Pumpsie

Pumpsie Green passed away on Wednesday. He was 85. I wrote his story a few months ago.


Elijah "Pumpsie" Green was the first African American player to appear in a game for the Boston Red Sox. He did that on July 21, 1959. You probably know that; it's Baseball Trivia 101. It's likely, too, that you know that the Red Sox were the last team in baseball to integrate.

And you might know -- if you read this blog with any regularity -- that I rarely miss an opportunity to point out that Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey is the single worst member in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I am not for throwing people out of the Hall of Fame. But if told I got one of those giant hooks they used on Vaudeville to yank people off the stage, and I had to use it to remove one person … yeah, Yawkey would be out tomorrow. The people of Boston have already done something like this when at Fenway Park they changed “Yawkey Street” back to its original “Jersey Street.”

My only wish is that they had called it "Pumpsie Green Street.”

Let's go back 60 years ... to spring training of 1959.

* * *

Pumpsie Green was not the first African American signed by the Boston Red Sox. No, the first black player they signed was Piper Davis. There's a lot to say about Davis -- fantastic hitter, played for the Harlem Globetrotters, as a Negro leagues manager, he basically raised a young Willie Mays -- but we’ll save all that for his article.

The main point to make about Piper Davis is that the Red Sox signed him in 1950, back in the very early days of integration. Davis was 32 years old. And here’s what happened next: He was sent to Scranton for 15 games, hit .333 and slugged .540. He was promptly released so that the Red Sox didn't have to pay him his full bonus.

That’s not supposition. No, the Red Sox said that’s EXACTLY why they released Davis. They didn’t want to pay him his full bonus. They should give you an idea about the kind of operation Tom Yawkey ran.

In 1953, the Red Sox signed Pumpsie Green at age 19. He was given no bonus. Shortly after that, the Sox signed a promising African American pitcher, the gifted Earl Wilson. In Wilson's scouting report, the scout wrote: "Not too black."*

Green and Wilson would have a friendly race to become the first black baseball player in Boston. Wilson was the better prospect and might have been the first, except that he went into the Marines in 1957. That left the stage for Pumpsie.

Trouble was, Pumpsie Green struggled at the plate. He was a fine defensive player at multiple positions, and he had a bit more power than was typical for a middle infielder in his day. But he couldn't quite get enough hits to capture the Red Sox unsteady attention. Yawkey didn’t want a black player anyway. So it was easy to write off Pumpsie Green after he hit .253 in Minneapolis in 1958.

But then came spring training of 1959. And Pumpsie Green could do no wrong. The writers, the management, even other teams couldn't take their eyes off him. "He never looks overmatched," one writer gushed. Cleveland's manager Joe Gordon, a future Hall of Famer, was thoroughly impressed. "He'll do a major league job for you at any position," he said.

That year, 1959, the Red Sox moved their training camp from Sarasota, Fla., to Scottsdale, Ariz., but they had not escaped the Deep South at all. Green was made to stay separate from the team in a Phoenix hotel more than 10 miles away. He didn't have a car, so -- as the papers reported -- "an Indian boy took him to camp and back." After a while, the Red Sox did rework Green's living arrangements, but they did not do this to get him closer to the team. Instead, they put him up in a hotel where some black Giants players were staying.

The Boston Globe explained all this in their weekly "Ask a baseball question" section.

Q: Why didn't Green stay in Scottsdale, like any other Red Sox player?

A: Because the exclusive Scottsdale hotels, motels and inns would not have him, that's how exclusive Scottsdale is.

The Red Sox should not have lived in Scottsdale themselves under such conditions. If Navy and Notre Dame can spurn the Sugar Bowl and the Deep South because of segregation, certainly a big league team should be able to do the same.

Yes, of course they should have been able to do the same; but the Red Sox were not interested. To the contrary, they had some Jim Crow policies of their own. When the Red Sox and Cubs flew to play an exhibition game in Texas, Green flew there ON THE CUBS PLANE As he disembarked, someone asked, "Who are you?"

