could watch him play all day even bought tickets to the DC Open and WOW a terrific serve. Hated Jimmy Connors but yup, glad you included him, really interesting post. Federer? What can I say?

Matty Boy said...

The name I forgot to list is Rod Laver, who won the Grand Slam in 1962 when he was an amateur, turned pro and was banned from the events until all the tournaments allowed pros, then won all four against the best competition of his day in 1969. He was denied the right to play in these tournaments in his prime, or there's no saying how many times he might have won each of them.

Technology has made the game completely different and the athletes are much faster now, but if the topic is dominance, Rod Laver is still the most dominant tennis player of any era.

Distributorcap said...

it is sad that americans will only pay attention if an american is in the final - and that goes for wimbledon as well. there are very few exceptions (becker was one of them)

the state of american tennis is pretty poor right now - both men's and women's

americans used to dominate this sport in the 70s and 80s - even in the borg/lendl era there were many good and competitive americans - not now.

watching federer play is truly amazing -

dguzman said...

The other name you missed: Martina Navratilova. She single-handedly changed the women's tennis game and dominated it, with Chrissie Evert sticking around only enough to provide evidence that Martina was human, not a god.

Matty Boy said...

Women's tennis quite often has a single dominant player, Margaret Court, then Billie Jean, then Chrissie, then Martina, then Steffi. It's a little rare to have a time like today when there's real parity.