December 15, 2017
The British public have voted Roger Federer as their BBC (TV) Overseas Sports Personality of the Year for a record fourth time.
That’s one more time than two other towering figures from world sport.
The boxer, Muhammad Ali and the athlete, Usain Bolt won the award three times.
It shows the love the Brits have for Federer – an admiration at least equal to the one they possess for their own tennis star, Andy Murray.
The vote also shows it is not just the lucky Wimbledon goers who adore Roger. Millions watching on TV feel the same way.
But is Federer really greater than Bolt and Ali?
He has nineteen Grand Slam singles titles to his name and he is still kicking it at the age of 36. Moreover, Federer has done it in style. He has a grace about him – and it runs deep.
There is the physical grace of his on-court game, and then there is the grace he displays in the way he conducts himself off-court too.
Roger Federer isn’t just an ambassador for tennis and for sport. He has transcended sport. He could be an ambassador for planet earth, that’s how cool he is. A truly great man.
But greater than Ali, for example? Probably not, and here’s why.
Muhammad Ali had tougher battles to fight – and we’re not just talking about boxing, where he became the only man to be lineal heavyweight world champion three times.
Sure, we remember how he beat Sonny Liston to become champ at the age of 22, as Cassius Clay, before he converted to Islam and changed his name.
We recall how he beat George Foreman in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire at the age of 33.
In between those fights there were the epic battles against his arch-rival, Joe Frazier. And when Ali beat Leon Spinks for fresh glory in 1978, he too was 36, just as Federer is now.
But Ali’s true fight and the real origin of his greatness often came outside the ring.
Take the time he was drafted into the US Military in 1966 – and refused to fight in Vietnam. He was thrown into prison and lost more than four years of his career as a conscientious objector.
Why do many consider than stance to have been brave, even opinion-changing, when he refused to fight? Because he went against the flow to follow his principles, when it might have been far easier to stay quiet and allow himself to be sent to war with all the others.
History, it could be said, proved Muhammad Ali to be right. Looking back, the Vietnam War is regarded as tragic, unnecessarily costly in human life, unwinnable and largely pointless, though we should of course in no way underestimate or disrespect the suffering or bravery of those who were unlucky enough to be caught up in the years of conflict.
Then we have to consider Ali’s fight to improve rights for African Americans, for social justice. He was at the forefront of that battle, one that continues even today, with others having taken up the fight.
So Ali was ahead of his time, a great man in so many ways. More ways, perhaps, than even the great Federer.
That’s not to detract from what Federer does for the disadvantaged away from tennis courts. He is a hugely generous and caring man. But perhaps his off-court battles haven’t shaped on-going changes to the world in quite the way Ali’s did.
Now let’s consider Usain Bolt. There has probably never been a sportsman quite so obviously better than anyone else. In his prime, Bolt was so much faster than the rest that he could relax and almost stroll down the track…and still win.
He took the 100 metres and 200 metres titles at three consecutive Olympic Games. His world records for the 100 metres (9.58 secs) and 200 metres (19.19 secs) made him the first to hold both landmarks concurrently since proper automated records were first kept.
Moreover, they are truly unbelievable times, which created jaw-dropping reactions around the world, and they may not be beaten for decades.
Can Federer boast the same dominance? On clay, even Federer admits that he is nothing like the best of his own era. That distinction goes to Rafael Nadal, who might even still eclipse Roger’s record Grand Slam haul.
That is not in any way to diminish what Federer has achieved. He is the best tennis player ever to have walked the planet. The most loved tennis player too. He is also one of the most loved human beings on earth. Just like Bolt.
What more can anyone hope to achieve? They have all transcended sport and become adored worldwide.
It’s just that we cannot say that his fourth Overseas BBC Sports Personality award makes Roger Federer better than Muhammad Ali and Usain Bolt.
And you know what? Federer probably wouldn’t want to be considered greater than those guys. He will be more than happy to be mentioned in the same breath, where he very much belongs.
Isn’t tennis lucky to have such a superb individual among its ranks? Congratulations Roger Federer – for yet another well-deserved accolade.