As the 2018 season ramps up, and notwithstanding the ATP year end finals, we all marvel at the year’s results from Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer. Here is a moment’s pause to consider their unprecedented reign at the top of the tennis world along with Djokovic and Murray and, perhaps to a great degree, how it came to pass.
A quick statement of historical fact: the domination of either the men’s or women’s field by such a small group as Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Murray has never happened before in the history of the game. Ever. Most of us are familiar with the numbers, but here’s a brief summary:
- Since 2004 no one outside the group has held the #1 men’s ranking, period, at any time during the year.
- Between them they’ve won 50 of the 56 singles titles at the Grand Slam tournaments since the group’s first Grand Slam title, Federer’s Wimbledon title in 2003.
- They’ve taken 3 out of 4 Olympic gold medals in singles since that first Grand Slam title.
- There have been 130 Masters tournaments played since Federer’s ’03 win at Wimbledon; the four have taken 101 of the titles.
- Since 2005 the Big Four have won 84% of the combined Grand Slam, Masters, and main tour ATP tournaments played.
How is this possible?
It is easy to say they are supremely talented. It’s accurate. We could leave it at that. There is nothing false about the statement.
At the same time there has been a convergence of changes in tennis – some organic, others with intentional goals – that have helped the Big Four make history this way. Like a hot house environment for creating new varieties of flowers, the world of pro tennis became fertile ground for an intensification of a particular style of play; advances in equipment led to stroke production changes, and when changes in playing conditions and tournament structures were added to that mix they all blossomed into modern tennis, and we got the junta we call the Big Four.
Racquet head size
Radical changes in equipment make their greatest impact via the young athletes who start out learning the game with the new gear; they are the ones best able to exploit the advantages afforded by the newness, having fewer habits to break that are based on the old tech.
As an example:
- the oversized racquet was introduced in 1975
- Pam Shriver was the first to use one in a Grand Slam tournament final, in 1978.
- Michael Chang, 3 years old in 1975, was the first to take a major title with an oversized frame, winning the French in 1989.
It took 14 years for the bigger head racquet to come of age in the pro game.
1997: Gustavo Kuertan introduces Luxilon polyester strings to the ATP in a big, big way, winning his first of 3 French Open titles. When asked what Lux did for his game, Guga answered, “Three French Open, one Masters Cup.”
The poly strings gave players the previously unheard of ability to swing hard, really hard, and keep the ball in play. The more successful a player’s technical adaptation to the strings the more the ball stayed in court when cracked explosively. The most obvious result?: the Nadal forehand and all its progeny (e.g., Sock, Edmund).
To see the converse, watch Eddie Dibbs’ forehand in this 1976 match against Cliff Drysdale. Dibbs’ forehand grip and swing don’t look odd or old-fashioned to the modern eye, but with a wood racquet and gut strings he didn’t have the option of repeatedly explosive forehands. The equipment didn’t make it possible. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to, or that it hadn’t been thought of, it just couldn’t be done. Yet.
1997: Federer is 16 years old, Nadal is 11, Djokovic and Murray are both 10; all young enough to take the raw clay of Kuertan’s strings’ potential and mold it into tennis’ new technical and tactical paradigm.
A Word About Details That Never Mattered Before
Once we mention racquet head speed it’s worth a moment’s pause to give credit to aerodynamics in racquet design. If one’s searching for the holy grail of ultimate swing speed, and who isn’t these days, fine tuning a racquet’s aero qualities begins to be worthwhile, ergo sticks like the Babolat Aero Drive model line. Maybe we could have swung 65 square inch head wood racquets fast enough to create spin, but with their tiny sweet spots we’d never have found it profitable. Once frames could be made narrow, and racquet throats open, aero became valuable.
The ATP tour changes the field of play, literally
This is the breakdown of tournament court surfaces between 1990 and 2017:
1990: hard 31 (37.8%) / clay 28 34.1%) / grass 5 (6.1%) / carpet 18 (22%)
2017: hard 39 (56.5%) / clay 22 (31.9%) / grass 8 (11.6%) / carpet 0 (0%)
Though this sampling of just two specific years of ATP results is far from an exhaustive survey, I believe that overall they support this argument:
- Racquet sports are more fundamentally defensive than the more pervasive, big time sporting contests. You have to score points in football of any type, basketball, hockey, and baseball; without scoring a point the best you can do is tie. In tennis, like all racquet sports, all you need to do is not miss, continually, and you will win.
- The reward for playing defensively increases as the conditions make it easier to get a ball back in play. After considering the weather, court surface is the most telling match condition, which is why clay courts have always benefitted defensive play the most, well before Open tennis. (This is not to say there is no offense on clay, but the points are longer, a clear sign that it’s harder to put the ball away.)
Conversely, faster courts benefit offensive play, which translates into shorter points characterized by more point-ending shotmaking.
Combined with the commonly acknowledged slowing of hard courts over the past 15 years, and similar changes in grass courts, the disappearance of quick courts like carpet means defensive play has gained in value at the expense of offense.
A comparison of two 128 mph Federer serves, one in 2001 and the other in 2008, illustrates that the 2008 serve arrives at the receiver 9 mph slower than its 2001 counterpart. Clearly the return, the defensive beginning to a point’s offensive opening of the serve, has become more easier, and therefore more important.
