I shouldn’t be surprised or at all annoyed by the constant talk of G.O.A.T. in tennis that permeates many tennis conversations these days.  We’re at the tail end of a great era of tennis.  The Roger era has been historical, was complicated by the play of Nadal and Djokovic, and has given way, definitively, to the Djokovic era.  The vast accumulation of majors by those three along with the level of tennis to the naked eye, with the help of better equipment, training, etc., has no doubt helped define an incredible golden age of tennis over the last 12+ years.

There are so many odd ball conversations and debates going on in-and-around this bigger GOAT conversation.  As people debate Roger v Djokovic (as premature a comparison as there is), one of the debates is strength of era.  Roger’s era was weak goes one perspective.  I suppose they mean the 2004-2008 era?  This same perspective then does a somersault and tells you that Roger has been playing his best tennis ever, in 2015.  So, he’s playing better now than during his era?  Because his era was so weak?  Hunh?  You see the problem here.  More on that in a minute.

Go look at some major championship draws from the mid eighties to the early nineties.  Lendl, Wilander, Edberg, McEnroe, Conners, Becker.  If you wander back to the early eighties, late seventies, you add Borg and Gerulaitis, youth to Mac and Conners, etc.  Among others.  In other words, I know the tennis of the last ten years has been incredible, but we are, as I and many others have said, prisoners of the moment.  We not only easily forget; we also over value our own. Makes us feel better about our own experience.  Imagine Jonny Mac or Sampras or Conners, et al., with today’s equipment/science.  In reality, the GOAT conversation is pretty silly.  When the talk gets heated, it gets even sillier.  See? Even the language to describe the GOAT hot air sounds playful, cute, and a little past its bed-time.

Those were some badass seedings in those tournaments of old.  Sampras was a 12th seed in his first U.S. Open win, when he was 19 in 1990.  The top seeds?  Edberg, Becker, Lendl, Agassi. Chang #11, Courier #14, Ivanisevic #15.

Is today’s field, 2015, deeper and more talented than those fields?  Okay, go back to 2010-2012.  Tough to say, but I’m certainly not calling it a foregone conclusion.

Back to this argument that today Federer is playing his best tennis of his entire career.  If you are at all an athlete, have spent more than a few years following sports, that you actually have a little experience with the way the physical body performs athletically, especially in a sport like tennis, or soccer or football, track, etc., one which requires speed and strength, agility and endurance (among other qualities), then you absolutely know that father time is undefeated.  To say that Roger Federer, who played some of the greatest athletic tennis ever over ten years ago, is playing better now, is to say that you have an agenda, an ulterior motive, or you’re really not very smart.  Who says that?  How is Roger better now than he was in 2006 or 2007?

That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

But let’s play along.  Who is cracking such buffoonery?  Who needs Roger to play his best now?  That’s what this feels and sounds like.  The claim is made not for Roger’s sake.  The guy has won 17 majors, but hasn’t won one since 2012. Yet he’s playing better than he ever has?  Granted, he is giving this perspective a chard of support by making two major finals in 2015.  But who gathers these whiffs of success and says he’s peaking, as in playing better than he ever has?

He who makes such a claim is doing so to prop-up someone else’s achievements.  Think of the alternative.  Roger, a guy well past his prime, 34 years-old, is basically #2 in the world right now (I’m sure Andy would even agree with that).  He’s #2.  He’s 34.  He hasn’t won a major in three years.  Yet he’s playing better than he ever has.  Is this a joke?

The confused making this case will say, I think, that Roger’s dominance ten years ago was against a field so weak that. . . he’s finally playing better because he’s learned so much . . . but he’s getting spanked by a much deeper field now. . .

One can’t follow those lines of reasoning.  If they concede that their reasoning is pathetic, they play their ace: Roger said he’s playing better now than he ever has.  We love Roger.  He is a confident tennis player playing so well at this point in his career.  I have called this his extended farewell tour for months.  It’s really been years now.  But not even Roger can make this true.

