Roger Federer won his 17th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon on Sunday night, defeating Andy Murray in four sets. This puts Federer three titles ahead of the great Pete Sampras who had amassed 14 Grand Slam titles in his illustrious career; a collection of glories which seemed insurmountable at the time.
Federer has now equalled Sampras’s seven Wimbledon titles and will also overtake Sampras’s record of 286 weeks at the top of the rankings. Sampras has graciously said that he is used to Federer breaking his records.
In the past two and a half years when Federer failed to win a major title since the Australian Open in 2010, there was a lot of titter-tatter about the great man being past it, about the younger guys getting ahead and over and again, the great debate about who is the “Goat” or greatest of all time. Yet even before Sunday night Federer had the numbers with 16 major titles.
But a remarkable run by Novak Djokovic and the almost impenetrable tenacity of Rafael Nadal overshadowed Federer’s achievements it seemed. The “greatest” argument now had to include these two, said both pundits and fans. Indeed.
An argument about “greatest” which does not rest solely on numbers has to be subjective. And an argument which does not consider the numbers has to be faulty. It’s a tricky one. Nadal has seven titles on the clay of Roland Garros, a pinnacle on which he stands alone. To put that in perspective, consider that Sampras never even reached a French Open final. So that makes Nadal the greatest clay court player of all time. But does it put him ahead of Sampras as a great tennis player? Perhaps not until Nadal surpasses Sampras in the overall tally?
Djokovic on the other hand has not been able to repeat his wins from last year. The argument surely cannot include him yet. He has five major titles and there are several others ahead of him on the list.
And then there’s Rod Laver. The only man to ever win the Grand Slam — all four major titles in a calendar year — and to win it twice. He spent five years away from the tour — what could he have achieved had he not broken away?
(In the women’s game, Margaret Court has 24 Grand Slam titles (and a Grand Slam), Steffi Graf 22 (a Grand Slam and an Olympic gold medal), Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova 18 each and Serena Williams closing in with 13. But this argument does not seem to divide fans and experts.)
Maybe for now, the “Goat” argument cannot go further than Laver, Sampras and Federer. They have the numbers on their side and mind-boggling skill and talent. And it is here that Federer runs away with the argument, in the most subjective manner of all. Some people watch sport as an alternative to war or physical combat. The more brutal the fight, the more deserving the victor: these are not Federer fans. Some watch it to see how the human spirit works to aspire and rise higher. And some to just bathe themselves in the wonder of talent and skill and what they can achieve when used in harmony with human will.
That Federer in full flow is a thing of majestic beauty has been said many times before. And yet, every time you watch him play you are astounded once again. There is variety, intelligence, natural talent, instinct, grace, elegance, power and even among all that, an incredible will to win. Federer playing tennis is not about numbers and records: it’s about watching something close to perfection in action. You don’t have to wish you could be that: you just have to be big enough to appreciate it.
That the numbers add up for him is an extra bonus!
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona