Unless it’s your first time wandering into this space, you probably know the guy smiling (smirking?) back at you despises all the “greatest of,” “better than” and “buy or sell” phony arguments that talk radio and talking head TV throw at us each day.

That said, I can almost tolerate that noise if it pertains to Roger Federer. Sometimes greatness is so transcendent that we have no choice but to step back, shake our heads in amazement and marvel that we live in amazing times.

So I’m inclined to make an exception. I don’t believe there is any question that Federer, an eight-time Wimbledon champion and 19-time Grand Slam winner after Sunday’s demolition of Marin Cilic, is the best tennis player who has ever lived. The real issue: Has anyone in any sport in any era been better at what they do, relative to the competition, than he?

No. The answer is a definitive no. Federer aces all the tests I would use to measure such status, including but not limited to sustained excellence, longevity, adaptability, the level of his peers, and having his career unmarked by even the distant whiff of a scandal. The latter category has become especially significant in Federer’s lifetime, as we all know.

Federer has carved out his supremacy in an era characterized by two other men’s singles players (Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic) who are all-time greats and another (Andy Murray) only a sneaker’s length behind.

On the surface, the sport had more depth at the top of the rankings in my childhood and young adult years when you consider Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. That group sort of took turns, though. One or two, at the most, peaked at different places on the flow chart.


The current quartet all swam in the same talent pool. They were born within five years of one another. Their careers arched simultaneously. The excellence of the group validates the excellence of the individuals.

Look up a list of Grand Slam winners since 2010 and it’s shocking how few other names even show up as finalists. Winning 19 is remarkable. Winning so many in this era, when there wasn’t a single gimme in the semifinals or finals, is absurd.

Federer is 35. I remember when that was ancient in tennis. Borg had been overspending his career winnings for nine years at that point. McEnroe had survived Tatum O’Neal and found refuge in the announcers’ box. Sampras left a last lunch or two on the show courts and was long gone.

It appeared that Federer hit that wall at the turn of this decade. He had every right to wave, blow kisses and walk away with his beautiful wife, ridiculously cute kids and otherworldly bank account. Instead, he reinvented himself, swiped his AARP card at the locker room door, came back and won the Australian Open and Wimbledon after a five-year lull.

How does that happen? Other than clean living, it’s the product of an inner fire that few other athletes who have occupied space on the planet have ever known.

Go ahead. Present to me a clearer No. 1 in a relatively major sport.


You can’t do it with NFL quarterbacks, because the argument about Tom Brady’s rings versus Peyton Manning’s raw statistics will persist long after we’re all dead. It’s also impossible with NBA legends, no matter what the dyed-in-the-wool apologists for either Michael Jordan or LeBron James have to say. I believe Jordan is the closest thing we’ve seen to Federer, simply due to the overall level of the game in his day and his success on both sides of the minor league baseball experiment.

Wayne Gretzky? Maybe he’s just THAT much greater than the field, but it didn’t feel like he had enough guys to challenge him at his peak to put him in this discussion.

Richard Petty? Two hundred wins are a nice round number, but there were twice as many races on the schedule when he was racking up those numbers. Jimmie Johnson would be a better name to submit, having thrived as a contemporary to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Muhammad Ali? The myth and the mystique are more transcendent than the actual body of work, although the wars with Joe Frazier and George Foreman make it a worthy comparison.

Tiger Woods? Injuries and personal foibles forfeited his place as the undisputed king of this debate. Until such time as there’s no longer a Tiger vs. Jack weigh-in, he’s not in the league of his racket-wielding friend.

Serena Williams? Perhaps as a dual entry with sister Venus, although I think each have hit too many speed bumps against lesser competition and didn’t have a third wheel at the level of the Martina Navratilova-Steffi Graf-Chris Evert troika.

Fill in the name of your favorite baseball slugger here? Forget it. We no longer know whose numbers were legit and whose were inflated.

Send me another name and I’ll carefully consider it. But I am supremely confident that as of July 17, 2017, Roger Federer is the GOAT among GOATs.

Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. His email is [email protected]

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