Green replied, "I am the foreign correspondent with the Chicago Cubs."

And still, despite all this, Pumpsie Green hit -- .400 for the spring -- and he played good defense anywhere they put him, and numerous reporters called him the star of Red Sox camp. It was clear both from the newspaper stories then and the behind-the-scenes stories that would emerge later that Red Sox GM Bucky Harris was fully impressed and deeply embarrassed by the Red Sox racial intolerance and that he fully intended to keep Pumpsie Green on the roster in 1959.

However, quotes from our hero Tom Yawkey, who is in the Hall of Fame, were not as promising.

"The Sox," Yawkey said, "will bring up a Negro if he meets our standards."

Yawkey was always saying coded stuff like that ... and still, you cannot overstate how popular Yawkey was. Everybody just adored the guy. On most levels, it makes no sense at all. The Red Sox never won a World Series with him as owner. His personal racism cost the team the chance to sign some of the best players in baseball history (including Willie Mays and Hank Aaron).

And he must have had some personal charisma that doesn't translate well in newsprint because, honestly, he constantly comes off like a total jerk. When people stand up to defend him, they always talk about how good he was to his players and how good he was for Boston. I’ve read the clippings. I don’t see it at all.

"We'll bring them in and throw them out," Yawkey said of his team that season. "If the players we have aren't doing the job, we'll get rid of them."

What a charmer.

As it turns out, despite Bucky Harris’ support, Pumpsie Green did not make the team coming out of spring training in 1959. Why? Hard to say. One Boston reporter said that Red Sox manager Pinky Higgins went over his general manager's head and directly into Yawkey's office -- they were close personal friends -- and he said, "There will be no n--- on this team as long as I have anything to do with it."

I don’t know if that story is true. What is true is that Harris suddenly went into deep silence. Stories began including snippets like "Multiple calls to Harris' phone went unanswered," or "Harris was unavailable even though he was known to be in town." My guess is that Harris told his friends in the press that Higgins and Yawkey refused to let him bring Green to the majors and he wasn't happy about it.

He was fired a year later.

The Red Sox refusal to have a black player had been overlooked in Boston for many years. But when Pumpsie Green was sent down, something fundamental had changed. There was an uproar. The offices were flooded with angry calls (1959 version of texts) and telegrams (1959 version of emails). The Boston Globe reported the news on its front page in a story by Bob Holbrook that's some weird combination of editorial and news story and language that has not aged well.

"There was some eye-raising when the announcement came. Writers were searching for batting figures for Green ... Others expected it. And maybe Pumpsie did too. But one thing about Green, he did not take the opportunity to pop off about ill-treatment. He refused pointedly to answer any and all questions shot at him. … A smart boy. There is nothing to be gained by creating a furor over taking another turn in the minors. Which leads us to the point. Was Pumpsie given a "fair shake?" I'd say yes."

Later, Holbrook added this: "Being the lone Negro on a ball club is no fun. The Red Sox should know by now that a team cannot have one Negro ... there must be at least two."

Protest continued to flood in. The NAACP and the Boston Ministerial Association immediately demanded an investigation into the Red Sox' hiring practices. The Red Sox grew so freaked out that they called for an emergency meeting in Boston and promptly released a spectacular series of impossibly stupid statements, such as the one from an unnamed official who explained that the reason the Red Sox didn't hire any African American groundskeepers or maintenance workers was because, "for the past several years, there have been no Negroes applying for jobs at Fenway Park."

The reporter added this telling line after that quote: "This, he pointed out, was not the fault of the Red Sox."

After that fiasco, the Red Sox denied even holding the meeting:

"We certainly have done everything possible to make Pumpsie Green happy," a Red Sox PR man said. "I know that when his wife came down, she came to me one afternoon and said, 'I want to thank you for all your kindness.'"

Then came the most remarkable turn of all: Tom Yawkey threatened to get out of baseball over the criticism. The story appeared in the April 12 Boston Globe under the headline: "Will Yawkey Quit Boston?" Yawkey was sick of all the criticism revolving around Pumpsie Green. He didn't need this nonsense. He didn’t need this game. He didn’t need this aggravation.

