When listing the attributes that make a tennis player great, we most commonly speak of a player’s talent, fitness, and competitive instincts. In terms of talent, Roger Federer leads the current crop of male players, with only Rafael Nadal and Gael Monfils on the same plateau.
In fitness he would also have to rank at or near the top, as his off-court preparation, combined with his smooth movement and energy-conserving style, have kept him remarkably free of injury in an era rife with shin splints, bone spurs, and strained abs.
As a competitor, he’s near the top of the current crew, despite a few painful losses in five-setters at majors. I consider the finest competitors active today to be Nadal and Lleyton Hewitt—guys who’ve won majors and been ranked No. 1 despite having to work far harder on the court than Federer does—but the great Swiss ranks no worse than third.
But there are other categories beside these that should be considered. One example is game. Though the Swiss is certainly in the top fraction of one percent worldwide in terms of athleticism, he has faced players who were on a similar plane in the recently retired Marat Safin, the phenomenally muscular and quick Nadal, as well as Monfils, whose height and sheer speed would make him a good fit for the position of NFL wide receiver or NBA small forward.
However, Federer is ahead of each in terms of game, including Nadal, whose style of play is more tailored for slow surfaces, and whose two major wins off clay required epic efforts drawing on his aforementioned competitiveness.
Whereas Safin had a net aversion to overcome and Nadal’s serve is not a weapon, Federer is world-class from every part of the court. Talent helps, but the type of training a player receives, especially in their youth as they are developing physically, is critical in developing a game with no holes.
This goes a long way in explaining why surface adjustment has rarely been a big concern for the Swiss. At Roland Garros, the major where he has struggled the most, he is defending champion and has reached four consecutive finals. But there’s another aspect that explains his phenomenal success, with a record 15 Grand Slam wins, now 22 finals, and 23 consecutive semis: professionalism.
Dictionary.com defines “professionalism” as 1) “professional character, spirit, or methods” and 2) “the standing, practice, or methods of a professional, as distinguished from an amateur.”
At most jobs, it is used to distinguish behavior becoming of a practitioner of that occupation from behavior that diminishes how that person is perceived. It applies to everything from ethical behavior to effort to appearance.
Among pro tennis players, it can basically be summed up as preparation. In the 1990s, Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf were the leaders in this category, and in the latter years of his career, Andre Agassi’s greater preparation allowed him to achieve more than he did in what should have been his prime athletic years.
In this decade, no tennis player of either gender has been better prepared for the game’s biggest occasions than Federer. In the ‘90s Sampras conditioned fans to expect no less than one major a year from him, but the great Swiss has been a presence in the final weekend of every major contested in the last six years.
Having talent, fitness, and a complete game can’t explain that, at least not completely. Sampras was thoroughly dominant in 1994, but lost to Gilbert Schaller in the first round of Roland Garros in 1995. In the women’s game, where the competition isn’t as deep, Graf fell to Lori McNeil in the first round of Wimbledon in 1994.
Federer hasn’t fallen out of a major in round one since the 2003 French Open, before he won his first Grand Slam. He hasn’t exited before the first week in a slam since 2004 in Paris, when it took three-time RG champion Gustavo Kuerten to oust him. With this year’s Australian Open, he has reached the semis of every major in the six years since, and the finals of two years worth of majors in succession.
This can only be the result of careful preparation, scouting of opponents, and practice. Sometimes, though, knowing when to not play is just as important. Federer has skipped few events in his career due to injury, but they have generally come at the end of the season when the majors are over. Last year, he skipped a first round Davis Cup tie with the U.S., disappointing many fans. But he proved fresher than his toughest rivals when it came time for Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
And now, despite an early test from Igor Andreev in round one and a tough quarterfinal from Nikolay Davydenko, Federer finds himself in the final of another Australian Open. Three of his toughest rivals—Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Juan Martin del Potro—have all fallen away, each citing different physical maladies.
In the final round, he’ll face Andy Murray, perhaps the only player on tour who rivals Federer’s combination of speed, finesse, and fitness. We know Murray is hungry to win his first major, and we know he has a 6-4 record against the Great Swiss. But we also can be sure that Federer will show up on Sunday thoroughly prepared.