Print and Go Back Tennis [Print without images]

Thursday, February 18, 2010
Updated: February 19, 5:14 PM ET
Time and place for the dreaded asterisk

Do you want to get tennis fans riled up like Johnny Mac after a bad line call? There's an easy way to do it: Simply pick a popular player and slap an asterisk next to his or her record and make an argument that diminishes this player's accomplishments. Then wait for the fireworks to begin.

We were reminded of the incendiary nature of the "asterisk argument" when's Peter Bodo recently posted a blog about Roger Federer's head-to-head record against Rafael Nadal. Bodo believes that Federer's championship run at last year's French Open deserves a qualifying asterisk because he didn't beat his nemesis and clay-court superior, Nadal, for the title. Judging by the more than one thousand vociferous comments his piece generated, them were fighting words.

Although it may be worth noting that Federer didn't have to beat Nadal at the French, it's nothing more than an interesting tidbit, a factoid, which should not be made into the lynchpin of a bigger argument. Let's set the record straight, shall we? It's not as if Federer has control over who he faces in a Grand Slam; he competed against, and defeated, the players who were facing him on the other side of the net. In other words, he did his job. And it wasn't as if Nadal wasn't in the draw. He, too, competed in the tournament and lost to a hard-hitting gunslinger named Robin Soderling.

But what if Nadal didn't even enter the tournament? Would that make a difference? Or what if he winds up getting injured and retiring from the game, and Federer eventually wins more French titles? Would his record require even more conspicuous asterisks?

The dreaded asterisk has long been an agitating conceit used by those who sit around trying to dream up dubious arguments for, or against, professional athletes. It was most famously branded against Roger Maris when Major League Baseball commissioner Ford Frick said the slugger would have a "distinctive mark" next to his single-season home run record. The baseball establishment eventually woke up and decided that a season is a season.

Federer's case is different for obvious reasons, but putting the "distinctive mark" next to his name would send us all down a ridiculous slippery slope. Do we slap Steffi Graf's record with an asterisk since she won all those titles when Monica Seles was off the tour, recuperating from being stabbed? Is McEnroe less of a champion because Bjorn Borg burned out and failed to give him a sustained fight? Was Roy Emerson's Grand Slam record bogus because he didn't have to face Rod Laver for much of the 1960s because the Rocket turned pro and Emerson "padded" his résumé by defeating the likes of Fred Stolle and Arthur Ashe?

It's nonsense. If you accept any of these arguments, if you accept that we should parse each player's record to decide the quality of their opponents -- and the quality of their Grand Slam titles, Masters Series titles and so on -- then you accept that no statistic, no record, means much at all. Everything could be twisted and turned to support virtually any point of view.

There is a place for the asterisk. It should be used for players who are found guilty of cheating the sport. Otherwise, leave the "distinctive mark" in the bag.