Roger Federer started his reign with a victory at the Wimbledon Championships in 2003. Almost immediately, he started acquiring Grand Slam titles at a breakneck pace as if there were no tomorrow. People watched in amazement. Many wondered whether he was a tennis God descended from Mt Olympus or just an amazing mortal battling wimps.
The Federer era is marked by a most compelling rivalry not seen before in tennis. Federer and Nadal, two of the greatest tennis players in history, held the top two positions in rankings continuously from July 2005 to August 2009 and also, with minor interruptions, in the period thereafter.
After Federer took over the top spot in Feb 2004, no one other than he and Nadal have held the number 1 ranking till today. An era which boasts of such a rivalry, the like of which hasn't been seen before, how can it be called weak?
The trouble is, Federer and Nadal are not in the same age group. Nadal is almost 5 years younger.
The prime playing period for tennis players can be said to be between 21 and 29 .Before 21, although they might have peaked in speed and reflexes, they would not have attained full physical strength nor have gained adequate experience or emotional maturity. After 29, their speed and reflexes are likely to decline and the cumulative wear and tear on their bodies could result in more injuries.
Nadal's prime starts at age 21 i.e. in 2007. So what about the period 2003 to 2006 ? Was it a weak era?
What do we mean by a weak era? We mean a period where there is no one to offer sustained competition of a high order to a champion thus making it easier for him to acquire GS titles ( almost like snatching candies from kids! ).
Who were Federer's rivals doing these period? Let's look at the top 4 during this period ( year-end rankings).
2003: Roddick,Federer,Ferrero, Agassi
2004: Federer,Roddick, Hewitt, Safin
2005; Federer, Nadal, Roddick,Hewitt
2006: Federer, Nadal,Davydenko, Blake
Lookng at these lists, we immediately note three facts which seem to signal that this was indeed a weak period. The first fact is that the aging Agassi( 33 yr old) is in the top 4 in 2003 and the other is that the 19 year old Nadal is number 2 in 2005 and the third that both Roddick and Hewitt have dropped out from the top 4 in 2006.
Indeed a more detailed examination reveals that Agassi was quite dominant in 2003, winning the Australian Open, picking up the number 1 ranking twice during the year, being a semi-finalist at the USO and a finalist at the year-end tournament. While Agassi was no doubt a great, he was 33 ! He remained within the top 10 year-end rankings till 2005. He retired in 2006. It was the 35 year old Agassi who faced Federer in the USO 2005 final! Hewitt, who was 11 years younger and Roddick, who was 12 years younger, had a h2h of 4-4 and 1-5 with Agassi. If such is the record these players in their prime had against an aging great, it is not surprising they got whipped practically every time they faced the mighty Fedex.
So to paraphrase Henry VII , Federer could have said in 2003 that he found the crown of tennis in a bush and picked it up and put it on his head .
Roddick won the USO 2003. But it has remained till date his only GS title. During 2003-2006, Roddick lost to Federer in 3 GS finals. His main weapon was his serve and if it did not help, he had no plan B.
Hewitt won two GS titles in the 'tween' era i.e. between the Sampras era and the Federer era. He was a counterpuncher and a great athlete. But he had no lethal firepower. He reached 1 GS final and 1 year-end final during 2003-2006.
Safin won one GS title in the 'tween' era and one in 2005. He was a genius but too inconsistent to offer sustained rivalry. Although during 2003 -2006 he reached two GS finals, winning one of them, he was not a force in any of the other slams during this period.He was either absent or he failed to even reach the quarters, losing sometimes in the 1st or 2nd rounds!
The other talented players of this period were Ferrero, Davydenko, Nalbandian and Blake.
Both Ferrero and Blake were handicapped by injuries. But, the fact that Blake on coming back from serious injuries and illnesses could grab the no 4 spot in 2006 is a telling commentary on the level of competition offered by Roddick and Hewitt. In 2006, Roddick was aged 24 and Hewitt 25. Roddick's year-end ranking fell to 6 and Hewitt's to 20.This was the year when Djokovic and Murray aged 19 entered the top 20 year-end rankings.They have been top 4 year-end since 2008 with Djokovic having achieved number 3 in 2007 itself.
Davydenko was a late bloomer but though he started doing well in 2005 , he did not really focus too much on Grand Slams. He played more for money than for glory and hence played in as many tournaments as possible. Not the best kind of plan to do well in Grand Slams.
Nalbandian was in the top ten during 2003-2007 .He did very well in 2003 ,even knocking out Federer in USO. But for some reason, at critical moments, he had the habit of imploding. Although he made it to many Quarters and Semis in Grand Slams, he did not live up to his promise except for a spectacular show in the year ending championship in 2005 when he defeated Federer in a dramatic final.
Identifying 2003-2006 as a weak era does not in any way diminish Federer's claim to greatness. He has been identified as a legitimate contender for the title of GOAT because of his skill, his innate talent, his focus and endurance,his dominance over long periods and his multiple Grand Slam wins.
I quote an immortal line from Ian Fleming's 'Goldfinger' : " Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence.Three times is enemy action ". Anyone who wins three or more GS titles is a serious contender for greatness. Anyone who wins more than 10 times is in the list of all time top 5 GS title winners. Federer holds the record with 16, so he has to be in the running for GOAT. But the number of titles beyond a point cannot determine the GOAT because the number depends on a host of factors, the most important of which is the competition.
Did Federer benefit by playing in a weak era? To some extent yes. It made it easier for him to add many titles to his resume. But, in some ways, it may have been a curse. The ease with which he won prevented him from developing the patience or the mental fortitude to overcome the determined onslaught of Nadal. It also made him resistant to any change in his game.Perhaps this led to the lop-sided h2h which now stands as a question mark on his GOAT status.