The Pioneer

Here’s an excerpt from Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ book The Circuit, an exceptional summary of the 2017 ATP tennis season:

“When Roger Federer plays a tennis match, the questions are almost all about Roger. And when Roger Federer doesn’t play a tennis match, the questions are almost all about Roger. At Indian Wells, I was witness to this up close, and words fail to explain the phenomena. I worry for any tennis pro armed with high aspirations and the initials R.F., because he or she will no doubt end up facing four to five questions per match about how they handle the pressure of having the same initials as Roger Federer, if they asked Roger for advice on having the initials R.F., and if a name change was ever under consideration.”

From page 78 of The Circuit

Phillips went on to summarize an exchange between Pam Shriver and Stan Wawrinka: Shriver asked Wawrinka if he had watched Federer demolish Nadal 6-2, 6-3 the previous night. Wawrinka had to say no, because he himself had been playing the night before. “She [Shriver] followed up with another question about Federer,” Phillips wrote.

It goes without saying that Roger Federer has left an indelible mark on the tennis world. That kind of thing tends to happen when you win 20 major titles.

And make 23 consecutive major semifinals.

And win Wimbledon five years in a row.

And win the U.S. Open five years in a row.

And spend 237 consecutive weeks at #1 in the world.

But Federer’s impact on fans is different to that of other legends, even ones with equally insane CVs. Part of it was the timing of his rise — Federer exploded into prominence shortly after Pete Sampras retired and while Andre Agassi was riding out the last couple years of his career, neatly filling the superstar vacuum on the ATP side. The rest of Federer’s influence, though, is down to the way he played tennis. He was so dominant so early that people were calling him the GOAT by 2004 (for reference, he had all of four major titles by the end of that year). John McEnroe declared before the 2006 Roland-Garros final that if Federer won — it would mark his eighth major title and complete his Career Grand Slam — he would become the greatest ever. Keep in mind that Pete Sampras had 14 major titles at this point.

In retrospect, these seem like exaggerations, but watch clips of young Federer and the takes seem positively appropriate. Prior to Federer’s rise, the ATP tended to be ruled alternately by players who were either defensively sound (your clay specialists who routinely won Roland-Garros) or offensively sound (your servebots who routinely won Wimbledon). There could be some overlap — Agassi managed to win all four majors, and Sampras won each of the non-clay majors multiple times — but players who were a threat to win every tournament they played in were not really a thing on the ATP in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Then Federer came up. Watching him play Agassi once he hits his prime is kind of hilarious — Federer not only easily overpowers the American on the forehand side, he defends so well that Agassi can’t possibly hit through him. You could call it man versus boy, except the boy is really a god who eats men for breakfast.

“I can’t win a set. He dismisses me like a teacher with a dense pupil,” Agassi wrote of this match in his autobiography Open.

Federer managed to excel at both offense and defense. His forehand could tip the balance of a point in a single stroke, almost regardless of where on the court he made contact with the ball. His incredibly quick feet and good reach made it difficult to hit the ball past him, and that was if you were lucky enough to get on top of a rally. He not only served accurately but used virtually the exact same toss for vastly different serves, making it near-impossible to guess where he was going. Federer’s backhand wasn’t the best, but it did a great job of blocking massive serves back into play (just ask Andy Roddick, poor soul), perhaps a better job than any other one-handed backhand in history. In rallies, his world-class slice was more than enough to protect that weaker side, and the sheer might of the forehand ensured Federer didn’t have to hit that many backhands — and if you came to net, he would pass you with that backhand time and again. All this is to say it’s no wonder everyone was so agog with Federer. Sure, other players were shouldered out of the spotlight, but it’s only right when one is that much better than the rest. It wasn’t until the rise of Rafael Nadal that the world-beating version of Federer faced any kind of serious threat.

But the threat Nadal posed was beyond serious. As a mere 17-year-old, Nadal beat Federer 6-3, 6-3 in their first meeting. When they met on clay, Nadal would almost always win, and sometimes it would be routine. He could expose holes in Federer’s game like no one else — the slice didn’t work against him, because his violently quick racket head could send the floating ball racing to the corner at will. So Federer would be forced to hit topspin, but that was also a challenge, since Nadal’s intense topspin sent the ball flying at shoulder-height or higher, hardly an ideal proposition for a one-handed backhand to handle. As fast as Federer was, Nadal was faster, making it borderline impossible to reliably hit winners against him. After gatekeeping Roland-Garros for years, Nadal beat Federer in a famous Wimbledon final in 2008, snapping a streak of five straight titles for the Swiss, and would push him out of the #1 spot later that year.