Anyone who knows sports, who has watched Roger play, who has some experience with the rise and fall of the human body, knows without a flicker of doubt that this truth is an impossibility.  This argument is not about Roger.  This is fanatical.  There is an agenda behind these words.  No one with an ounce of knowledge of the game and/or the world believes such lunacy.

And the irony is this: whoever is making this claim, doing so for another player’s benefit, is adding to the case of Roger Federer.

Take the infamous case of Rafael Nadal.  Some consider him one of the greatest.  He’s 29.  He is all but done with his legitimate competitive relevance in the sport.  Done.  In a typical world, that’s pretty easy to swallow.  He has 14 majors, several other claims to fame (pretty impressive on the Masters 1000 front) and he’s 29.  In tennis years, he’s had a great career.  It’s almost a wrap.

Roger at 34 is ripping through 1000 and major championship draws.  There’s some pretty spectacular tennis coming from the wily veteran who has flirted with #2 in the world, really has been the only player to challenge Novak at this point.  I have said it before and will say it again: he’s pretty much done winning majors, and has been for a while. This is his ambassadorship.  Other than that great run in Cincinnati, Roger is playing uphill against Novak.  Hate to state the obvious again, but he’s 34 years old.  Again, he’s six years older than Djokovic.

Roger can beat Novak.  But it’s going to be quite an upset in 2015.

Objectively speaking, what he’s doing at his age is continuing to separate him from the crowd.  I’m sure if you ask the elders, the oracles of the sport, they would say Roger has simply done things on the court better than anyone ever has.

His play at 34 is more evidence of this.  Indeed, the people saying he’s playing better than he ever has are actually making this point.  They’re foolishly trying to bolster the achievements of the next era, trying to give it class I guess (beating Roger adds to the legacy).  But, in reality, they are only clarifying what so many in tennis know.  That Roger has graced the sport (and continues to) like no one ever has.  His impact is mind-boggling.

If Novak wins another 4-5 majors, he enters the conversation with Roger and Pete (and Borg and Laver, among others since this is all so subjective).

I am not arguing Roger is G.O.A.T.  The debate, interestingly enough, borrows language from another use of the same term with an entirely different meaning. I say give it a rest. The bias and herd mentality of it all can be interesting to a point, but some of these debates are just silly.

Enjoy the tennis.

My point is you could be doing more damage to your cause than you realize. I have looked, as you know, at the Federer Nadal numbers, patterns, etc.  Not a good look for the Spaniard.  On top of all of that, no one gives a shit about H2H other than those with an agenda.  These arguments, GOAT, best era, etc., are all flawed with bias, logical fallacy, you name it.

As for the strength of era argument, in reality (I’m not going to argue this here and now), today’s ATP might be the weakest it’s been in years.  Roger Federer is 34 and Rafael Nadal is narrowly escaping embarrassment around every turn, or not.  Del Potro is gone, Stan is very inconsistent, Andy is a mess, Cilic . . .Nishikori?

Nadal almost lost to Rosol tonight in Basel.  In the end he won, but it wasn’t pretty.  With Nadal, it never really is.  I covered this a bit in my Tennis Excellence post.  Do you think the game is beautiful, that style and grace are qualities we value in this sport?  Of course.  That’s why Roger and Pete or Borg or Laver are generally names people turn to for tennis excellence, tennis greatness.  Nadal has never really been that pretty in terms of his tennis (in terms of marketing, the sex appeal, sure, but not in terms of ball striking, north/south movement, etc.). Granted, Nadal’s fighting spirit and his remarkable clutch gene are all-time, but he’s just not on that upper echelon with those other greats, imho.  Is it a coincidence that Roger and Pete are considered the best to have ever played and they have a single FO between them?

Novak is in this same model of tennis excellence, being coached by one of the true greats of the game, having had to play one of the greats H2H for years (Roger).  Novak’s game is incredibly easy to watch, to marvel at its efficiency and grace (the net game is coming along frighteningly well).  He’ll get his FO, he’ll end-up in the same conversation as those other greats.

The best part is we get to watch and talk about it.

31 thoughts on “GOAT

  1. Trigg

    Dear Matt,

    In fact, I guess I was probably one of the first to write that Federer played better than he did in 2007 or 2008, last year, after the Wimbledon final.

