This might come across as another redundant article on another cliched and overly discussed theme. But it is not ever an irrelevant one, especially in this day when younger challengers to the establishment are emerging—Bernard Tomic, Ryan Harrison, Grigor Dimitrov—and when such phrases as "Baby Federer" are bandied about (this relating especially to Dimitrov).
It might be time again to reemphasize the uniqueness of the Swiss Maestro, 31-year-old 17-time grand slam champion Roger Federer, and why it may be that the very term "Baby Federer" may become one of abuse thrown at pretenders and non-legitimate heirs. Why that marvelous 17-time major record may never be surpassed.
The question is in fact easily answered. Yes, 17 is an awfully large number. For some, it is the mark of someone superhuman and from another planet. Proof that Federer is the god-sent essence of tennis divinity. But there are simple mechanisms that have produced it.
For one, there is the remarkably profitable time from 2004-2007, when he averaged at least two slams a year. It is no secret that, for anybody who has done anything great in tennis, it has been in this period, from the ages of 23 to 26, that they achieved the most success.
Novak Djokovic called it (in 2011, when he turned 24) the "peak of my career." It is undoubtedly the prime of a tennis player's life in career terms.
More significant than this peak period in a tennis player's life has been the ability to dominate consistently for a sustained period of time. One notes in this regard that prodigies like Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal emerged well before this 23-26 age period, winning their first grand slams at the ages of 18 and 19, respectively. What is consistent about the greats who have attained more than 10 slams in their careers, including Federer, has been the ability to continually be outstanding, often over a decade or more.
In this regard, Bjorn Borg won his 12 slams over eight years. Doing some simple math, this is 1.5 grand slams a year. Pete Sampras won his 14 over 13, 1.07 slams a year. Nadal, with 11 over eight years, stands at 1.375. Federer has won 17 over 10 years, which puts him at a supreme 1.7 slams a year. That is, very nearly two grand slams a year for a decade.
Of course, these numbers do not reveal many of the complex factors involved. Federer's record is, as mentioned, heavily bolstered by his golden streak from 2004-07, Sampras by his success from 1993-97, when he won nine of his 14 majors.
It does not take into account the fluctuations in dominance that occur: Federer has won only two slams in the last two years; Nadal hasn't won anything outside of the French since 2010. From 1998-2002, Sampras only managed four majors, almost half the success rate of the five years before.
Yet these fluctuations are inevitable in any career; the fabled decline and fall strikes at all. What is interesting about the statistics surrounding these four players who have won more than 10 slams are the lessons they hold for anyone attempting something similar in the future.
Just the matter of coming even close to Federer's current record of 17 should be mind-boggling. Even the barest sort of ultimate tennis domination—a slam a year for a decade—only brings that particular player to 10. To reach 17 one would need 17 such good years.
Or imagine being twice as good as that and winning two slams a year—that would still be at least eight solid years, and over 10 years, a couple of seasons with three slam victories.
One need not be reminded of Djokovic's 2011 just to remember how difficult it is to win just one such season. Even of the four players with 10 or more slams, only Federer and Nadal (2010) have managed this feat. Of the players in the Open Era who have done so otherwise, only Novak Djokovic and Mats Wilander have been unable (so far for the former) to win more than 10.
To have the sort of consistency described here requires not only the sort of talent and skill that brings a player to the very highest tier of tennis, but also almost flawless mental endurance and desire, coupled with good health. It means something just like what Federer has enjoyed: almost 10 years of dominance with just a handful of tournament withdrawals and almost no prolonged absences from competitive tennis.
It is a rigorous task being an all-time grand slam record holder, no doubt. These facts of dominance put tennis' current prospective dominators—Djokovic and Murray apart from Federer—in more perspective.
Djokovic is a five-time major champion, but over five years, that's already 1.0 per year. He would need at least a few more 2011s or at least 10 more years of two-slam seasons just to catch up to Federer. For Murray, the recent winner of his maiden grand slam and being almost the same age as Djokovic, much more work will need to be done.
Quite likely, Djokovic and Murray may never reach Federer's 17. Nadal has a chance, but his knees are proving a liability, and even with a slam a year, he will need another six years to just equal Federer. All of this, of course, counts that Federer never wins another grand slam again.
What of the up-and-coming trio:Tomic, Dimitrov, Harrison? As just 20- and 21-year-olds, one would expect at least a maiden grand slam within the next year or two, just for them to begin entering the "Baby Federer" question properly.
The hard truth for anyone who doubts the validity of Federer's grand slam greatness is that his all-time record may just never be broken. The epithet "Baby Federer" has often been too inappropriately applied. Anyone who really is the successor to Federer's legacy has to be examined over a long period of a decade or more to judge truly. We might not find such a player for quite some time yet.
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