From the story:

The greatest danger is that Tom Yawkey, one of baseball's top owners, might be agitated to the point of quitting baseball and the Red Sox. ... Yawkey is the sort of man who gets his back up when he feels anybody is trying to interfere with his operations.

The reporter explained that this wasn't the first time Yawkey threatened to take his ball and go home. When players made numerous demands at the winter meetings, Yawkey responded: "Well, there are two or three things I can do -- and one of them is to withdraw from baseball!"

And another time — this is really incredible — the writer remembered talking with Yawkey after a few negative stories had appeared in the paper.

"What do you think would happen if the Red Sox ever left Boston?" Yawkey asked.

"It would be a pretty darn cold day."

"I mean," Yawkey said, a bit more directly, "what do you think would happen?"

"As a sports town, it would probably break Boston's back."

"Exactly!" Yawkey said, snapping his fingers. "And I could do it like that!"

What a Hall of Famer.

Let's get back to Pumpsie Green. He had been placed in an impossibly unfair position. He was sent back to Minneapolis, and reporters were hounding him to respond to his demotion. There was no percentage in him speaking out. So he didn’t.

"I don't want to be a crusader.,” he said. “I just want to play baseball."

Did he think that the Red Sox had sent him down because he was black?

"I figured I just didn't make the club," he said. "I hope, one day, to play in the majors. If I didn't believe I could make it, I'd try another line of business. But right now, I'm interested in being a good American Association second baseman."

The Red Sox loved that answer, and they used it repeatedly as a shield against all lines of attack. "Hey,” they basically said, “If Pumpsie Green didn't have any problem with this, why should you?"

But the Pumpsie Green saga did highlight race relations in Boston sports. For years, the white newspapers had looked the other way. But now, they didn’t. The Globe printed several stories about the Red Sox’ shameful history and, for the first time, told the story of a tryout set up by Boston city councilman Izzy Muchnick and legendary Pittsburgh Courier writer Wendell Smith.

In 1945, with many black soldiers overseas fighting for the United States, Muchnick made numerous public statements about how unfair it was for African Americans to be excluded from Major League baseball. He went public with a letter he received from Red Sox executive Eddie Collins, who insisted that black players didn't WANT to play in the majors.

Wendell Smith saw the letter and immediately contacted Muchnick to state the obvious: Of course African Americans wanted the chance to play. Together, Muchnick and Smith wrote back to Collins who responded: If you can provide black players, the Boston Red Sox will happily give them a tryout.

Muchnick and (mostly) Smith called this bluff. Smith got three players for a tryout — Sam Jehtroe, Marvin Williams and a guy named Jackie Robinson. Collins, realizing he was trapped, agreed to the tryout but only under the condition that no photographers be allowed. He didn't want proof of the tryout to leak out, particularly to a certain owner.

In Muchnick's memory, Jethroe and Williams struggled in the tryout.

But Robinson ...

"I'm telling you," Muchnick told the Globe, "you never saw anyone hit the ball the way Robinson did that day -- bang, bang, bang, he rattled it."

Muchnick added that after the tryout, Red Sox manager Joe Cronin said of Robinson, "If I had that guy on this club, he'd be a world beater." Cronin even talked about signing Robinson and starting him in Richmond.

That was the last Muchnick, Smith or Robinson heard from the Boston Red Sox.

Back in 1959, April passed, so did May, so did June and still the Boston Red Sox were the only team in baseball to have never had a black player in the field. Green was crushing the ball in Minneapolis. Earl Wilson was blowing hitters away. But there was no movement.

Then, finally, something happened: On July 3, 1959, after Boston's fifth straight loss, Yawkey fired his friend Pinky Higgins. Well, that’s not right: Higgins was given some sort of new job. What? Even Red Sox general manager Bucky Harris didn't know. ("I was hoping Mr. Yawkey would come to talk about it," he told the press.) But whatever the case, Higgins was no longer manager.