SIDE NOTE 2001: Did the ammunition get specialized, too?
Although the 2001 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) approved a previous experiment in tennis ball standards and made permanent 3 types of approved balls, there’s zero evidence the Type 3 balls have ever been used at professional tournaments
- Type 1, to speed up playing characteristics; standard tennis balls but made with shells of harder rubber than full standard Type 2 balls
- Type 2, fully standard tennis balls
- Type 3, to slow down playing characteristics; a ball 6% larger in diameter than Type 1 or Type 2 which leaves a racquet at the same speed as the other balls but slows down more quickly due to the increased friction caused by the greater surface area
The ITF was quoted as having created the Type 3 ball with the goal of “slowing the game down and reducing the dominance of big servers on fast surfaces.” Read more about this here, here, and here, but remember that there’s no online confirmation that balls at pro tournaments were ever switched to Type 3 standards.
2001: The top players get an extra layer of protection
In 2001 the major tournaments, i.e., those with 128 draws (irrespective of whether they were Grand Slam tourneys or not) began seeding 32 players rather than 16, which had been the previous standard. (This is changing back, to 16 seeds, in 2019.)
Functionally, this means a top 16 seed won’t see a player ranked 17-32 (inclusive) until the 3rd round, at the earliest. Before this, of course, a top seed might have met dangerous floaters ranked 17-32 in the first or second rounds. That’s a big deal, especially on any court that’s quick enough to give a shot at taking out a top player to a big hitter who’s in the zone.
Every player still has to beat whoever’s on the other side of the net, round by round. But if the structure of the draw keeps the 2nd tier players away from the 1st tier for an additional round or two, well, you have to believe that gives the players seeded 1-16 a better chance of finding their form in 128 draw tourneys.
Every year since 1968…..
Someone once taught me Rule #1: “More money is better.”
In 1969 Rod Laver became the first player to win $100,000 in prize money in one year.
Think about that.
What did that mean about how Laver and others, earning far less on the pro tour, were able to ply their trade, well after 1969? Many top pros were still being housed in private homes during major tournaments in the early 70s. Bringing coaches, significant others, physios, and others on tour with you simply wasn’t an option. Knowing how and when to change prize money from one country’s currency to another was a prized skill, if not an art, and that assumed you had prize money to begin with. And air travel? Well, let’s just say that first class never came into the conversation, let alone Net Jets.
As a result, pros of the past played more matches per year. They had to, they had to earn a living. We can argue that the style of play was or wasn’t more taxing, but more matches is more matches. Take a look at another 1990/2017 comparison and tell me you wouldn’t prefer the 2017 schedule.
1990 #1 Stefan Edberg singles matches played 85 / doubles 28 113 total matches
2017 #1 Rafa Nadal singles matches played 78 / doubles 2 80 total matches
Edberg played 9% more singles matches in 1990 than Nadal in 2017, and 33% more matches overall.
Increased prize money gave tennis’ top pros the ability to schedule their years more around their competitive needs than their financial concerns. Less tired translates into losing less.
It would be silly, or worse, to say Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray are great only because of of these changes in tennis, that without new racquets and techniques, slower courts and rule changes they’d have toiled namelessly in the middle ranks of tennis pros. Drop any one of them in any generation’s mix of champions – especially, given their ridiculous overall records, Federer or Nadal – and they would have been top-ranked players. Of that there can be no doubt.
The nature of these shifts in tennis, however, still makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts; take any one or two of these tennis evolutions on their own, say polyester strings, and the game would not have seen seismic change. Poly strings in wood racquets, for example, even in Vilas’ open throat wood-composite Head stick, would have never been a worthwhile advancement, and wouldn’t have changed the game they way they have in concert with the other evolutions. The earliest Prince racquet, in aluminum, was never a legitimate tool for the pros, it simply wasn’t up to the job. But it paved the way for Chang’s Prince Graphite, and we know what that led to…..
The Big Four would shine like super novas in any tennis era. At the same time there have to be reasons why this almost incomprehensible domination by a few players has come about for the only time in tennis’ history. Otherwise we have to say these four are simply far, far more talented than all who have come before and I, for one, am not ready to say that.
The fact is that the game has mutated, shifted so that playing defensively is, excuse the expression, easier. Bigger racquets with bigger sweetspots that let us control more balls in more extreme situations; strings, grips, and swing paths that allow for hellacious amounts of get-out-of-jail topspin compared to gut; slower courts. They all increase a player’s chance to get the ball back one more time, and if great gets aren’t what you see more than ever from the best players, points that no one seems to be able to finish, then you haven’t been watching. Do we really think the serve/return/volley, serve, serve, serve/return excesses of the early 90s, Eastern grips, and bumpy grass courts disappeared all by themselves?
The Big Four, none of whom are 3 or 4 shots per point specialists, have ruled tennis by exploiting their amazing talents. They’re astounding athletes. Yet we also see that in no small way their domination has been fueled by the increased access to defense; in their cases, phenomenal defense. They’ve been given the means to get one more ball back, again and again, more often, than ever before in tennis’ history. They’ve made the best of tennis’ perfect storm of evolutionary changes.
On the other hand, they could be aliens.
Thanks, as always, to my bounce-it-off-me editors, Rolo Tomassi and my long suffering wife, LB.
