Such is the arch of sport. A seemingly invincible athlete, with no signs of slowing down, eventually begins to show chinks in his once impenetrable armor. As his ranking continues to drop, Federer will face tougher draws in tournaments, and it will become increasingly difficult to achieve results that used to come routinely. It must be tough for fans to watch in anguish as their hero begins to slowly succumb to a foe that cannot be defeated-time. What effect should years like 2013 have on Federer’s legacy, and where does he stack up against the likes of his rivals, and in the context of history?
The biggest threat to Federer’s legacy is Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard holds a staggering 21-10 advantage over Federer, and thwarted the Swiss on several major attempts. In fact, Federer also holds a losing record to Andy Murray as well (9-11).
How can Federer therefore be considered the best of all time if he holds losing records to other top players in the world?
Head-to-head stats don’t define rankings – titles do. The “greatest of all time” debate is about performance against the field, not just one player. With 17 Grand Slams, and 36 straight quarterfinal appearances, Federer has compiled a body of work far more consistent than any other player in the open era. While Nadal could potentially go on to break Federer’s record of 17 slams, it should be noted that Nadal is a clay-court specialist who will likely win at Roland Garros for years to come. Nadal’s dominance on clay is unprecedented: for 10 of the past 12 years, Spaniards have won the French Open; eight have been claimed by Nadal. Evidently clay is a surface for those who grew up on it. While supreme on clay, Nadal has yet to equal Federer’s consistency and dominance on the other surfaces. While Federer was arguably the second best clay court player (four time finalist), Nadal, has yet to establish himself as the top grass or hard court player: an elite status Federer enjoyed for many years. Each player’s prime are different points in time, therefore the comparison becomes less about a head-to-head match up, and more about general performance against the field, and titles.
Federer’s best years were arguably a four-year span from 2004-2008, where he won 11 Grand Slam titles. If Federer had retired in his prime, he likely would have done so in 2009, after winning both the French and Wimbledon, and solidifying himself as the Grand Slam leader over Sampras’s 14 wins. It could be argued that these productive years occurred against weaker competition: it is noteworthy however that he continued his winning ways against the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, despite being five-six years their senior.
The greatest player of all time debate shouldn’t hinge on a head-to-head comparison: rather an evaluation of the duration and performance against the field on a variety of surfaces. There is no other tennis player in the open era that has been as consistently dominant year in and year out as Roger Federer.
Roger could have retired years ago and walked off into the sunset with his haul of Grand Slam titles, his flawless form frozen in time. It is truly refreshing however, to see an athlete whose love for the sport supersedes any concerns about their reputation or legacy. Federer has frequently stated that he will continue to play as long as he’s enjoying himself; his inevitable decline should not be held against him when assessing his reputation and legacy.
Nadal or others may yet eclipse the most accomplished record in history-only time will tell-but here and now, the title of greatest player belongs to Roger Federer.