Roger Federer returned to the pinnacle of the tennis world again with his victory against Robin Haase in the Rotterdam semifinals. That confirmed what had become practically inevitable when he won his 20th Slam at the Australian Open and made him the oldest man ever to hold the #1 ranking. In fact, he is three years older now than Andre Agassi was when he set the record in 2003. Surely, unquestionably, the greatest there ever was and ever will be? Or is he?
Shouldn’t it be more than just a Slam tally?
Exponents of the argument that Federer is the greatest of all time usually refer to the fact he has the most Grand Slams as the cornerstone of their argument. On the surface its hard to blame them. The Slams represent the most prestigious events in the sport, and for the casual fan, it’s often the only exposure they get to tennis year-round. All the more so in the host countries, Britain, for example, becomes tennis obsessed during Wimbledon only for that love of Andy Murray and strawberries and cream to recede until the next July.
But for the more serious fans of the sport, amongst whom the debate usually rages, it’s long past time that it widened to reflect the realities of the sport. Crucially, Slam victories should not be the only yardstick used to measure success, nor should it be exclusively a numbers game. The reasons for this are varied. Most importantly, however, it is because to do so is a far too simplistic approach to greatness.
For example, though Federer has won four more Slams than his great rival Rafael Nadal, he has arguably had several advantages over his rival that have allowed him to build this lead. Two of the four Slams are played on hard courts and one on grass, both surfaces Federer is at his best on. Nadal, in contrast, is famously the master of the clay courts, but only one Slam is played on the surface. But the Spaniard has been considerably more successful away from his favoured territory than the Swiss.
Nadal has won two Wimbledons, three US Opens and one Australian Open. He has also beaten Federer to win two of those Slams; at Wimbledon in 2008 and then at the Australian Open six months later. Federer has won just one Slam on Nadal’s turf and has never managed to defeat the Spaniard at Roland Garros. It is of course hypothetical, but if more Slams were played on clay and fewer on hard courts is it not entirely possible, indeed likely, that it would be Nadal who would be ahead in the count.
And that’s hardly the only comparison. Do any of Federer’s achievements match up to Djokovic’s winning all four Slams in a row, or Rod Laver doing it twice in a calendar year in 1962 and then seven years later in 1969. Perhaps, perhaps not. Greatness is difficult to define, an argument I’ve made before. Is it a matter of longevity, or of dominance? A combination of the two or something else entirely? It’s not an easy question to answer, but it is one that is worth asking, particularly if titles such as the ‘Greatest of All-Time’ are going to be given out.
Injuries are king
Much has also been made of Federer’s astonishing improvements late in his career. The switch to a larger racquet that has turned his backhand into a major weapon being chief amongst them. But there is arguably a more significant factor in aiding Federer’s return to the top of the sport. And that is the injuries that all of his major rivals are suffering from. Nadal has withdrawn from or retired during his last six tournaments. Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka have all been forced to resort to surgery for long-term injury problems.
Without those challengers, it is in many ways unsurprising that Federer is now the dominant force in the game. Before his injury hit 2016 he was playing at a high level, making three Grand Slam finals across the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Only Novak Djokovic was a more regular presence in Major title matches in that period reaching six, and it took the Serb to deny Federer on those three occasions. In essence then what we can see is that Federer’s level in 2017 and 2018 is arguably at a similar level as it was before his injury. The difference is in his opponents.
Federer does deserve credit for his longevity. That the Swiss is still playing tennis of the quality to win Majors in his late 30’s is a hugely impressive achievement. But it is not one that necessarily elevates him above the likes of Nadal and Djokovic, both of whom are suffering with injuries. Why should Djokovic’s wearied elbow or Nadal’s damaged knees see them relegated to a lesser status than Federer? Why should Rod Laver’s ineligibility as a professional before the Open Era deny him the status of Federer?
There is no shortage of great players. Federer numbers amongst them. But can he truly be said to rank before them? I think not.
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