A Dream Week For Holger Rune In Paris
Across the springtime of 2022 and culminating at the end of summer, a 19-year-old Spaniard named Carlos Alcaraz made history of the highest order in his profession.
Alcaraz was astonishing during that span, establishing himself as the first teenager in the men’s game since Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005 to capture a major when he took the U.S. Open title. This electrifying performer now resides at No.1 in the world and will probably conclude the year at the top despite an abdominal injury preventing him from competing at the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin.
To be sure, Alcaraz has been the sport’s “Man of the Year” in so many ways. And yet, a fellow teenager has now joined the Spaniard in the top ten, and that surely is no mean feat.
Denmark’s Holger Rune celebrated the most stupendously successful week of his career by improbably toppling the six-time champion Novak Djokovic to win the Rolex Paris Masters crown. Rune upended the game’s greatest front runner with a final round triumph he will surely remember for the rest of his life. Somehow, despite being in one precarious position after another—and finding himself dangerously low on oxygen at the end— Rune fended off a tennis icon who had swept 13 matches in a row over the autumn. Rune upended an unwavering yet apprehensive Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to garner his first Masters 1000 title. The grit and gumption he displayed on this auspicious occasion was ample evidence that he authentically has a champion’s mentality, a wealth of talent and a reservoir of courage that must be deeply admired.
It was a fascinating contest from beginning to end. Djokovic was unstoppable in the first set, breaking Rune in the fourth game when the precocious Dane served two double faults which seemed largely caused by overzealousness. Djokovic won 21 of 26 points on serve, nursed the one break he got very professionally, and outmaneuvered Rune time and again from the backcourt. His controlled aggression was first rate. Serving for that opening set at 5-3, Djokovic closed it out at love.
He then reached 0-40 on the Rune serve in the opening game of the second set, but squandered that opportunity flagrantly with an errant backhand passing shot, a netted forehand second serve return and a cautious overhead that eventually cost him the point. Rune held on sedulously, and soon moved to 3-0. That opening game was critical, changing the complexion of the set and allowing Rune to believe he was in with a chance.
Rune held serve the rest of the way to make it one set all. But, once more, Djokovic took command. He broke the Dane for a 3-1 third set lead when Rune went for broke on a big second serve down the T and double faulted. Djokovic sought to cement his advantage in the fifth game, opening up a 30-0 lead and later advancing to 40-30. He stood one point away from a 4-1 lead which might have proved insurmountable, but Rune made the Serbian pay for a backhand approach lacking sting and direction, passing Djokovic cleanly down the line off the backhand.
Rune managed crucially to break back, closing the gap to 3-2 and denying Djokovic a hold he should have had. Djokovic was visited at the changeover by the trainer, who attended to a left quad issue that was burdening the Serbian. But thereafter Djokovic seemed physically fine and appeared to be wearing Rune down. Leading 4-3, Djokovic pressed hard for a break, but again Rune obstinately stood his ground and came up with the goods in the clutch.
There were two deuces in that eighth game, but the Dane refused to allow Djokovic to reach break point. On both deuce points, the 19-year-old unleashed dazzling backhand winners down the line before holding on gamely. The set went to 5-5, and Rune’s opportunism was again showcased. Djokovic was ahead 30-0 but Rune collected four points in a row to seal the break, taking the last two on unprovoked mistakes from Djokovic.
And so Rune served for the match in the twelfth game of the third set with a 6-5 lead. His lungs were almost empty as Djokovic probed time and again to climb into a tie-break. It was hard to imagine if Djokovic managed to break back that Rune would be able to stay with him in that playoff. He was exhausted from the mental, emotional and physical strain of the hard fought third set.
Six times in that last game Djokovic stood at break point, but he could not convert. Rune’s temerity when it counted was almost breathtaking. He erased the first break point by lacing a forehand down the line for a winner, and then benefitted from a shocking Djokovic netted running forehand on the second. Then Djokovic had complete control on his third break point, only to send a backhand drop shot into the net.
Rune remained unrelenting, saving the fourth break point with an overhead winner, and erasing the fifth when Djokovic pulled a backhand pass wide with a clear opening. Rune reached match point for the first time but his explosive second serve landed long for a double fault. Djokovic advanced to break point for the sixth and last time, only to be stymied by a service winner from the Dane. Soon Rune was at match point for the second time, and he closed out the account stylishly with a forehand pass at the feet of Djokovic, who was coaxed into a netted half volley. For the first time ever in 31 Masters 1000 tournament finals, Djokovic had lost after securing the opening set. Walking on court with Rune in Paris, Djokovic’s career record overall after winning the first set was 891-38 (just shy of 96%), which is a higher success rate than any other male player in the Open Era.
Through nearly the entire last game of the encounter, Rune knew full well he had to finish it off there. Djokovic was well aware that his opponent was physically spent. Both players understood that the match was totally on the line; Djokovic would almost surely have prevailed in the tie-break had they gone there. For Djokovic, the loss was disappointing but not necessarily devastating. He put himself in a position to win twice, but did not realize his goal.
Yet he recognized that perhaps the match he played in the penultimate round against Stefanos Tsitsipas had taken a toll on him mentally. He had crushed Tsitsipas in the first set. From 2-2 in the first set he won five games in a row and then had a 0-30 lead on the Greek competitor’s serve early in the second set. Tsitsipas escaped and stretched Djokovic to his limits before the Serbian came through from a mini-break down at 3-4 in the third set tie-break to win four points in a row. Djokovic was victorious 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4) but that victory required an inordinate amount of emotional energy.
