The greatest ... or not

“Great” used to be such a great word.

Back — way back almost a century ago — it truly connoted something.

We had a Great War, a Great Depression and, in between those two, a great fictional character, Jay Gatsby, whose embodiment of the American dream is a model of literary endurance. And nobody regarded any of that adjectival action as a matter of overstatement.

But today “great” no longer suffices. Today we require “greatest” and use it so indiscriminately that the concept is being thoroughly depreciated.

Nowhere is that truer than in the realm of sports. Every book now trumpets “the greatest game,” “the greatest match,” “the greatest player,” as if the writer couldn’t possibly convince a reader if he hadn’t already insisted upon it up front.

And, of course, “the greatest ever” spills off our sports pages with stunning frequency. Over the past weekend in sports, a busy but hardly epic one, the “greatest” debate was triggered by three different sporting events showcasing three different athletes: by tennis’s French Open (Roger Federer with his record-tying 14th major title), by golf's Memorial Tournament (Tiger Woods, of course), and by a Los Angeles Lakers victory in the second game of the NBA Finals (Kobe Bryant transcendent.)

The resurrection of Kobe as the putative heir to Michael Jordan — and quite possibly better than the original — shows just how silly the entire exercise is. It was only a couple weeks ago that LeBron James reigned supreme and was getting the nod over Bryant, not only for the league’s MVP Award but also for the top spot in basketball’s eternal pantheon. The conventional wisdom of the moment was that LeBron could hurt an opponent in more ways than Kobe, which lasted until he couldn’t hurt Orlando in enough ways to carry his Cleveland Cavaliers into the Finals. The very fact of this debate reveals the shelf life for unrivaled greatness at no more than a decade. Which is silly. Even if your memory doesn’t span back that far, mine does and — trust me — nobody was better than Michael Jordan.

Tiger’s bumpy recovery from his most recent knee surgery had some experts convinced that he would never again dominate and might not catch Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championships, which had once been a foregone conclusion. Without that record, some wondered, what claim would he have to “greatest golfer ever”? His come-from-behind victory last weekend at the tourney Nicklaus himself hosts was a timely reminder of his incomparable prowess. Majors are one measure of the man, but hardly the only one. Tiger does not require any crowning achievement (though I fully expect him to pass Nicklaus). He is the best ever by virtue of the stranglehold he has maintained on the game — for more than a decade and in a far more competitive era.

The highlight of the sports weekend was Roger Federer’s French Open triumph (though the final itself was anti-climactic against an overmatched, just-happy-to-be-there, no-name Swede). With Federer’s first French victory, he not only tied Pete Sampras’ mark of 14 major titles, but added his name to the handful of men to win all four majors. In tennis circles, Federer clearly holds the tiebreaker, as Sampras never got past the semis on the clay at Roland Garros.

But does the record automatically make Federer the “greatest player ever”? Most sports fans, quick to proclaim him so, never saw Rod Laver play. Obviously it is difficult to make comparisons across the span of almost a half century. Federer is a more impressive physical specimen than was the slight and diminutive Laver, though his prowess is obviously bolstered by modern technology and conditioning regimens. And Federer has conquered a far more expansive tennis world than the one Laver ruled. Still, back then, tennis was a much bigger deal in countries like Australia and the United States and attracted elite athletes who now gravitate to a wider range of sports.

And Laver’s accomplishments are unparalleled. In 1962 he became one of only two men to win the Grand Slam, all four majors in the same year. (Three women have pulled off that trick). Afterwards Laver turned pro and was thus ineligible for the major championships. But seven years later, when tennis launched its Open era and pros were welcomed back in the fold, Laver repeated his Grand Slam feat, making him the only player ever to capture the Slam twice.

Laver totaled 11 major titles in his career, three less than Federer. But with eight in 1962 and 1969 alone, it’s reasonable to assume that had he been eligible those six seasons in between, Laver would now hold the record — and quite possibly out of Federer’s reach. At the very least, we wouldn’t be crowning Federer “greatest ever” quite so blithely.

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The greatest ever?