And eighteen days later, on July 21, 1959, Pumpsie Green came in as a defensive replacement, finally breaking through and becoming the first African American ballplayer for the Boston Red Sox. The next day, he became the first to start a game. Six days after that, Earl Wilson pitched a scoreless inning as he became the first African American pitcher in Red Sox history.

Green played parts of five seasons in the big leagues, four of them with the Red Sox. He was a humble man who taught school and coached baseball for 25 years after he let baseball. He never felt comfortable being called a pioneer. “I would like to be remembered in Red Sox history as just another ballplayer,” he told the author Harvey Frommer. He was, of course, more than that.

Buck and the Hall

I’ve written about this many times before … but it’s Baseball Hall of Fame week, and there’s some talk again about electing Buck O’Neil to the Hall. So I think it’s worth, one more time, briefly going over what happened in 2006 (wow, it’s impossible to believe that 13 years have gone by) and once again asking this question:

“What does the Hall of Fame mean, anyway?”

Let’s begin in 2001. That was the year that the Veteran’s Committee voted Bill Mazeroski into the Hall of Fame. Whether or not you believe Maz worthy of the Hall of Fame, that turned out to be a fateful vote. People in and around the Hall — including, obviously, some influential people — felt Maz was not quite up to Hall of Fame excellence and that his inclusion lowered the Hall’s standards.

As such, the Veteran’s Committee was disbanded.

This decision directly impacted the Hall of Fame’s connection to the Negro Leagues; that’s because in addition to voting in veteran players, the Vet Committee also voted in Negro Leagues players. In the previous seven year, the Vets had elected seven of the greatest Negro Leagues players ever:

1995: Leon Day
1996: Bill Foster
1997: Willie Wells
1998: Bullet Rogan
1999: Smokey Joe Williams
2000: Turkey Sternes
2001: Hilton Smith

The driving force on the Veteran’s Committee for Negro Leagues election was Buck O’Neil.

Once the committee was disbanded, however, there seemed no way to elect any more Negro Leaguers. That didn’t sit well with anyone.

“This doesn’t mean it’s the end for the Negro Leaguers,” Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson insisted. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

Idelson was true to his word. That year, 2001, the Hall of Fame — funded by a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball — commissioned a study of blacks in baseball before 1960. And when that study ended, the Hall put together the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues — an impressive collection of historians, academics and writers who dedicated much of their lives to study Negro Leagues Baseball — and gave the committee essentially limitless power to elect all the Negro Leaguers they deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame.

It was widely assumed that one of the people the committee would elect was Buck O’Neil (it was so widely assumed that O’Neil was specifically left off the Special Committee). Buck had become the face of Negro Leagues baseball because of his star turn on Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, because of his relentless efforts to keep the leagues memories alive, because if you happened to meet him you felt your life altered.

These, admittedly, are not the qualities that most people associate with the Baseball Hall of Fame. Those qualities are usually about baseball numbers, baseball achievements, on-the-field excellence. Buck was a good player. He won a Negro Leagues batting title and almost won a second. He was a stellar defensive first baseman. He was fast. He was, as Bill James has written, probably a lot like the fine ballplayer Mark Grace.

Should Mark Grace go the Baseball Hall of Fame?

No. Of course not.

Then again, was Mark Grace a pennant-winning manager? Was Grace the first African American coach in baseball history? Was Grace a pioneering scout? Was Grace a crucial father figure for a whole generation of African American baseball stars, from Ernie Banks to Lou Brock to Billy Williams to Bob Gibson to Dusty Baker? Was Grace a clear voice for the baseball voiceless for more than a half century?

“What does the Hall of Fame mean, anyway?”

We’ll get back to that question.

The 12-person committee met for the final vote on February 27, 2006. They had a ballot of 39 names. A person needed nine of the 12 votes for Hall of Fame election; but the committee members were not limited in how many players they could vote for.

We now know that Buck O’Neil got eight votes — one shy of election. We now know that former commissioner Fay Vincent — who was a non-voting member of the committee — brought everyone back into the room to plead with the group to reconsider (“That was an embarrassment,” he says now). We now know that the committee voted 17 people into the Hall of Fame, and they were all long dead.

