Roger Federer: Closing in on Greatness Once More

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Roger Federer: Closing in on Greatness Once More
Al Bello/Getty Images

Record, records—all made to be broken.

As the days tick by towards the summer of 2010, so we edge closer to two particularly significant mileposts in tennis. And both are within touching distance of the king of the record books, Roger Federer.

The first record is up for grabs at the very next tournament, Rome, and it could go to one of two men: Federer or Rafael Nadal.

It is the record for the most Masters titles held by Andre Agassi. He began his run at Miami in 1991 at age 20. He drew the line, with 17 trophies, in Cincinnati in 2004.

It seemed to be a record that would stand for a good many years, indeed a good many decades. It had, after all, taken him 15 years to accumulate those 17 titles, and few men were likely to play at his level over such an extended career.

But what were the chances? Along came not one but two such men. Their achievements were, if anything, even more extraordinary, for they reached 16 apiece in far fewer years.

Federer started his run only nine years ago, and has already outstripped Agassi’s 60 ATP titles with his own 62nd in Cincinnati in 2009.

Rafael Nadal, though, reached his 16th Masters title at Monte Carlo last week, just six years after winning his first. In the process, he set one record after another: the fastest to win five titles, the fastest to win 10 titles, and the fastest to win 15 titles.

Nadal is the favorite to win in Rome next week, and is therefore the favorite to equal the record held for fewer than six years by Agassi. A win in Madrid the following week would give Nadal the record outright.

So although Federer has reached the most Masters finals—25—and has twice won four Masters in a single season, he will probably see Agassi’s record go to his rival.

But Federer has had bigger fish to fry, still has bigger fish to fry.

If Agassi thought his Masters record would stand the test of time, Pete Sampras was equally certain that his Grand Slam tally would stand for a good deal longer than the seven years it took Federer to outstrip the American’s 14 titles.

Sampras took 13 years to acquire his record. In eight years, Federer not only equalled but also overtook it with 16 Slams.

In the extraordinarily competitive and punishing world of the men’s tour in the 21st century, that’s some achievement.

Now, if Federer is interested in a new target, he may have to turn his attention to the ladies. In the Open era, the record is Stefanie Graf’s 22 Slams. Remove Nadal from Federer’s career, and that total might just have been possible.

With so little purchase on the Roland Garros trophy in particular, though, it has become—in all likelihood—impossible.

“I haven't put a number on how many Grand Slams I want to try to win. Whatever happens happens.” (Australian Open press conference)

Federer’s grip on Grand Slam records, however, is tighter than the mere number of titles. He has laid down statistics that almost take the breath away with their consistency.

In addition to winning 16 titles, he has reached more Slam finals than any other man: 22.

He’s the only man ever to reach the final of all four Grand Slams in back-to-back calendar years (2006–07), and he did it again in 2009.

He holds the all-time record for consecutive Slam finals—10—and is the only man to twice appear in eight consecutive Slam finals.

No other man has reached at least six consecutive finals at two different Slams—Wimbledon and the U.S. Open—nor reached the final of all four Slams at least four times.

Then there’s the record that many regard as the most untouchable of all—23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, from Wimbledon 2004 to Australian Open 2010.

These just scratch the surface of his achievements.

Yet Federer claims such records are incidental to his tennis career. If they come as a by-product of winning matches, he’s delighted. If they don’t, he’s pragmatic. But Federer is an assiduous student of tennis, and undoubtedly knows where he sits in the hierarchy. He knows he’s already laid it on the line for everyone who follows.

There are, however, a lot of other boxes to be ticked on the Federer resume, and there’s a particularly large one looming.

Since he regained the No. 1 ranking in July 2009, Federer has been counting down the weeks until he equals—and attempts to overtake—the Pete Sampras record of 286 weeks in the top spot.

He is already head and shoulders above every other player for consecutive weeks at No. 1—237. Now he could overtake the overall Sampras total just the other side of the French Open, on the Monday after the first week on grass: June 14th to be precise.

Between now and then, Federer is scheduled to play the Masters in Rome, the 250 in Estoril, the Masters in Madrid, Roland Garros, and finally his first grass tournament in Halle.

With a current lead of 3,300 points over Novak Djokovic and 3,700 over Nadal, Federer is guaranteed to stay No. 1 until after Madrid, regardless of his results. But that leaves him four weeks shy of the record.

Much therefore depends on Paris: whether he loses early, and whether Djokovic or Nadal win all their remaining clay tournaments.

While it is not a mathematical certainty that Federer will reach 287 before one or the other of those men overtakes him, it would take a seismic shock to dislodge the Swiss record-making machine.

So with that one close enough to taste, what next for the man who seems to have everything?

“I almost have to aim so high, you know, staying No. 1 in the world, trying to win the Grand Slams, trying to win here in Miami. It's just something that I've gotten used to over the last seven years really, to aim extremely high.” (Miami press conference)

With the Australian Open in the bag, Federer was besieged by questions about his hopes for the calendar Grand Slam. He was dismissive of any strategy: “It’s not like it’s my No. 1 goal.”

Perhaps he’s thinking a bit longer-term, towards 2012. For he has said, on more than one occasion, that he hopes to play in the London Olympics on his favorite Wimbledon court.

With the prospect of that elusive gold medal, he may fancy building his 2012 schedule around a “golden Grand Slam.” It sounds like a tall order, but it’s clear he is already modifying and slimming down his tournament schedule. And he has frequently said he believes he can play great tennis until well into his 30s.

Then there’s the Davis Cup. He played regularly in this event in his early years, and still flirts with it at key stages in Switzerland’s ties. But he is not yet willing to jeopardize his preparedness for the major tournaments. Perhaps after 2012, his priorities will change.

A more immediate target—and one that may tie in nicely with any Grand Slam aspirations—might be a nice plump total of weeks as world No. 1.

If Federer gets the Sampras record ahead of Wimbledon, he could look a little further ahead to the U.S. Open and see the prospect of 300 weeks at No. 1.

There are so many 'ifs,' so many 'buts,' and so many young guns in hot pursuit.

Federer has set the standard for a generation, and remained the man to beat for six years. Even with his superlative gifts and dedication, it is a hard road to travel.

Just ask Sampras and Agassi.

One thing’s for sure. When Federer decides to call it a day in tennis, it will simply herald a new beginning:

I’ve always been a big believer in looking at the big picture. It’s not about ‘What will we do tomorrow?’ It’s about ‘How will my life and tennis look in the next five years?’” (The Times, November 2009)

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