We — and by “we” I really mean “I” — use the word “ever” a lot in sports. Best ever. Greatest ever. First time ever. It’s a shortcut word, an easy way to navigate the tricky waters of time AND make an achievement sound really impressive. Someone out there is the best “Angry Birds” player ever. Someone has written the best iPad review ever. Every so often you will see someone credited for the best tweet ever.
Novak Djokovic is closing in on what most experts are calling the greatest tennis season ever. It has been one heck of a season, no question. He has won three of the four major championships — the sixth man in the Open Era to do that, if I’m not mistaken. He has lost just two matches all year. And he has dominated in a particularly wonderful time in men’s tennis, when Roger Federer (greatest ever?) is still playing supremely well, when Rafael Nadal (greatest ever?) is still at the height of his powers, when Andy Murray plays surpassing tennis, when tournament fields are loaded with huge servers and clay-court specialists and human walls. On Monday, in the U.S. Open final, Djokovic played a grueling four-set match with Nadal that had several of the most spectacular points I can remember seeing. But there was never really a moment’s doubt who was the better player. Nadal is pretty close to unbeatable by anybody else — he has beaten Federer all three times they have faced this year, beaten Murray all four times, he gave up only six games to Roddick two days earlier — but Djokovic’s game and will break him apart. It took everything Nadal had inside (and Nadal has a considerable sporting soul inside) just to extend this match to four sets.
The problem with “ever” in tennis — like in so many sports — is that “ever” just isn’t a very long time at all. In this way, I think, of the Big 12 Conference. Many people are lamenting the break-up of the Big 12, and I understand this because when (not if) the Big 12 breaks up there will be some uncertainty for fine schools like Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, even Kansas and Missouri (though I tend to think Missouri, in particular, will be in great shape to land in the SEC, and Kansas’ basketball powers will probably land the Jayhawks in the Pac 284 or whatever it will be called by then).
I covered the Big 12 for a dozen years, and I have good memories. There were many great games, great moments, all that. But let’s not kid anybody: The Big 12 is not some ancient conference that was organized in Teddy Roosevelt’s day to better mankind. The Big 12 only has only been around since 1996. It was put together as a money grab, plain and simple, and while Baylor president Ken Starr might be singing the “we’re all in this together” blues now, Baylor certainly did not seem to mind leaving behind Rice, SMU and Houston when the old Southwest Conference was detonated to make room for the Big 12. I will be sad when the Big 12 goes down, but it’s much more like the closing of a local Starbucks than old Yankee Stadium.
Wimbledon has been played in one form or another since 1877, the U.S. Open since 1881 and the French Open since 1891, though the last two were not called “Open” for many decades. But when we talk about “ever” in tennis, we don’t go back nearly that far. Part of the reason is that for many, many years tennis was mainly a sport played by amateurs. Golf had its own tension between amateurs and professionals, but that separation lasted much, much longer in tennis. Until 1968 — and as basic as this is, it’s still remarkable — there was no prize money whatsoever at any of tennis’ grand slam events. Every single player at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open were, at least on the surface, amateurs.
So how good were these amateur players? Bill Tilden won what was then called the U.S. National Men’s Singles Championships six times in a row, won Wimbledon the two times he played there in his prime, led the United States to seven straight Davis Cup victories and supposedly won 98 straight matches in 1924 and ’25. They say he was so much better than his opponents, he would tank sets just to keep the crowd interested.
Don Budge won Wimbledon and the U.S. singles in 1937 and also beat Gottfried Van Cramm in a five-set Davis Cup match that some tennis historians insist is the greatest match ever played. He won the grand slam in 1938 — he didn’t lose a set at Wimbledon, and lost just four games in the final. Fred Perry always said that Budge was the most perfect player. It’s hard to imagine a tennis year better than Budge’s in ’37 or ’38. But … alas … amateurs.
Ellsworth Vines was a professional tennis player at a time when that meant being shut out of the grand slam events. He had won Wimbledon and U.S. singles twice when he was an amateur, and then he mostly went on tours, where he supposedly dominated an aging Tilden, beat Rene Lacoste consistently and was Budge’s great rival. Here’s a fun bit: Vines later became a pro golfer, where he twice finished 14th at the U.S. Open and reached the semifinal of the PGA Championship in 1951 when that was a match-play event. He barely lost to Walter Burkermo — it took 37 holes — who then was clubbed by Sam Snead 7 and 6.
Then there was Laver. Rod Laver was a marvelous serve-and-volley player who won twice won the Grand Slam, once as an amateur in 1962 and again as a professional in 1969, the second year of the Open Era. How dominant was Laver? Well, put it this way, from 1962 to 1969, he played in 26 tournaments I would call major championships. Eleven of these were what we call the grand slam events — Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open. But he could not play in those from 1963-67 because he was a professional. Those years, the three big tournaments were the French Professional, the Wembley Professional and the U.S. Professional. He played in 15 of those.
