On January 28, Roger Federer, already the all-time slam leader in men’s singles tennis history, reached the never-before milestone peak of 20 career Grand Slams when he defeated Marin Cilic in five sets to win the 2018 Australian Open.
20 is a magical number in tennis; especially in singles titles. Steffi Graf, Serena Williams, and Margaret Court will now have to make a men’s locker room in the private club now. Federer has been regarded as the greatest male tennis player ever since the 2009 French Open when he tied Pete Sampras’s 14 career slams and did what Sampras could not. He won on clay.
So for the better part of a decade in his career, Federer has been considered the greatest to ever play. That highlights just how special he is and this new historic milestone only seems to pour cement on those claims.
However, while most journalists are going to be toasting the proverbial champagne and marveling at the career of the iconic Swiss star who has the personality of a human teddy bear mixed with a level of manners typically behooved to royalty, I want to analyze and emphasize the significance of the last 12 months as they pertain to his career.
Because, with all noted respect to his career pre-2017 and the 17 slams therein, it is the last 12 months that I would assert have been the most important to his career and his legacy as the greatest men’s tennis player to have ever lived. From last year’s Australian Open to present day, Roger Federer has forged an extra arc to his already historic career and we saw him defy age in a way not seen since the 1970s.
Simply put, these past 12 months are so critical to Federer’s legacy because in order to be the undisputed king in the “Sport of Kings,” there has to be, as implied, minimal or zero dispute. Meaning there cannot be anyone who can stack up their pancakes against his and create a standoff of stack vs. stack.
Since 2009, no man could stack up against Federer. No man since Rod Laver had both a Career Grand Slam and ten slams let alone 14. Then Federer won Wimbledon for 15 and it seemed like a sure thing. The next best active player had six slams, 40% of what Federer had. There was nothing in Federer’s way of staying the greatest ever.
Except that man’s name was Rafael Nadal and there was another up-and-comer with the 2008 Australian Open on his mantle named Novak Djokovic. Since Wimbledon of 2009 and the end of 2016, Djokovic and Nadal have combined for 19 slams and both had achieved the Career Grand Slam.
In that time period, Federer won only two more slams: the 2010 Australian Open and the 2012 Wimbledon. So Federer had 17, Nadal had 14 and Djokovic had 12. So what had happened to Federer?
The simple answer is he passed the cutoff number. In tennis, there’s a magic cutoff number for men competing for singles slams and that number is 31. Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, and Rod Laver all won their last slams at 31. That’s six years later than John McEnroe who won his last slam at 25. Ivan Lendl was just shy of 30, Roy Emerson was 30, and Bjorn Borg didn’t even stick around until he was 30; he retired at 26.
Federer was a month shy of 31 when he won Wimbledon in 2012 so after that, a realistic view of tennis history is that his 2012 to 2016 drought was not only expected but a natural fact of history predestined to happen. It wasn’t pleasurable to watch at all. Federer is such a lovable and congenial person, only a hardcore case of fan hate could’ve possibly enjoyed it (my mother was especially depressed by it).
But that’s just the reality of tennis; it’s more of a young man’s game than any other mainstream sport on the globe. My high school buddies Jeff and Scott, who were excellent tennis players, have told me in texts that it’s not as much as once you turn that age, you become a slug, but the physical schedule of it all, is too strenuous. A man has to win seven matches to win an Open and only the early losers get plenty of rest. An ace tennis player at age 31 can probably wipe the floor with a 21-year-old if he’s fresh and rested, but if he meets him in the semifinals and he’s finished a five-setter less than 48 hours ago, the fatigue factor might give the 21-year-old an edge.
That’s why, before 2017, only four men had won a Grand Slam at the age of 32 or later.*
Ken Rosewall: who did it in the 70s and was even older than Federer is now when he did it at age 37 (and the freak of nature even was Wimbledon runner-up at an insane age of 39).
Andres Gimeno: His story is crazy because he only won one slam, the 1972 French Open, at age 34, but he only started playing the Open tournaments starting in 1968 and like Rosewall, the game was a world apart in difference as compared to today.
Arthur Ashe: For the sticklers out there, ok yes, he wasn’t actually 32 when he won the 1975 Wimbledon. But the man celebrated his 32nd birthday the next week. For the sake of a morally honest article, I rounded him up to 32.
