“I am the greatest,” shouted Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in 1963 on his comedy album that is now seen as a precursor of rap and hip hop. It may have been a semi-serious claim at the time, but the world sat up and took notice when he became World Heavyweight Champion six months later, beating the heavily favoured title holder Sonny Liston.
Many consider Ali the greatest sportsman of the 20th century – an amazing claim but one sustained by the strength and individual nature of his character and his ability to tap into the public mood.
In the world of rock and pop memorabilia, for all their worship at the altars of Elvis and Buddy Holly, auction records and the fans have made it very clear that there is no one to touch The Beatles, the most iconic band of all time – a status that they are unlikely ever to cede to anyone else.
Now Roger Federer has announced that he is to auction 20 lots of his match-worn clothing and racquets from his Grand Slam wins on June 23 to raise money for his foundation.
Nadal may have matched his men’s Grand Slam record of 20 titles, and Djokovic may even pass that to set a new record in the next year or so. But the frustrating thing for Djokovic, to whom this means so much, is that the number of titles doesn’t matter because we all know – and he knows – that what makes Federer the GOAT is something that surpasses the results board: that untouchable mix of grace, athleticism and perfectionism leavened by a healthy dose of self-deprecation and the seemingly effortless ability to charm the fans.
So far, Federer is a shoo-in for the greatest sportsman of the 21st century, proving that, in the end, being the greatest is about character. This auction should be a landmark sale in every way.