Why didn’t Buck get the votes? I believe there were two reasons. One involved a complicated and petty political squabble that is not worthy going deeper into (and we’ll never know how much, if any, impact it had).

The second was, I want to believe, an honest belief that Buck was not a good enough player to go to the Hall of Fame. The Mark Grace argument. It’s a viable argument on baseball terms; Buck himself never thought he was a Hall of Fame player (though he would say, “Hey man, I could play!”).

But there is a serious flaw in the argument. The committee didn’t just vote in players — only 12 of the 17 were players.

The other five were executives. Effa Manley. Alex Pompez. Cum Posey. Sol White. J.L. Wilkinson.

I certainly will not demean any of those five. Effa Manley was a powerful force in the league and she is the only woman in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Alex Pompez was an executive who later led the charge in finding and bringing over baseball talent from the Dominican Republic. Cum Posey was a fantastic basketball player — yes, basketball — and he owned and built the brilliant Homestead Grays. White lived a remarkable life; he was a baseball player, a manager, an executive and a sportswriter. He wrote the first great history of black baseball. Wilkinson, the only white person voted in as part of the Negro Leagues, owned the Kansas City Monarchs, signed Jackie Robinson to his first baseball contract and pioneered night baseball.

They all were powerfully accomplished people. I wouldn’t argue that any of them doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

But, even more, I wouldn’t want to be on the side that argues that any of them had the impact on baseball that Buck O’Neil had.

Sol White is a nearly perfect comp. He was a fine player and manager. Sounds like Buck. He made his greatest impact as a writer keeping memories alive of great and forgotten players. Sounds like Buck. He was a beloved figure. Sounds like Buck. He didn’t have Buck’s history in the Major Leagues as a coach and scout. But here’s the biggest difference: Sol White died in 1955, 60-plus years before the vote, while Buck O’Neil was alive and still working day and night to make sure that people heard the story.

As Negro Leagues Museum president Bob Kendrick has often said, “It’s hard to celebrate the Negro Leagues with a bunch of dead folks and no living people.”

When Bob brought in the news that Buck had not gotten the votes, we were crestfallen — that is to say Bob and I were crestfallen. Buck took it with the grace he took everything. Mere seconds after hearing the news, he asked me if he thought the Hall would ask him to speak on behalf of the 17 new inductees.

“You would do that?” I asked him.

“Son,” he said, “what has my life been about?”

He did speak and sing in Cooperstown that year — it turned out to be his last major public appearance. He died about 10 weeks later. There were those who said that he died with a broken heart, and I know those people meant well — but I don’t believe it. Sure, he wanted to go to the Hall of Fame, believed that he had lived a Hall of Fame life, but he’d overcome much, much greater blows in his life. He’d been denied the chance to go to Sarasota High School. He’d been denied the chance to try and play or manage in the Major Leagues. He’d been called every name, pushed to the back of the bus, refused service and, for a short time, forced to paint his face and wear a grass skirt just so he could play ball.

Yes, the last one — Buck never much liked talking about the time he played for the Zulu Cannibal Giants. That was a novelty team where the players were told to entertain the crowd by doing vaguely African looking dances before the game, and use clubs instead of bats and talk in gibberish. Buck always insisted he didn’t dance. But he did the rest. “We would do anything to play ball,” Buck said.

So, no, he didn’t have his heart broken by the Hall of Fame vote.

That heart — it was unbreakable.

“What does the Hall of Fame mean, anyway?”

People argue about this question all the time. Some believe the Hall is all about baseball — the best players should be in the Hall of Fame, period. Some believe it’s about something more than baseball, that character should play a role in who is in and who is out. Some believe the Hall is baseball’s ultimate storybook and that you should be able to get a coherent history of baseball by simply following the people in it. Some want the Hall of Fame expanded. Some want it contracted. Some want it moved out of Cooperstown and to an easier location to access.

Some people believe a little bit of each of these things.