    I wrote it after watching again matches from that period and comparing. And I recently clarified my assessment: it meant that this Federer of 2015, aged 26, would have beat the Federer of 2007, aged 26 at the time. I thought, and I still do, that his tactical choices are now better, that his understanding of the game and his technique are superior, and he plays with a better racquet, more powerful and more forgiving.

    I also thought that the likes of Djokovic and Federer not only improved, but have changed the game in the last ten years. Compare their match in the final of Montreal in 2007 with the recent USO final. They played a little under their best in both matches, but the difference is clear: _with all other things equal_, the Djokovic et Federer versions of 2015 would have won against the Djokovic and Federer versions of 2008.

    I first wrote it because I thought that the quality of their Wimbledon final, in 2014, especially of the three first sets, had been underestimated. But the Federer 2014 with the stamina of the Federer 2008 would have easily won the 2008 Wimbledon final, not allowing Nadal to play on his terms.

    And that’s what truly separates Djokovic and Federer from the field in the last five years: an unseen sense of purpose in their preparation, in their improvements, in their games. It came too late for Federer, who was so long so dominant, and almost too late for Djokovic, but it came for both after a period of set-backs. They made (Novak two times, the second at the end of 2013) to the same conclusions, worked to improve the same shots, hired the same kind of coach.

    The final results — on all levels — are dissimilar, because they didn’t start from the same point. But since 2011 they follow parallel paths, and they distance themselves from the pack more and more.

    Finally, let’s make clear that age IS a factor, that Federer has indeed problems with stamina in longer matches, problems of recovery, and more days when things just don’t work. But that he plays a superior brand of tennis now, and that tennis in general has improved, I have no doubts about it.


  2. A quick response to your rationalization (by the way, thanks for chiming-in):
    1) there is no way to prove this assertion, that the 34 y/o could beat the 26 y/o. Your eye test is probably pretty solid. I would enjoy such a video comparison, but I know there’s really no way I come away with that understanding. 8-10 years older. That just doesn’t happen.
    2) the more powerful racquet shouldn’t factor into this. First of all, it doesn’t make a big enough difference because of #1 (age), but also, you highlight the problem with comparing players through the years from different generations. Roger should have changed racquets earlier, we can perhaps agree. But, the age is too big of a factor and the equipment argument is too complicated/difficult to gauge.
    3) the biggest problem with this assertion (this is really an extension of #1) comes back to the peak vs. twilight of one’s career. 2007 was his peak. 2014-15 is his twilight. He will be out of the game in a couple of years. That he has lasted this long is AMAZING, playing #2 in the world. Remarkable for his age. If he is playing top-10 tennis at 38-39, the game is over. Roger is king. But this is just a tennis exhibit. He doesn’t have the youth, sharpness, endurance to win a major, let alone multiple 1000s.

    The Djokovic/Fed finals have been solid evidence of this, but matches like the 2014 USO SF might be even better.

    What is the biggest issue with Roger’s game right now? If you could point to one factor that limits his ability to win a major, what would that be? Probably the 5-set conditions. That’s endurance. That’s age. You can’t overlook/ignore that. I enjoy Roger’s tennis as much as anyone, but he’s just not the stalwart he once was.

    The tennis is so beautiful right now, I admit. Roger’s Cincy/USO run was tremendous. Blowing people off the court including Novak in the Cincy final.

    Lastly, along with age, the confidence factor is tremendously important. He hasn’t had that for a long time. You and I both know how important that is, especially with Rog. Granted, he’s still world class, but in those years where he played in all four major finals year after year, dominated three of them, year after year, put up just insane numbers. . . he was untouchable other than on clay v Rafa (he beat everyone else on clay).

    Not the same kind of confidence, youth, endurance today.

    I am happy he has continued to advance the game with Novak. But, again, Trigg, Roger is six years older. Six. Years. I mean, sometimes the truth is right there, staring at you. This doesn’t need advanced analytics. Roger will be 35 in ten months.