Federer would win Wimbledon again in 2009 (not to mention his first Roland-Garros title, which widely sealed his GOAT status), but Nadal took over again in 2010, and the following year, Novak Djokovic began his peak. Like Nadal, Djokovic preyed on Federer’s weaknesses and neutralized his strengths — Djokovic didn’t have the high-kicking forehand, but his all-time-great return of serve allowed him to get into points constantly, after which he could slowly outlast Federer from the baseline.

The twin advents of Nadal and Djokovic brought Federer’s dominance to a shrieking halt. He won 15 majors from 2003 to 2009 and just two from 2010 to 2016. Federer certainly did decline a bit from his peak years — the forehand got slightly worse, as did the movement — but he was hardly crippled by his advancing age in his big matches with Djokovic and Nadal. Though he didn’t always take them, Federer would have his chances: a tiebreak in a crucial set here, a break point late in a set there.

What is most exceptional about phase two of Federer’s career is just how long he kept at it. Writers started speculating about if not outright predicting his retirement as early as 2012. Jacob Steinberg wrote this in a liveblog of the 2012 Roland-Garros semifinals, a match in which Djokovic beat Federer in straights:

“He [Federer] really isn’t going to win another slam, is he? You have to wonder if he’ll quit at the end of this season.”

Not only did Federer win four majors after this was written, many of his losses in majors were to his peaking Big Three brethren. Many just assumed that Federer would be so discontent with not being number one that he would retire, never mind that he was still more than capable of being an explosive #3.

*****

Explosive as he still was, the 2010-2014 years revealed that Federer could be somewhat tactically inflexible. (It was no wonder, given how destructive his natural game was during his best years.) A notable example was the 2012 Australian Open semifinals against Nadal. At this point, Nadal had a convincing 17-9 record against Federer and hadn’t lost to him at a major since Wimbledon in 2007, a pretty clear indication that Federer would have to step out of his comfort zone to win. He went into the match on a 24-match winning streak, which included a 6-3, 6-0 win over Nadal at the ATP Finals, so there was reason to think he would be confident.

Federer started exceptionally well, striking his backhand fiercely but also attacking Nadal’s backhand with his forehand, a favorable pattern for Federer but one he didn’t always use. Despite a late Nadal comeback, Federer won the first set in a tiebreak. After a bad second set, Federer went up a break in the third set, but promptly lost his serve at 15 to hand the break back. Federer had a break point to go up 5-3 in the fourth set and two break points when Nadal served for the match, but wound up losing in four. Despite Federer playing enough cerebral points to demonstrate that he knew what the correct tactics were, on the big points it was right back to approaching the net to Nadal’s forehand, a pattern that had gotten him burned time after time, dating all the way back to 2004. It was like Federer knew the strategy was sure to get him killed, he just couldn’t help himself. Patrick McEnroe and Chris Fowler, commentating for ESPN, couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

You can see even in these highlights how Federer gradually loses control of this match, partly by his own hand. A comment I recall seeing is “this is just a really frustrating collection of points to watch if you’re a Federer fan.”

Faced with clear disadvantages against Nadal and Djokovic, it was obvious that Federer needed to adapt, but he was often reluctant to do so. His second serve returning, a historical liability, remained passive on big points. Federer’s rivals were and are exceptional at taking charge in crucial moments, but the Swiss’s meek chip returns off slow serves gave them opportunities to go on the attack which they might not have had otherwise. Against virtually everyone else (this could also get Federer in trouble against Andy Murray, who at one point had an 11-10 record against the Swiss), starting neutral rallies was favorable to Federer. It just wasn’t enough against his great rivals.

To his credit, Federer did adapt eventually. He reworked his backhand in 2015, using it to attack more frequently, and in doing so eventually broke the long-established pattern of losing out to Nadal’s crosscourt forehand. He stopped chipping returns as frequently, doing significant damage with drive backhand returns. At the 2017 Australian Open, Federer beat Nadal at a major for the first time since 2007, capping a dazzling comeback run. (He hit eight backhand winners in the fifth set!) At Wimbledon two years later, Federer beat Nadal again, proving 2017 wasn’t a fluke with more sharp backhands and effective returns, then pushed Djokovic to the very brink in the final, who was heavily favored to win comfortably.

All of it, especially the three majors Federer won in that 2017-2018 resurgence, felt wholly deserved. Federer had hung around for years without winning a big one — he played at a godlike level for the second half of 2015, for instance, a level that would have netted major titles in practically any other year, but he lost out in two major finals because he had the misfortune of playing against arguably the best-ever version of Novak Djokovic.

