Federer the GOAT: Tennis will miss his beautiful game

Just as Pelé popularised football as the beautiful game, the Swiss champion brought unmatched grace to the tennis court

By Sumit Chakraberty

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Published: Fri 16 Sep 2022, 11:02 PM

Last updated: Fri 16 Sep 2022, 11:04 PM

It’s fitting that 41-year-old Roger Federer’s announcement of his retirement from competitive tennis coincides with 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz’s anointment as the youngest No.1 after winning the US Open earlier this month. It symbolises a passing of the baton, although it’s way too early to say if anybody in the new generation will have the longevity to amass 20 Grand Slam titles or more as the Big Three have done.

Rafael Nadal leads the triumvirate with 22 Slam titles, followed by Novak Djokovic with 21 and Federer with 20. Pete Sampras is a distant fourth on the list with 14 titles, showing how the Big Three’s domination of men’s tennis over the last two decades is unsurpassed in the game’s history.

But numbers tell only one part of the story. To many, Federer’s flowing backhand, his skip to the left to hit an inside-out forehand, and his glide to the net behind smooth and accurate serves are matchless in their beauty. Just as Pelé and his Ginga band from Brazil held sway over us as exponents of the Beautiful Game in football, Swiss maestro Federer’s satin grace was a foil to the grunts and exertions of his peers in tennis.

Perhaps, it explains why Alcaraz, touted as a natural successor to fellow Spaniard Nadal, has a photo of Federer and not Nadal on the mantelpiece in his bedroom. Leaving aside who is his role model, the 19-year-old sensation in fact bridges the playing styles of the two greats. While Alcaraz’s power, athleticism, and speed bring Nadal to mind, his game strategy of creating opportunities to go to the net in a flash is more akin to the Federer way.

Different styles

Comparisons may be odious between three all-time greats like Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. But it’s the difference in their styles that made their rivalry mesmerising.

Federer’s serve-and-volley prowess and skiddy backhand chips to advance to the net, a vestige from an earlier era, made him the dominant force at Wimbledon. Djokovic is now catching up fast, winning four out of the last five titles to be just one short of Federer’s record eight. Slower courts and heavier balls make extended baseline rallies more advantageous than net play, which is becoming a variation more than the go-to method on grass.

Djokovic’s economy of movement and his fitness and flexibility to retrieve awkward serves and ground shots, often turning the tables by converting them into winning returns, were ideally suited to the synthetic hard court of the Australian Open, where the bounce is consistent and speed is slower than grass. There the Serb surpassed Federer’s six titles by winning three in a row from 2019 to take his tally to nine.

Nadal is the king of clay at the French Open, which has the slowest of the Grand Slam surfaces. His heavy forehand top-spin and sharply angled backhand flicks are made for this surface. The Spaniard has won a mind-boggling 14 out of the last 18 titles at Roland-Garros, starting with his first Grand Slam title as a 19-year-old in 2005.

Federer and Djokovic won the titles in 2009 and 2016 when Nadal failed to reach the final. Then Djokovic went one better by beating Nadal in the semi-finals in 2021 before going on to win his second title. He’s the only man to have beaten Nadal twice at the French Open.

The honours were about even between the Big Three at the US Open in New York where the acrylic hard court is slower than grass but a tad faster with higher bounce than the synthetic surface of the Australian Open. Federer won a record five consecutive US Open titles from 2004, overcoming the stalwart American Andre Agassi as well as holding off upstarts like Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Murray, and Djokovic. He finally lost in the 2009 final to Juan Martín del Potro in a five-set epic marked by the 6-foot-6-inch tall Argentinian’s flawed brilliance and that upset Federer’s rhythm.

Federer did not win another US Open title after that. The closest he got was being in the 2015 final that he lost in four sets to Djokovic. The other two members of the triumvirate won seven titles from 2010 to 2019 and we’ve had new winners the last three times, including Alcaraz’s triumph this year.

Breakout moment

Federer first arrived on the Grand Slam scene as a 16-year-old when he won both the boy’s singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon in 1998. His volatile temperament got in his way at the start of his run as a senior pro on the ATP circuit. The maturing of his talent began in 2001 when he won the Hopman Cup, a mixed gender team event, representing Switzerland along with Martina Hingis, who was the world No.1 in women’s tennis at the time.

Unlike others of the era coached in their formative years in academies in the US and Spain, Federer learnt tennis in a club in his home town of Basel. An Australian ATP tour player, Peter Carter, who coached at the club, moulded his precocious talent. But he was naive in tactics and self-control until his stint at the Hopman Cup tournament in 2001 with Hingis, whom Federer later credited for helping him become “the player I am today”.

The rising Swiss star’s breakout moment came the same year when he reached the quarter-finals of the French Open and then ended the run of seven-time title-holder Pete Sampras in the fourth round at Wimbledon. Federer lost in the quarter-finals to Tim Henman and it took two more years for him to start winning Grand Slam titles.

A defining moment in his transformation was the death of Carter in a car crash in 2002. The Basel club coach had become a close family friend and the tragedy affected Federer deeply. It seemed to concentrate his mind on living up to Carter’s vision for him.

