It is hard for the average American viewer to comprehend exactly what 30 year-old Roger Federer has managed to accomplish – including his 2012 Wimbledon title, his 7th, on Sunday afternoon. Sure, we see 49-year old Jamie Moyer still hanging around Major League Baseball, Gordie Howe played hockey at a high level until the age of 51, and Jack Nicklaus won his final Masters at 46. Tennis, however, is a different beast. It’s a sport I’ve played since the age of eight, competitively since twelve. But it’s only recently that I really stopped to consider what makes it so different.
For starters, it’s a game in which you are frighteningly alone. There is no teammate (at least in singles) to pick you up when you’re having a bad day, you don’t have the luxury of coaching while on the court, and there’s nobody with whom to share the pain of defeat or celebrate the greatest of accomplishments. Even your opponent is what seems like miles away, across the net. Around the tour, he might be your friend, but on the court, he is what stands in your way of a place in the next round.
People admire Tiger Woods (personal issues notwithstanding) for the way he dominated golf for so many years, but I’m sure it helped to have Steve Williams on the course with him. Singles tennis players have no such luxury. Some often compare Tiger and Roger for what they’ve done for their sports, but I don’t see golf and tennis accomplishments as comparable. I certainly don’t buy the argument that golf isn’t a sport, but I think that when your greatest adversary is Mother Nature, dominance can’t really be seen the same way.
To win a Grand Slam in tennis, one must win seven matches in a row against a variety of opponents, each with contrasting styles. The law of averages suggests that at least one of those seven opponents, even against a Federer, will get hot enough to win. Rafael Nadal was a victim of this in the second round of this year’s Wimbledon. He faced Lukas Rosol, a Czech journeyman ranked #100 in the world, who absolutely hit Rafa off the court. It’s rare, but in tennis, things like this happen. I can remember Fernando Verdasco taking Rafa to the limit at the 2009 Australian Open with similar hitting, and still falling short.
That’s what makes the top four players in men’s tennis so incredible. In order to beat one of them, you have to go for everything on every shot – which as Rosol showed means the occasional whiff – and paint more lines than the grounds crew at the All-England Club.
So what does all this have to do with Roger Federer? Well, the Swiss legend has reached an unprecedented 33 consecutive major quarterfinals; that means that no matter how hot the opponent, or how off Roger’s game happens to be on the day, he has nonetheless managed to fight through and win at a ridiculous level of consistency.
As a ballboy at the Rogers’ Cup ATP event in Montreal, I thought I was witness to Federer’s demise. It was a quarterfinal match against the young and fierce Frenchman Joe-Wilfred Tsonga. Down 5-2 in the deciding third-set, Tsonga did the unthinkable, coming all the way back to take it 7-5 and send Roger packing. I thought it was the beginning of the end; no more grand slams, no more ATP victories; no more #1 in the world.
That was 2009.
Federer originally made his mark by winning Wimbledon in 2003 at the age of 21. I remember watching that match. I was in a hotel room in Greece, and next to the big names in tennis at the time (Hewitt, Agassi, and my all-time favorite, Pete Sampras) the guy with the headband from Switzerland – was it Feder? Federererer? – didn’t strike me as a future superstar. I figured he was just a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder.
Six years later in Montreal, for the second time, I was drastically wrong about the one they call Fed Ex. He seemed finished, but three years later, here we are.
My current favorite player may be Novak Djokovic, and I may have a soft spot for the Scottish tough-luck loser Andy Murray, but Roger Federer is unquestionably the best tennis player that has ever lived. 17 Grand Slams, 7 Wimbledon titles, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising that even at the age of 30—which generally signals the end of a tennis career—R-Fed is once again #1 in the world.