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Maybe the greatest, definitely my favorite
On Roger Federer's retirement, plus Links of the Week: RIP a campus evangelist, a strange night at a comedy club, the mystery of 312, and much more
Every so often, somebody (usually Rolling Stone) puts out a list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, or the 100 greatest movies, or the 50 greatest episodes of BREAKING BAD, or the 17 greatest Norman Rockwell paintings, or whatever. I generally glance at the list just to make sure “Stairway To Heaven” is still at the top— “Stairway To Heaven” is often ranked as not just the greatest song but also, surprisingly, the greatest Norman Rockwell painting. I’m not clear on the system Rolling Stone uses there.
But I don’t really care about what anybody thinks is the greatest. The more interesting question is the personal one: What’s your favorite?
The BEST is something you might be able to measure, through statistics or cultural impact or critical consensus. By those standards, “Stairway To Heaven” could well be the greatest song of all time. But my FAVORITE song is the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” One of the great intros of all time, an absolutely lethal bass line, those cascading guitars, and a phenomenal lead vocal by 11-year-old, pre-problematic Michael Jackson. To me, it can’t be beat.
Which brings me to Roger Federer.
Federer announced Thursday that he’s retiring at age 41. He will not end up with the most Grand Slam titles in history*—his two remarkable rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, both passed him this year. (Nadal now has 22, Djokovic 21, Federer 20.) There was a time when it seemed Federer would run away with the title of greatest champion. At the end of 2007 he had 12 Grand Slam titles, Nadal had just three, and Djokovic had yet to win his first. But the epic battles between Federer and Nadal were just beginning. And as Djokovic found new levels to his game, he caught up to both of them.
*We are talking about men’s tennis here. Serena Williams (23 Grand Slams) tops everybody, no matter what Margaret Court says. Serena is both the best and my favorite.
Tennis fans have argued for years, and will argue for decades, about which of the Big Three is the best. Nadal has the most Slams for now, although his are heavily tilted toward the clay of the French Open (he’s won there 14 times). Djokovic seems to have the most time left to build a lead, although he has self-selected out of several recent majors by refusing to get the COVID vaccine. But the answer, to me, goes beyond numbers. Who did you love to watch the most, and why?
Nadal has always been someone I admired more than enjoyed. His game is about relentless effort, and even when he’s winning easily it feels exhausting to watch. I root for Djokovic because he was an underdog for so long—it took years before fans accepted him as an equal. His game is about power and endurance, and it took both to climb the mountain up to where the other two were waiting.
But Federer …
If you love sports, and you were trying to convert somebody who doesn’t love sports, what would you show them? Maybe you’d show Steph Curry making ridiculous threes, or Ken Griffey Jr.’s glorious swing, or Barry Sanders baffling tacklers. Something that feels like the essence of beauty and magic. Something like “10 Times Roger Federer Blew Our Minds.”
All the best tennis players are capable of hitting incredible shots. But Federer hit shots nobody had ever seen before. He had the power and the effort and the endurance and all the other things his rivals had, but on top of all that, his game was about imagination. He could see the court like no one else … well, maybe that’s not right. Maybe the others could see those shots in their minds. Federer was the only one who could actually make them.
A new era of tennis is coming—Carlos Alcaraz, the young Spaniard who won the U.S. Open last week, has thrilling potential. Nadal is 36 and Djokovic 35. It’s possible that neither will win another major. It’s also possible that they hold off the kids a few years longer, and create some space on the Grand Slam list between the two of them and Federer. That would make it harder to argue that Federer was the very best.
It doesn’t matter. Roger Federer was the most beautiful and creative tennis player I’ve ever seen. Nadal and Djokovic are giants. But they’ll never be my favorite.
10 things I wanted to share this week:
Yesterday I sent out my first Ask Me Anything post for paid subscribers—we talked about books, dogs, the South, and so much more. Thanks so much to everyone who sent in questions, and everyone who signed up to read the post. FYI, if you upgrade to a paid subscription, you can go back and read that post anytime.
This week’s SouthBound podcast was a replay of my conversation from last year with Kyle Petty.
My weekly for WFAE was about how South Carolina Republican men, among many others, are ignoring Republican women when it comes to abortion.
This story by Michael Wilson is going to stick with me a while: The New York City crime wave … at an address that doesn’t exist.
DOG NEWS: While I work on my book, I’m devoting this slot to dog stories. This week: The creator of Hank the Cowdog.
The evangelists who went by Brother Jed and Sister Cindy were regulars at the University of Georgia when I was a student in the ‘80s. Here’s an obit of Brother Jed by the great Susan Orlean.
Our British crime drama of the week was TRACES, the story of a young woman who returns to her hometown to learn more about her mother’s unsolved murder. One of the leads is Laura Fraser, who you might know as Lydia on BREAKING BAD.
This Twitter thread from comedian Donnie Sengstack was quite the journey.
A hobby I’ve picked up lately is going through my friends list on Spotify and checking out some of their playlists. Tressie McMillan Cottom, my recent guest on SouthBound, has a wonderful playlist that explores country, rock and soul, and the places they overlap. That’s where I found this track from Lucius, a band I’d never heard of, doing a stripped-down cover of the old Gerry Rafferty hit “Right Down the Line.”
See y’all next week, everybody.
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