16 Is Just a Number: Why Roger Federer Is Not the Greatest Player of All Time

Frank UdinsonContributor IJanuary 26, 2012

MELBOURNE, VICTORIA - JANUARY 26:  Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates winning a point in his semifinal match against Roger Federer of Switzerland during day eleven of the 2012 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Joe Castro- Pool/Getty Images)
Pool/Getty Images

It’s hard to be the greatest player of all time, when you’re not the greatest player of your time.

By many accounts Roger Federer is considered to be the greatest tennis player in history, and arguably on paper, he is. He’s achieved a record 16 Grand Slam titles, spent 237 consecutive weeks as the world’s No. 1 ranked player and is one of seven players to have completed the career Grand Slam, winning a major title on each of the four surfaces.

But when it comes to play making and to the overall dominance of one’s opponents, it’s hard to argue that he’s the greatest player in the history of the game.

Undeniably, winning 16 Grand Slams is a feat worthy of the hall of fame and is a record that, in all likelihood, will remain in place for years to come. But when casting a vote for the greatest player in history, how much credence can we lend to Federer’s victories given the opponents he faced in achieving his Grand Slam titles?

Indeed, Federer was, and continues to be, a dominant player, albeit to a lesser degree as of late. But is he truly the greatest player of all time, or just fortunate to be the best at a time when the competition was slim?

For example, apart from his victories against Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal, Federer’s 14 remaining Grand Slam victories were achieved against opponents who combine for just five Grand Slam titles.

They include the likes of Mark Philippoussis (0), Marat Safin (2), Lleyton Hewitt (2), Andy Roddick (1), Marcos Baghdatis (0), Fernando Gonzalez (0), Robin Soderling (0), Andy Murray (0), and lastly, Novak Djokovic, who at the time of his 2007 US Open loss to Federer possessed zero Grand Slam titles.

Therefore, it’s arguable that Federer wasn’t so much dominant, as he was lucky to have been great at a time when the competition in men’s tennis was lackluster. Moreover, the better part of Federer’s reign took place well before Nadal entered his prime, which invites the speculation that Federer would not be the man he is today if Nadal had been born just five years earlier.

Furthermore, Federer’s most recent loss to Nadal further casts his greatness into question.

On Thursday night, Nadal and Federer once again faced off in what was sure to be one of the most-watched matches of the 2012 Australian Open. And with a four-set victory over Federer, Nadal continued to show the world that he is the better player of the two.

Going into Thursday night’s match, Nadal had a commanding 17-9 record against Federer. With Thursday’s match, he’s now 18-9 against the Swiss legend. More importantly, however, is his overall record against Federer, including a 10-2 record in Grand Slam matches.

He has beaten Federer in 13 tournament finals, including six Grand Slam finals. Indeed, Nadal may not have 16 majors, but then again, he’s five years younger than Federer. And, had Federer been competing against Nadal earlier on in his career, or even any true competitor for that matter, it's unlikely he would have surpassed Pete Sampras’ record.

Thus, with Federer’s constant inability to overcome Nadal, it’s impossible to argue that he is the greatest player of all time.

The greatest player of all time may lose occasionally, but the greatest player of all time wins more often than not, even against his toughest rival, which cannot be said about Federer. Instead, Federer continues to be outplayed and outmatched by Nadal.

This ultimately calls into question not only whether Federer will ever win another Grand Slam title, but also whether he is truly the greatest player of all time. If only Federer could find a way to overcome the man who continues to threaten his greatness.

As Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it is an all-the-time thing.”