An exuberant Rune was ready to pounce if given the opportunity. He did just that.
In fact, Rune set a Masters 1000 tournament record with five wins over players ranked in the top ten. His Paris indoor journey started when he fought back valiantly to defeat Stan Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), saving three match points in the process (two in the second set, one in the third). After that escape, Rune stopped Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 6-1, Andrey Rublev 6-4, 7-5, Alcaraz 6-3, 6-6 retired, Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4 6-2 and then Djokovic.
Rune’s dynamic rise into the top ten has not happened by accident. He has won 19 of his last 21 matches, appearing in four consecutive ATP Tour finals during that remarkable span. He was beaten in the title round contest at Sofia by Marc-Andrea Huesler, won Stockholm over Tsitsipas, lost to Auger-Aliassime in the Basel final and now is the Rolex Paris Masters champion. Auger-Aliassime had won three straight titles before Rune stopped him in Paris. Djokovic had not lost since Auger-Aliassime defeated him at the Laver Cup. Rune refused to be intimidated by the size of their reputations and the strength of their recent records.
Rune wisely decided to skip the Next Gen ATP Finals this week in Milan. He will fittingly be the first alternate for the Nitto ATP Finals coming up in Turin starting on November 13. I have no doubt he will be ranked among the top five in the world by this time next year, and perhaps even reside among the top three. What impressed me the most in his match with Djokovic was his adaptability. Although Djokovic often set the tempo in that duel, Rune’s tactical skills were outstanding. At times he looped forehands and sent soft and low sliced backhands over the net to prevent Djokovic from feeding off of his pace. In other instances, Rune hit out freely and knocked the cover off the ball. He constantly shifted his strategy and Djokovic could not easily anticipate what was coming next. Rune employed the backhand down the line drop shot skillfully as another tool to keep Djokovic off guard.
No one in the game opens up the court better than Rune to set up forehand winners produced with a shade of sidespin that fade elusively away from his adversaries. Djokovic was the only player all week in Paris to comfortably return Rune’s serve, but on the big points Rune had an uncanny knack for finding the corners and landing big first serves. He saved ten of twelve break points against Djokovic. Moreover, he converted all three of his break points against a renowned opponent. Djokovic broke him twice but Rune would have lost his serve three more times if he had not performed mightily when his plight looked bleak.
What was most demonstrable at the Rolex Paris Masters was Rune’s propensity to play with immense poise under pressure. Not only did he survive that skirmish with the three time major champion Wawrinka in the opening round, but he somehow overcame Djokovic despite winning five fewer points across the three sets (97 to 92). Rune played the biggest points better than one of the most formidable match players of all time. He is a highly charged young player who has rubbed some players the wrong way with his high intensity bouts of abrasiveness on the court, but his comportment in Paris was very impressive and he did not put a foot out of line during his appointment with Djokovic. He handled the occasion awfully well under the circumstances.
In the weeks and months ahead, Rune will become a target of lesser ranked players looking to enlarge their reputations by virtue of striking down more accomplished adversaries. He will feel a different kind of pressure when he moves through the 2023 season in search of the premier prizes. But this is an enormously ambitious individual who is reminiscent of Alcaraz in terms of his outlook, sense of self, and mentality. They may well develop a stirring rivalry over the next five to ten years that will captivate galleries all over the world. Throw Auger-Aliassime into the mix with Alcaraz and Rune as well.
Tennis will be in exceedingly good shape in the years ahead. Djokovic remains in the forefront of the sport and he is a very young 35. The 36-year-old Nadal is not yet done by any means. But the younger generation is upon us, and it is apparent that Holger Rune is going to take his place among the game’s most illustrious players with increasing force, persuasion and urgency.
Roger Federer Through The Mirror
In the week of Roger Federer’s home tournament, Basel, a Ubitennis writer pays a heartfelt tribute to the Swiss legend that spans beyond tennis
by Agostino Nigro
The last image of Pete Sampras was a triumph. Roger’s was a public statement. The mirror of a fragile champion, not a robot as Borg and Lendl were. Federer may have stammered after victories, but he did not change tennis: that’s just fake news! And there is also a time when he told a lie…
They say that Mithridates, king of Pontus, was so daunted by the idea of being murdered by someone of his court, that he ingested small doses of poison daily.
As a result, when Mithridates tried to kill himself, swallowing a whole phial, he failed, since by then he had become immune. The term mithridatism is named after him. It means getting used to a huge pain in advance through little and constant sorrows. A homeopathy of feelings, spreading all over, often involuntary.
It will be said that 2000 years after Mithridates millions of people worldwide went on ingesting, day after day, tweet after tweet, news after interviews, through many little doses of harsh reality, the same poison. Through small doses, in these three years, everybody has been ingesting the poison that was announcing the end of Roger Federer’s tennis career, meaning that the Swiss tennis player would abandon his athlete’s body, tormented by all the surgeries, by 1500 matches, by 41 years of worldly life and by four children, who for sure had insisted on piggyback rides with their dad.
Today, looking around in this valley of tears, we can say that Mithridates was only a mythological bragger.