What you believe about the Hall will determine how you feel about Buck O’Neil’s place in it. You know, after the vote, the Hall of Fame — this would be the leadership at the Hall — decided to do something pretty amazing. They commissioned a life-sized statue of Buck O’Neil. Is that the same thing as inducting him into the Hall? No. But Buck is in there, right near the entrance, welcoming baseball fans from all over the world.

There’s a very good chance in the next couple of years, Buck’s name will come up for a Hall of Fame vote again — there are signs that this will happen. And if it does, I know that I will feel mixed emotions. For a long time after he died, Bob Kendrick and I (still bitter from that sad day) would tell each other that we didn’t want him elected, that the whole point of election was him being alive to enjoy it, to cherish it, to know that he had made it. Without Buck, what was the point?

But, years have gone by, and we both feel differently now. Now, we want him to be elected for all of Buck’s friends and fans. We want him elected because we both believe that on that special day in Cooperstown, he will be there.

We want him elected because, what does the Hall of Fame mean anyway? Whatever it means the place is a bit empty without him.

The Wimbledon Final

This might not connect, not at all, but to be honest my mind is scrambled, buzzing in a million different directions, and I have to start somewhere if I really want to write about Sunday’s brilliant, stressful, joyous, melancholic and draining six and a half set marathon Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. I feel like I have a thousand things to say, and I feel like I cannot say anything at all.

So let me tell you a little bit about my new two-handed backhand and see if that goes anywhere.

I’ve been working on the two-hander for about two months now. When I was a kid, I hit a two-handed backhand based loosely on the form of Mats Wilander, the wonderfully bland Swedish player who in the 1980s quietly won seven grand slam titles. And when I say he won them “quietly,” yeah, you didn’t know Mats Wilander won seven slams unless you happen to be Mats Wilander, to whom I say: “Grattis till att vinna sju mästerskap du tråkigt men underbar tennisstjärna.”

In the mid-2000s, I switched to a one-handed backhand. Guess why? Right. Roger Federer had come along. And once you saw his backhand … there wasn’t another. Federer’s backhand is what “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” would look like if it was a tennis shot. It is what Grace Kelly would look like if she was a tennis shot. Federer’s backhand is Ken Griffey’s baseball swing and Ernie Els golf swing and Gregory Hines dance moves and Prince’s guitar playing and the last paragraph of “The Great Gatsby” rolled together. He can do anything with that shot — make the ball jump or sit, slide or retreat or dance. It isn’t a magic trick. It is magic itself.

With tennis — and tennis alone among sports — I can never quite rid myself of delusions of grandeur. I copied Federer’s backhand, best I could, and took it with me to the court in the full expectation of perfecting it.

That didn’t happen, it might surprise you to know. Fifteen years of hitting one-handed backhands, Federer style, has produced, maybe, 10 perfect shots. I cherish every last one of them. But the 24,549,374 misses suggested that it wasn’t an even trade.

Some time after that, I became obsessed with another backhand, a two-handed backhand hit by a brilliantly temperamental player from Serbia, Novak Djokovic. He too could could make a tennis ball do dog tricks — roll over, play dead, bark — but what made his backhand so magnificent was how it returned heat. Federer’s backhand could be overpowered sometimes (at least by the savage topspin of Rafael Nadal). Meanwhile, the harder anyone hit the ball at Djokovic’s backhand, the harder it came back. What more could anyone want?

So, for the last seven years, I hit a poor imitation of Federer’s backhand while longing to hit a poor imitation of Djokovic’s … or I feebly attempted to hit Djokovic’s backhand for a few minutes before giving up and going back to my feeble impersonation of Federer. Finally, two months ago, after numerous fits and starts, I committed to the Djokovic backhand, which I now hit almost as poorly as I used to hit the Federer backhand.

All of which is to say: Watching Sunday’s epic final felt a bit like being torn in two.


None of them is the greatest ever. I know this is a strange thing to say, but I’m more sure of this than ever. Roger Federer is not the greatest ever. Novak Djokovic is not the greatest ever. Rafael Nadal is not the greatest ever.

