As I write this piece, the French Open draw has not yet been made. That makes it difficult to make projections that are too bold or specific, but I am ready to present my overview of Roland Garros and to look at what could unfold over the next few weeks at the most important clay court tournament on the planet.
No matter how the draw turns out (Will Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic end up in the same half and meet in the semifinals? Who will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals? What else is in store?) the view here is that no one is going to deny Nadal another triumphant run at his favorite tournament in the world. Nadal is almost surely going to collect a fourteenth crown in Paris, and thus move past Roger Federer into first place among the men as the winner of the most Grand Slam singles titles ever. Nadal is poised to collect his 21st major title after a hard and productive clay court campaign.
To be sure, he was somewhat vulnerable on the red clay this time around. He was ousted in a three set quarterfinal at Monte Carlo by the big hitting Andrey Rublev, and thus prevented from winning that tournament for the twelfth time. The dynamic Spaniard took that loss with his usual equanimity, realizing there was a long road ahead on the dirt, understanding that his form would inevitably improve.
He moved on to Barcelona, and at that ATP 500 event he made amends for his Monte Carlo setback. Nadal was pushed to the hilt by an inspired Tsitsipas in the final. The gifted Greek stylist played with all of his heart and a great deal of verve, bringing Nadal to the brink of defeat. Tsitsipas had a match point and was somewhat unlucky not to convert it. His return of serve was sent deep down the middle. After Nadal commendably flicked it back crosscourt, Tsitsipas unleashed a heavy forehand deep into Nadal’s backhand corner.
Rafa barely got that ball back on the stretch as his two-hander clipped the net cord and fortunately stayed in play. Nadal went on to win that point and claimed the match 6-4, 6-7 (6), 7-5. It was a narrow escape but Nadal deservedly came away with a twelfth crown in Barcelona in a match he needed badly from a psychological perspective.
And yet, he was still not fully in the groove on his best surface. Nadal was ushered out of Madrid in the quarterfinals by a composed and confident Sascha Zverev, who extended his winning streak over the Spaniard to three head to head matches in a row. Zverev won that contest in straight sets after trailing 4-2 in the opening set. He served beautifully, waited for the right openings to approach the net off his forehand, and defended ably in many instances. But Nadal was understandably very unhappy with his performance, and his negativity was readily apparent.
Having lost in two of his three clay court appearances, Nadal once more needed a boost when he went to Rome. And that is precisely what he got in the end. Nevertheless, he was in a very precarious position when he took on Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16. The Canadian left-hander played perhaps the finest clay court tennis of his career to nearly produce a major upset on the Italian clay.
Shapovalov won the first set and led 3-0 with a break point for 4-0 in the second set. Nadal struck back audaciously to win six of the last seven games to salvage the second set. Nevertheless, the Spaniard soon trailed 3-1 in the final set before getting back on even terms. Be that as it may, Nadal was down match point twice when he served at 5-6 in the final set and was fortunate that the Canadian was a bit impetuous on both opportunities. Nadal came through in a final set tie-break to win a crucial encounter.
Buoyed by that escape, Nadal avenged his Madrid loss to Zverev by upending the German in the quarterfinals. He next took apart the towering American Reilly Opelka in the semifinals, and then he won what was arguably the best played clay court match of the 2021 season by overcoming Djokovic 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 for a tenth Italian Open crown.
Djokovic was first rate across the three sets of high quality tennis. He had the early break for 2-0 in the opening set but Nadal broke right back. At 5-5 the Serbian had a game point but double faulted and was soon broken. But he swept through the second set sublimely and then had two break points with Nadal serving at 2-2 in the final set. Djokovic missed a high forehand into the net tape on one of those break points, and once Nadal held on there he took control the rest of the way, closing the gap in his personal career head to head series with Djokovic to 29-28 for the Serbian.
Nadal did not want to be beaten in three out of four tournaments en route to Roland Garros, and he avoided that fate by playing the big points better than Djokovic in both the first and third sets. He came away with a second clay court title of the season and a considerable lift heading into the French Open. In my view, he raised his game decidedly against Djokovic when he had to, and the Spaniard was pounding the forehand as prodigiously as he has in a very long while. In turn, his serve location and velocity were significantly improved.
Nadal’s tournament preparation for Roland Garros was over and he has put himself in good stead. He will turn 35 early in the tournament but the eminent left-hander is playing like a much younger man. No matter how modest he is and how little he says about his confidence or convictions, the view here is entirely clear—Rafael Nadal fully believes he is going to win a 14th French Open.
