THE DEBATE OVER who is the "greatest" tennis player ever can go.

Because Roger Federer, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras played in different eras, it's impossible to say for certain that if all played under the same competitive circumstances one would distinguish himself from the others.

Four arguments could yield four different justifiable answers.

Championships, however, are a quantitative measure. You can look at the record book, add them up, and say, "This guy won more than the others."

With yesterday's win at the French Open, Federer officially matched Sampras with 14 Grand Slam titles.

But the 6-1, 7-6, 6-4 victory over Robin Soderling also separated Federer from Sampras because, after years of frustration, he finally did what Sampras never could - win on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Federer is now a member of the most exclusive club in tennis, one whose membership includes neither Sampras nor Borg.

He joins Laver, Andre Agassi, Don Budge, Roy Emerson and Fred Perry as the only male players to win the Australian Open, French Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

There are more on the women's side - Maureen Connolly Brinker, Doris Hart, Shirley Fry Irvin, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams, but that makes just 15 players in history who can claim that feat.

Federer is the "greatest champion" in men's tennis.

The 14 championships set him apart from Laver (11) and Borg (11), and the career Grand Slam now separates him from Sampras.

With the French Open, Federer, 27, also distinguished himself by joining Agassi as the only male to have won a career Grand Slam by winning on at least three different surfaces (grass, clay and hard courts).

From 1881 through 1974, the U.S. Open was played on grass before switching to hard courts in 1975. The Australian switched to hard courts in 1988 after being played on grass from 1905.

Federer needed the French to close out any remaining asterisks against him, while Sampras' legacy is always qualified by the fact that he never won the French Open.

Historically, American players have never done well on the slow clay of Roland Garros, and that Sampras, whose best showing at the French was the semifinals in 1996, could not break through on a surface that Europeans dominate is viewed as a flaw in his game.

Federer had no problem playing on clay. This was his fourth straight final at Roland Garros, but he had lost to Rafael Nadal in 2006, '07 and '08. The emergence of Nadal, 23, could have been the one thing that kept Federer from the career slam.

With victories in 2005, '06, '07 and '08, Nadal has proven to be the master of the clay court. He had a 25-2 record in finals on clay going into this year's French.

And after beating Federer in a historic match last summer for the Wimbledon title, Nadal had also established himself as the No. 1 player in the world.

That was not exactly the equation for Federer finally breaking through in Paris.

Nadal, however, lost to Soderling in the fourth round, opening the path to the championship for Federer.

The 23rd-ranked Soderling wasn't much of a threat to Federer, who brought his top game for the shot at history.

Soderling forced a tiebreak for the second set, but Federer blew by him 7-1 to take a 2-0 lead. He broke Soderling early in the third and then won service games to the title.

Once Federer won the 2008 U.S. Open for his 13th slam, it was clear that, barring a catastrophic injury, he was going to catch and pass Sampras for the most career slams.

He is the only man to win five consecutive titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and also has three Australian Open titles.

Federer is still at the height of his career so there is no telling how many slams he will finish with. Still, it is only fitting that he enters the record book by winning the French Open on the court that had been the cause of so much consternation.

The only thing that could have possibly made it better would have been Federer beating Nadal for the French.

There are no more issues concerning Federer.

Whether he is the "greatest" player ever is a qualitative debate that can never be unequivocally resolved.

What is no longer at issue is the number of slams that Federer has won . . . He has equaled Sampras.

And now that he has won the biggest clay court tournament, he has a combination of factors that no other male player in history has.

Roger Federer is the greatest champion in the game. *

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