Andre Agassi: And last, but certainly nowhere close to least. Agassi was 32 and 9 months when he won the 2003 Australian Open. He was 33 when he was ranked No. 1 in June of 2003. He won a singles title at 34. He was 35 when he lost to Federer (how fitting) in the 2005 U.S. Open.
Agassi the one realistic precedent. He had an incredible training regimen with his super trainer, Gil Reyes, but even he broke down by 36. Federer is 37 in August and he has won three of the last five slams and is currently No. 2 in the world with an argument for the top spot.
Throughout all of 2017, I would text my aforementioned pal Scott, scores and updates of the Opens. The former high school tennis star now engineer of some thingamajig type of science was often too busy to watch, but thoroughly delighted in the updates I’d send via text. However, behind all of the delight and enthusiasm we shared at seeing all this happen, there was a singular question that was grew larger than the proverbial elephant in the corner.
How in the heck is Federer doing this?
Scott reminded me that Federer, like Agassi, also has a very strict dietary and training regimen. Medical and training technology has only gotten better in the digital age of computers and Apple. Which is fair but why did he have a near five-year drought of titles then?
To be fair, Federer suffered a series of back injuries and had a strange fluky meniscus tear which happened when he was preparing a bath for his twin daughters. However that doesn’t explain how Federer is playing, arguably, the best tennis of his life.
My other pal, Jeff, thinks it shouldn’t be possible. He asserted that he didn’t want to come across as negative, but he believes that there is just a lack of competition that Federer is exploiting. This is quite possible since the youngest of the eight finalists across all four Opens last year was Marin Cilic, who was 28. Nadal, Federer, Stan Wawrinka, and Kevin Anderson are all over 30.
Personally, I think it’s a combo of that, but I think that Federer knows he’s on his last legs and he’s taken a page out of San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Greg Popovich’s book. Popovich would intentionally monitor and limit Tim Duncan’s minutes during the regular season as the heralded power forward progressed in years. Sometimes Popovich would even rest Duncan for entire games, filling out the reason for not playing as “old.”
Roger Federer knows his weaknesses and he knows that Nadal, who was also healthy, is too hard a matchup on clay. So he skipped the clay season and rested in 2017. He had never intentionally skipped an entire season before, but he didn’t want to risk himself especially after the torn meniscus from 2016.
Like Tim Duncan, Roger Federer flowed with the river and when Wimbledon came around, it paid off. He was as fresh the newly picked fruit and he defeated Marin Cilic in three sets, becoming the first man since Borg in 1976 to win Wimbledon without dropping a set (and oldest ever to do it at all).
In addition, he won his 19th slam and last Sunday was his 20th. Coming back to the original thesis statement, this resurgence has shown he’s not finished playing elite tennis, has set a new bar for longevity in modern tennis and most importantly, has kept him in his place as the undisputed greatest men’s tennis player of all time.
Because let’s assume the last 12 months do not happen for Roger Federer, what happens? It becomes Nadal’s year, that’s what. In 2017, it wasn’t just Federer taking home a pair of slams. For the first time in two years, Nadal was fully healthy and while Federer took the Australian and Wimbledon, Nadal sealed up the French and U.S Open. In addition, Federer beat Nadal in the Australian final to open the year up.
If Federer doesn’t play, then in theory, Nadal faces Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open. Say Wawrinka loses because Nadal is the better player, then the slam totals are a 17-17 tie in 2018 and Roland Garros is right around the corner for Nadal, the 10-time and current defending champion.
If that happened, then Nadal is being talked about as the greatest men’s player of all time. Of course, a lot of tennis people will knock Nadal a few points and argue because so much of his resume is built on clay; a strange and rarely used surface outside South America and a few European countries. But many will say a slam is a slam and Nadal has more than Federer (assuming that Nadal wins the French).
Sure, Federer would still be argued as the greatest, but because of this resurgence, the slam lead is 20-16 in his favor and Federer is still the “undisputed” greatest of all time.
That’s something that very few athletes can claim and that’s why these last 12 months have been the most important in his career.
*Also, a final interesting note. Nadal turns 32 during the French Open