The Fed Era: How Good Was His Competition?

ThaiDiamond Correspondent IFebruary 20, 2009

There's two ways to look at Federer's record 237 "consecutive" weeks as world No. 1. Either is Roger is all that great OR the competition he played against was not as good as it had been in other eras.

I believe BOTH are correct.

Let’s rewind the clock a bit. Sampras last closed a year being ranked number one in 1998. As Pistol Pete’s era of dominance wound down, we then saw a series of tennis “pretenders” claim the throne.

No one stayed all that long.

Numero Uno’s like Marcelo Ríos, Lleyton Hewitt, Gustavo Kuerten, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, and the oldest number one ever, Andre Agassi (at 33 years, four months), all ascended the top of mountain from Pete's demise until Roger's ascendancy.

All these guys are really good tennis players, but only Agassi gets my nomination into the Hall of Greatest-of-all-Time (GOAT). But we’ll talk about Andre later.

In 2004, Roger becomes the new world number one, with Hewitt and Roddick as chief contenders.

Hewitt, the youngest male ever to be ranked No. 1, held the crown for 75 weeks. After two weeks ranked second, he returned to No. 1 for five more weeks. But Lleyton never regains the top spot and, while having a reasonably good career, slowly declines through the top 10…and beyond.

Roddick was initially thought to have some of Sampras’s staying power and arguably had the best serve at that time. Unlike Hewitt, he manages to stay a top 10 player throughout his career (he’s currently ranked sixth).

Some pundits have posited that he relied too much on easy points from his serve and didn’t train enough to develop a complete all round game. Result: utter domination by the FedExpress. Andy put it best: “if this is going to be a rivalry, I’d better started winning some.”

Federer, to his great credit, methodically trained and developed every aspect of his game. He was a very good player at 19 and 20; he was a great player by the middle of his 22nd year. Today I would even rate Roger's serve as a more effective weapon than Andy's.

Two other players “might’ have given Roger more of a challenge for dominance in the middle years of this decade.

Around the first years of this century, Marat Safin was thought by guys like Sampras to be the future of tennis. Arguably if a bit less emphasis was placed on champagne, caviar, and women and, more importantly, development of a mature temperament, he may have gone further. To be fair, he did have some key injuries in 2003. Nonetheless, Marat’s won two Grand Slams (the US Open and the AO) and was the run-up in two more, which point to his huge “potential” talent.

The other story is a bit more tragic: Tommy Hass. He rocketed up the ladder to world No. 2 by May of 2002. Then a severe accident nearly claimed the lives of his parents and left his father in a coma. Tommy would spend much of the 2002 year taking care of his family instead of playing tennis. At the end of the lay-off from tennis, he seriously injured his shoulder, requiring a major operation. He would be plagued by further injuries and related complications afterwards, and would not return to professional tennis fully until 2004.

Why were some observers excited about Tommy’s promise? Back in his early days, Hass had an impressive record against notable former, current, and future No. 1 ranked players: 3–0 against Andy Roddick, 5–5 against Pete Sampras, 2–1 against Roger Federer, 2–1 against Marat Safin, and 2–0 against Jim Courier.

But enough of the “wuda, cuda, shuda” speculation of potential greats of the Fed era.

The simple fact remains that from 2004 through 2007, Roger dominated men’s tennis on grass and hard courts. From Feb. 2, 2004, Federer emerges as world No. 1 and stays on top for a record 237 "consecutive" weeks.

But just one year later, by 2005, who is his main contender for the throne? Some star around his own age?  A Hewitt, Roddick, Safin, Hass or a 35-year old Agassi?

No, it's Nadal. A kid who was still only 19!

So for the next four-plus years, it's essentially the Roger and Rafa show as the two best players with Rafa completely dominating Roger on clay and, for at least the first three years or so, competing and mostly losing to Roger on grass. Other “good” players were fighting and going down to the Fed on the hard courts.

Today we now known that the current 22-year-old Majorcan is a far better, far more complete player—now on all surfaces—than the clay court king we saw in his “baby” years on the tour.

Roger’s main nemesis has been a player who's almost five years younger!

How many titles would Roger have today if say Rafa were only a year or two younger? And if say if “up and coming” 21-year-ones—like Djokovic or Murray—were more in Roger's age group? 

Most players are still developing through the late teens and up to about 22/23 or so. The Fed certainly did. That Murray, at his age, already has a 5-2 head-to-head lead with Roger does say something about Andy’s future potential. (And no: this is not a paid political announcement. Thaidiamond is not British.)

We saw a very early promise in Nadal in 2004 when he played his first match against World No. 1 Federer and won in straight sets. At 18. And these Miami Masters are hard courts mind you.

Looking back again to the 1990s, Sampras had to contend with more "mature" players. Competition closer to his own age. Closer to his own stage of development.

Guys like Jim Courier (four GS titles) and Michael Stich (three GS finals; one title). These three guys span less than three years in age.

But Pistol Pete also had to content with Hall of GOAT nominee Andre Agassi. An Andre only some 16 months older than Pete…roughly the same age…roughly at the same development of their tennis skill set.

Agassi has won eight Grand Slam titles. That's more than just good.

He’s the only men's player in history to have both won all four Grand Slam singles titles and to have won a Grand Slam singles title on each of the three main tennis surfaces (hard court, clay, and grass). He won 17 ATP Masters Series tournaments, more than any other player.

That’s Hall of GOAT great!

Moreover, Andre did not play in the Australian Open for the first eight years of his career. (It would later become his best Grand Slam event.)  He also chose not to play at Wimbledon from 1988 through 1990 and publicly stated that he did not wish to play there because of the event's traditionalism.

Remember "image is everything" super brat Agassi? Adult Andre hates long hair: he didn't just cut it, he shaved it.

That’s 11 Grand Slam tournaments—events he later won—where he chose not to compete.

Ah…why is youth always wasted on the young?

While Sampras had to win his 14 GS titles in a world that included fellow GOAT Andre Agassi, Roger’s main nemesis has been a player who's almost five years younger.

Roger's 237 weeks at the top—impressive as that is—is still only fourth for "total" weeks at number one. Federer is behind Conners...behind Lendl...behind record holder Sampras who leads this category with 286 weeks.

Don’t get my wrong: I’m not saying Pete's era was the toughest. Perhaps the Conners, Borg, McEnroe and Lendl era was even more competitive than Sampras era?

All these "greats" get my nomination for entry into the Hall of GOAT.

Along with Pete, Andre, and Roger.


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