Commentary

Rebuilding tennis' Mt. Rushmore

Originally Published: July 21, 2009
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

One of the most compelling sights of this year's Wimbledon was to see Roger Federer surrounded by all-time greats Rod Laver, Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg. There they were, an accomplished quartet, each having cracked the double-digit mark in the major title department.

But does that necessarily make these four tennis's Mt. Rushmore -- four titans who stand above all others?

Not quite. Start by considering these factors that constitute all-time great status:

1. Performance: Does the player post significant results? Typically this centers on major titles. But, of course, Laver missed many during his 21-Slam exile from the game. Then there's the sober truth that the Australian Open didn't start attracting a full-fledged, deep player field until 1988. And then there's the lesser-known reality that for a good deal of time -- probably prior to 1979 -- the French Open was also far less significant. This may make your head turn, but in 1977 Borg eschewed Roland Garros to play World Team Tennis. He wasn't alone.

So yes, performance focuses mostly on majors earned -- but should not constitute the entire evaluation. Consider performance 40 percent of the evaluation criteria.

2. Dominance: How many years was the player considered the leading player of his time? Not just a contender, but the favorite -- the one often expected to win the tournament, any other result being a setback. Make this an equal 40 percent.

3. Longevity: Often overlooked, but a vital part in separating the very great from the great. Did the player continue to post significant results for many years? Perhaps not as important as performance and dominance, so let's give it a 20 percent share of the dialogue.

In slightly different ways, Laver, Sampras and Federer have raised the bar to considerable heights. Though Laver did win six of his 11 majors as an amateur, the fact he earned big titles in 1961 and '69 -- highlighted by his unsurpassed calendar-year Open era sweep in '69 -- speaks to his enduring excellence. Well into the '70s, he remained a top-five player.

Besides winning 14 majors, Sampras finished the year ranked No. 1 a record six straight times, earned majors eight straight years and also became only the second man to win a major singles title in his teens, 20s and 30s.

Still just 27, Federer has set new marks in a new era. Besides having just earned a record 15th major, he's now on a streak of 21 straight Slam semis, could well finish the year ranked No. 1 for a fifth time -- and has spoken frequently about his desire to play into his 30s. Given his exemplary technique, that's a likely scenario that could plausibly add significantly to his already-lofty totals.

Though Borg's topspin groundstrokes and attrition-based baseline game modeled how the game is currently played, his résumé doesn't match those of these three. Certainly winning five straight Wimbledons is a staggering achievement. The records show, though, that in at least two of these years ('76 and '77) Borg clearly was not the year's best player.

Two of the Swede's six French Opens were earned during years when the field was quite shallow. In 1974, for example, Jimmy Connors -- who beat Borg the first three times they played on clay, including the finals of the 1974 U.S. Clay Courts and the 1976 U.S. Open -- was banned from Roland Garros. Only twice did the Swede finish the year ranked No. 1 in the world on the ATP computer (though he likely was the world's best in 1978, a year the computer listed him as No. 2 despite wins at the French and Wimbledon). His 62 singles titles rank him behind Connors, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Federer and Sampras. And finally, Borg played his last Slam at 25, pulling the cord on his career, a step that left at least me questioning his heart.

But there's another overlooked champion who deserves placement alongside Laver, Sampras and Federer. Start with the fact that Ken Rosewall won tennis' most grueling tournament, Roland Garros, twice -- 15 years apart. Rosewall's first Roland Garros came in 1953 when he was an 18-year-old prodigy. The second came in the first major of the Open era, the French Open, where the 33-year-old Rosewall beat Laver in the final. That victory made Rosewall the first man to earn Slams in his teens, 20s and 30s.

[+] EnlargeKen Roswall
Joseph McKeown/Getty ImagesKen Rosewall won his last Grand Slam title nearly two decades after his initial in 1953.

Laver is among the many who also note that in the early '60s, Rosewall was the best player on the planet; Rosewall's finest tennis, alas, was played on the barnstorming pro tour. Banned from glamour spots such as Wimbledon and Forest Hills, Rosewall and his mates carried the candle for Open tennis, crusading by playing everywhere from ice skating rinks to parking lots and even on courts made of cow dung.

But in the Open era -- which started well into Rosewall's 30s -- his achievements were incredible. Two years after that French Open win over Laver, the 35-year-old Rosewall won the U.S. Open, taking out Wimbledon champ John Newcombe in the semis. In 1974, at the age of 39, Rosewall reached the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (Connors pummeled him in both). Rosewall also racked up a pair of Australian Open wins in '71 and '72. Granted, the fields were shallow, but in both of these years, Rosewall also beat Laver in the finals of the World Championship Tennis season-ending playoff in Dallas -- a title that was unquestionably more highly valued than the French or Australian.

The unfortunate aspect of Rosewall's career is that he usually occupied the spotlight alongside someone else. Early in his career, it was his fellow Aussie "Whiz Kid," Lew Hoad -- a scintillating shot-maker who burned out with back injuries. Then, in Rosewall's early pro years, he was matched against the great Pancho Gonzales (himself perhaps Rushmore-worthy). Later came the rivalry with Laver. Only during that period of time in the early '60s did Rosewall hold the throne by himself; over the course of his career, he was barred from 45 majors. Along with Gonzales and Lendl, Rosewall is often considered the greatest player never to have won Wimbledon. But he reached four finals over a remarkable 20-year-period -- and was seeded second there in both 1955 and 1975.

As no less a champion than Sampras has frequently said, over the course of his early tennis education the models were always the great Aussies. Said Sampras: "It was always about Laver and Rosewall, Laver and Rosewall." Laver's genius has been well-celebrated. Now is the time to bring Rosewall up to the mountain.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.