There is only one Roger Federer, no-one plays tennis quite like Federer. The greatest player of all time? How do you define that? It’s a very tricky question to be categorical about.
There are two ways to view so many issues in life: the emotional perspective and the clinical perspective. For over a decade, both of these pointed me in the direction of: ‘Yes. Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time.’ Especially once you’ve seen the man play, in person, on a centre court. It’s a ticket you cannot regret.
There’s also the holistic view you can take on an athlete, the perspective that examines the whole person. How the man carries himself. How he interacts with people, what his relationships look like, how he acknowledges his opponents, how he copes with disappointment.
Roger Federer’s tennis was and is elegance personified. He is a class act. He didn’t hurry around a tennis court, he glided. His technique was flawless. Equally comfortable at the baseline or net, an aggressive all-court player with a magnificent serve, unteachable touch at the net, outstanding footwork and athleticism, implacable, intensely driven, with an unflappable temperament.
Focusing on statistics; he held the no 1 ranking for 310 weeks and won 103 ATP tournaments including 20 Grand Slams (hampered by injuries late in his career). Novak Djokovic is on 21 Slams (and will win more), Rafael Nadal has won 22, and Serena Williams has won 23. Roger has had rivalries with other elite male players such as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Pat Rafter, Marat Safin amongst other ridiculously talented professionals.
A rivalry for the ages
When looked at objectively though, there is only one rivalry that really matters: Federer vs Nadal. Roger vs Rafa was the single most fascinating rivalry in the history of tennis. Far overshadowing Sampras vs Agassi, these two were on another level. Their contests were otherworldly.
The one gapping wound in Federer’s tennis resume is the series of brutal losses inflicted on him at Roland Garros, by Nadal. The red dirt + Rafa = the ultimate challenge and a crucible for Federer in Paris.
- 2006 Final, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 Nadal
- 2007 Final, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 Nadal
- 2008 Final, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 Nadal
- 2009 Final, 6–1, 7–6 (7–1), 6–4 Federer (defeat Söderling)
- 2011 Final, 7–5, 7–6 (7–3), 5–7, 6–1 Nadal
Federer also won eight Wimbledon finals between 2003-2017. An unparalleled achievement at the time. Monumental. A brilliant super human sporting achievement. Federer made Wimbledon his own, his hallowed turf.
Rafa owned Paris. Roger had the keys to London.
After his 2003-2007 domination, he managed to win Wimbledon three more times in 2009, 2012, 2017. Rafa won it in 2008 (6–4, 6–4, 6–7 (5–7), 6–7 ( 8–10), 9–7 epic vs Federer) and 2010.
The bittersweet irony of Roger Federer’s career is that without his rivalry with Rafael Nadal, there is arguably no debate as to whether he is the greatest tennis player of all time. The two careers have been intrinsically linked. He has had epic wins against Nadal and devastating losses to Nadal. Take Nadal out of the equation, and Federer almost certainly wins another 4-6 Grand Slams, maybe more.
Gladiators and brothers – a rivalry like no other
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have had the greatest individual professional sporting rivalry of all-time. They each prevented the other from complete domination of their sport. While their respective careers skyrocketed in parallel, they kept each other in check.
As the years have rolled by, they have become warmer. Close friends. Genteel. Gladiators on the court, friendly colleagues off the court. Brotherly rivals when there could have been some serious rancor between them.
It’s heart warming. It epitomizes the best aspects of sportsmanship and what the love of a sport should be all about. These two men, supremely talented, wealthy, elite, highly competitive athletes, have become tight friends while also battling intensely and inflicting some huge disappointments on each other. Despite that, they are fond of each other, jovial and genteel and revered ambassadors for the sport of tennis.
They are role models. Their relationship as rivals and as friends is endearing. They have demonstrated that those two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
Without a doubt, the main woman behind Federer deserves a huge amount of credit as well. Mirka Federer was a professional player also. She retired young, in her early 20s. She was in a relationship with Roger early, at the age of 20 when they met at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. They married in 2009 and started a family the same year. She is his discreet, outwardly unflappable, rock.
The better angels of our nature
They all shed plenty of tears today. Roger, Rafa and Mirka. In my opinion Nadal will struggle to continue his career now, without Federer as his rival and benchmark. Maybe he will focus on stealing a few more Slams from Djokovic and that will continue to motivate him. He is still an incredibly durable and competitive elite player, despite his age and second hand knee.
Roger and Rafa are a heart warming example of what we can be as intensely competitive beings in capitalistic societies. What we should aspire to be. We are all competitors. For income, for opportunities, for status.
Modern society is obsessed with competition.
The end of an era in professional tennis today. An artist, an auteur, a magnificent athlete, a highly likeable person, a tennis legend. Roger Federer is irreplaceable. Roger Federer is one of a kind.
He will be missed.