  3. Trigg

    Dear Matt,

    Yes, of course, he is older, and it shows. If you watch closely, you can notice that in longer matches, he stops making his patented small steps to adjust his position from a certain point in the match. He’s still fast — there is no meaningful difference here, he still has lots of power, but he clearly doesn’t recover today the way he did a few years ago. Take Cincy as an example: he played a few matches in big humidity, and, although he won, he was already struggling with stamina in the second set of the final. His advantage was that Novak played all his matches in the heat of the day, and was struggling even more.

    But in a day like yesterday, when he’s fresh, fit, he eats his opponent for breakfast in less that 50 minutes. I guess that in the best of three format, he would be able to defeat the Federer from 10 years ago, and, as I wrote above, the Federer of 2015, _aged 26_, at the height of his physical powers, would have been the better player. [Here, we have to closely follow his career: Federer was at his physical peak until 2011, but since the end of 2008, his career was plagued by intermittent back problems. Physical decline is never quite linear.]

    And that tennis has change tremendously, an example: Federer playing against Agassi has no problems whatsoever to sustain the BH to BH rallies, although Agassi had a good backhand. Against Djokovic, in 2007, 2008 already, his backhand simply wasn’t good enough, and Novak broke it time and time again, Why? There are a few reasons for this: first, Novak’s movements starts from the hip, he rotates his body and his ball is heavier, but more important is that he changes the height, depth and spin from shot to shot, and it’s not easy to adjust when playing a single hander. Then, there was here another thing: in 2006, Federer stopped his cooperation with Roche, and he played without a coach for a few years. Roche insisted on physical preparation, and Federer didn’t like it. It didn’t help his cause, and I believe that his recurrent back problems have to do something with that lack of specific work.

    Finally, we can see that the only thing that stopped Fed to win three slams in the last two years was… Novak, himself an all time great and a GOAT contender, at the very peak of his game (and this became so obvious that recently, even on Sky sport, pundits don’t hesitate — Peter Fleming, e.g. — to say that Djokovic is a much better player than Murray ;-). Take Novak out of the equation, and Fed would have won 2 slams (who could have stopped him at Wimby?) and three MS1000 and finished number 1. At 34…


    1. We can breakdown the game, the improvements here, declines there, etc. But the bigger picture is so clear. You said it best when pointing-out that in best of three the 34 y/o version definitely has a chance against the 26 y/o. But that’s not big boy tennis, I’m afraid. The majors are numero uno. Don’t you think Sampras or Borg could have stuck around to play some dazzling best of three matches and beat the top contenders? My point is this is fishing around for support of this idea that a player way past his prime is better than he was at peak. The best of five is the only real measuring stick in the end.

      Remember too the effects a great player has on the up-coming class of competition. We see this in all sports. Younger players have a standard to shoot for, which is why it’s very easy to say the play on the field or court is always advancing, aside from the equipment and science. In the Fed case, Nadal and Djokovic were natural developments, more defensive in order to survive, more strength, endurance. Survival of the fittest.

      Without Novak in the sport and Fed playing like this, perhaps winning 2 majors this year, says a ton about the state of the men’s game. Not very strong. Murray is a putz. Nadal isn’t even a factor.

      By the way, where are the Nadal fans in this discussion? Doesn’t the current play of Fed and Nadal settle it for you, or are you still sucking on that H2H? Unbelievable.


  4. blackspy

    A great piece, as usual, Matt. I think you like to break the tennis stereotypes in your blog which gives your readers a great podium for intelligent conversation.

    Your views on the GOAT debate reflect mine-I have already said so in your Cincinnati piece and have nothing more to add.

    The “weak era” argument can be used against anyone who wins multiple majors for consecutive years-e.g. against Djokovic at the moment: Federer is old, Nadal burned-out, the rest of the field is inadequate/immature etc, or against Federer during 2004-2007: Sampras, Agassi were old, Safin-Nalbadian- Hewitt inconsistent, the rest of the field (apart Nadal on clay) inadequate/immature etc. Then again, you have to win these matches to get the trophies/records, you know.

