The greatest sportsman of all time? Roger that
An ode to the matchless art and craft of Federer
Roger Federer, the ageless master of the tennis court, recently won a fifth Laureus World Sportsman of the Year award to add further weight to his claim to be the greatest male athlete of all time.
Judging the greatest sportsman across multiple disciplines is an exercise with so many loopholes and pitfalls it’s probably futile, yet Federer’s claim is better than most.
How do you judge Federer’s greatness as a tennis player when set against Muhammad Ali’s heroics as a boxer or Jean-Claude Killy’s expertise as an alpine skier?The myriad variations and skills needed to perform each discipline makes direct comparison impossible. Is hitting a single-handed topspin backhand on match-point in a crunch encounter more skilful and more difficult than shaving off a hundredth of a second on an Alpine slalom course?
If Federer, now 36 and still the best in world 14 years after first scaling to No 1, were judged purely as a tennis player, his claim to be the best of all time would be backed up by his statistics. But across sporting codes the evidence is less emphatic.
Ali was not only a fine boxer but a human rights activist, civil rights beacon and a political voice while Federer has never strayed too near politics.
Tiger Woods is a great golfer but has also steadfastly stayed out of politics as an athlete and was also exposed as a deeply flawed human.Ali, for his sheer impact on the world outside the boxing ring, is the most important figure in sport, but as a boxer his claim as the best can always be challenged by numbers and stats.
Federer though, when playing his chosen sport, can at times touch perfection. Closer to 40 than to 30, he is also defying age with his naturally graceful technique that appears to put less strain on his body.
Using science (and hopefully only the legal kind) to manage his body and time, he plays very few tournaments. Due to this limited schedule, he is able to maintain his physical health while just starving his competitive instincts enough to keep a desire to win smouldering.
In the past 13 months Federer has won three singles Grand Slam titles out of the five that were on offer to take his personal tally to 20. He is the first male tennis player to win 20 singles Grand Slams.
But with Federer it’s not only about the titles and victories – although those are crucial. There has always been a beauty to Federer’s tennis that elevates his greatness.
In cricket some batsmen ooze elegance but aren’t statistically in the highest bracket while others, such as Aussie captain Steve Smith, look terrible while scoring mountains of runs.Federer has been able to marry aesthetics with results. His sheer ruthlessness and immense mental strength emerge like a prowler in a dark alley when on court, before slipping away when off it, where he sheds the cloak to re-emerge as an apparently dedicated husband, a good father and a genuinely nice bloke.
His great appeal is that he crosses codes and attracts admirers who could not be called tennis fans. His sheer magnetism as a tennis player overlaps into other worlds and onto other sporting codes.
While talented tennis phenoms spend thousands of hours pounding balls in search of perfection, a Federer shot can make you gasp in wonder.
The timing, the effortlessness and the grace of almost every stroke makes him appear inhuman, while his ability to break down and weep when winning or losing shows us his humanity.
Is he the greatest sportsman ever? Who knows? But he has occasionally given us an insight into what athletic perfection looks like, and that’s enough for me.