The records of Roger Federer have redefined tennis forever.
Sports fans know about his 17 majors and 302 weeks with the No. 1 ranking. Countless other achievements are written in the record books, some of which will be forgotten or surpassed. A few other important records will last for generations even as time changes the parameters of competition.
One Federer record might be the most unbreakable of all records that matter: Five consecutive championship titles won at the U.S. Open on hard courts.
Why is this particular record so spectacular, despite being overshadowed by his own conquests at Wimbledon or Nadal’s reign at Roland Garros? Why have other modern superstars rarely approached five straight titles at Flushing Meadows?
U.S. Open Past
Go back to an age of invention, when professional sports were dawning and when Thomas Edison worked at Menlo Park on innovations that would change American lives.
The U.S. Open was born on grass, and its first seven championships were won by Harvard student Richard Sears, who wore pants when playing. Sears was given the defending champion’s bye to the final during his reign from 1881-1887, and he put together 18 straight wins.
We will give the nod to Federer’s 40 consecutive wins.
The early 20th century saw William Larned win five consecutive titles (1907-1911), and the 1920s and its Golden Age of Sport saw Bill Tilden win six in a row.
Those are great achievements but still at least half a century away from the Open era and more global competition. They should be remembered in their own context.
A few years after the Open era dawned, New York ripped out its grass, spent three years on green clay and put in the hard courts that have remained since 1978, along with resurfacing and color changes.
New York’s own young star John McEnroe used the fast courts for his serve-and-volley mastery of the U.S. Open in winning three straight titles from 1979-1981.
Six years later, rival Ivan Lendl matched this hat trick; he nearly pulled off four consecutive championships before falling to Mats Wilander in five sets in 1988.
Not even the great Pete Sampras, with his booming serve and all-courts skills, would win more than two straight championships (1995-1996) at Flushing Meadows. He scattered his titles from 1990-2002, showing impressive longevity but also a testament to just how difficult it was for modern stars to stay healthy and dominate the U.S. Open’s competitive and eclectic demands.
The U.S. Open is the toughest tournament to dominate.
Unlike the French Open or Wimbledon, where the field is narrowed down to specialists on those surfaces (or rather that the surfaces eliminate many of the contending players who cannot cope on the more outlying conditions of clay and grass), the U.S. Open is the ultimate neutral court. It invites all manners of styles and blunts some of the special weapons of the very top stars.
For example, Sampras (three and four straight Wimbledon titles in eight years) and Federer (five straight Wimbledon titles) had smaller pools of contenders at Wimbledon, and they could use their special powers to reign on grass.
Nadal (streaks of five and four at Roland Garros) and Bjorn Borg (who won four straight at Roland Garros and five straight Wimbledon titles) constructed monopolies on clay with the kind of movement and shot-making that is more unique than what is needed to win at the U.S. Open.
We will probably see more superstars win five Wimbledon titles or French Open titles before we see anyone match Federer’s five consecutive titles (2004-2008) at the U.S. Open.
Federer’s Age of Dominance
Winning one Grand Slam title requires excellence, health and some luck along the way. It means overcoming tough opponents and matchups, and it requires someone to be good enough to win when he is having an off day or facing an opponent’s inspired, hot play.
Two or three championship defenses is exponentially more difficult. There’s the pressure of defending while wearing a target, and there are personal expectations and pressure.
The mental strength required to win three championships in a row is absolutely astonishing considering how much changes from one year to the next.
But four or five? How is this possible?
Federer’s first U.S. Open title was clinched as a 23-year-old in 2004. He was completing his first year of crushing the ATP, and this tournament sealed his first epic journey with three majors in one calendar year.
He had only one real scare, which came in the quarterfinals, in heavy winds, against savvy ball-striker and legend, Andre Agassi. He would go on to crush Lleyton Hewitt in the final.
Over the next three years, Federer would not need five sets in any of his wins. In the finals, he dominated Agassi, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic in succession.
He was so far ahead of the rest of the ATP that even New York’s neutral surface seemed a mere extension of Wimbledon.
Indeed, it was doubly impressive that Federer was winning five consecutive Wimbledon titles from 2003-2007. It was like finding out that Shakespeare and Edison were the same person (anachronisms aside).
Federer had a rough year, by his standards, in 2008. His peak was beginning to wane, and he was unable to defend the Australian Open or Wimbledon. He would lose his No. 1 ranking, and for once it seemed like he was vulnerable at New York.
In the fourth round, Federer was challenged by Igor Andreev, and he survived in five sets. He went on to clinch his final U.S. Open title by defeating young Andy Murray. Five in a row. Let’s see somebody beat that mark.
One year later, Federer nearly made it six in a row at the U.S. Open, but he finally fell to Juan Martin del Potro’s baseline bullets in a match that took five sets.
It was so close to six in a row, which mathematically shouldn’t happen anywhere in the Open era. Nadal has a chance to match this at Roland Garros in 2015, but that’s an entirely different story—oranges to Federer’s apples.
We are more likely to see Nadal get to 17 major championships than seen another player come along and win five consecutive U.S. Open titles.
Maybe 302 weeks at No. 1 is safe for years to come, but eventually we will see young superstars take over the game for five or six years at a time.
This can be done, despite injuries, time off, subpar play or comebacks. It’s an accumulation of a superstar’s best years, usually the early to late 20s. It’s also possible we will see players in their early 30s find ways to optimize their fitness and have periods of No. 1 well into a decade of dominance.
But competition is growing and reaching new places and people around the world.
Will we see an Asian tennis boom in the near future, meaning more competition and diversity of styles to contend on a more neutral surface like New York? Asian attendance at ATP tournaments in October is helping to grow the game on fast hard courts.
Are we going to see more champions like Federer, Nadal and Sampras, players who can lap the field with a special dominance for at least a decade? Since, from 2008-2012, there were five different champions in five years at the U.S. Open. That might be more of the norm for tennis going forward.
The best player at the U.S. Open must dominate at the baseline and serve with excellence. He must have supreme footwork and play with aggression.
Long ago, serve-and-volley champions thrived, but now powerful groundstrokes must dictate or finish points quickly, when possible. It’s an attacker’s forum where the defensive-minded players will be cut down sooner or later.
Well into the future, tennis fans might gain even greater appreciation for the achievements they have witnessed in the past decade. Some of these big records will be large illustrations in the history pages of tennis, preserving memories that can turn surreal.
Many records will come and go before we see someone challenge for five consecutive championships at the U.S. Open. That might be an unbreakable barrier and Federer’s most underrated, awesome achievement.