    An element that clouds people’s minds is Federer’s “transcendence”, as a fan of his put it. He has played from a age where power/athleticism was considered secondary to developing a complete shot repertoire, saw the rise of “the athlete tennis striker”-power defensive play from the baseline, and plays still to our day where the front court comes back to the equation again. I believe we can speak about different ages because of all the important underlying changes in surfaces, equipment and conditioning in the meantime (after 2000), which have no precedent. I guess watching some videos of the matches of the aforementioned period will convince most people (note e.g. how you could get away regularly with weak defensive shots against top competitors until about 2006). Interestingly, it is obvious, I think, that Federer’s game weaknesses are linked with the ideals/priorities of the age where he started his tennis career and learned how to play on top level.

    So comparing all his years of play is mostly futile in my mind. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t heed Trigg’s observations about Federer’s racquet (which should have changed since 2008 according to some people-an old story exists only here http://www.ign.com/boards/threads/federer-needs-a-new-racquet.168268968/) and style of play (which mistakenly followed the trend when he shouldn’t try to become a baseliner in my view-even more with an inappropriate tool in his hand) which became more important after 2011 where his body, notwithstanding his immense talent, couldn’t keep up with the power requirements. So, I guess, we can blame him for late adapting.

    But I firmly believe that although he made the necessary changes in late 2013, he isn’t in his best anymore. Stamina, speed, power, no more (jumping) flat shots, less accuracy are few of his lost qualities to win some consistency. And for the sake of the theoretical experiment in best of 5 his younger self would beat him, as does Djokovic actually, hands down. In best of three, if the surface was not fast, the 2015 version could have a chance, if he targeted 2006’s version backhand (irony?). Now, having all the physical qualities+self control/belief+accuracy+power/consistency of the new racquet+employing the right game plan (his all-court game) would be a fearsome sight to behold. Alas, we were not meant to see that, we can just see sparkles of his old glory now and imagine the rest.

    Nadal, who has also lost a step, tries to cover this up with attacking tennis (a new one for him), as well. It remains to be seen if that may work in slower surfaces, because in fast ones, well I don’t give him much of a chance. Aussie and French 2016 will be telling.

    Djokovic did the changes in his game play (improved the backhand, added attacking elements) just in time to avoid the gruesome rallies that tore Nadal’s body down. He is closing to his thirties, so he must take care of business soon, as father time won’t spare him, also. But for the time being we can admire his game as complete as it will ever be, I guess.


    1. “I think, that Federer’s game weaknesses are linked with the ideals/priorities of the age where he started his tennis career and learned how to play on top level.”

      That’s a very important point, imo. Some athletes, like Michael Jordan, are immensely historical, exceptions to the rule. But more often than not, you’re a product of your age (and the previous age) and the subsequent eras will be primed to overcome that, and so on.

      Agree with you too on the weak era argument.

      Good stuff, as usual, blackspy.


    2. Trigg

      “I think, that Federer’s game weaknesses are linked with the ideals/priorities of the age where he started his tennis career and learned how to play on top level.”

      Matt, blackspy,

      I’ll quote this sentence too, because it’s so obvious, there’s almost no need to repeat it. Technological shifts have shortened the careers of many great champions of the past: John MacEnroe, Stefan Edberg, even Pete Sampras. Young players learn to play in a defined environment, but this environment changes, and often, they just can’t adapt. What Federer and Djokovic have done, in the last 5 years, was to search the best way to play in the current conditions. Their games evolved, but in its essence, it was mainly an adaptation.

      New racquets meant more easy power, better control. New string technology meant more top spin, a better defence, a higher rebound. So, no serve and volley; then, better attacking patterns, and volleying became an imperative against defensive slice; the one-hander became a liability on clay and certain kind of hard courts.

      When I wrote that there was an unseen sense of purpose in Federer’s and Djokovic’s games, it was because they aimed for the right dosage of all the elements of the game in these new, changed conditions. Federer had a liability — his backhand, but he had a better serve, and it influenced his choices. Djokovic didn’t have enough power, but his grip allowed him to make a better use of different kind of spin, and it had an impact on his (Federer plays with an almost eastern grip on the FH).