I would give only two other men a serious chance to win at Roland Garros. To be sure, Djokovic and Tsitsipas must have everything fall into place perfectly to win in Paris, but both men should be very well prepared to give it their all at the French Open.
Djokovic must be considered the distant second favorite behind Nadal for a number of reasons. He has won the tournament before which is no mean feat, coming through in 2016 for his fourth Grand Slam title in a row, becoming the first man since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep four straight major titles. Djokovic is one of only two players ever to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, eclipsing the Spaniard in the 2015 quarterfinals.
Balanced against that fact is this: Djokovic has been beaten three times in the finals of the French Open by Nadal, bowing against his chief rival in 2012, 2014, and 2020. In last year’s final, Djokovic was taken apart 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 by Nadal in their most one-sided contest ever on such a big occasion. Altogether, his record against Nadal at Roland Garros is 1-7.
The fact remains that Nadal respects Djokovic as a player more than anyone else. The final last year was an anomaly. Nadal was letter perfect on that afternoon while Djokovic was far away from the top of his game. If they meet again this year, the match will not resemble that one. In Rome, Djokovic was outplayed in the end but the margins were exceedingly slim and both players were well aware of that.
The Serbian is competing this week in Belgrade and looking for his first title since taking the Australian Open at the start of the season for the ninth time. Djokovic should win the tournament and thus give himself a boost as he approaches Roland Garros. He played an abysmal match in losing to Dan Evans in the round of 16 at Monte Carlo, and then was beaten in a well played semifinal by Aslan Karatsev in the first of two Serbian tournaments he would play on his way to Roland Garros. But Djokovic was too tight to do himself full justice in that contest. His break point conversion rate was not up to his standard. Karatsev saved 23 of 28 break points against him in that duel. And then Djokovic lost that hard fought clash with Nadal in Rome.
Djokovic should be ready in Paris. While Nadal clearly has history uppermost on his mind as he goes full force after the title in Paris, Djokovic will be similarly motivated. If Nadal wins the tournament, Djokovic would trail the Spaniard by three majors, but if the Serbian prevails he could close the gap to one title. That is a huge difference.
While Djokovic will have the match play he needs to perform at optimum level in Paris, so, too, will the surging Tsitsipas. The Greek player won his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo, lost narrowly to Nadal in that Barcelona final, fell in the round of 16 in Madrid, but then nearly toppled Djokovic in a stirring quarter final battle in Rome. Tsitsipas served for the match before losing that riveting encounter 7-5 in the third set.
That was his second agonizing clay court loss of the season. Both Nadal in Barcelona and Djokovic in Rome demonstrated that they are the best big pressure players in the game. But Tsitsipas recovered well from the Djokovic loss. This past week he won his second clay court crown of the season in Lyon. That triumph could not have been more timely.
There are others, of course, who are capable of capturing the title at Roland Garros under the right set of circumstances. But two of the top four seeds are at very low emotional ebbs at the moment. Dominic Thiem has been magnificent in many ways over the last five French Open editions. In 2016, he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals. A year later, Nadal beat him in the penultimate round. And then in 2018 and 2019 he was the runner-up to Nadal. Last year, Thiem fell in the quarterfinals against Diego Schwartzman but he was weary then after winning the U.S. Open a few weeks earlier.
Now the Austrian is simply not himself physically or emotionally. He skipped Monte Carlo, lost to Zverev in the semifinals of Madrid, fell in a closely contested round of 16 skirmish against Lorenzo Sonego in Rome and then bowed out tamely this past week 6-3, 6-2 against Cameron Norrie, who made it to the final and lost to Tsitsipas.
Thiem is a great clay court player, but his spirits now are so diminished that I don’t see him going deep into the draw in Paris. His vulnerability is unmistakable. And what of world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev? He has freely admitted that clay is a surface he simply does not understand. He has struggled inordinately all spring. I expect Medvedev to lose early at Roland Garros. He has been beaten in the first round at the French Open no fewer than four years in a row. His morale is low. It is hard to imagine him making much of an impression. For Nadal to be seeded behind Medvedev in Paris is a glaring injustice.
I believe Sascha Zverev is going to be a factor in Paris. The 2020 U.S. Open finalist was victorious in Madrid, taking his third career Masters 1000 clay court title. He has the game to succeed on any surface but does he have the emotional stability to get through a fortnight in Paris this time around? I doubt it, although he is one player Nadal would rather not have to face.
