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Thursday, Oct 17, 2019

Courting greatness: In the legend of Federer, the numbers are just the beginning

Roger Federer, who recently won his hundredth ATP title, has said he was not chasing that landmark. Yet, his achievement is remarkable in all sorts of ways.

columns Updated: Mar 09, 2019 19:06 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
The Swiss great defeated Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas in the ATP Dubai Championship, to win his 100th title. A fifth of these are majors. He’s won 29 titles in his thirties alone.
The Swiss great defeated Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas in the ATP Dubai Championship, to win his 100th title. A fifth of these are majors. He’s won 29 titles in his thirties alone. (AFP)

On March 2, Roger Federer beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of an Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tournament in Dubai. It was a victory freighted with symbolism. It will be lost on no one that Tsitsipas, who broke into the top ten of the men’s rankings after his run in that particular tournament, has been hailed as the next big thing in men’s tennis. His defeat of Federer in the Australian Open this year was seen by some as a sort of changing of the guard moment. But that has not quite happened. Tsitsipas did not win in Australia. (Novak Djokovic, another of the old guard, did.) And by the showing in Dubai, it is clear that Tsitsipas has some way to go before he can be in a position to knock the reigning troika of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Federer off their collective perch.

Dubai was Federer’s 100th ATP title. He became only the second man in the history of tennis to have won 100 or more titles. Only Jimmy Connors, with 109, is ahead of him. Federer has said that this was not a landmark that he was chasing. Nevertheless, it is a feat that is remarkable in at least four ways. The numbers that emerged in many media outlets, including in this newspaper, bear that out.

First, there is the sheer number of Grand Slam titles that Federer has won. He has 20 of them, which is to say a fifth of his total titles are majors. Of Connors’s 109 titles, eight were majors.

Second, none of Federer’s predecessors in the Open Era has played in as competitive an atmosphere. When Pete Sampras retired with 14 Grand Slam titles, it seemed unthinkable that any player would emulate his feat, let alone surpass it. Sampras had left in his slipstream Roy Emerson, who had 12 majors, and Bjorn Borg, who had 11. But Federer, along with Djokovic and Nadal, have redefined the bounds of possibility. While Federer remains out front with 20 Grand Slam titles, both Nadal and Djokovic have overtaken Sampras’s 14 majors. Nadal has 17, Djokovic 15, and, it seems fairly certain, on current form, that those tallies will only increase. Moreover, Federer has been beaten on 14 occasions by his two great adversaries in the semi final or final of a Grand Slam tournament. It may be a parlour game, but it boggles the mind to wonder exactly how many majors Federer might have won had Nadal and Djokovic not stood in his way. Had his entire career been one of sole domination, as his early years after becoming the undisputed World Number 1 were, there is no telling what he might have achieved.

Third, there is Federer’s extraordinary late efflorescence. In 2016, he did not win a single ATP title, the first time that had happened since he won his first. His ranking was plummeting. He was besieged by injury. Federer took time off, changed his approach to the tour by playing fewer tournaments, and came back in 2017 to win two Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon without dropping a set. In 2018, he reclaimed the Number 1 ranking. As comebacks go, it is hard to beat. Overall, Federer’s late phase has been rich in its yield. In his thirties, he has won 29 titles; Connors had 13 in his last decade as a player.

Fourth, think of the sheer longevity of his career. He has been on the tour for two decades. He has been at the summit, or thereabouts, for pretty much all of that time ever since he broke out as a top player. Other than Sachin Tendulkar and the British rower Steve Redgrave, who won gold medals at five consecutive Olympic Games, it is hard to come by such consistency, for so long, at the elite level. While Federer has patrolled the rarefied realms of his sport, the world around him has changed beyond recognition. Longevity is inalienable from the notion of sporting greatness. As Simon Barnes puts it in The Meaning of Sport: “Greatness, then, requires an aspect of longevity. It is not about one perfect performance or one perfect tournament, a single masterpiece. No: it is about the accumulation of an oeuvre. A life. A CV. A biography.” At the age of 37, two decades after he began, Federer’s oeuvre is unmatched in the history of his chosen sport. And he is still adding to it.

First Published: Mar 09, 2019 19:06 IST

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