      I wrote above that they both almost missed the boat. It is interesting to note that they were both influenced in their choices and their attitude by two former greats of the game, at least in part. The fact that they evolved under the leadership of Edberg and Becker respectively is not a coincidence.

      ” I firmly believe that although he made the necessary changes in late 2013″

      No, in fact he started under Annacone already, at the end of 2010, beginning of 2011, but implementing even small technical changes is usually a long process at this age, and he had back problems for some time in 2012 and 2013. It impacted his game and his improvements in a large measure.


  5. Trigg

    Finally, I am still in doubt here about the absolute level of play Federer2015 model vs Federer2006 model. What you write is logical, but what I see, every time I rewatch matches from different periods, tells me that Federer, today, plays better: better serve, more dependant and overall better BH, better net game, better tactical choices.

    When I think about it, I don’t even believe that he has a big stamina problem. Recovery, yes, but stamina — i am not certain. And I have arguments for that too. Finally, his stats are similar.

    TOTALS Match Tiebreak Ace% 1stIn 1st% 2nd% RPW DR
    2015 54-9 (86%) 17-11 (61%) 11.6% 64.2% 80.1% 58.4% 40.0% 1.44
    2014 73-12 (86%) 27-15 (64%) 10.3% 63.8% 78.6% 57.8% 39.9% 1.38
    2013 45-17 (73%) 15-10 (60%) 8.2% 62.7% 76.4% 55.3% 39.7% 1.26
    2012 71-12 (86%) 21-15 (58%) 10.7% 62.9% 77.7% 59.9% 38.8% 1.34
    2011 64-12 (84%) 20-9 (69%) 9.5% 63.7% 78.7% 57.1% 40.1% 1.38
    2010 65-13 (83%) 21-10 (68%) 11.1% 61.9% 78.2% 56.3% 40.2% 1.34
    2009 61-12 (84%) 26-11 (70%) 11.0% 62.5% 79.4% 57.0% 38.3% 1.32
    2008 66-15 (81%) 25-13 (66%) 11.3% 64.1% 76.9% 57.9% 40.1% 1.34
    2007 68-9 (88%) 30-10 (75%) 10.4% 61.9% 77.3% 59.0% 40.9% 1.38
    2006 92-5 (95%) 37-14 (73%) 8.8% 62.7% 76.7% 58.9% 42.0% 1.40


    I don’t know. But I certainly don’t have any agenda, nor do I believe in weak eras, etc.


    1. Trigg, these stats cloud the issue, imho.

      Remember FO SF 2011 Djokovic v Federer? Wow. I remember wanting Novak to win because I wanted to see him play Nadal. But Federer absolutely out-classed him. It was vintage and Roger knew it was an upset, knew it was special. Remember the finger wave? Novak was having an amazing year (2011). That was four years ago.

      Sure Novak has improved since, but Roger has gotten older. Roger doesn’t quite have that in him anymore, I’m afraid. He seemed poised in September to beat Novak. That would have seemed appropriate, almost. Roger playing so well leading up. In the final he had several opportunities to take an advantage, a set, even the match.

      But he’s not the same athlete. It’s that simple. It’s a combination of things; happens to every athlete. The champ gets older and the hungry apprentices overcome their mentor. Pretty simple.

      The only thing this assertion does is attempt to give more meaning/weight/class/prestige to Novak. I’m not saying that’s your intention. But there is simply no natural way a player can maintain such a high level at this age. And he’s not. He’s getting beat in the finals, if not before. The Cincy/USO run was pretty special. I covered it. I sensed something. But it was false hope. Father time is undefeated.

      This final was not that much different from Roger beating a 35 year-old Agassi at the USO F ’05. Agassi aged well, but he was too far past his best years to give Federer a real scare.

      The only thing this run has done is cement the Swiss’ greatness, his ambassadorship, his brand. Will Novak play this well in six years? We’ll have to wait, but I doubt it.


    2. Incondite

      Interesting stats and good observations Trigg.

      I do notice, though, that the total number of matches has fallen from 97 in ’06 to 63 in ’15 (we’re not finished yet of course). If cutting back on number of matches helps Roger maintain his high winning percentage, I think we may suspect that stamina has something to do with that equation.

