There he was once again, a champion, Rafael Nadal, he of the bad knees who had not won a title on a hard-court surface since beating Gael Monfils in Tokyo in October 2010, who disappeared for 232 days after being upset by Lukas Rosol early at Wimbledon and left a crater-sized hole in the charisma department of the men's game during his absence.
Great players live in sports every day and they are the game's rightful lifeblood, but the true superstars, the showstoppers who turn statistics into art, are about as rare as a comet. Nadal's victory over Juan Martin del Potro in the final at Indian Wells revived the 11-time major winner as an awakened and revitalized force, suddenly no longer unfairly marginalized as only an unbeatable clay-courter. He is 17-1 with three titles since his return, and his defeat of a wounded Roger Federer in the quarterfinals -- their 29th meeting, of which Nadal has won 19 -- reminded me of a day a few years ago. As we prepared for an appearance on "The Sports Reporters," Mike Lupica, already at full fever pitch at 6 a.m., interrupted a tennis conversation in the green room with the following thought:
"How can he be the best player of all time," Lupica asked of Federer, "when he isn't even the best of his time? I mean, can you really call Roger Federer the greatest when there is a guy playing alongside him, during his exact time period, that he can't beat?"
In the world of barstool debate and incessant superlatives, it made for an interesting thought. Watching a revived Nadal raised anew the question of what it takes to be considered the greatest of all time, of whether greatness is more a player competing against the game and its history standards (Federer, 17 majors) or vanquishing one's immediate contemporaries (Nadal, 11 majors but the only active player with a winning record against Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and del Potro, or every major winner since 2006). Tennis and golf, as individual sports, make the question both much easier because they are head-to-head games with no coaches or teammates, and somewhat more difficult because of the emphasis placed on winning major titles.
At first glance, it would appear the question intuitively answers itself. The true answer, naturally, is both: The best player is the one who beat his rivals and won the championships. Michael Jordan is considered the greatest basketball player of all time and no one during his era compared with him, not Clyde Drexler, not Karl Malone, not Patrick Ewing, not Hakeem Olajuwon. Jordan had no rival, not on the court nor in the championship ring department. He controlled the stage.
Tiger Woods' claim on being the greatest ever is routed through one measure -- his quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus' 18 major titles -- but he is not burdened with Federer-like complications, for there isn't a single rival golfer during Woods' time who has ever eclipsed him, not in major titles, not head-to-head and not in the imagination.
Before the Age of Jordan, during the five-year period from 1983 to 1987, Larry Bird was at one point in the conversation of the greatest ever, but that claim dissipated when Magic Johnson surpassed him. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, when both played, Johnson's Lakers were 11-7 against Bird's Celtics. In the postseason, of course, the two were tied at a championship apiece -- that is, until Magic's famed junior skyhook in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals at the Garden and Bird's forlorn postgame presser where he conceded the throne to Johnson and ended the debate. Adding to Johnson's résumé was his win over Bird in the 1979 NCAA title game.
Yet there are numerous examples in which the equation isn't so clean. Bill Russell always said Wilt Chamberlain was the most dominant player in the game, but Russell had more championship rings than fingers. As surprising as it is to me, scores of people believe that John Elway or Dan Marino was the best quarterback they ever saw, even during the time of Joe Montana, winner of four Super Bowls who beat both in the Super Bowl, or that Peyton Manning is a better quarterback than Tom Brady, even though Brady has beaten Manning head-to-head in seven of 10 regular-season meetings and two of three playoff games.
Luckily, the greatest-ever debate is happily meaningless and cheerfully harmless. Choosing Federer or Nadal is like choosing whether San Francisco or Sedona has the better view. There is no poor choice.
Instead, the conversation is reduced to personal preferences, both for the athlete and for the measure. Montana has always, oddly, been diminished because he played in the Bill Walsh system, a system in which he amassed great numbers, but many a quarterback failed. Elway and Marino have been forgiven their Super Bowl miseries because their teams lacked the running game that would have reduced their burdens, and their probability to commit mistakes. The Manning-Brady debate continues, but with less fervor, for the final chapter hasn't been written.
Meanwhile, 31-year-old Federer has won a record 17 majors: seven Wimbledons, five U.S. Opens, four Australian Opens and one French Open. He has 21 Masters 1000 titles and was ranked No. 1 for 302 weeks. Nadal, 26, has won 11 majors: one U.S. Open, two Wimbledon, one Australian Open and seven French Open titles and a record 22 Masters 1000 titles. He is also 19-10 (.655) versus Federer, 19-14 against Djokovic (.576), 13-5 (.722) against Murray and 8-3 (.727) against del Potro. The odd piece of the dynamic is that clay is a more universal surface than grass -- clay has one major and three Masters 1000 tournaments on its surface; grass has Wimbledon -- yet Federer (or Pete Sampras for that matter) was derided as a grass champion the way Nadal is criticized as something less than a true champion because his greatest successes have come on clay.
From this corner of the world, Magic Johnson was my favorite, most feared player to watch (though as a Bostonian I wanted Bird to beat him every time), but Michael Jordan was the best basketball player I've ever seen. Montana is football's greatest quarterback. Wayne Gretzky may be The Great One, but no one was greater than Bobby Orr.
As for tennis, I enjoy watching Nadal the most because of his flair and forehand, his snarl and fight and ferocious approach to the game, but I believe Federer is the greatest player of all time because of his calendar consistency and freakish physical resiliency. For me, Federer's greatness isn't simply derived from winning majors but his staggering imperviousness to a bad day -- as his streaks of 23 straight major semifinal appearances and 35 straight quarterfinals and counting attest.
The proprietorship that fanatics from each camp have for their stars is hilarious and passionate, but the real victory of the debate is just being able to have it, while both make the big stage that much brighter.