The amount of points from late in Federer’s career gives you a pretty good idea of how well he’s managed to hold up over the years.

The stats tell us that the adjustment came too late, however. Even with his 2017 turnaround, a year in which Federer beat Nadal four times out of four, he trails 16-24 in the head-to-head. He’s 23-27 against Djokovic. Reducing the records to matches at the majors, Federer is 4-10 against Nadal and 6-11 against Djokovic. He is 4-10 against them in major finals and 16-27 against them in all finals. Djokovic is 9-0 in Australian Open finals and Nadal is 14-0 in Roland-Garros finals; Federer is 8-4 in Wimbledon finals. Then there’s the fact that he is now third in the major title race with his rivals.

Despite all this, I think Federer deserves serious credit for even the years in which he didn’t win majors. He was the gold standard that Nadal and Djokovic chased for such a long time, motivating them to become as good as they possibly could. Being #1, in some ways, is a death trap — someone inevitably replaces you, and the prominence of the position makes everyone try to hunt you down, studying the ins and outs of your game to give themselves the best chance of killing the king. Unfortunately for Federer, Djokovic and Nadal were extremely reluctant to allow any trend reversals once they had dethroned the Swiss, but he played a part in them becoming as great as they did.

After the recent Wimbledon final between Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios, I tweeted this:

A few people thought I was being tongue-in-cheek or excessively harsh by grouping Federer with the interlopers rather than his Big Three brethren, but I think there is merit to this grouping. Regardless of your stance on the GOAT debate, you cannot ignore the fact that 15 of Federer’s 20 major titles came before 2010. He has often been relevant since then, but at no point has he dominated, aside from maybe 2017. Since 2010, Federer has made 20 major semifinals. He’s lost 10 of those semifinals and five of the finals; 13 of those 15 losses have been to Djokovic or Nadal. The cold reality is that for the majority of his career, Federer has been worse than the other two in the big matches, and it’s generally been a surprise in the past decade when he’s beaten Djokovic or Nadal at a major. (From 2005 to 2010, Federer went 6-8 against Nadal and Djokovic in majors.)

Interestingly, Federer doesn’t have many signature wins, both because his early rivals were mortals to his titan and couldn’t push him far enough to get matches into the “epic” territory and because he usually loses to Djokovic and Nadal on the big stage. There was the 2017 Australian Open final, a defining victory after years of torment at the hands of Nadal. There were the 2007 and 2009 Wimbledon finals, both five-set struggles Federer toughed out. But Federer has probably lost more historic matches than he has won. There was the 2006 Rome final, a five-hour thriller that Federer lost after having two match points. There was the 2008 Wimbledon final, where Federer made a brilliant comeback from two sets down, winning a pair of tiebreaks and saving two match points in the latter one…and lost in the end. There was the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal, where Federer found himself on the receiving end of arguably the most important shot of Novak Djokovic’s career, eventually losing after having a two-set lead and two match points in the fifth. Then there was the 2019 Wimbledon final, where Federer outplayed Djokovic on average for five sets, but Djokovic managed to rescue three of them, saving two match points en route to victory yet again.

It’s totally at odds with the sheer dominance of the first phase of Federer’s career, but many of his most compelling matches have been losses. He has lost from match point up more than 20 times. He’ll often end big matches with damning break point conversion rates. (One I’m not sure many know is that Federer was 4/25 on break points in the 2011 Roland-Garros semifinal against Djokovic, a match Federer actually won anyway.) Playing one’s best under pressure is a widely recognized landmark of greatness. Federer has done it so often; you can cite any number of matches in which he’s pulverized aces to save break point or won from match point down or made a thrilling comeback. But when he comes up against those two rivals of his, it’s pretty apparent that they are more clutch than he is.

*****

Despite the splendor of both phases of Federer’s career, a significant part of his legacy is the beauty with which he plays. Perhaps the most famous piece of tennis literature ever written is David Foster Wallace’s “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” I even had to read it for a writing class last year (that had nothing to do with tennis). When you read about Federer or listen to commentators talk about him, you get words like “balletic” or phrases like “poetry in motion.” During the peak phase of the rivalry with Nadal, the matchup was sometimes hyped by emphasizing the battle between Nadal’s forehand and Federer’s backhand, ignoring the fact that when Federer managed to beat Nadal, it was almost exclusively in spite of his backhand rather than because of it.

