In 2007, after I witnessed Roger Federer win his fourth U.S. Open trophy (his 12th Grand Slam at the time), I posed a question: Is he greater at his sport than any other athlete is/was at their respective sports in the history of sports?
Here's the verbatim: Is he greater, more dominant, more merciless, mentally stronger, more separated from everyone else in his sport than all the other "Hims" [note: I referred to Roger throughout the column as "Him"] were/are in theirs?
I threw the sports gods' names out there to compare, contrast and cause controversy: Woods, Armstrong, Russell, Brown, Ruth, Jordan, Gretzky, Pele, Ali. Should Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps win their respective events at the London Olympics, it will be appropriate to throw in their names as well.
It's a fair and earnest question, worth the discussions, arguments and accusations of blasphemy that would more than likely follow once asked out loud and in public.
And it's worth asking again since "He" messed around and won Wimbledon. Again. For the seventh time. A Grand Slam. Again. For the 17th time. Became the No. 1 player in the world for a record 286th total week (a record ranking that will be all his on Monday when he begins week No. 287 as the world's No. 1).
When I looked for tears that refused to fall from his eyes as he stared into the Wimbledon crowd while everyone else looked back at him with a sense of awe so great it felt like clapping just wasn't enough, I realized that in all of sports, this -- this level of greatness by one person -- just might be the one thing we may never see again.
I was forced to revisit.
So is Federer better with a racket in his hands than Jordan was with the ball in his? Or Woods with a club in his? Gretzky with a stick? Greater at tennis than Ali was at boxing? Pele at soccer? Is he a greater tennis player than Ruth was a baseball player? Is he better on the court than Phelps is in the pool? Bolt on the track?
My friend/colleague/idol Rick Reilly wrote a great comparison of Federer and Woods, but this is so beyond just comparing Roger to Tiger it's not funny. All of "the others" must now be brought into the conversation. Tiger needs their help.
For me, the separation of Federer from everyone else comes in what he's done when he hasn't won. True, the 17 Grand Slams are bananas, but it's the 33 consecutive quarterfinal appearances in those Grand Slams that remain beyond comprehension and -- to me it is this fact that trumps almost all others' feats in all other sports -- that seven-year period in which Federer reached at least the semifinals in 23 straight Grand Slams. That is like Woods going seven years straight and never coming in worse than fourth in a major. Just let that marinate for a minute. Finished?
Monumental and epic, even. It really affirms the one element that characterizes greatness more than anything: Consistency. That separates Federer from sports icons and transcends into non-sports categories when trying to universally determine precisely what greatness is.
Is Federer on the same level in tennis that Scorsese is in film, that William Faulkner was in writing, that Quincy Jones is in musical production, that Meryl Streep is at acting, that Rachelle Ferrell is at singing, that Oscar Peterson was at playing the piano, that Oscar Niemeyer is at architectural modernism, that Steve Jobs was at modern innovation?
I understand that this is all subjective, but at some point (and that time is now) this conversation has to go public. Federer basically has given us no choice.
Throughout the process of winning Wimbledon, the word "love" kept coming up. It seemed that whenever people mentioned Federer's name it would be followed by the four-letter decree. About how much he still loved the game, about how he was still "in love" with the game. The McEnroes mentioned it repeatedly during the broadcasts. Paul Annacone (Federer's coach) spoke to it, saying in a USA Today article, "Roger just loves the game and loves the life. His life is the road. He loves it. His family loves it. He loves tennis. He loves who he's become."
And maybe this is where we should leave it. At love. Because maybe that is where the true answer to the question is, in his love for what he does. Maybe Roger Federer isn't necessarily greater, more dominant, more merciless, mentally stronger, more separated from the best ever at what he does than anyone else is at what they do.
Maybe he just loves it more. And it just happens to show.