Nobody expected Federer to be Federer again. Many had understood that the Swiss was no more the player he once was. Those who still believed in him, had looked at his last match, at the 6-0 inflicted on him by Hurkacz on the Centre Court of Wimbledon, as a bad dream one can easily escape from. Those who still believed had wanted him to go on playing, with a little insolence and a courteous indifference towards his persona. Those who still believed had maybe wanted a last win against Nadal or against Djokovic, a last match in which he would be shedding pieces after pieces on court, losing a knee in a lightening run, an elbow during a volley, his back while serving, till nothing would be left but remains, cannibalized by limitless love.
Those who indeed do know what years mean, had already figured out that Roger Federer would not leave tennis holding a trophy, as it happened to Sampras who quit tennis throwing up his arms. Those who were there still remember. Sampras lifted the trophy, bid farewell, and forever everybody would remember him as the best, as the invictus. Pete Sampras’ last image was a triumph. Roger’s was a public statement. Maybe an echography.
Three years ago it was revealed that the great ending was not meant to be, when in the Wimbledon 2019 final, he got to the most famous 40-15 in history. That match is going to be talked about forever, by everybody, so I’d rather not. Actually Roger suffered many other defeats throughout his career, but it’s very complicated to explain why. The poison we’re not yet immune to is still producing its effects: it would have been better to expel it before writing, because my thoughts about what is happening in the sport I love still seem to be confounding me.
Certainly some still remember the Australian Open 2006 trophy presentation. Seventh Slam in his pocket, a worriless final against Baghdatis. Everyday routine. Nevertheless, during the ceremony, emotion played a monologue that no one was expecting. Federer just wasn’t able to talk. He started stammering, he blurted out confused words people even laughed at. Then he burst out crying, out of the blue. The Rod Laver Arena was shocked by the winner’s tears and began wondering if that Slam, by many considered the least important of the four, was concealing a secret. When Rod Laver gave him the trophy, he was hugged by our Roger the way someone hugs you when they feel lonely, but before 20,000 people. The scene was so emotional that the public ceremony was transfigured in a story of his persona, in an intimate manifestation of the self.
At that time, I just used to appreciate very much Roger the tennis player, who could elegantly perform any shot allowed by laws of physics, but in that precise moment I walked through the mirror that led toward the Roger Federer persona. And I never came back.
Since then, every match I was so lucky to watch ceased to be just a sport affair and started to become an exploration of the inner self. “What is he feeling right now after winning? What was he thinking before missing that shot? What is he feeling, playing so damn well, and what is he feeling now that the other one is playing better than him?”.
While watching him playing I was jotting down mental notes. I had been enriching with posthumous details the champion I wanted to be when I was 10 years old, when another me, in his childhood bedroom, waving his racquet about, was winning against everything and everybody, bringing home a Slam, made up of dim hopes and May afternoons.
Once you’re through the mirror, many observations seem trivial and stereotypical.
Some wrote, years ago, that Federer was a cold tennis player, a tennis player who, since he had repressed his youthful outbursts, had been turned into a robot, or, even worse, into a frustrated person. There is no need to prove the contrary, which has been under everyone’s eyes ever since. It’s more helpful to explain that this idea started haunting those who could not accept that a person, who had been revealed as so fragile and emotional, could win so much, in a robot-like way as Lendl or Borg. This idea was born from the minds of those that could not accept the normality of a never-seen-before talent, from the minds of those who still today cannot accept that an individual blessed by the gods can be close to you.
There will be an eternal debate whether he is the best ever, as if, in tennis, time could be employed as an objective unit of measurement. As if numbers could tell the only true story in a sport made of countless variables, of changing surfaces, of expanding tennis balls, and which indeed are less objective than the eyes of who’s watching and expressing their opinion.
Still today do they write, yet another fake, that Roger Federer has changed tennis. Just look at our tennis, today. And tell me how Federer changed it or tell me what remains of this change and can be seen today. Federer has been the tip of a compass that stretched out till it collapsed. Federer’s claws have bonded one era with another. A 24-year long bridge has been the last noble ground we’ve been allowed to walk on before landing on an anonymous land, where everything is the same. It is impressive if we think that Roger bid farewell one minute after a 19-year-old who claims to be his fan, but is only the prince of clones, rose to the throne.
Forgive me, and please, may Carlos Alcaraz forgive me. It’s because of the poison, which can arouse anger even in the most innocent.
During a press conference in Paris I asked him if he was aware that after him nobody would ever be playing his shots. Shyness prevented me from asking him what I really meant, if he knew that he was simply the last. I hoped he would scream, in his native language, “Kameraden, ich bin der Letzte!” (Comrades! I am the last!), as the last rebel prisoner of Auschwitz did in front of a disenchanted Primo Levi. Instead, he just looked at me sternly, replying that it was not true, that there would be new tennis players worth following, that he would watch the new generations with interest. Then he turned away. The question bothered him, and maybe his answer bothered him as well. “Liar”, I thought. Liar even now that you’re leaving.
Cleansing every form of emotion, what’s the point of grieving over about a rich Swiss sportsman who will never again hit a felt and rubber ball with the goal of winning a tournament? Why suffer about it? Why transfigure these days in a laic 5th of May, in a secular grief, everyone reading out “He is no more” (TN: from the ode The 5th of May by Alessandro Manzoni), while our problems persist? How can a passion for sport, for what is nothing but a game, for a tennis player or for a football team, grow into something so akin to love?
