Legendary allrounder Kapil Dev has a firm view that one can never be the “Greatest of all time” (GOAT), but at the most the greatest of his/her generation. As per Kapil, one cannot compare across generations for various reasons such as different playing conditions and quality of opponents. For instance, is it possible to compare Dennis Lillee with Dale Steyn, or Maradona with Messi or Rod laver with Roger Federer. It certainly will make for interesting discussion of course.
However Roger Federer has won an unprecedented 20th Grand Slam championship with his 5 set win over Marin Cilic in the 2018 Australian Open Final. Incredibly he has a real chance to once again become world number 1 and become the oldest Number 1 player ever. Hence the time has come to examine whether Federer can be discussed as what is now being described as “The Definitive GOAT”.
Earlier there were doubts raised whether Fed is the ‘GOAT’. His great rival Rafa’s diehard fans insisted that Federer could not be the GOAT due to his 10-23 head-to-head losing trail over Rafa. Since Rafa was 5 years younger, with time on his hands and his success across all courts coupled with invincibility on clay it seemed certain that he would cross Federer’s tally of Grand Slam Titles especially as the difference was “Just” three.
Some keen analysts say that the “GOAT” query was settled last year at the 2017 Australian Open. Federer had 17 Grand Slam titles to Rafa’s 14. Federer had lost his previous 4 matches to top 10 opponents and interestingly he potentially would face 4 top 10 opponents ( which he did) . He had a 5 year drought as regards Grand Slam titles with the previous longest drought being just 2 years from 2010 to 2012. However more importantly the 2017 AO final was against his nemesis Rafa. A win for Rafa would have made it 17-15 at Majors, and with the French Open around the corner where Rafa seemingly has to just turn up and win, that would have made it 17-16, with Rafa just one behind.
Pertinently Federer had never defeated Rafa at any Grand Slam tournament except Wimbledon where he won 2 of the 3 back to back finals they played. While the two champions have never met at US Open, they had met 5 times at the French Open with all matches won by Rafa, 4 in Finals. Federer had also lost all the 3 matches they had played at the Australian Open, including one in the final.
Hence a loss at the 2017 Australian Open would have meant a 4th consecutive loss at the venue over Rafa and a 7th Loss out of the 9 times they had met at Grand Slam finals. It would have also meant that Federer’s last win over Rafa at a Grand Slam final would have been 10 years back at the 2007 Wimbledon. With Federer a break behind in the 5th and final set it seemed all over, but he roared back to claim his only win over Rafa at a Grand Slam final apart from Wimbledon.
That win was also significant as it probably gave the confidence to Federer to go on and win 3 more times over Rafa in 2017. It also solved one of the biggest mysteries of tennis, where the “undisputed” number one of all time was consistently losing to his great rival. It also probably gave Federer the confidence to go on and win Wimbledon 2017 as well.
However Rafa being Rafa, he did not allow the lead of 4 as regards Grand Slam Titles to remain at 4 as he won the 2017 French Open. Federer then won his 8th Wimbledon to take the lead to 4 once again. Incredibly Rafa won the 2017 US Open to once again reduce the lead to 3.
Now with his triumph at the 2018 Australian Open Federer has once again taken a lead of 4 and it looks like he indeed is the “Definitive Goat”.
Why “Definitive”. Let us examine.
Old is Gold.
Federer at 36 has won 3 out of the last 5 Grand Slams which is an unprecedented feat. If one compares across sports, this feat is as awesome as those of boxing champion George Foreman who at 45 became world heavy-weight champion, footballer Roger Milla who at 42 scored a world cup Goal and Jack Nicklaus who at 46 won the Augusta Masters.
The longevity records of Federer are incomparable. He has played all his 1300 plus matches after turning pro without retiring even once which shows how fit he is. He has as many as 302 weeks at world number 1 and is the only player who crossed the 300 mark. This could increase. His wins at Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2017 showed that at 35 he could win 2 majors in a year, which he had last done at 27. He retained the Australian Open Championship in 2006 and 2007 and in 2017 and 2018 which is a bewildering feat as it was more than 10 years later. He has now won 3 of his last 4 Grand Slam tournaments , a feat he had last achieved in 2008-09, when he had won US Open, French Open and Wimbledon.
Federer has taken consistency to a separate level with as many as 52 Grand Slam quarter finals with Connors a distant 2nd with 41. Among current players, Djokovic with 40, Rafa with 33 and Murray with 30 are next. If we look at Grand Slam semi-finals, Federer has 43. With his 14th semi finals entry at Australian Open he has equalled Jimmy Connors 14 US Open semi finals entries as maximum semifinal entries at a single Major. Federer has also reached 30 Grand Slam finals which is the highest ever with Rafa next at 23.
Federer has won 20 Grand Slam Titles with Rafa next at 16. The heights of consistency achieved by Federer can be seen from the unbelievable fact that from 2003 Wimbledon to 2010 US Open, Federer won 16 of 27 Grand Slams and played in the Finals of 6 more. Incredibly, in a 7 year period he DID NOT figure in just 5 Grand Slam Finals. Can this feat of consistency be ever repeated ?
All Court Record
Federer now has 8 Wimbledon Titles which is his own record, ahead of William Renshaw and Pete Sampras who have 7 each. He has 6 Australian Open titles, same as Roy Emerson and Novak Djokovic. Federer also has 5 US Opens, along with Jimmy Connors. He has “only” one French Open Title but we have to remember that he was in the era of the invincible Nadal who has won an unreal 10 French Opens. We also have to consider that he lost 5 times to Nadal at French Open including 4 Finals and the only time Rafa lost to someone else ( Soderling) Federer seized the opportunity to win the title. He showed that he had the determination not to be denied the final frontier by defeating Soderling in straight sets after getting a scare from DelPotro in the semi finals where the Argentine Giant had a 2 sets to one lead. Indeed, Federe’s overall record at Roland Garros shows how good a clay court player he is as compared to say the great Pete Sampras who had only a solitary semi-final at the French Open.
Style of Play and Overall popularity
Federer according to none other than Rafa “was born to play tennis”. His playing style is classic, unhurried and relaxed with his one handed backhand probably the most beautiful gift he has given to the world of tennis. Ironically Federer said recently he wont teach his kids the one handed backhand and promptly Christopher Clarey of the New York Times who has covered more than 80 grand Slams said “Thats like Da Vinci telling his kids not to draw”
This poetry in motion style has contributed to make Federer not just the most popular tennis star but arguably the most universally loved sportsperson in the world. He has won the ATP Fans award voted for by Fans for 16 straight years since 2003. The Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award is voted for by players for the player who has conducted himself with highest level of professionalism and integrity, and who competed with fellow players with utmost level of fairness and who promoted the game through off court activities. Federer has won it a record 15 times from 2004 to 2017 consecutively with the only exception in these years being Nadal in 2010.
Can Rafa bridge the gap again. If anyone can it will be Rafa, and if he does so it indeed will be a monumental feat. At 36 Federer looks fitter than ever, he is moving better than before, and incredibly his serve and backhand seems to have improved. Goran Ivanisevic says he can play at this level for 5 years more. Pat Cash says the Federer of today will beat the Federer of 7-8 years back. Added to this fitness is strategy which comes with maturity. For instance Wilander says that Fed has the uncanny ability to hold himself back in the earlier stages of a tournament to stroll through to the later stages where suddenly he ups the ante and raises his game tremendously. It is indeed possible that his tally will not end at 20.
Roger Federer, after the 2018 Australian Open title does seem to be the “Definitive GOAT”.