Federer: how good is he? We don't yet know

Roger Federer like Pete Sampras is translating his talent on court, but with six he is not even halfway to the 14 Slams of Sampras.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

THEY say you can't compare across generations, that time and technology has warped any evaluation, that Big Bill Tilden never put a foot on Deco Turf and Rod Laver never brandished an oversize Prince, that three of four Slams were once played on grass. Topspin has developed exponentially, racket guts are now chosen according to surface, balls move differently and serve and volley is having its last rites. So let's make it simple. Let's just dig up some bodies, bring live ones into lab, collect DNA, and clone Laver, Tilden, Pancho Gonzales, Bjorn Borg, Fred Perry, Hoad, Sampras, Federer, put them on court at the same age, same training, same rackets, and then play them off in a magical eight-man round-robin and give the winner the keys to heaven. Who wins? Who dares to say? We're biased towards the present, it's what we know best, our memories too young to hold Tilden, offered only scraps of film on Hoad. Often Borg is casually dismissed from such arguments, erroneously so, for the Swede belongs there clearly, simply because of the French-Wimbledon clay-grass divide he straddled for three consecutive years. Sampras never did, not once, the Swiss surely must.

Ah, the Swiss. We return to this argument today, tomorrow, next month, because of him, we need such a massive measuring stick because of him, we reignite this ultimate debate because we know not what else to do with Federer. Nothing less will do. Becker's 6 Slam titles spanned 37 Slam tourneys, Edberg's 6 spanned 30 Slam tournaments. Federer has won his six in the last 10 Slams he has played. He has, in the stylish slap of a wrist, made grand careers seem like inept productions. He has played his best tennis for only two-and-a-half years and already some say he belongs on the apex of this pyramid.

Of course not. He says so himself. Best player in the world Roger? "Right now, yeah," he says. "But not nowhere close to ever, because just look at the records that some guys have." Still, no man among this lot has like him won their first six Grand Slam finals. Borg was five of six, so was Sampras. Still, no man has won 23 finals consecutively like he has.

These 23 finals are worth another look, what lurks behind this statistic? Sixteen were played on hardcourt, four on grass, three on clay. Virtuosity meets versatility. Ten times he is pushed to the limit in 23 finals, some three-setters, some five, and he does not succumb. Not that his opposition is slight. Five times he plays Roddick, Hewitt and Ivan Lujbicic thrice, Safin and Agassi twice, Nadal, Gasquet, Coria, Feliciano Lopez, Carlos Moya, Igor Andreev, Mardy Fish and Tim Henman once. Surely there are days in finals when he is not his best, his toe hurts, hand aches, movement is awry, rhythm off, forehand misfiring, serenity absent. It does not matter. He wins. How does he do it? We don't know. He doesn't know either. "I amaze myself that I can back it up one tournament after another. I wonder why I always play so well, and especially on the big occasions. It just seems to click for me."

It's easier to hold Federer up for scrutiny in the shadow of Pete, because Sampras we just saw. The Swiss is not the greater player, yet, but he is the better player, and there is a difference. Greatness is the utilising of talent to the maximum, the facility to translate gifts into results over a long period, excellence married to consistency. If Sampras is indeed owner of the less diverse talent, then what extraordinary use he made of it, for it took him to 14 Grand Slam titles. Sampras cared for nothing but the winning, there was something almost pious to his search for victory. He suffered no distraction, was graced with good health, and faced big matches with an unflinching sternness.

Sampras was the finest offensive player in history, a Panzer tank of a player, but Federer can attack and defend with equal felicity. The Swiss has a wider repertoire and superior imagination; if both men were architects, he would build flowing cathedrals, Sampras straight-lined skyscrapers. Sampras played shots better than we had seen them played, Federer plays shots we have never seen.

Agassi is the best evidence in this particular debate, he has played Pete at his best, and Federer near his best (we must presume Federer can get better). Agassi has been careful not to disrespect Sampras, but at this US Open he made his most definitive statements yet. Said Agassi of Federer: "He plays the game in a very special way I haven't seen it before."

Style will not excite Agassi as it once did, effect does. Once he said of Sampras: "Pete could always let one ball go from the baseline and it would get you in trouble right away, or he could come forward and make you hit a pressure shot in a crucial situation over and over again."

Then last fortnight, he went further with Federer. "He's the only guy I've ever played against where you hold serve to go 1-0 and you're thinking, `All right, good'. And I'm not just making fun of it, I'm literally telling you the way it is. He can hurt you at any point. You're serving 30 love, he wins the point. It's 30-15, the pressure you feel at 30-15 is different than anybody else. So there's a sense of urgency on every point, on every shot.

"Pete was great, no question. But there was a place to get to with Pete, you knew what you had to do. If you could do it, it could be on your terms. There's no such place like that with Roger", Agassi concluded.

Of course, Federer is told this, and even he is stunned. "Agassi saying that I'm better than Sampras, I'm little surprised", said Federer. "But, he says what he thinks is right. I don't think he would be lying in here."

This means more to Federer than you think. In his interview he talks about playing not just people on court, but in the history books. That people is mostly Pete, and he articulates it. No disrespect is meant to Agassi, but Federer says: "For me, I've always looked much more up to Sampras than to Agassi ... For me, Sampras' career is quite extraordinary." If you had to guess it is the single-mindedness of Sampras he is awed by.

Federer like Pete is translating his talent on court, but with six he is not even halfway to 14 Slams. Not even halfway, imagine that. At two Slams a year that is four years, and that is asking a great deal. It means for six years or so, at least, Federer must avoid injury, must hold up his consistency, must do as he does now which is artfully manage his playing schedule to allow for periods of rest, must defy the growing Nadal and whoever else bolts from the pack to challenge him.

How good is Roger Federer? In truth, we don't yet know.