Roger Federer is systematically being erased from the record books.
Yes, that’s an overly dramatic way of putting it. It’s also true.
The Swiss legend set the all-time record for major singles titles in 2009 when he surpassed the great Pete Sampras with his 15th Grand Slam victory. He now stands tied with Rafael Nadal at 20. Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, just won his 18th.
Federer will turn 40 this year and has missed the past 12 months with injuries. It appears unlikely that he’ll win more Grand Slam events. Nadal, more than four years younger than the Swiss, and Djokovic, more than five years younger, remain at the top of the game and are pushing forward with determination.
This week, Djokovic tied Federer for the most weeks ever as the ATP world No. 1. Next week, needless to say, the Serb will set the new record with his 311th week as the top-ranked player.
Nadal and Djokovic both lead Federer in Masters tournament titles.
Federer has 103 ATP singles championships overall in his career, putting him six behind the all-time leader, Jimmy Connors. That’s awfully close, but when you’re 40 years old, tournament victories aren’t easy to come by, even when you’re Roger Federer.
Federer still holds the ATP Finals record with six trophies, with Djokovic one behind. And he has the Wimbledon men’s singles record, with eight titles at the All-England Club, three more than Djokovic.
Even if Djokovic doesn’t catch him at those two tournaments, the fact is, when a future tennis fan scans the game’s most important records, Federer’s name will be difficult to find.
What this means depends on how you feel about Federer, Nadal and Djokovic — and tennis history.
Records in sports always have been important and always will be. That Nadal or Djokovic almost certainly will end their playing days as the all-time leader in men’s major singles championships matters. A lot.
That doesn’t mean it’s the be-all and end-all.
For starters, all-time records have less purchase in tennis than in other sports because the Amateur Era held on for so long. Before 1968, the best players typically won three or four Grand Slam events, and then abandoned the traditional majors forevermore to earn a paycheck on barnstorming tours.
We’ll never know how many majors Ellsworth Vines might have won. Same goes for Fred Perry and Don Budge and Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales and Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver.
Then there’s the cultural impact to consider.
Babe Ruth no longer holds the single-season home-run record or the career home-run record in Major League Baseball. But his hold on the public consciousness as the Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, the exemplar of baseball power, continues more than 70 years after his death.
That’s because Ruth set the standard — he created the power-hitting role in the game. It’s also because he was larger than life; his personality and attendant celebrity, as much as his swing, made him great.
Will Federer exert the same hold on us down through the decades?
There’s good reason to believe the answer is yes.
After all, he’s won the tour’s sportsmanship award more than a dozen times, and his unique combination of giddy child and suave fashionista has earned him many fans who otherwise have little interest in professional tennis.
And, more important, he created what the late David Foster Wallace in 2006 famously labeled “Federer Moments” — that is, the impossible movement and shotmaking that leave even discerning tennis fans staring with “novelty-shop eyeballs.”
Of course, the exploits of Nadal and Djokovic — and, with lesser frequency, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka and Gael Monfils and Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem, etc. — make fans spit up their sodas in amazement.
But they’re still Federer Moments. Whether consciously or not, these younger men learned from the Swiss, the first maestro of the mega-racquet, super-strings era.
Wallace’s essay has been regularly quoted over the past 15 years — so regularly that its mention here surely will make some Nadal and Djokovic fans want to puke. The thing is, 15 years from now, excerpts from the piece will be cited anew, as sports historians start to weigh in on this period in tennis history. Because, though Nadal and Djokovic have rightfully received mammoth praise from writers, only Federer’s play has been called a “Religious Experience.”
For years, the debate that has gripped “Big 3” watchers has been about which player ultimately will be known as the “Greatest of All Time.” We now know, here at the beginning of 2021, that it’s increasingly less likely to be Roger Federer. Djokovic, the dominant player for the past decade, has the inside track to claim that unofficial crown. Many future “experts” of such things also are likely to give their vote to Nadal rather than Federer.
Federer fans will have to accept this. The numbers — and, in many ways, our eyes — offer strong evidence that Djokovic and Nadal are the greatest players of this muscular, slowed-courts era. Federer’s two rivals might not be able to reach his highest highs, but they also never fall to his lows. (When the Swiss is off, he shanks balls into the seats, something Nadal and Djokovic never do.)
But Federer’s millions of supporters don’t have to rage against the stats. They should keep in mind how Babe Ruth’s baseball Hall of Fame entry opens:
“[T]he Bambino was more than numbers — especially to those who knew him, like former teammate Joe Dugan, who once said: ‘To understand him you had to understand this: He wasn’t human.’ “
Federer’s tennis Hall of Fame plaque no doubt will say something similar.
— Douglas Perry