Federer: The Greatest Magician of All Time?

Mahesh RamanContributor IJune 24, 2009

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 22:  Roger Federer of Switzerland celebrates during the men's singles first round match against Yen-Hsun Lu of Chinese Taipei on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 22, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Right at the outset, let me clear all doubts that I do not intend putting a name against the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) nor do I claim that Federer is the GOAT. My intent is to only string together thoughts as to what makes Federer’s achievements special in comparison to other legends. Here I go…

1) Against Laver

Laver’s unique double calendar slam is considered by most the pinnacle of glory in tennis. Often people doubted Federer’s achievement (before his maiden French Open) simply because Laver proved himself worthy twice across surfaces. But, is that really true?

Australian Open and US Open were fought on grass in Laver’s time, which puts him a master of grass and clay only. On that basis, Federer stands better off with a similar achievement on two different surfaces (Wimby and USO) in 2004, 2006 and 2007. Laver was never tested on hard courts. After all, even Borg (a similar champion of grass and clay) failed in US hard courts!

2) Against Borg

Borg is one person who gets close enough to being the GOAT, simply because he adapted quickly between two diametrically opposite courts in Paris and London (damn – he did that for three consecutive years 78-80!!!). People say that he missed AO because it was never popular then. Doesn’t matter...had he won AO before 1987 it would have still been on grass, which doesn’t pass my litmus test. One obvious blatant hole in his resume is the missing slam of US hard courts.

The other big argument about Borg is what “if” he didn’t retire from tennis early. Well, obviously it was a choice made by him ! An interesting comparison is that - Borg lost his 6thconsecutive Wimby title to McEnroe and soon lost his “passion” for the game. Similarly, Federer too lost his 6thconsecutive Wimby to Nadal, but he went on to win his record 5thconsecutive USO and also complete a career slam in Paris. What “if” Federer decided to hang his boots after Wimby 2008…. No point thinking that way, right?

3) Against Sampras and his enviable 14-slam record

Sampras’ 14 slams across 12 seasons were no mean achievement. Agreed…. But to adjudge him the GOAT without a good clay court record is not only unreasonable but baseless too !

Federer’s same achievement took 6 years but what stands out are his other records …. Consecutive finals (baring AO 2008) across ALL surfaces in last 5 years, winning Wimby and USO five consecutive times (no other person across eras has ever done that !!!)…

Federer’s opposition is often held against him in comparison to Sampras. How interesting? Wonder if people ever checked Sampras’ semi/ final opposition in all his 14 slams ! Moreover, 10 years down the line - when Murray, Djokovic, Del Potro and co have collected 4-5 slams, even Federer’s opponents will sound ominous enough. Allow Federer’s era to get over and then compare. Till then it is an open argument…Period!

4) Against Other Greats who haven’t touched the Coupe De Musketeers

Should Federer be compared with them at all… I doubt it, as there is one major aspect in their game that has never passed the test. One missing slam on the fast courts of grass (Lendl) or hardcourt (Borg) is still better but, a win on the slower Parisian clay (a different animal all together) is a must to even be considered in the GOAT list ! McEnroe came closest in 1984 with a 5 set loss (after leading 2-0) to Lendl, but history is carved out of winners and not finalists!

Yes, Federer didn’t face Nadal in 2009 final, but nevertheless he grabbed the opportunity when Nadal lost. Even Ivan Lendl would have completed a career slam with a Wimby win, but he failed to convert a golden opportunity in 1987 against Pat Cash (who has this only slam to boast about).

Moreover, to seal my case, Federer is no less brilliant on the red surface. Federer won Hamburg, Madrid and other clay tournaments and has also been in semis/finals of FO in last 5 years. Interestingly, he might end-up being the only person in history to beat Nadal 6-0 on clay (Hamburg Open 2007)!

5) Lastly… Against History

Now…am sure people who managed to read till here are going to say – why don’t you just call Federer the GOAT and end this article here. I still claim that he is not the GOAT, because comparing eras, technologies (graphite vs wooden racquets) is simply not done.

Yes, Federer definitely has it all in his CV, but that also includes a gaping hole created out of a poor record against Nadal and Murray. Federer fans might claim that most of his losses to Nadal were on clay. True, but if Federer is to be placed right at the top, he must have Nadal’s number on clay. If he does it, there is very little to argue against his greatness. Again, another classical “if” statement, but atleast this is based on something to happen in the future!

I sign off with a point to ponder…Interestingly, only Agassi and Federer can lay claim to have mastered all four surfaces. From 2007, AO changed its unique “rebound ace” surface that was different from typical hard-court “Deco-turf” of USO. Nadal won AO in 2009 (after the surface changed), so he too can’t claim this unique achievement when he wins USO in future!

You can refer following links to know more about both surfaces: