Roger Federer has perhaps the most elegant all-court game in the history of tennis. Hall of Famer John McEnroe has gushed about Federer's lithe court movement. The late novelist David Foster Wallace called watching Federer's game a "religious experience,"
Statistically, Federer has the resume for the "best ever" title. His sixteen grand-slam titles are the most in the Open Era. He has won the most grand slam contests of all time. His five consecutive U.S. Open titles, also a record. For you tennis-stat junkies, here are more of Federer's gaudy accomplishments .
And yet, for all of his game's divine artistry, for all of Federer's statistical prowess, they still don't make him the best in the game. Here are a few reasons why, many of which are out of Federer's control:
McEnroe and Connors had each other. So did Sampras and Agassi. In their careers, these legendary pairings exchanged victories against each other in Grand Slam Finals. By defeating one another at the Slams, as well as other opponents, they established their legacies as the gladiators of their day.
With all due respect to Federer, at the height of his career (2003 to 2010), his Grand Slam Finals opponents were a mixed bag of talented yet ultimately unremarkable talent.
These are twelve of Federer's Grand Slam Finals conquests: Andy Roddick (three wins), Andy Murray (twice), Leyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, an over the hill Andre Agassi, Marat Safin, and Mark Philoppousis, and Marcos Baghdatis, Robin Soderling, and Fernando Gonzalez
Besides Agassi, who was well into his 30's when Federer beat him in '05, none of these players are anywhere near the discussion of all-time great players. The truth is that aside from a few, unless you watch tennis closely, you've probably never heard of them before.
Federer won three grand slams against the two best players of our current generation, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. However, each of those three victories were when Djokovic and Nadal's games were still underdeveloped. Federer beat a 19-year-old Nadal at Wimbeldon in 2006, and then a year later in the same tournament.
However, while Federer was still in his prime (2007-2010), Nadal defeated Federer in three consecutive Grand Slam finals.
Federer is 1-0 against Novak Djokovic in the Grand Slam finals. He beat Djokovic in the 2007 U.S. open when the Serb was 20.
Yes, Nadal has lost the last three Grand Slam Finals to his nemesis, Novak Djokovic. However, Nadal won the 2011 French Open to increase his wins in that event to six. Nadal is still, easily, the best clay court player in the world. At only 26-years-old, he should amass another two or three titles from the French, putting him within dangerous reach of Federer's record.
While Federer may be the most graceful tennis player ever, Nadal is perhaps the most relentless and athletic. It would be surprising if the cagey Spaniard doesn't win on another surface in his late 20's. Even if it looks like Djokovic has Nadal's number now, their matches have taken on historic proportions (the 2012 Australian Open five-set final between the two was the longest in Open Era history).
Look for Nadal to be on the right side of history in a few of those matches, and perhaps for him beat Federer's record for Grand Slam wins.
What's scary about Novak Djokovic aside from his booming serve and his impenetrable base-line defense is that he has developed an all-court game as well.
To wit: The above video is Djokovic's sledgehammer of a forehand above to save a match point against the 30 year old Federer in the 2011 U.S. Open semi finals. This play mortified Federer to a point of utter disbelief.
Nobody, aside from Nadal, is playing at even close to Djokovic's level right now. Yes, at 25-years-old, he only has five grand slam titles. However, the last three have come against Nadal, and what if he wins a majority of his matches against his fiery opponent? Even if Djokovic doesn't get to 16 titles - let's say he "only" wins 13 - by way of consistently beating another tennis legend in his career, would that make Djokovic better than Federer? There would be a very strong argument for this.
Right now, Nadal and Djokovic are playing some of the most powerful, if not beautiful, tennis we will ever see. Because both are already tennis legends, chances are one of them will be considered "the best of all time" by way of beating the other a number of times in their still young careers.
As far as Federer is concerned, it's possible that at 30-years-old, he will defeat Nadal or Djokovic in a grand slam final (chances are, to win the final, he'll have to beat both of them). Anything is possible.
More likely, though, questions will start to transition to whether Federer could have beaten either player in 2012 if Federer could just become 25-years-old again.