Federer lifts the Wimbledon trophy on one such occasion: the 2007 final. Screenshot: Wimbledon

The extent to which Federer’s style is celebrated has started to bug me over the past couple years. Some technical truth tends to get lost in fawning over the aesthetics; by far the weaker of Federer’s groundstrokes — the backhand — soaks up a disproportionate amount of praise at the expense of better, more utilitarian backhands. (Not to mention Federer’s forehand, the infinitely more remarkable shot of his.) But I also fundamentally disagree with the premise that an attractive style makes a player “greater”. Sports are not an art form, they are a competition. Shots and movements that increase the odds of winning are good ones; shots that don’t are not. It’s more than fair to pick a favorite player because you find their style attractive, but I fail to see how said attractive style is a measure of greatness.

I’m comfortable with the logic — I love watching Federer hit backhand winners, but I also love watching other players hit backhand winners, and there are several who do it much more often than Fed does. But I realize I’m in the minority here. It’s not just Federer fans who are seduced by the way he plays tennis, it’s commentators and analysts as well. At times, I feel a bit like Ben Wyatt trying to figure out why everyone is obsessed with Li’l Sebastian in Parks and Recreation.

It’s also started to bother me a bit how the willingness to shower Federer with accolades doesn’t always extend to Nadal and Djokovic, who are by now clearly on the same level as Federer. It’s not that Federer didn’t deserve the GOAT accolades when he surpassed Sampras in 2009, it’s that he’s never had to deal with the nonsensical arguments made against Nadal and Djokovic. You know the ones: “too many of his titles are on clay”, or “he’s not universally liked enough”. Federer was much better off by comparison — the New York Times published an opinion piece in 2020 arguing that he would always be the GOAT, even when he lost the statistical battle. The piece mentioned his elegance, popularity, and on-and-off-court classiness (much of the tennis world seems to have agreed to collectively forget this press conference) as reasons the Swiss deserved the eternal GOAT label.

It’s near-impossible to imagine anyone besides a hardcore fan making the same case for Nadal or Djokovic (not that they should), and I can’t help but think the adoration for Federer’s style has gotten out of hand — not the love itself, but what we think the love should mean.

*****

When I got into tennis, I was a fan who watched the sport because of Roger Federer. I was drawn not to his elegance but the way he conducted himself on court, loving the smooth, subtle fist pumps and the practiced brush of his wristbands on his forehead. Many times when I watched him play, a commentator would stress how rarely he lost his temper. Who couldn’t love that? I was totally invested in Federer winning, all the time. Watching him beat Marin Čilić from two sets and match points down at Wimbledon in 2016 was a transcendental experience even through a TV screen. (His loss to Milos Raonic in the following round utterly destroyed me, a feeling I remember to this day.) When Andy Murray crunched Raonic in the final, I looked at how few aces Raonic had hit compared to the match against Federer and was almost personally offended at the idea that Murray might be a superior returner to Federer, much less a better player. I had fallen hard.

Another thing I loved about Federer was his low-key celebrations. It then felt that much more special when he would celebrate emphatically.

It’s funny to think back on those days, because I’ve felt emotionally detached from Federer’s results for a while, and I’m still not completely sure why. (Had you told me in 2016 that I’d write a piece like this one day, my Federer-loving brain would have recoiled — not because I’d disagree with the arguments, because me saying anything not wholly complimentary of Federer would have been unfathomable at the time.) Part of it is that I started to appreciate other players after a few months of watching tennis — in watching Nadal lose to Gilles Müller at Wimbledon in 2017, for instance, I was spellbound by the Spaniard’s never-say-die attitude even though he fell short in the end after coming from two sets down and saving endless match points. I came across the 2012 Australian Open final during an archive dig and emerged dazzled by Djokovic’s physical fortitude. Another factor was that once I started trying to write about tennis on top of consuming it, I had to think with my head more than my heart.

That’s not to say my preference faded immediately. I couldn’t watch the 2019 Wimbledon final, but I followed live scores, and was left heartbroken by the result. I had given Federer no shot going in, but seeing that he had won the second set 6-1 and wasn’t giving Djokovic so much as a break point chance gave me some hope. Once I saw the numbers tick from 8-7 in the fifth to 8-8, though, I knew Federer was toast. I was miserable for the rest of the day; I can remember writing in a journal that there was no reason Federer couldn’t win the 2019 U.S. Open in an effort to make myself feel better. When my parents asked how I was doing on a phone call the next day, I reflexively said I was depressed. Watching a hampered Federer lose to Grigor Dimitrov in New York later that year, a tournament I firmly believed the Swiss had a chance of winning, was agonizing. But since then, I’ve usually been able to see Federer as merely another player rather than the one all my hopes ride on.

