TAKE 2: Who is the king of the courts?

Does the fact that Roger Federer has now won more Grand Slam tournaments than any other player mean he is the greatest? Who is the king of the courts? writes former Wimbledon player Marlene Bethlehem.

Comparing greatness across tennis eras is complicated by many factors. Until the late 1960s, tennis tournaments were divided between amateur and professionals. Until 1968, professionals were barred from Grand Slam tournaments.
There are other factors too. The 1980s saw the introduction of graphite racquets and other huge changes in technology. This has enormously influenced the pace and speed of the game.

When Federer triumphed at the French Open in May 2009, he finally achieved his career Grand Slam—he has now won Wimbledon, the US Open, the French Open and the Australian Open.

A player who wins all four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year is said to have achieved a calendar year Grand Slam. One can immediately understand the immense difficulty of maintaining form and fitness over an extended period of time. If a player wins all four at some point in his or her career, even if not consecutively, it is called a career Grand Slam.

Only two players in history have achieved calendar year Grand Slams, namely the American Donald Budge in 1938 and the remarkable Australian Rodney Laver.

Six men have won a career Grand Slam in singles. The first three—Donald Budge, Roy Emerson and Fred Perry—won career Grand Slams before tennis turned professional in 1968. The remaining three—Rod Laver, Andre Agassi and now Roger Federer - have won career Grand Slams in the modern era. The Grand Slam eluded even great players like Ken Rosewall, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras.

Laver is the only man to have won a Grand Slam twice—once as an amateur in 1962 and again in the open era in 1969.

I was present at every one of the Wimbledon finals in which Laver featured from 1959 to 1962 and was able to witness firsthand the way he changed the face of tennis. Laver, a left hander, was predominately a serve-and-volley exponent. As a result, he was most comfortable on grass. The French Open at Roland Garros was the most difficult to win—as it has been for Federer.

Laver won the French title in 1962 after a tough quarterfinal against compatriot Martin Mulligan, who squandered a match point in the fourth set. He eventually won the match 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 10-8, 6-2.

He won all the other Grand Slam tournaments without any significant setbacks.

Between 1964 and 1968, Laver was barred from playing in the Grand Slams because he had turned professional. His decision to turn professional helped to push tennis authorities to recognise professional players. How outdated those debates seem now.

A long break from competitive tennis was no doubt a major disadvantage. Despite this, when open tennis dawned in 1968, Laver was ready to resume where he’d left off. He again won the four Grand Slam titles in that year, beating Tony Roche in less than an hour, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, to take the Wimbledon title.

During a 23-year career that spanned the amateur and open eras, he won 47 singles titles and was runner-up 21 times. Laver was elevated to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1981.

How does that compare with Federer’s achievements? Federer has now won the Australian Open three times, Wimbledon six times and the US Open five times. But the French Open had always eluded him, thanks mainly to Raphael Nadal, who beat him in the semifinals in 2005 and in the final the last three years. This year Nadal was beaten by Swede Robin Soderling who went on to reach his first Grand Slam final. Federer beat Soderling in the final, giving him his first French Open title and enabling him to achieve his dream of a career Grand Slam. It was of special significance that the trophy was presented by Andre Agassi, who was the last player to achieve a career Grand Slam.

How does he compare with Laver? There is little doubt that Laver would have won many more titles between 1962 and 1969 had he not been barred.

As it is, he won the eight consecutive Grand Slams in which he played, if you consider that he won all four in 1962 and then on his return, won all four in 1969.

Laver dominated the game in a way that Federer has not. He also pioneered several innovations. For example, before Laver, no left hander had ever been able to execute a topspin backhand or a topspin lob. He was a great player of both.

Laver was present when Federer beat Roddick on Sunday. What goes through his mind when watching the evolution of the game? No doubt he would acknowledge that the professionalism of tennis—which he helped to pioneer—has made the sport much more competitive. There is a massive motivation to get involved in the sport, and many more resources to help improve a player’s performance.

I firmly believe that Laver is still ahead of Federer, given his dominance of the sport and his two calendar Slams. But the Swiss genius is only marginally behind and is moving to claim the accolade of the greatest player in history.

  • Bethlehem played at Wimbledon and the French Championships from 1959 to 1962. In 1961 she reached the quarterfinals of the women’s doubles with Australian Eva Duldig. In 1962 she won the Wimbledon Plate as well as the Dutch Open doubles with South African Sandra Reynolds.

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