On June 7, as Roger Federer was on his way to equaling Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam victories by winning the French Open, James Blake and a group of fellow pros watched on a television in the players' lounge at the Aegon Championships at The Queen's Club in London, a warm-up event to Wimbledon. It's hard to imagine NBA stars congregating to cheer on Kobe Bryant, or pro golfers arranging to watch a Tiger Woods play-off, but for Blake and his mates there was no question where their allegiance lay. "We wanted to see Roger make history," Blake says.
They weren't the only stars rooting for Federer. At his home in California, Australian tennis legend Rod Laver, who won 11 Grand Slam titles in the 1960s, set his alarm for 5 a.m. to watch the match. Not far away in Los Angeles, Sampras rolled out of bed in time to catch Federer's winning shot, and then tell journalists that he believes that the Swiss player should now be considered the greatest ever. Woods was at home with his wife, "yelling at the TV, the whole deal."
In his genial but refined way, Federer has spent a career making the extremely difficult look easy, whether it be winning tennis matches or the admiration of fellow athletes. In 2004, when Blake broke his neck during a practice session at a tournament in Rome, the American ended up alone in a hospital, cared for by people speaking a language he didn't understand. The one note of support from a fellow player he received came from Federer. "I had only played him two or three times," Blake says. "But he was thinking of me, and knowing I was alone. He's not only the greatest player, he's the greatest champion this sport could hope for."
Only 27, Federer has energized tennis's GOAT Greatest of All Time debate by winning the only one of the sport's four Grand Slam titles to have eluded him (he already held multiple Wimbledon, U.S. and Australian Open titles). His victories have come with a grace that has ended tennis's reputation for spawning churlish brats and with a style of play that blurs the line between artistry and athleticism. His traditional, flowing strokes generate unorthodox angles and spins; he's both a throwback and an innovator.
But is he the best? Laver, Sampras and other greats such as Andre Agassi think so. And yet. World No. 1 Rafael Nadal is in horse-racing terms Federer's "bug boy" so called because of the "bug," or asterisk, that he places next to Federer's achievements. Federer has a 7-13 losing record against Nadal, including losses in five of the seven Grand Slam finals the pair have contested. Federer won the French Open without having to face the Spaniard, who suffered a shock defeat in the fourth round. And when he returns to Wimbledon's grass, his favorite surface, on June 22, he'll face memories of last year's epic loss to Nadal in a final many consider the greatest match ever played. As former world No. 1 Mats Wilander asks, "How can you be the greatest of all time when you can't even beat someone in your own era?"
That Federer's artistry has been thwarted by Nadal's muscular play doesn't bother Federer fans, who seem to love him all the more for his struggles. The Parisian crowds that chanted "Roger! Roger!" through the French Open fortnight understood that if Federer's ethereal game could finally triumph on the heavy red clay of Roland Garros, it would be another proof of his greatness.
The pursuit of perfection paradoxically requires a career spent obsessing over one's faults. Unusually for tennis players, Federer has spent most of his career without a coach, analyzing his own game and making changes himself, such as adding a deft drop volley at the French Open that was designed to counter Nadal and other clay-court specialists. "Of all the things that make him great, perhaps the least appreciated is his ability to reflect on his game and make changes," said retired American doubles great Peter Fleming. Complacency is impossible for Federer, as he explained after his Paris victory. "I can walk away from this game tomorrow [in peace]," he said. "But I [won't] because I love this game too much."
Who knows how Federer will continue to evolve, or whether he will gain the upper hand in his rivalry with Nadal, and prove himself beyond doubt the greatest of all time. Does it matter? As an athlete, Federer participates in an arena in which greatness is fleeting and in which time eventually levels all. Perhaps Laver, now 70, says it best, "I just love to watch Roger hit the shots. I just enjoy the spectacle." While it is still fresh, we should savor the memory of those beautiful shots: the ball rising from the clay to Federer's racket, the great man seemingly lifted into flight.