No.

They all are.

They are the greatest ever, the three of them, a package deal. Sure, that might sound like a copout, and that’s not how they want it, obviously, and that’s not how fans want it either. But it seems to me the most reasonable conclusion. Yes, theoretically, we can argue about which one of them is the greatest in the same way that we can argue about who would win a fight between Superman, Thor and Phoenix. But it’s beside the point. They all win their share of fights.

Federer has the most grand slam titles. Nadal is untouchable on clay. Djokovic has a winning record against both of them. Federer has the greatest serve in the history of tennis and maybe the greatest forehand too. Djokovic has the greatest return in the history of tennis and maybe the greatest backhand too. Nadal is the greatest fighter ever on a tennis court, and the topspin he hits from both wings is unique.

Which one is the greatest? You can choose the fact that serves your argument. But choose carefully. You want Federer, point to the longevity, the career numbers, the quantity of victories, but understand that he won so many of those before Djokovic became self aware. You want Nadal, point to the fact that on one of the three surfaces, on clay, he is inarguably the best, but understand that on the other two he enters the arena as the underdog. You want Djokovic, point to his superiority over the other two, but understand that he has the relative advantage of youth, and that we will never know what a 24-year-old Federer would do against a 24-year-old Djokovic.

We can and will keep going round and round on this because we long for clarity, a singular answer, the greatest ever.

But it is the three of them, together, who have gone to another place. Let me simply point out two matches:

In 2016, Andy Murray beat Milos Raonic in straight sets to win Wimbledon.

In 2014, Marin Čilić beat Kei Nishikori in straight sets to win the U.S. Open.

What do those two matches have to do with anything? Those are the only two grand slam finals since 2005 — the ONLY TWO IN FOURTEEN YEARS going back to when YouTube was created — that did not include Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.

This is so mind-boggling it barely registers. Fed, Rafa or Nole played in 57 of the last 59 grand slam finals.

Two of them matched up in 22 of those finals.

This is impossible. And, at the same time, it is also so self-evident that we already know this. It isn’t that tennis has lacked talented young players for the last decade and a half. They keep coming in droves, players with 150 mph serves, players with scalding ground strokes, players who sprint around the court like road runners. But they never change the equation. It always Federer, Nadal, Djokovic.

That 2014 U.S. Open final felt epic in its own way because it felt like a turning of the page. Nadal was hurting. Čilić had destroyed Federer in the semifinal; Nishikori had outwilled Djokovic. It felt like the beginning of something new.

Same thing in 2016. Djokovic had lost his edge. Nadal was still hurting. Federer had been outserved by the gifted young Raonic. Murray had ascended. Eras come and go, and so it seemed like the Big Three Era had gone.

And what happened next? Fed, Rafa or Djokovic have won every single grand slam since the 2017 Australian Open. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Their combined record against all the other players in grand slams over that time? It’s absurd. It’s 157-13.

This year, when not facing each other in the slams, they are 51-2, the only two losses being Djokovic’s epic loss to Dominic Thiem in the winds of Paris and Federer’s Australian Open loss to the latest phenom to come along, Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The three are all in their 30s, which is supposed to be old for tennis players, and they are still unbeateable against every other player on earth.

It is only when they face each other that we see them in full flight. We ask, “Which one is the greatest?” when the more fascinating question might be, “How can three players just take off into space and leave the world behind?”


When Sunday’s heart-wrenching match ended, someone asked Roger Federer if he felt like he had been the better player. Fed won more games Sunday. He won 14 more points. He had more chances to win, including two championship points when he was serving late in the fifth set. Tennis’ scoring system is a bit like the electoral college; winning the popular vote doesn’t mean winning the presidency.

Federer shrugged. “It really doesn’t matter, actually,” he said.

It probably doesn’t matter. Federer could have won. Djokovic could have won. The tennis was sublime. The tennis was rickety. Federer lost his backhand for a time. Djokovic lost his serve for a time. Federer hit 90-plus winners against the best defensive player anyone can remember. Djokovic, in three tiebreakers against the greatest ever grass court player, made zero unforced errors. Every point felt heroic and important and death-defying. It was five hours of beautiful torture.