Walking through the mirror that separates the public image of a sportsman from the private dimension of a man that you have never had the chance to know is a personal journey. As an embarrassing hug with Rod Laver could be as well. Just like suddenly being halted at 40-15 of a London final, turning the engines off to fly like a glider, so as to better inhale the stress.
It’s a journey that no one can explain because no one is able to explain to us why we like a certain thing, why we are so different, why we love.
Perhaps it’s because we all need something, and I hope that some may see themselves in these words. We strive for something we understand is missing because we never had it, or because we lost it. Something belonging to the past, something which a bit of elementary psychoanalysis could exhume from our childhood, concealed amid those dreams of glory that never came true. It’s quite similar to Mithridates’ poison, but it works reversely.
A friend of mine wrote to me saying that once you have read some news you feel older. It’s the opposite. These episodes act differently. They pick out from the sand the silver threads which had been hidden for years, they stretch them out, they shake the dust off and they connect us back to when we were kids. They reactivate the umbilical cords with ages where the soul used to be pervaded by dreams, and if one of these dreams vanishes, a ripple crosses time and makes the children we were sad.
Sport means being a child, when everything is a challenge, when you’re convinced to eat a dish of vegetables only because another child has already done the same, when in the one hundred meters that you run with your father, you can imagine running at least six Olympic finals.
Roger Federer, for us who have loved him, has been the avatar of our sport dreams. The tangible representation that, even through an interposed person, our dreams were true. And now that we are compelled to put away that avatar away in the basement, now that a physical form dreaming for us no longer exists, we have discovered we are no longer able to dream. We feel lonely, on the other side of the mirror, and we cannot afford to remain trapped there.
Before breaking free, however, it would be beautiful if we could be lulled by the vanishing dreams. Before becoming adults with no way of escape, before the silver thread is buried once again, before Roger Federer disappears, I ask you, Roger, to throw that child up in the air, and then catch him. Throw him up again, higher and higher, so high that he can barely see your arms, so that he will slowly get used to the farewell. Throw me up again Roger, for my glider flight, and again, one last time, dad, and then let me go away.
Translated from Italian to English by Massimiliano Trenti
Where Does Roger Federer Rank In The History Of Tennis?
Hall of Fame tennis historian Steve Flink provides a detailed look into the Swiss Maestro’s career and how it compares against his two bigger rivals.
Now that several weeks have elapsed since Roger Federer bid farewell to big time tennis at the age of 41 in a losing, yet somehow triumphant, Laver Cup doubles performance alongside Rafael Nadal in London, the time has come to examine the Swiss Maestro’s lofty place in history.
He celebrated an astonishing career, scaling the heights over and over again across his prime, playing the game professionally for nearly a quarter of a century, setting the highest standards as both a shotmaker and a sportsman, and establishing himself for a multitude of reasons as the most popular player ever to pick up a racket—man or woman—in the modern history of the game.
Federer was the consummate professional, but also a tennis artist, gliding around the court effortlessly and releasing winners that seemed frequently lifted straight out of dreams. He was not simply an outstanding champion who was vastly underestimated as a competitor, but a virtuoso performer who gave galleries in every corner of the globe an immense amount of pleasure with his arresting elegance, from his signature inside-out forehand, to his sweepingly beautiful backhand, to his textbook conventional volleys along with his dazzling swing volley, to the exquisite serve that was his most reliable and important weapon.
His career was sublime. Federer captured 103 tournaments altogether in singles, taking 71 of those titles on hard courts, 19 on grass, 11 on clay, and two on indoor carpet. He finished five seasons (2004-07 and 2009) as the No. 1 ranked player in the world and spent no fewer than 310 weeks at the top, including 237 consecutive weeks of preeminence during his heyday. At 36 in 2018, he became the oldest man ever to reside at No. 1 in the world.
Moreover, he concluded 14 years in a row (2002-2015) among the top six in the world. Thereafter, he ended another four years (2017-2020) among the top five. His first year-end finish in the top ten was 2002 and his last was 2020, which was irrefutable evidence of his enduring excellence.
There is more, of course. Federer collected 20 Grand Slam tournament titles (one less than Novak Djokovic, two behind Rafael Nadal), amassing a record eight men’s singles crowns at Wimbledon, securing six Australian Open victories, winning the U.S. Open five times and ruling at Roland Garros once. In the heart of his prime, Federer pulled off a unique men’s feat by prevailing at the sport’s two most prestigious tournaments five years in a row, doing so at Wimbledon (2003-2007) and the U..S. Open (2004-2008). It was in the same span that he was unassailable at the majors. From 2004-2007 he managed to majestically collect 11 of the 16 Grand Slam titles.
That was consistency of the highest order, but the astonishing reliability he exhibited as a towering champion is amplified by the following achievements—between 2004 and 2010 he was a semifinalist or better in 23 straight major tournaments. Moreover, Federer made it (at least) to 36 consecutive quarterfinals at the four premier events in tennis from 2004 until 2013. To be sure, Federer set himself apart with his capacity to make stellar showings time and again across the years when it counted irrevocably in the places of prestige. Throw into the mix this additional proof of his stature: Federer’s astounding career match record was 1251-275.
