what makes someone the "greatest" or the "best" at something? i've mainly been thinking about this recently in terms of tennis, as in who's the best: federer or nadal? but i noticed that a lot of the same basis for the debate between those two was repeated in the NBA debate about kobe and lebron. it seems like at the root of it, there's an acknowledgment that these guys dominate their sport, but in different fashions. federer (or kobe) is typically represented as developed talent, the result of hours of practice combined with their natural ability for the game, meanwhile nadal (or lebron) are seen as raw skill, their athleticism carrying them to the top and the actual sport-specific skills having only been developed as an afterthought. federer is the artist, nadal is the bashing brute. kobe has the mid-range spinning fadeaway, lebron drives to the hoop with the ball cradled under his arm like a football player.
first of all, i want to point out how unfair these stereotypes are to both sides, as they typically get locked into them without consideration for the overlap that occurs. sure, federer might be the best improviser and nadal the best retriever. but people rant about that so much that they completely ignore the fact that nadal is the second best strategist out there and that federer goes from defense to offense just as easily. federer even went so far as to point this out at the french open, when his matches lasted longer than they had in the past and he seemed to struggle more. he didn't see this as a bad sign; he even was happy about it because of how it forced people to acknowledge his ability to scrap like nadal. he said that finally people got to see how much time he devotes to building endurance, both mental and physical, and he liked that he got to show off his ability to play for hours without wearing down.
ultimately, both men are achieving tennis feats that i will never be capable of. and in my mind, they are really on an equal footing in terms of quantity of greatness. but, despite my address above pleading for people to look at the players as individual wholes, instead of simply seeing where they differ from each other the most, the difference in their styles and abilities does exist. and it is there that the difference in the type of greatness that each man has is seen. if i were to try to simplify the difference as much as possible, i would say that when they hit their respective mind-boggling and awe-inspiring shots, what gives rise to those adjectives is the exact opposite for each of them. federer makes it look so damn easy, and nadal makes it look so damn hard. federer never seems in trouble, and nadal wins points even when stuck between the sideline and a hard place.
in terms of general perception of who is better, federer is already at a disadvantage. he undermines his own case, for by making the tennis look easy, he also makes it easy to forget how hard it is to replicate what he does. meanwhile when watching nadal, it's impossible to ever forget how hard he's working. a 100 mph forehand hit from his shoestrings while on a dead sprint is at first glance, especially to the uninformed, much more impressive than a federer touch volley. (mid-rant side-note: as i said above, don't forget that their positions in that sequence could easily be switched. federer has power and nadal has soft hands. they simply make use of each with different frequency). in the end the question remains, who is more impressive? the man who does the impossible while making it look like you could do it? or the man who does the impossible despite its obvious impossibility?
it's tempting to simply label federer the better tennis player and nadal the better athlete. but that's bullshit, and is a not so clever way of avoiding the question. and, because i do what i want, i'm going to brazenly ignore their head-to-head record and anoint federer the best. and by the way, that goes for kobe over lebron, as well (although bear with me for another mid-rant side-rant here. tennis clearly has two dominant stars, and they are the only ones worth considering in the debate. with basketball? not so much. it helps that tennis is an individual sport, while basketball players also have to deal with the constraints of their team or position. but there are at least 5 worthy candidates for basketball's best) anyway, here's my reasoning behind choosing federer. assuming that federer and nadal each do things that nobody else could do as consistently as them, and also assuming that they could do what the other does (which i think is fair, they've demonstrated the ability at any rate, the rest is just strategy), i have to choose the guy who does it without having to try hard. because that apparent lack of effort, represents a greater ability. it represents the footwork federer has to get into position well ahead of the ball, so that he doesn't have to hit on a dead run, even if he can. it represents the muscle memory federer has so that he can crank up his serve to 128 mph from 120 with no change in motion. and so on. anyway, at the end of it all, i thoroughly enjoy their rivalry (as long as federer is winning), and recommend that you watch them face off whenever possible. definitely try to check out their aussie open final, by the way, i've been outraged by how little attention that got, that match was amazing. here's some video from that:
also, for further reading on the subject, i never get tired of reading david foster wallace's article on federer. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html.
p.s. federer's wife recently gave birth to twin girls. the bookies already have odds set at 100-1 that one of them wins wimbledon before age 25. that's totally worth a $10 bet, right?
(unless it was actually roger having nadal's babies...no homo)