Four other players could make their presence known depending on their draws. Rublev is a workhorse who approaches every tournament as if it will be the last one he will ever play. But after his final round appearance in Monte Carlo, his results on clay were disappointing. Matteo Berrettini is very comfortable on the clay and reached the final in Madrid, but can he move beyond the quarterfinals or perhaps the semifinals? I doubt it.
Meanwhile another Italian must be watched closely. Jannik Sinner has not done himself justice during the clay court season but the Miami Masters 1000 hard court finalist is among the most determined competitors out there. He pushed Nadal hard in a respectable loss at Rome. He can make inroads after reaching the quarters last year in Paris and nearly winning the first set from Nadal. But the feeling grows that Sinner’s best case scenario is a semifinal showing.
It all comes back to Nadal. This is a man on a mission. He will be looking to peak in Paris as he does almost every years. Here is a redoubtable champion who won Roland Garros the first four times he played it (2005-2008) before a shocking round of 16 loss to Robin Soderling in 2009. Then he won five in a row (2010-2014) before losing to Djokovic in 2015 and withdrawing prior to a third round match in 2016 with an injury. Since then he has won four more titles in a row.
Beating Rafael Nadal in a best of five set match on clay is the toughest task in tennis. I am almost certain he is going to be the last man standing again in Paris.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
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.
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.
Goodbye Roger Federer, best wishes for your second life
I watched hundreds of your matches. Yet, five minutes would have just been enough.
By Ubaldo Scanagatta
We all understood his talent was endless. Tennis fans could not help but fall in love. Every match, everywhere, he was always playing before a home crowd. Today I’m writing about the classiest player ever. Tomorrow I may write about the man. We all had a dream: if only we could hit just one of his shots.
Five minutes would have just been enough and… The great champions of sport are the only human beings who are allowed to die twice. Today grief is unanimous, universal. Universal because… our world is far too small. Eulogies and personal, nostalgic memories are pouring in from all over. Everyone is shedding tears. Not just the champions of a generation. Even those of the previous eras. And far beyond the narrow boundaries of the Tennis Planet, a microcosm.
There is no media or social network which hasn’t published the most inspired obituaries of the greatest writers. Even – especially? – of those who have never watched an entire match of his… but the news that Roger Federer’s first life, the most eternal, has come to an end blasted out yesterday. It is a chronicle of a death foretold. But, unlike Santiago Nasar, he decided to end it.
The event is sad, ever so sad. Roger will not have the funeral honours of the Queen of England. Yet King Roger will no longer be stepping out onto the tennis courts. It’s not a Swiss custom. But there will be many of us mourning him. Millions. When I say that everyone is weeping for him… it’s true.
The funeral must be celebrated. Pages and pages in the newspapers dedicated to mourning, reports on the various networks, relishing a first, inevitable docuseries.
De Profundis shall envelop in a shroud of sadness even the most ardent fans of Rafa Nadal, Nole Djokovic and Andy Murray, the three of the Fab Four who are still doggedly attached to their first life. Until their last breath. Hopefully not before turning 41 (Roger’s age).
His first 40 years – let’s be honest and not exaggerate with hyperboles…his last year is not to be counted – have been extraordinary. As far as champions are concerned, records speak for themselves. They cannot be questioned.
Many friends asked me to evoke a personal memory about Roger Federer, knowing that I first saw him play when he was 16 and a half years old and won the Easter Junior Tournament at the Florence TC in 1998 beating Filippo Volandri 64 64. Then I saw him when he made his debut in Davis Cup at Neuchatel on 2 April 1998, aged 17 years and 8 months, and defeated Sanguinetti. I was in Milan when Roger won the first of his 103 tournaments, just after turning 19. At that time someone could still doubt he would become such a phenomenon, even though today many boast they had immediately understood it.
Believe me if I tell you that when, on 2 July 2021 – he wasn’t even twenty – I saw him beat Pete Sampras in his private garden at Wimbledon, in a five-set match which lasted 3 hours and 40 minutes (he won 190 points, Sampras 180 and no fewer than 20 were outstanding, unbelievable), I couldn’t help writing “I reckon I have just witnessed the official changing of the guard in the United Kingdom: this kid is endowed with such an extraordinary talent that I have no doubt I’ll be writing a countless number of articles about him in a very near future.”