And yet, Federer happened to belong to a splendid era in which he shared the spotlight with two other iconic figures who both made him better and yet were burdensome for the Swiss Maestro in many ways. Federer commenced his illustrious rivalry with Nadal in 2004, and they last clashed in 2019. Their crackling forty match series was highlighted by an astonishing stretch from 2006-2008 when they collided in three consecutive French Open and Wimbledon finals.
The dynamic Spaniard was victorious in all three appointments at Roland Garros on a surface where he was nearly unbeatable, while Federer—the King of the Lawns—toppled Nadal twice at the All England Club before falling gallantly against the southpaw in a five set 2008 epic contest that will live longer in our hearts and minds than any of their other memorable skirmishes.
They would also split two remarkable Australian Open five set finals in Melbourne, with Nadal coming out on top in the former (2009) and Federer prevailing in the latter (2017). That 2017 triumph was surely the most gratifying triumph of Federer’s career as he rallied from 1-3 down in the fifth set to sweep five games in a row with a shotmaking smorgasbord, most notably driving through his topspin backhand with a flair and certitude that was strikingly impressive and better than anything he had ever produced off that side to counter the Spaniard’s fabled heavy topspin forehand.
Federer found confronting Nadal to be the most daunting stylistic challenge of his career. Toward the end of 2015, Nadal held a commanding 23-10 lead in his head-to-head series with the Swiss, but Federer was the victor in six of his last seven duels with the Spaniard, and so the final tally was 24-16 in favor of Nadal. More importantly, Nadal bested Federer in six of nine final round meetings at the majors.
Enter Novak Djokovic. In the first five years of his rivalry with Federer from 2006-2010, the Serbian trailed 13-6. But Djokovic started soaring to another level in his banner year of 2011. From that point on, he had the upper hand in a riveting series with the Swiss. He took 21 of their last 31 matches to finish with a 27-23 winning record over Federer. Federer stopped Djokovic the first time they met in a major final at the 2007 U.S. Open, but thereafter Djokovic won all four title round encounters versus his revered adversary, including three Wimbledon finals (2014, 2015 and 2019) and one at the U.S. Open (2015). Not to be overlooked, Djokovic rallied from double match point down thrice against Federer, realizing that extraordinary feat in the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 2010 and 2011 as well as the riveting Wimbledon final of 2019, recording all three of those comeback victories in five sets.
And so Federer concluded his career with a losing record against his two foremost rivals. To be sure, Nadal is five years younger than Federer and Djokovic is six years younger. That must be taken into account because Federer’s zenith was across his twenties. The fact remains that Federer was struggling to solve the riddle of Nadal when the Swiss was in his twenties, but he did exceedingly well against the Spaniard during his thirties. Meanwhile, he had a much tougher time against Djokovic in the same span. It is hard to fully measure the impact of the age discrepancy between Federer and his two chief rivals.
Djokovic, for instance, has won nine of his 21 majors since turning 30, while Nadal has secured eight of his record 22 Grand Slam titles since he became 30. Federer had to settle for four more majors after he made it to age 30, capturing 16 of his 20 Grand Slam Championships over the course of his twenties.
Consequentially, Federer ended his career unfavorably against his two foremost rivals across the board and at the premier tournaments which are the authentic barometer in determining the relative greatness of iconic players. The view here is that this measuring stick must be valued very highly when examining the ultimate historical impact of a trio who defined an incomparable era with their vast array of achievements.
At one time, Federer seemed certain to surpass Djokovic and Nadal in the Grand Slam title race, but ultimately he was overtaken first by Nadal at the 2022 Australian Open and later by Djokovic at Wimbledon this past year. He has captured more total tournaments than his primary adversaries with his remarkable 103 crowns. But even that mark is in jeopardy. Nadal currently stands at 92 titles with Djokovic close behind at 90. At the very least, there won’t be much separating these three men on this statistical terrain.
Undoubtedly, Federer summoned everything he could for nearly a quarter of a century to bring out the best in himself and attain his highest goals. He kept himself in the thick of things as one of the leading players for a remarkably long time. At his best, he was the most daunting of all competitors in his time, primarily because his serve-forehand combination was so frequently unanswerable. He also was the most multi-faceted man of his generation, more natural at the net than his chief adversaries, an inventive conquerer on the tennis court with the widest arsenal and largest imagination among the “Big Three”, and a supremely cagey competitor with the widest range of options.
But, looking at Federer historically, he must be judged above all else on his record. It is scintillating, marked by a multitude of stupendous accomplishments, highlighted by a degree of creativity neither Nadal or Djokovic could match, showcased by the composure he exhibited just about every time he stepped on a court.
The fact remains that—at least in my view—Federer’s numbers in their entirety fall marginally short of Nadal’s and Djokovic’s. They won more majors than the Swiss, mastered Federer in most of the biggest matches they contested against him, and already they have almost matched his longevity. No one has displayed the uninterrupted consistency of Nadal in the official ATP Rankings. This 2022 season will be his 18th in a row finishing among the top ten on the planet. Only twice in that span has he not completed a year residing in the top five.