OK, 26 major championships. How did he do? He won SEVENTEEN of them. He reached the final in seven more.
These are some of the greatest players before the Open Era … do they count when talking about ever? Everything was so different. Even the surfaces were different — when Laver won the Grand Slam, three of the tournaments were on grass, and only the French Open with its famous red clay was different. There were no hard courts in big tennis tournaments until the U.S. Open in 1978.
So, when talking about Djokovic’s year and the meaning of “ever” in tennis, people generally ignore everything before 1968, and often downplay Laver’s great seasons too because of competition and general tournament differences. Ever, in this scenario, only goes back to the 1970s.
But does it even go back that far? If you go back to the 1970s, you have to talk about Jimmy Connors’ remarkable 1974 season? He went 99-4, won 15 tournaments and all three grand slams he entered (the French Open did not allow him to compete because he played in World Team Tennis). Many tennis people, once again, suggest this isn’t comparable to the game today. Why not? Well, the surfaces were different. The equipment was different. And, most of all they say, the level of competition was different. Fields are so much deeper. Perhaps this is true. Maybe 1974 is before “ever” begins.
Bjorn Borg won the French Open-Wimbledon double three years in a row — from 1978-80 — and that might be the toughest trick in tennis. Borg was the only player to do it from Laver’s grand slam all the way to Nadal and Federer (who did it in back-to-back years, Nadal in 2008, Federer 2009). Djokovic, as remarkable a year as he’s having, did not do it. And Borg did it THREE TIMES IN A ROW. But again … there’s the competition question, though it is true that Borg in his amazing three-year Wimbledon-French run did beat Hall of Famers Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe along the way.
John McEnroe’s 1984 season seems to be the one that many considered the best until Djokovic. McEnroe went 84-3 and won two grand slam titles. It was a ridiculously great season. His win over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon was absurd domination. He won 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. He then went to the French Open and dominated there losing just one set all the way to the Final, where he had Ivan Lendl down two sets and a break. And that’s when Lendl, who had a reputation for giving up when things weren’t going well, made his stand, broke back, won the third set and eventually beat a shattered McEnroe in five (though McEnroe wasn’t too shattered — he destroyed Lendl in the final of the U.S. Open). In all, McEnroe won 13 tournaments and lost just three matches all year.
Thing is, McEnroe himself thinks Djokovic’s year is better. And he should know. The competition’s better, he says. The game is better. The athletes are better. All that. That’s certainly true. But McEnroe might also be underselling his own dominance.
What about Mats Wilander’s 1988 when he won three grand slams and along the way beat Hall of Famers Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi (twice), Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and also Frenchman Henri Leconte in the French Open Final?
What about Ivan Lendl from 1985-87, when he won 26 times, won the French Open twice, the U.S. Open three times and twice was a finalist at Wimbledon despite his well-known dislike of grass? Was there a great year in there somewhere? What about Pete Sampras in 1993 and 1994 when he pretty much dominated everywhere except on the clay in Paris? What about Agassi’s 1999-2000 run, when he reached four straight finals, and won the U.S. Open and French Open in five sets?
And, come to think of it, why do we have to back that far? Three times in his career, Roger Federer has won three grand slam events in the same year. In 2006 and 2007 (and, come to think of it, 2009 too) he reached the final of all four majors, something that Djokovic did not quite do this year (because of Federer, who beat him at the French). In 2006, particularly, Federer’s only losses were to Rafael Nadal on clay and Andy Murray in Cincinnati. He only lost one set at Wimbledon (to Nadal in the Final) and two sets at the U.S. Open, one of those in a tiebreaker.
And what about Nadal, you know, LAST YEAR, when he won that tough French-Wimbledon double, and beat the ascendant Djokovic in the U.S. Open final.
Djokovic might indeed be having the best tennis season ever, when you take the whole season into account, when you take how he has dominated Nadal, when you consider how great the top four players in the world are, when you consider how he has blended dominance with spectacular fight (his two matches against Federer at the French Open and U.S. Open were like Ali-Frasier at their best). I certainly would not want to downplay how amazing Djokovic has been. and how wonderfully he’s handed it all. But best ever? Can we hold off for a minute? Can a tennis player really be said to have the greatest year ever when he does not win the Grand Slam? How does Nadal’s greatest season compare with, say, Steffi Graf’s Golden Slam of 1988, when she won all four majors and WImbledon?
I just really like what Djokovic has said when asked about it: “It’s just so hard to compare different eras.” I think that’s right. I often throw around the word “ever” lightly — this player’s the best ever, that coach is the best ever, that game was the best ever — and I probably shouldn’t. In the last few years, just in tennis, we have wondered if Federer is the greatest ever, Nadal is the greatest ever, Djokovic is having the greatest ever season. Maybe this is just one of those odd and wonderful times in tennis where the top players keep pushing each other higher and higher into a stratosphere never before reached in the sport. It’s certainly seems that way. But, getting caught up in the excitement it can become too easy to forget something pretty important: There have been many great tennis players through the years.