The unanswerable question
“She’s the greatest of all time.”
Victoria Azarenka’s assessment of Serena Williams’ status in women’s tennis ahead of their clash in yesterday’s US Open final is the sort of comment that instantly distracts attention from the immediate challenge.
Greatest of all time? Really? Statistically, a victory by the American over her Belarussian friend and rival still leaves her sixth on the list of career grand slam singles titles, although that 17th triumph would pull her within one of the tally of 18 each by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who share fourth spot behind Australia’s Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf of Germany (22) and the American Helen Wills Moody (19).
It’s from this point on though that clarity disappears and the debate becomes clouded by the different contexts and circumstances as supporters of a particular player press respective cases to justify their arguments. Of course, there is no shifting of position at the end of the exercise because people will believe what they want to believe, and when it comes to such an exercise in futility as comparing sports performances over different eras, there are neither winners nor losers, just lively debate (or even heated argument) and considerable amusement for those who choose to observe on the sidelines of such verbal jousts.
Is the modern era the toughest as far as the overall standard of play, the schedules that players are required to fulfil and the extensive almost suffocating media coverage that means the top performers are hardly ever allowed to escape public scrutiny? Or is it that we fail to appreciate how demanding the game was in earlier eras on different surfaces and assume that modern players must automatically be better given improvements in players’ fitness levels and technological advances in equipment?
Would legendary Australian batsman Sir Donald Bradman have averaged anywhere close to 99.94 over 52 Test matches now as he did in a career that spanned 17 years and concluded three years after World War II? It is an average that no-one has seriously challenged (the next best is South African Graeme Pollock at 60.97 over 23 matches) and suggests therefore that he will be remembered as a remarkable player of his and all eras.
Of course, it is tempting to contemplate how he would have fared against the West Indian pace quartet of Holding, Roberts, Croft and Garner or the Indian spin combination of Bedi, Prasanna, Venkat and Chandrasekhar. But there’s no way to prove it one way or the other, just as it’s a never-ending debate to speculate on the chances of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning football team in the considerably faster pace of the contemporary game.
Would Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing’s self-proclaimed “greatest of all time”, have survived against Rocky Marciano, who won all 46 of his professional fights by knockout? Speaking of Ali, and recalling the humiliating defeats he suffered in his last days in the ring that tarnished the image of a great champion, it is also interesting to note how some performers find it difficult to let go while others are able to make a clean break and leave their sport while still at the top.
Pele, to many the greatest footballer ever (that’s another debate, of course), drew the final curtain on a glorious international career at the age of 29 after helping Brazil to their third World Cup triumph. How tempting it must be though to keep on playing, to seek to prove yourself against the best one more time in one more tournament, even if there is the increasing risk of being made to look ordinary after so many years of almost super-human endeavour.
Roger Federer appears to be at just such a crossroads. Winner of the most grand slam singles titles in the history of men’s tennis—17—the Swiss maestro has failed to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and now Flushing Meadows, the sort of seismic shift in the sport that prompts some to suggest that these are the signs of an irreversible decline and he would be well advised to quit at the highest level to avoid greater embarrassments in the 2014 season.
Writing in the London newspaper, The Independent, William Ralston urges Federer to say farewell and ensure that the deep and abiding memories will be of the supreme artist on the tennis court, while at the same time referencing the career of Jimmy Connors and how the American’s tenacity and grit almost demanded that he play on and on:
“Roger Federer is not Jimmy Connors. Roger Federer is not known for his tenacious and dogged style of play. Roger Federer is an artist. A magician. If a fighter goes down swinging it enhances their mythology, but for a magician to continue long after they have lost their sleight of hand only serves to hurt them.”
Ultimately, it’s not just about enjoying our champion sports performers in their pomp but also how we would like to remember them. Yes, we may have been so enraptured by Michael Jordan driving to the hoop and seeming to defy gravity. But even for the very greatest of the great, what goes up must come down...eventually.
In the 14 years since her first grand slam title at the expense of Martina Hingis at the US Open, Serena Williams has returned from enough career-threatening injuries and other setbacks to warrant comparisons with the very best in her sport.
But the greatest of all time? Well, that’s an argument that will definitely continue, whatever the result last night.