Waiting for a great player

Is greatness a FIGURE, can we just put down a number and say, OK, this is the definition of the great player and leave it at that? For instance, is that number, No. 1, asks ROHIT BRIJNATH.

This computer, which stands in judgement of women's tennis, chewing on a statistical diet of matches won and tournaments played and seeds beaten, then regurgitating a ranking list that every week we swear by, does it comprehend greatness?

Is greatness a figure, can we just put down a number and say, OK, this is the definition of the great player and leave it at that? For instance, is that number, No. 1?

Surely yes. Surely if the computer vomits out your name as numero uno among a thousand or whatever skirt-wearing racquet wielders across the planet, you must be great.

So which means that in this generation itself Lindsay Davenport is great, and Jennifer Capriati is great, and Maria Sharapova is great, and Kim Clijsters and Venus Williams and Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne and Martina Hingis and Serena Williams.

Because every one of them has been No. 1.

Maybe the computer requires urgent rewiring, and the players need to re-look the definition of dominance, and we need to abstain from exaggeration, for greatness has been reduced to a throwaway line, bestowed like some tin medal from a roadside shop, a meaningless label. It even, god forbid, arrives in different shapes and colours: there's great, really great, truly great, greatest French-speaking Belgian, greatest American on clay in past 15 years and 10 minutes, all-time great. Take your pick.

Mauresmo and Capriati and Davenport and Sharapova routinely have descriptions of them littered with great. Of course it's nonsense, an indictment of our vocabulary. At best, Capriati made a great comeback and Sharapova owns a great grunt. As players, they're attractive, tough, impressive, talented. In time, the Russian may become great. We shall see.

No, great is Graf. Let's put it this way. Graf has as many Australian Opens (four) as Henin had slams before arriving at this year's French; the German's French Open wins (six) equal the cumulative slams won by Davenport (3) and Capriati (3); her Wimbledons (seven) match the number of slams won by Mauresmo (1), Sharapova (1) and Venus (5). And we haven't even got to her US Opens (five) yet.

The purpose is hardly to belittle this gaggle of hard-working, forehand-smacking earringed warriors by cruelly comparing them to arguably the finest women's player ever. But modern sport especially, with its pretentious and pomposity, requires the occasional dose of perspective.

Of course, Serena (7 slams, No. 1 at one point for 57 straight weeks) and Hingis (5 slams, No. 1 at different times for 80 and 73 consecutive weeks) and Venus (5 slams) and Henin (5 slams) could play on, bodies and mind abruptly refreshed, and eventually, perhaps, qualify as great.

But up there with Margaret Court 24, Martina, 18, and Chris, 18, and Billie Jean, 12, and Seles, 9 (despite the stabbing), we're probably never going to put them. It's not just the numbers, it's the longevity, for greatness is not merely excellence, but sustained over time.

This era has been, in some ways, tennis' most colourful, but it's also an era absent of a single dominant player, the No. 1 ranking ricocheting from one to the other, titles won then torn swiftly from each other's grasp.

It has been fun, but sport is at its most captivating when it is led by a single champion, lifting the standard, courting history. One individual at the apex of the game, against whose skill everyone else's is measured, a champion revered, envied and chased. This was Becker and Edberg and Wilander chasing Lendl, as once Mac and Connors chased Borg, as later Agassi and his posse pursued Sampras.

For a while Serena shrugged her muscular shoulders, winning four slams in a row and five of six in 2002-03 but it was almost like the effort was too much. She has only won one slam since and we'll never know if she cared enough what might have been.

Still it seemed an exceptional run of form, and the same word might be applied to Hingis' 1997-98, when she reached six finals and two semi-finals in the eight slams she contested. So then what word suffices for Graf, who through 1987 to 1993, played 26 slams and reached 21 finals (won 14), the semi-finals three times, the quarters twice. Not once in that period did she lose earlier.

It has been 19 years since Graf, all flying feet and fearful forehand, grabbed her first grand slam title, and 18 years since California journeywoman Patty Fendick articulated what we all believed when she said: "Ninety-eight percent of the girls are scared to death to play her."

As time sprints by, appreciation of the fastidious fraulein grows; the more we see how difficult it is to take tennis by the throat, the more we are astonished by her feats. Perhaps also we wonder, is tennis not due another champion like her or Martina or Chris. After all, in contrast, men's tennis has been kissed by fortune. In the five-and-a-half decades since 1960, it has presented its four greatest players in succession, Laver, Borg, Sampras, Federer, with scarcely a break in between. It is like some divine gift.

It might be said the women's era is tougher, that Graf could have done her toenails at changeovers in early rounds, while these days young players ask top players impertinent questions from day one. It could be said the tour is unrelenting, the prizes they battle for more seductive, the strain on joints so unbearable, that too much is taken out of modern contenders, who flourish for a year and then slip into temporary decline. It is a sound argument, except men's tennis is a mirror of the women's, big field, long season, injury problems, yet Federer rules.

It could be argued that women's tennis is so overburdened with talent at the top, all preying on each other, that no one talent can shine through before the others conspire to defeat her. It is a nice theory. It does not work. Great players find a way to separate themselves, by definition they are distinctive, craving the spotlight for their special selves, accustomed to standing alone.

Perhaps it just tells us that greatness can't be organised like some PR stunt, can't be manufactured in some computer, it operates to some cycle beyond man's understanding, arriving without warning and then it is gone, and hopefully we remember to stop and appreciate it.

When Sampras left, he suggested the next great player might be a young boy in a park nearby, not realising the next great player was already on the tour. The next great women's player might be one of the players we know, or a girl barely taller than her racquet kicking sand in Mexico. It does not matter. Because the women before us now are grand competitors, elegant in manner and eloquent with racquet. And because waiting for genius is part of the pleasure.