Part of it, surely, is that Federer simply hasn’t played much in the last two and a half years, so there wasn’t much choice but to focus on other players. His loss to Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon last year was heart-wrenching for legions of his fans, but I had already made my peace with his career coming to an end. But the nostalgia is intense for the general tennis world, and Federer is yet to even retire. Christopher Clarey recently wrote a book called The Master: the Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer; Geoff Dyer recently wrote The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endings (I feel it is my duty as a tennis fan to inform you that this one is much more about “other endings” than “Roger Federer”). I went to Roland-Garros for a few days this year, and the most common piece of tennis merchandise I saw by about five hundred miles was the RF cap. He wasn’t even playing in the tournament! Oh, and you should hear the screams he got when he walked onto Center Court this year:

For all of the very worthy reasons to celebrate Federer with teary eyes, I feel like I’m watching this from the other side of a blurry glass divider, dulling the sensation I get from these final pages of his glorious career. At this point, he’s physically diminished enough that when he has stepped out on court, I see something different than what I think of as “Roger Federer.” He’s a ship that has replaced its mast six times, its hull once, its deck eight times, and its crew five times. The movement has fallen to pieces, his forehand no longer even resembles the laser cannon it once was, and his return of serve — always a relative shaky point, at least on second serves — was all over the place the last few times he played. Whatever the reason, these days I find myself quietly unattached to Federer. I don’t regret the time I spent as a huge fan of his, but I don’t miss it either.

*****

I came to the opinion that Djokovic and Nadal were better players than Federer in early 2020. I don’t think you can argue with their superior head-to-heads and better big-match records, and now that they’ve gone past Federer’s 20 majors, the hierarchy seems ironclad. But Federer’s legacy remains immense. The best part of this era on the ATP — the glorious battle royale between Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal — was sparked by the now 40-year-old. (Take a second to think about the fact that he is 40, and he still intends on making a comeback to the tour. It’s just amazing, isn’t it?) He set the outrageously high bar, playing a huge part in pushing men’s tennis to the lofty plane it wound up reaching. He helped push his rivals to unheard-of heights, forcing them to climb alongside him, and even beating them at times once they went higher.

Even if you’re a diehard Fedfan, I think it’s more than okay to be content with Federer’s place in history. He has a glittering legacy that does not need the extra shine of eternal GOAT status. The way he makes you feel can just be a bonus.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

3 thoughts on “The Pioneer

  1. Hey, Owen. Great piece on Fed. As a recent tennis fan(started watching properly since last year’s Olympics), I only have a vague memory of Federer at Wimbledon. This piece, along with the one on Rafa and Novak, really helps me in understanding the Big 3, as I am only catching the tail-end of their careers. I am really fascinated by of each of their presence and rivalries with fellow Big 3 members and I hope I get to read more of your pieces on them.

    Also, to look at things in a positive way for Fed, can we say that it is amazing that he has won these many majors in spite of his choking tendencies just like he has won his Wimbledons in spite of his backhand?😝 Asking as an admirer of all of the Big 3 (partial to Rafa tho).

    Thanks for writing!🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad the pieces have helped you understand these guys! More to come for sure, though I’ll need a bit of a cooldown period after this piece 🙂

      That’s an interesting way to look at things for Federer — in my experience, people more commonly say “he’d have won more if he were better at closing out matches,” but I like your angle. It’s amazing that he was so much better for the field for so long that he hardly ever came particularly close to losing at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open during his streaks there. The 2004 Wimbledon final is often spoken about as a close call, and that match didn’t even go to five sets.

      Another area in which I think Federer really impresses is his ability to get over a tough loss. He’s routinely said over the years that it doesn’t take him long to move past a bad loss. I think the 2019 Wimbledon final would have really crippled some players’ belief, but Federer seemed like he’d moved on from it almost immediately.

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe Fed’s just a good actor, we don’t know🤷🏽‍♀️😝. Credit to him on not being ~that~ much of a sore loser, though.

        Another thing about Federer is that I feel like non-Federer fans/analysts don’t give him enough credit for changing the sport and for showing us a different way in which players can dominate. He set the standards, others tried to surpass those standards. GOAT or not, the sport and fans owe him that respect.

        The media is another thing, though. For them, nothing and no one can beat Federer, and that’s really, really annoying.

        Like

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