Following his win over Robin Haase last week, Roger Federer became the oldest world #1 in ATP history, 14 years after he first topped the men's rankings. He is three years older than the previous oldest #1 Andre Agassi. Since his record-breaking 20th Slam victory at the Australian Open the path to the top ranking looked open for Federer and there was a sense of inevitability about his progress in Rotterdam. But the achievement is no less impressive for that.
Federer first became world number one in February 2004 and climbed to the pinnacle of the sport again in 2009 and 2012 but surrendered his #1 ranking to Djokovic in October of 2012 and hadn’t returned to the top of the mountain since. During his long spell without a Slam when he sank as low as world #17 after missing most of 2016 recovering from a knee injury few believed he would ever again reign as the world’s best. However, he has since won nine titles, including Wimbledon last year and two Australian Open titles and richly deserves his place as the #1.
How has he managed it aged 36?
Six-time Grand Slam winner and Federer’s former coach Stefan Edberg believes it is because of the way Federer plays that he has been able to return to the top of the rankings. Edberg also contends that there is no one else currently playing that would be able to do so at such a late stage in their careers. But based on comments he has made, Federer actually surprised himself by reaching the summit of the sport.
But there are reasons for his renewed success. Perhaps most important is his serve, which though not the fastest in the game is extremely accurate and allows him to win free points. Moreover, his athleticism and speed around the court are still up there with the best in the game. Another factor is that he does not expend too much energy on court as he tends to keep the points short allowing him to conserve his energy and demanding less of his body than some of his rivals.
Edberg also argues that Federer can play freely because whatever he accomplishes at this stage of his career is a bonus. He has achieved almost everything in the game including winning all the Grand Slams and breaking the record for most Majors won in the men’s game. Though he has never won the Calendar Slam or matched Djokovic’s ‘Nole Slam’, that would surely now be beyond him considering Nadal’s mastery of the clay courts and his advanced years.
It is Federer's passion for the game and desire to win which stand out. Andy Murray's former coach, Mark Petchey has pointed out that despite all of Federer’s accomplishments in the game and a seemingly complete domestic life he “still plays now as though he is looking to make his mark on the game or make his first pay cheque”. It is surely that hunger to win which has enabled Federer to stay at the top of the game for so long.
It would be perhaps churlish to attribute Federer’s rise to the absence of other players, but it is a factor that cannot be ignored. Djokovic’s dominance of the game that seemed unshakeable in 2016 has been undone by injury. Andy Murray’s efforts in reaching the #1 ranking seem to have cost him his fitness whilst Stan Wawrinka is still working his way back from a serious knee injury. Whilst Nadal is playing, his fitness is never certain.
That being said there are some good young players, including Alexander Zverev, Hyeon Chung and Denis Shapovalov coming through. Meanwhile, 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic has been playing some excellent tennis of late and has made two of the last three Slam finals. But whilst some have been able to trouble Federer away from the Slams, with Zverev’s Montreal triumph prominent in the mind, at the biggest tournaments it takes the biggest names to challenge Federer, and they have been absent.
How long can he stay at #1?
There does not appear to be anyone challenging him in terms of performance and consistency apart from Nadal. Retaining his #1 spot in the short term could depend on whether Federer plays the clay court season, which he decided to skip last year. There are arguments for and against playing this year. If he does play, he will of course gain points. If he does not play, he will miss out but be in a better position to retain his Wimbledon title.
That being said, so dominant was Nadal on the clay last season that there are few opportunities for the Spaniard to gain points. He won every tournament he played except in Rome where he fell in the quarterfinals (lost to Thiem). Therefore, Nadal could conceivably end the clay court season further behind Federer in the rankings than he is now.
The future of his other challengers is unclear. Andy Murray aims to return to the game in time for the grass court swing, but whether he will be able to reclaim his former glories is unclear. Indeed, many doubt that he will be able to reach the top of the game again such was the seriousness of his hip problem. Djokovic too was forced to resort to surgery for his elbow problem and is currently undergoing the rehab process with a timeline for his return unclear.
Is he the greatest player of all time?
In many people's eyes, Federer is the greatest player of all time. It was clear when he first came on to the scene that he was immensely talented, but no one knew how good or dominant he would become. In fact, in the early part of his career there were some doubts about his mental strength in the big moments. But Federer has proven those early critics wrong so many times that their doubts have been obscured by the glow of his countless successes.
It is of course difficult to compare players in different eras. Some of the players to rival him include Laver, Borg, Sampras and more recently Nadal and Djokovic. But the facts and figures speak for themselves. Federer has won the most Grand Slams in the history of men's tennis and is the oldest world #1. If he continues to play for two or three more years at the level he is currently playing, he could even threaten the all-time record of Slam wins currently held by Margaret Court at 24.
In terms of all round game, ability to play on different surfaces and longevity, Federer is the best to have ever played the sport. It will be a long time, if ever, before anyone emulates his achievements.
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