All Eyes are on Federer, Even in Defeat

Roger Federer after beating Andy Murray on Friday (Tom Jenkins, The Guardian)

Considering that tennis great Roger Federer will turn 34 this August (think 65 years old for someone in another profession), his run to the Wimbledon final for a second consecutive year is all the more remarkable.

Federer lost only 1 set on the road to the final and was rarely broken throughout the fortnight. It took a superlative effort from World No. 1 Novak Djokovic to deny Federer a record-breaking 8th title at Wimbledon.

In a stunning career that has seen Federer achieve a record 17 grand slam titles, the Swiss spent the most total weeks at no. 1, accumulated the most consecutive weeks at no. 1, won the greatest number of matches of any active player, and achieved a number of other jaw-dropping records. More significantly, he has held his own against 4 generations of players: from 1990s greats like Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, to the players of the early to mid 2000s like Andy Roddick, Marat Safin and David Nalbandian, to the three other members of the “big four” of the current era, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, and, finally, to the probable stars of the next generation, including Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic.

Critics too often forget that even though Federer has given his current rivals plenty of beatings, all of them are a lot younger. Djokovic and Murray are a whopping 6 years to Federer’s junior. Still, his record against Novak Djokovic is currently tied at 20–20, including several recent Federer victories. As for his matches against Murray, the Swiss great leads the Scott 13–11 in head-to-head matches (with a commanding 5–1 record in grand slam meetings), including a straight sets Wimbledon demolition this last Friday in front of a partisan British crowd.

Most of Federer’s actual peers, i.e. those close to his age and who played him during his prime years of 2004–2007, have mostly been long retired or struggling in the lower echelons of the tennis world for years. Former World No. 1 Marat Safin retired in 2009. Multiple grand slam champ Lleyton Hewitt, who gave Federer many scares and a fair share of defeats, played his last Wimbledon this year and has not won any big titles in years. Grand slam champions Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero are retired.

Tennis neophytes will try to undermine Federer’s achievements in his prime years by claiming that those players represented a weaker era in men’s tennis. This argument is hogwash. Roddick, Safin and Hewitt gave tennis legend Pete Sampras a number of serious beatings when they were coming up at a time when Sampras was still a major force in the game. And let’s not forget David Nalbandian, a phenomenal talent who beat Federer in Shanghai at the year-end ATP championships in 2005. But Federer was just so good and so explosive during those years between 2004–2007 that he would win an average of 10 titles a year or so. In 2005 , his winning percentage was over 95% of the total matches he played.

The reason Roddick, Safin, Hewitt and Nalbandian ended up with fewer important titles was because they were denied by a prime Federer, not because that era was “weak.” And we ought to recall that he had a favorable record against the superstars of the older generation, including a resurgent Andre Agassi (8–3), Pete Sampras (1–0 on a really fast grass court, quite unlike the one they played on today) and Michael Chang (4–1).

Still, even in the ostensibly far stronger era of today, an aging Federer has held his own, winning 5 grand slam titles and reaching 7 other grand slam finals from 2008–2015, recovering the World No. 1 ranking on two separate occasions, winning the year-end ATP championships twice more and reaching the final on two other occasions. And, as if that is not enough, he clinched Switzerland’s Davis Cup win in 2014, won an Olympic medal in 2008 (doubles) and another in 2012 (singles), and achieved victories against the three other members of the big four (Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Murray) at different key intervals during this period.

The only statistic in Federer’s illustrious career that may be construed as a blot on his record is his 10–23 head-to-head tally against the most other frequently mentioned GOAT contender, Nadal. I actually see the aftermath of this particular record as a sign of Federer’s greatness. A lesser champion may have walked away from the game after some of those very stinging defeats. Bjorn Borg comes to mind because he retired from tennis at the tender age of 25 just after John McEnroe started beating him. McEnroe, too, couldn’t quite stomach the idea of being surpassed by Ivan Lendl in the mid- 1980s. He was never the same after Lendl beat him in three easy straight sets at the US Open final of 1985.

But Federer, who has had some bad defeats against Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, keeps coming back, even when it might adversely affect his legacy. And herein lies the key to his longevity and greatness: he loves the game and plays it the way it was meant to be played (using the whole court, slicing and dinking, lobbing, volleying). The fact that his body has survived this long despite spending a lot more time on court than any of his rivals is testament to this truth.

I often wonder what would have happened if the ATP tour had gotten rid of all the modern racquets and strings and forced all the players to play with wood and old strings.

Would Federer have won 17 slams or 27 slams?

In the end, all these arguments are academic. What counts is that the man is just beautiful to watch on the court. He rarely acts out. His style is graceful. That’s why when he plays a big match, all eyes are on him, not on his opponent, even in defeat.

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