Dominant period

The breakthrough came on his favourite surface at Wimbledon in 2003 when he beat Roddick in the semi-final and big-serving Australian Mark Philippoussis in the final.

With his first Grand Slam trophy in the bag, Federer rapidly climbed up the ranks to end the year narrowly behind Roddick at No.2. It was a precursor to the most dominating period of his career. He was the holder of three Grand Slam titles in a calendar year thrice in 2004, 2006, and 2007.

Each time, the clay of the French Open stopped him from getting the calendar Grand Slam, which no man has done since Rod Laver in 1969. Brazilian baseline specialist and three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, who had an unusual backhand grip for topspin from both flanks, stopped him in 2004. Thereafter, he lost to Nadal four times in a row in the 2005 semi-finals and three consecutive finals from 2006.

He finally managed to win the French Open in 2009 when Robin Söderling of Sweden became the first man to beat Nadal at Roland-Garros and lost to Federer in the final. Federer suffered six defeats in all to Nadal in Paris and never beat him there. If you’re hypercritical, you would say the Swiss maestro didn’t do enough to change things up and take more risks to try and alter one or two of those outcomes, which had an air of inevitability.

Nadal’s dominance over Federer at the French Open carried over psychologically to Wimbledon where the Spaniard won an epic five-set battle in the 2008 final. The Spaniard prevailed over another five-setter over his Swiss rival in the 2009 Australian Open final.

Apart from those setbacks, Federer’s dominance was clear in that decade, with five consecutive titles at Wimbledon from 2003 running almost concurrently with five consecutive titles at the US Open from 2004. It reprised Björn Borg’s feat from an earlier era of winning back-to-back Grand Slams four times consecutively on different surfaces when the Swede lifted the French Open and Wimbledon trophies from 1978 to 1981.

Big three rivalry

In the six-year period between 2009 and 2015, Federer won four Grand Slam titles, including two at Wimbledon, one in Australia, and one at the French Open. It was Djokovic’s turn to dominate the circuit, while Nadal continued to rule the roost in Paris. But the Swiss star was still always a contender in the last stages of any Grand Slam event.

It was at the start of 2016 in his mid-thirties that he began to deal with a knee injury that would eventually end his career. He had the first of his three surgeries that year, which was the first time since 2004 that he dropped out of the top 10 in the ATP men’s singles ranking.

Many felt the great man should bow out gracefully rather than continue to play below par, hampered by injury. But Federer wasn’t done. He had parted ways with coach Stefan Edberg, but had taken to heart the suggestions of the Swedish serve-and-volley specialist who twice beat Boris Becker in Wimbledon finals.

Federer switched to a broader, more powerful racquet and adopted a more aggressive style of taking the ball early, rushing the net, and going for winners, minimising long-drawn rallies. This tapped his tennis skills and acumen while reducing the effect of his physical constraints.

Defying the naysayers, Federer beat his old nemesis Nadal in a five-set classic to win the Australian Open at the start of 2017, ending his Grand Slam title drought since winning Wimbledon in 2012. The rejuvenated maestro waltzed through Wimbledon in 2017, winning his record eighth title without dropping a single set in his seven matches, becoming only the second man to do so in the Open era after Borg in 1976. Then he defended his Australian Open title in 2018 to become the first man to win 20 Grand Slam titles, a record he held briefly before Djokovic and Nadal caught up and overtook him.

Swan song

Longevity in a sport is a mark of greatness as much as talent and tactics, fitness and strength. Unlike Borg and Sampras who quit early in their careers, no longer willing to suffer the grind and pressure of the tour, the Big Three took the Shakespearean option “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them”.

Federer’s swan song came in the 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic. He had two match points on his own service but couldn’t convert either of them. He finally lost 13-12 in the final set tiebreaker. It was a remarkable final in which Djokovic won three sets in tiebreakers.

Compounding the heartbreak was a recurrence of the knee problem, which forced Federer to have another surgery and go into a long hiatus. He made an attempt to come back one more time, playing a few tournaments before entering Wimbledon in 2021. He got through to the quarter-finals but lost in straight sets to Hubert Hurkacz of Poland.

A third knee surgery followed, and despite working hard to make a final stand, he had to give in. “I am 41 years old. I have played more than 1,500 matches over 24 years. Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamt, and now I must recognise when it is time to end my competitive career,” he said in a farewell note on Twitter.

The Big Three will come together one final time at the Laver Cup in London for three days from September 23. It’s an annual event pitting a team from Europe against a team from the rest of the world. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Andy Murray are on the European team.

And then there will be the Big Two left, although the writing is on the wall for Nadal, battling multiple injuries as he turns 37 next year. A year younger than Nadal and still fit as a fiddle, Djokovic will carry on longer, although his appearances will be curtailed by his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

But with the likes of Alcaraz, Frances Tiafoe, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev, and Daniil Medvedev battling it out to be the next Big Three, there are interesting times ahead for tennis. As for the mantle of GOAT (greatest of all time), it depends on what you measure. For many, it will be Federer the GOAT for the sheer joy of watching him play.

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