And there were echoes everywhere because these players have already done so much. Did this match remind you of the famous “greatest match ever played,” between Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008? Maybe. Or maybe it reminded you of the grueling five-set match between Djokovic and Nadal at Wimbledon last year. Or maybe it reminded you of the five-set battle for survival between Djokovic and Nadal at the 2012 Australian Open. Or maybe …

Echoes. Everywhere. This is what you get when players are both legendary AND actively still the best on earth.

Federer at 37 years old was attempting to become the oldest grand slam champion of the Open Era, but he still plays a young man’s game. He decided for this match he would attack relentlessly, dare Djokovic to beat him.

Djokovic is 32 years old, and he is famously volatile. He promised himself on this day that he would do the English thing, Keep Calm and Carry On, block out all those things that would normally set him off. He was intermittently successful doing so.

“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’” he told the press afterward, “I hear ‘Novak.’”

The reporters broke up after that line, but Djokovic was not kidding. This, he insisted, was actually what he tried to do, he tried in his own mind to turn the “Roger! Roger!” pleas into “Novak! Novak!” cheers.

This is the apex the three have reached. Federer and Djokovic have now played 48 times. Federer and Nadal have played 40 times. Djokovic and Nadal have played 54 times. There are no surprises left between them. There is no place for any of them to go now except deeper into themselves.

Two points decided the match. Well, obviously, it was more than two points, but two points stand out, and Djokovic won both of them. Late the fifth set, with the sun down low enough to only brighten one corner of the court, Federer served for the match. He went up 40-15, he had two championship points, and lost one of them when Djokovic’s deep return forced him to spray a forehand just wide.

Then came Point No. 1: Federer cracked a 120-mph serve down the middle, where he had beaten Djokovic all day long. This time, Djokovic chipped his return back. Federer pounced, cracked a forehand and charged the net. He didn’t hit his approach as deep as he might have liked but against just about any other player on earth, it would have been good enough. Against Djokovic, it wasn’t. Djoker flipped a forehand crosscourt where it landed an inch or two inside the line. Djokovic quickly broke serve. Federer’s chance had passed.

Point No. 2 came in the tiebreak. It was the first-ever fifth set tiebreak in a men’s grand slam final, and it was the first-ever fifth set tiebreak for a singles match at Wimbledon. They changed the rules this year; it used to be that the fifth set would go on and on and until someone won the match properly. But this caused all sorts of problems (not to mention the famous John Isner 70-68 victory over Nicolas Mahut), and the Wimbledon folks decided to add the tiebreak this year. But, as a nod to history, they decided only to add it at 12-12 in the fifth; in other words, they would make the players play an entire sixth set before launching the tiebreak.*

*When asked how he felt about the 12-12 tiebreak, Federer channeled his inner Belichick and said: “It is what it is.”

After Fed and Djokovic reached 12-12, the tiebreak began and on the third point, Federer served and charged. Federer’s play on Sunday had reminded of the glory days of serve-and-volley tennis, had reminded of McEnroe and Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras and the rest. Djokovic’s return was brilliant, right at Federer’s feet, but Federer had been making this volley all day.

Fed missed this one. He pushed his shot wide. And that was that. Djokovic took strength from the mini-break and finished off the tiebreak with relative ease. It was his third tiebreak victory in the match. It was his fifth Wimbledon title. When it ended, he celebrated quietly, perhaps out of respect for the greatness of the man he had beaten, perhaps out of exhaustion.

And in the aftermath, yes, my mind is scrambled, because I am happy for Djokovic and gutted for Federer, overjoyed by what I just saw and worried that it will be the last time. In the aftermath, yes, I am 52 years old, but I want to go to the court myself, hit the two-handed backhand, hit the one-handed backhand, feel just a little bit more of this match because the main thing I am feeling is that I do not want it to end.

Loading more posts…