Brady v. MJ – The wrong debate?

With Tom Brady on his way to yet another Super Bowl, and one he’s favored to win no less, the debate over whether or not he’s the best quarterback in NFL history is over. Period.  He is the best to ever do it in the NFL.  So, with one debate ended another has to begin because that’s what we do in sports, we debate things and argue over best teams, players, and rankings.  With Brady now cementing himself as the best quarterback, the debate now seems to have risen to the always hotly contested name of Michael Jordan.  Jordan, who is constantly compared to athletes in his own sport, is widely held as the greatest male athlete of his time, likely ever.  Just the fact that Brady has risen to the level of the American institution that is MJ is a tribute in and of itself.  As someone who has debated MJ versus Lebron countless times in the past I can tell you how intense the MJ fanhood is, and how sacred his name seems to be within sports culture.  Truthfully, the MJ v. Brady debate is a good one, and if you’re looking for that comparison I’m sure you’ll be able to find it.  However, while Brady will be grabbing many of the headlines and news cycle in the coming weeks (win or lose) there is another athlete who has accomplished more while playing in an individual sport where teammates don’t exist and coaching has a minimal impact.  Roger Federer.

I groggily open my eyes as my phone buzzes somewhere on the nightstand next to my bed.  My arm, still sluggish from just waking up, feels frantically for the phone which is on vibrate so as not to wake my wife.  It’s 2:28am.  It’s not an emergency and it’s not a drunk dial from one of my college buddies.  It’s an alarm.  That’s right, I planned to wake up at 2:28am.  I turn off the alarm and crawl out of bed, the grogginess of sleep is quickly starting to dissipate when I remember the reason for setting my alarm at such a seemingly ridiculous time.  I walk downstairs and head for our living room.  As I sit down on the couch I turn on the TV, already set to the channel I want.  As the image comes through I hear one of the Sportscenter anchors say “And we’re ready to throw it down under to Melbourne for the Australian Open Men’s final…” Any remnant of sleep has now left me completely.  I’m tuning in live for Roger Federer v. Marin Cilic for the Australian Open Championship (tennis’ first major tournament of the year).  Federer is going for his 20th major title, looking to become the first male player to reach 20 major titles in the open era of the sport.  He is 36 years old (ancient by most tennis standards) and a titan of the sport, having been dominant for the majority of the last two decades.

As the match progresses I am dialed in, not even considering going back to sleep even though the match continues throughout the earliest hours of the morning.  Federer clearly looks to be the better player through the first three sets, and only a nail-biting 2nd set tiebreak loss prevents Federer from winning the match in straight sets.  But Cilic proved himself to be an incredible fighter and a gritty player as he battled back to force a final and deciding fifth set after dominating Federer in the fourth.  Having felt comfortable through most of the match, I am now incredibly nervous, I want to see Federer win, I want to see history.  But now I’m asking myself the same questions that the announcers are asking, that no doubt every spectator is asking, that people have been asking about Federer for the last five years.  Can Federer deal with his age in major finals?  Can he keep this pace up during longer matches?  Is his court movement good enough to outlast younger opponents? And the simple answer is: yes!

As he’s done throughout his career, Federer remained the epitome of calm during the pivotal fifth set.  At times appearing more focused and more dialed in than he had been throughout the rest of the match.  Where he had lost his serve in the fourth set, he regained it in the fifth.  His forehand became more price, his backhand more consistent, and his court movement appeared to improve drastically.  Whatever physical limitations he may have had versus his younger opponent, Federer’s mental advantage made up for it in spades as he controlled the fifth set from the beginning.  In a way, this match was a testament to Federer’s entire career.  He was dominant for long stretches, ultimately faced adversity at a later stage, and overcame said adversity to secure victory.

I grew up playing all the traditional American sports.  I played football, basketball, and baseball.  As a kid I never showed much interest in any of the other fringe sports, even my interest in golf could be traced directly back to the rise of Tiger Woods.  But once I got late into high school and into college, I discovered tennis.  What I learned about myself is that above all, I respected competition and grit regardless of sport.  And with tennis you get both in copious amounts.  You also get the added factor that tennis is an individual sport and this is a fact which is crucial when comparing Federer to other athletes of our time.  In tennis (as in golf), there are no teammates and there is little to no in-match coaching.  Simply, there is nowhere to hide, nobody else to blame.  If your game starts to falter it is all on you to pull yourself up and fight back.  These facts above all are what make Federer’s dominance so special, even compared to other athletes like Brady and MJ.  When Brady or MJ had an off day, there’s still a chance that their teammates or coaches could pick up the slack.  MJ had Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson.  Brady has possibly the best NFL head coach ever in Bill Belicheck.  Roger has nobody to help him during a match, winning or losing is all on him.  It’s not just that he has been physically able to play this long at such a high level in a young man’s game (though that in itself is amazing), but he has been able to maintain his mental advantage over his opponents throughout his dominant career.

Sitting here on the Tuesday after Fed’s victory, his 20th championship has already been pushed to the bottom of the headlines as the world prepares to watch Tom Brady’s Patriots battle the Eagles in the Super Bowl.  In the end the Patriots will likely win, and if so the spotlight will shine brightest on Tom Brady (as it probably should). In my opinion Federer’s achievements deserve as much, if not more, notoriety as the Super Bowl and Tom Brady.  But in sports we debate.  That’s what we do.  And the only problem with Federer when it comes to sports commentary is that there is no debate, and there hasn’t been for many years. He is the greatest to ever do it on the tennis court, and quite possibly the greatest male athlete of all time.


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