Indeed I was surprised he took one year more than I expected, almost all 2002, to prove I was right. He was less precocious than Nadal and Djokovic. Has his career lasted longer? We’ll see.
I was not in Basel, his hometown, when, after having met the world of tennis there as a ball boy, he won his 103rd tournament. But I saw it on TV. And I remember writing that it wouldn’t really be fair if he stopped at 103 titles when Jimbo Connors had won 109. It wouldn’t be fair because several of those 109 were fake tournaments. Tournaments organized by Jimbo’s manager, Bill Riordan, and Jimbo’s mom, Gloria. The 103 tournaments that Roger won were won in a different way. And how many more would he have won if he had “humiliated” himself and played those of a lesser status? He could have done that, but he was too proud to… bow his head.
He wouldn’t have been chic. And, come on, let’s forget the lengthy and tedious GOAT debate: who is the most chic tennis player ever, the one who has never been seen sweat, the most elegant for the way he play and dresses … whoever his sponsor was? At first his sponsor was American, Nike, at only 16 years of age. Then Japanese in recent years, Uniqlo. There are also discussions about who was the strongest. But there is no arguing about who has always been the most chic! Maybe even in pyjamas, but we should ask Mirka.
He recalled in his farewell message that he had played over 1500 matches. Being crazy as I am about tennis and great tennis shows, watching Federer play has always been a guarantee of a great show – and I was lucky I didn’t have to pay for the ticket … but I would have paid for it in any case! – I’d love to reconstruct my past to find out how many matches I’ve seen live. And on TV. Just for a silly and useless personal satisfaction. I had so many great moments watching him, that’s for sure. How many ohhs of wonder did he elicit from me, until I got used to it and resolved not to yield to surprise anymore.
I have certainly seen all of his 20 Grand Slam triumphs, across three continents and not just his 8 Wimbledon titles. And his victory number 1251, the last, against our Lorenzo Sonego, before the last defeat, number 275, the one with Hubi (with H … it wasn’t me) Hurkacz. Yes, even Federer has lost a lot more tournaments than he has won, 103. Gentlemen, this is tennis. King Roger has also lost a lot. Even one of the most successful tennis players in history has had to learn how to cope with defeat. On the other hand, without losers (I personally know this category very well) there would be no winners.
Continuing the description of the Federerian paradoxes, the ones you will read about everywhere, Roger has been many more weeks without sitting on the tennis throne than the 310 weeks in which he reigned.
I do not believe – and not because of the openheartedness we feel for those who … no longer exist – that we should give importance to the fact that in 40 duels against Nadal, Roger won only 16 (40%) and in 50 challenges against Djokovic, 23 out of 50 (46%). It is a bit of the same story with Connors’ 109 titles and Federer’s 103 titles. But it is not fair to compare pears and oranges, to compare players of a different age, a 5-year gap with Nadal and a 6-year gap with Djokovic in different periods and with battles that took place on different surfaces (the reference to Rafa Nadal and his indisputable superiority on clay is anything but coincidental).
Instead, I believe that If I had just meant to write what many have written better than I have about the tennis player Roger Federer, there would have been no need to watch him hundreds of times like I did. Except for the pleasure, the inexhaustible enjoyment of course.
It could have really taken just five minutes to… “discover” all his incredible repertoire. In five minutes we would have immediately noticed the fluidity and elegance of his serve and of all his shots, yes, all of them, forehand, backhand, volley, half volley, dropshot, blocked return of serve, sliced backhands, top spin backhands (post Ljubicic), delicate touches like McEnroe (“If I were more gay I would let myself be caressed by touches like those ” Gianni Clerici used to say about SuperMac but he could also have said that about Roger), aggressive attacks, sneaky attacks (sneaky attacks returning serve with a chip and charge) played with the speed of a pop up, as someone wrote. And what about his tweeners? He hit them in all the possible ways, forehand, backhand, down the line, winning lobs.
We all wished we could play just one of the shots he had. I was racking my brains to think of a shot he has never, not even once, managed to come up with in his magical repertoire. In the end, it came to my mind: the tweener smash! But…nobody is perfect.
Yes, there was no need to follow him in hundreds of matches. Five minutes would have just been enough . Thanks for giving me thousands of those five minutes, Roger. And best wishes for your second life, to you, to Mirka, to the four twins, to everyone. A part of my life as a journalist also goes away with you. And it is not a legend. It was history, true history. Beautiful. Thanks Roger.
Translated by Massimo Volpati
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