Friday, November 14, 2008

Genius Vs Genius - Who is better ?

I’ve grown seeing Borg and Mac play and win Wimbledons. Then when the TV was truly in India fell in love with the beauty and precision with the serve and volleys in the 80’s. To me it was a combination of Art and Engineering coming together! McEnroe, Edberg, Becker, Henman (to some extent) were all masters at that. They brought a kind of wistful romanticism into Tennis…
…Then came this kid along – as a 19 year old winning the first US open in 1990 – he was good at that time, but personally I thought he would be in the top 10 player. He didn’t win another grand slam for another three years; and then it rained. Pete Sampras was a sight to behold. In the era when you needed to be bad and loud to be noticed, he was boring and great. To me, it was just good enough to watch his game. Serve, move in and Volley, finish. Go back, serve and iterate until win. In the mean time, on the opponents serve, unleash that ferocious tongue-hanging-out cross-court winner, killing the opponent flat footed.  Or swift and bleeding cuts with the one-handed back-hand… He was unparalleled with his single minded focus and pursuit of greatness. Perhaps one thing that can be held against him was he was never good at clay. He has never even played a French Open final. I believe the closest he came to it was in 1996 when he had a great preparation on clay, playing Russia in the Davis cup (IIRC) and he beat the clay-court specialist (was it Kafelnikov ?) in the 5th match and in 5 sets. On court, although he had his vulnerable moments – when his coach and mentor Tim Gullikson was battling cancer and was critical; and playing against Courier in Australian open and a fan calling out, “Do it for Tim!” – from there on it was gut-wrenching to watch – he cried, cried and cried through rest of the match and demolished Courier from there on.  He ended up with 14 Grand Slams – 7 Wimbledon, 2 Australian and 5 US open. He would have won 8 wimbledons in a row, if not for a loss to another up and coming genius…
…Roger Federer. If Sampras was a complete serve and volleyer, Federer seemed to be complete all-court player. He is graceful, quietly confident without being arrogant, moved as well as Sampras, has the same forehand as Sampras, has a backhand that was amazing when on song - (in this youtube video line, watch for the amazing backhand flick winner) and all over the place when the timing was off. He has a serve that was very deceptive; he seems to use his wrist a lot more to generate incredible racquet speed. His movement in the court is graceful and with his sense of anticipation, minimalistic – he seems to be there before the ball gets there; that also perhaps explained why he was healthy and injury-free during his peak. If I’ve one doubt about Federer’s game, it is the serve and volley – I’m not sure if he is in the same class as Sampras (or Edberg or Becker) was. I used to joke to my friend that Federer starts practicing for French open throughout the year by staying at the baseline and winning just as easy out with ground strokes, some of them just incredible and defying reality. The 4 years, from 2004 to end 2007, were Federer years; perhaps for the first time in recent years there was a complete domination of one player in an individual sport – there were others too, with Nadal being in the fore-front. This was the time, when the aura of Federer was good enough for him to go to a 5-set match with a 1-set lead; the opponents seemed to come to the match with a resignation of defeat. From there, it always seemed the opponents had to win 3 out 4 sets, which was impossible. Of late, there is a marked decline in his wins – not sure if it is due to his game decline or his health issues or if the opponents have caught up – definitely Nadal seemed to have caught up. One dimension that stands out in favor of Federer when compared to Sampras is this – Federer reached three consecutive French open finals (the streak that was a started with a semifinal appearance). And in all the three he had lost out to Nadal – who possibly, after his time, would be known as the greatest clay court player ever (Sidenote: I had a fortune of watching live in Chennai in 2007). We can safely say, at his peak, Federer was the best Grass court and hard-court player and 2nd best in the Clay-court.  For the record, Federer now has 13 Grand-slams, one shy of Sampras’ – 5 Wimbledon, 5 US Open and 3 Australian.
Watching some of the games with couple of friends and in discussions, usually the discussion around who is greater would surface. I tried to do a mathematical compare of the two, based on their wins.
Here goes. The below table assigns points per Grand Slam wins and bonus points:

The table is self-explanatory - The Grand Slams carry the most points, ATP Masters half of that and the ATP tourney half of ATP masters (I think ATP points are similar - 1000 for GS winner, 500 for ATP Masters and 250 for normal tourneys). Qualifying for Masters gets a point. Finally, #1 ranking gets a point for every week.
Using this, here are the tables for both Sampras and Federer. For the “Years at Peak”, I looked at their number of years they have been within top-10.


So what does this mean ?
Although in points per year, Federer seemed to be much ahead, I’ve no doubt that would fall in the next few years, when he continues to play to beat Sampras’ grand-slam record. Also, if he does that in the next two or three years, I’m not sure if he would have the same motivation to play any longer. I believe Federer would probably retire earlier than Sampras, so he would always have an advantage on points per year – ofcourse the extreme case being that he wins nothing in the next 2-3 years.
In conclusion; I loved watching and was a great fan of both of these geniuses; I’d like Federer to also get 14 grand-slams and retire; perhaps for his French-open deeds, may be get to 15. Both are geniuses and we were lucky to have one follow the other – it leaves space for lesser mortals like us to work the spreadsheets! The versus should hardly matter !!!