Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Re: the best: Ranking the best at any sport over generations is a tough call. Things change so much that it's really unfair to everyone in the mix. For instance, I think it's fair to say that Sampras would take it to Rod Laver pretty good if we could somehow time travel Laver to 2003 (well, maybe 2000). Sampras is stronger, faster, fitter, has full time coaches and other courtiers on call, and has the advantage of having watched and studied great players, like Laver, to learn about strategy other fine points of the game. But that doesn't earn Sampras the title of best ever, because we have to take Laver's record in the context of the day. The same is, of course, true with Bjorg, McEnroe, and Connors, the other three that typically make up the top five in most lists I see. This is how we come to the great question of "competition faced," because it attempts to level the playing field. How did a player do against the best players, and how does the competition stack up against "the field" in past years.

Barra brings up Tiger Woods, and since I'm more knowledgeable about golf I'll use it as an example. But golf and tennis are very different, so someone else will have to take up that analysis.

The PGA Tour, as a whole, is far deeper today than at any time in the past. There are more players who can truly compete at the highest level now (just look at this year's major winners) than there were in the '60's and '70's, when Jack Nicklaus reigned supreme. However, the key is how many "great players" there are, as opposed to just very good. In that case, I'd say Nicklaus faced tougher competition, having to compete regularly against Palmer and Gary Player in his early days, and Tom Weiskopf and Tom Watson in his later years. They were truly exceptional talents. Tiger faces a very good crop of players, but none that has the same kind of intimidation and ability to win, as opposed to just play well, as a Tom Watson. The closest is Ernie Els, but even he's not at that level and there's noone else even close. So, great as Tiger is (and he may be more talented than Jack) he will have trouble ever measuring up if there's not a complementary group of rivals to test him.

I think Sampras probably suffers from the same lack of real competition. In fact, by these standards, McEnroe and Connors look even more impressive, since they had to face each other so often. But I don't know enough about the competition Laver faced to say how he compares. But I do know that, other than Agassi, Sampras never had to contend with many great players in their prime.

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