Is Roger Federer truly the ‘Greatest of All Time’?

Published: September 21, 2013
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Federer is a great player in tennis history, but he is hardly the greatest of all times. PHOTO: REUTERS

It has been the year of comebacks so far; Justin Timberlake and our own prime minister would attest to that. There are fewer sights more exhilarating than a stirring rise of someone written off. Such a sight was found at Flushing Meadows in the last US Open final, as Rafael Nadal wrote another winning chapter in what is becoming a saga of the finest kind. 

Nadal, while battling weak knees and a congenital foot condition, added another US Open crown to his collection, bringing his tally to 13 grand slams. He now stands just one behind Pete ‘Pistol’ Sampras and well ahead of legends such as Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl. When I started watching tennis, players like Boris Becker and Stephan Edberg ruled the roost. A blonde American named Andre Agassi was bringing in his own style of glam tennis and soon became a favourite.

It boggles the mind that Nadal, at 27, is streets ahead of these players in terms of titles and career wins.

Two men stand before him. Sampras, at 14 grand slam titles, will soon be a speck in the rear view mirror. Nadal can play on for a few more years and Roland Garros (French Open) is his personal fiefdom. It can be safely assumed that he will pass Sampras swiftly. However, the bigger challenge still stands for Nadal — the 17 grand slams won by Roger Federer.

There was a time when such thoughts would not even be considered, let alone uttered. Federer’s fans, and a passionate bunch they are, have been lighting candles and sticks since he won a string of Wimbledon Championships. The Swiss has a voracious appetite, and hapless prey such as Leyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick were joyously chewed, gulped and digested by him.

However, one needs to examine the evidence. Federer is not the greatest player of all time; he is not even the greatest player of his generation. He happens to have a silken game, and watching him play is akin to watching a ballet, albeit a mechanically saccharine one. He has lorded over the grass courts as few have or ever will, and his career grand slam proves that he can compete, though not dominate, on all surfaces. His clay court game is good enough to win him a French Open, something Sampras, for all his prodigious skill, could never come close to, but the caveat is that Federer did not beat Nadal to win his solitary French Open crown.

Federer dominated the first half of the past decade. He barely broke a sweat against the likes of Marat Safin and Mark Philippoussis. Federer won twelve titles from the years 2003 to 2007. The next five came in 6 years, 2008-2013, what many call the “golden era” of tennis. We can narrow the numbers even more. Federer won 15 Grand Slams in the past decade. However, he has won only two since 2010.

A big cause of this slowdown is Rafael Nadal. Federer has faced Nadal across the net 31 times, with Nadal winning more than twice the times Federer won. Of these 31 match ups, eight have been in Grand Slam finals, and Nadal vanquished him on six occasions, one of them being that Wimbledon final in 2008.

Then there is the small matter of the Davis Cup, a tournament that has its own prestige. Rafa has won the Davis Cup 4 times, Federer none. Rafa has a record breaking 26 Masters Titles, Federer 21. Nadal has also taken gold for the singles tournament at the Olympics, Federer’s best is silver. Rafa is five years younger and seems indestructible, bad knees or not, while Federer slips into wretched decline. Nadal’s winning percentage at 88.14% is superior to anyone of his era and went on to a whopping 98.33% at the French Open.

For those who discount Nadal wins as being clay heavy, they should remember that almost half of Federer’s wins are from grass. The argument is facetious in any case; tennis is tennis, whether played on clay or grass. Those who clamour to call Federer the “Great of All Time” seem to forget that the doubles game is also part of the sport, in which Federer has little significance.

Comparing players from different eras is always tricky. Borg played against legends like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and retired at 26 with 11 Grand Slam Titles. He won 41% of the Grand Slam tournaments he entered, when playing single. His excellence was not limited to any surface and out of the 735 matches Borg played, he won 608 of them — a winning percentage of 82.72%. Tennis fans should realise that there is more to the game than Grand Slam Tennis.

Meanwhile, Nadal pounds on. His winning record is superior against every player in the top 25, including the members of the Big Four and the evidence is quickly accumulating. Federer  is a great tennis player and has his own place in tennis history, but is he the Greatest of All Time?

Hardly.

Sibtain Naqvi

Sibtain Naqvi

A writer and social commentator who has written extensively for various Pakistani English dailies. An art critic accredited by the AICA and the Royal College of Art, London, he dabbles in music and sports writing and tweets @Sibtain_N (twitter.com/Sibtain_N)

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