Nadal has matched Federer’s feat of ending five years at No. 1, and has an outside chance of wrapping up this year at the top, although that is unlikely. As for Djokovic, he not only has spent by far the most weeks at No.1, but he also holds the all-time men’s ATP record by establishing himself as the year-end No. 1 seven times, breaking the old mark set by Pete Sampras (1993-98). He, too, has been strikingly dependable. Djokovic is almost certain to conclude 2022 in the top ten for the 15th time in the last 16 years.
The case for Nadal as the greatest player of his era, and perhaps the finest of all time, rests on his record number of 22 majors, an astounding 14-0 record in French Open finals, the best win-loss mark in major finals of the trio at 22-8, and his staggering superiority on clay, the surface on which he has won 63 of his 92 career singles crowns.
Critics would contend that there is an imbalance in Nadal’s career credits regarding surface variety because the bulk of his success has come on clay, but the fact remains that he joins Djokovic as the only players since Rod Laver claimed a second Grand Slam in 1969 to win all four majors at least twice. Nadal, however, is the only member of the esteemed trio to secure an Olympic gold medal in singles, triumphing on the hard courts in Beijing fourteen years ago to earn that distinction. On the opposite side of the ledger, Nadal has collected only two career titles indoors and has never won the Nitto ATP Finals, perhaps the fifth most important tournament in men’s tennis. Federer flourished under a roof, winning 26 indoor championships including a record six ATP Finals victories. Djokovic has amassed 16 indoor titles, taking the ATP Finals five times.
Nadal falls well short of Federer in terms of surface flexibility, but Djokovic does not. Some longtime tennis authorities believe Federer’s clay court credentials equal or surpass those of Djokovic, but I don’t agree. Djokovic has taken the French Open title twice (2016 and 2021), while Federer ruled at Roland Garros only once (in 2009). The Swiss lost four French Open finals to Nadal while Djokovic has been beaten by the Spaniard three times in title round meetings on the Parisian clay.
But there is a wide gap in what the Serbian and the Swiss have accomplished overall on clay. Djokovic has captured 18 titles on the dirt, seven more than Federer. In addition, Djokovic has won the Italian Open—universally regarded as the second most significant clay court tournament—no less than six times, while Federer never won in Rome. Djokovic has won the highly regarded Monte Carlo Masters 1000 event twice. Federer was unable to secure that crown. Both players have been victorious at the Madrid Masters 1000 tournament on three occasions. Djokovic’s clay court record across the board is decidedly better than Federer’s.
Many experts believe Djokovic is the finest hard court player of his time, with 64 of his 90 titles taken on that surface, including a record nine Australian Opens on top of three U.S. Opens. But he also may equal or perhaps surpass Federer’s sparkling Wimbledon record; with seven titles, the Serbian is only one title shy of the Swiss at the shrine of the sport. He will surely have a few more good opportunities to prosper on the lawns of London.
While this piece has focussed solely on the “Big Three” and where they belong on the lofty ladder of history, comparing these luminaries to the game’s greatest players across all generations through a longer lens is unavoidable. We must not ignore Bill Tilden, a towering figure in the 1920’s who won ten majors and advanced the game immeasurably with his tactical wizardry. Don Budge was the first player ever to win all four majors in a single season (1938) for a Grand Slam. Jack Kramer was the best player of the 1940’s and the first half of the fifties and the author of the so-called “Big Game”.
Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez reshaped the game over the second half of the fifties and well beyond. And then, of course, the left-handed Rod Laver won two Grand Slams in the 1960’s with his golden array of shots. Put Lew Hoad into the conversation when recollecting his supreme power and grace in the late 1950’s. Others celebrate Sweden’s Bjorn Borg for his eleven major title runs in the seventies and early eighties and his undervalued three year reign as the French Open and Wimbledon champion (1978-80) when there was more of a disparity between the clay and the grass. Across the nineties and beyond, Pete Sampras stamped his authority on the sport, finishing a record six straight years (1993-98) at No. 1 in the world and capturing 14 Grand Slam tournaments. Believed by most experts to be the best server in the history of the game and an unflappable competitor, Sampras controlled the climate of the game in his era regally.
The G.O.A.T. Debate is awfully difficult and, for that matter, impossible to resolve, but this much is certain: Federer, Djokovic and Nadal are all worthy candidates. All three stood the test of time, and scaled the heights of the sport for long periods. Each of them has sweepingly changed the face of the game—Federer with his masterful craftsmanship, Djokovic with his incomparable return of serve and elastic athleticism, Nadal with his whirlwind topspin and indomitable spirit.
Federer will be regarded as the most heralded member of the trio, as a singularly elegant shotmaker and transcendent tennis champion. In fact, he is arguably the most revered sports figure of the 21st Century. People who hardly followed sports at all knew who he was and wanted to get at least a glimpse of him playing his sport as aesthetically as it could be done. He will be remembered as well for being an outstanding sportsman who conducted himself almost unfailingly with extraordinary dignity in the public arena, simultaneously competing with quiet fury.
But, in my view, Roger Federer was outdone by his two chief rivals in their absorbing three way battle for supremacy. He celebrated one of the great careers in tennis history, but in the final analysis—the way I see it—he is not the best to ever play the game, nor the standout player of his era, despite his prodigious accomplishments. And yet, in the ultimate analysis, Federer will live longer in our collective imaginations with his rare combination of style and substance, his grace under pressure and his capacity to inspire audiences completely wherever he played in the world.
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