      I have some sympathy for Roger’s late racquet change, as he didn’t have much time between tournaments when he was winning consistently to make such an important change. But I definitely wish he’d made the time to change earlier.

      It seems to me that earlier in his career, Roger was afflicted with the idea that being ‘the greatest’ (ok, mythical concept with no referent in the physical world maybe) meant that he could beat anyone at their own game. Such a shame… so many slam trophies lost.

      But he’s learned to adapt, learned some humility, and definitely improved parts of his game. I want to send a shout out to Blackspy’s observation that it would be interesting to compare Roger’s current tactical skill with his younger athleticism in a best of three.

      Roger had to play Djokovic in wetter and slower conditions in two finals this year. If not for that, he might have taken one of those trophies. But I do think he needs to slow the game down when he plays Djoker, to give himself a little more recovery time – even though he plays very quickly against most other players.


  6. wilfried

    Hi Matt,

    I’m not inclined to give the “G.O.A.T. conversation” much reflection or contemplate about whoever might be a legitimate candidate for this sort of cannonisation. Who am I to judge this anyway ?
    However I’d like to react to your thoughts about how the physical body performs athletically, “especially in a sport like tennis, or soccer or football etc..”, as it seems to be an important factor in your argumentation to refute the argument that Roger is playing better than ever.
    When does age really become a disadvantage for an athlete in professional tennis ? Is it 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34 ?
    Pierre Paganini, Roger Federer’s physical trainer, said back in may 2011 before the start of Roland Garros, that Roger’s age didn’t change his approach as a physical trainer at all.
    “Do you work differently with someone who is 20 than with someone who is 30?
    Paganini: “Tennis is not a sport that makes you old at 30. On the contrary, it helps those who are more mature. At that age, details make the difference. Tennis demands intensive and varying efforts at the physical level, but the pauses of 25 and 90 seconds help partial recovery. Let’s not forget that Roger already has 950 matches taking its toll on his legs and years of hard work behind him. As he hopes to play for several years to come, the proportion and distribution of training are extremely important. Every training session calls for a different approach: speed, nimbleness and endurance. As far as Roger is concerned, we do it so that he can benefit from slots of necessary recuperation in every type of training. We did it before, but it’s more important today.
    And… “What do you think of the “theory of decline” which pops up regularly in the media?” Paganini: I do not understand how people can write such things. Let’s judge Roger’s performances seriously, but objectively. On the courts, he has come up against four generations of players. Seven years ago, he was already the world’s number one. In 2011 and approaching 30, he is ranked third in the world but he continues to play extraordinarily. It’s unprecedented.
    Interview with P.Pagagnini here (in French).


    1. Wilifried, what’s your point, exactly? That according to this trainer, age is not an issue with Roger? You’re not old at 30? That Roger was playing really well four years ago?

      Tennis players perhaps more than any of those sports’ athletes I mentioned (and that was just a few quick examples) other than track, absolutely feel the effects of age. The ability to have quick bursts, cut, change direction, track balls, hit from both sides with power, spin, serve and volley, etc., at a top level in this sport requires a more youthful reserve of energy and endurance.

      Look at the history of the sport. Is this the Roger exception? All this argument does is make him out to be the GOAT far and away. Anyone who is playing better at 34-35 than they were at 25-26 when they were #1, dominating the sport, is very very unusual. And the greatest of all time. End of discussion. I don’t follow this line of reasoning. He’s not better now. He’s pretty special, but not better now than in ’06. Sorry. More and more, this argument is forcing me to say it: Novak is pounding a pretty soft field. Nadal is acting like a 29 year-old. That’s par for the course.

      Players are going to extend their careers because the money and science will incentivize that. But don’t be fooled.

      Who’s your other example of this new age of old athletes, Feliciano López?

      No matter what random interviews (“expert” opinion) or statistics you throw around, Roger is not better today than he was, over-all. We’re looking at this holistically, remember. Saying he has a better BH, and therefore is a better player, is preposterous.

      His win v Agassi in the ’05 USO final is downgraded because Agassi was 35. That is a correct assessment. Agassi played well into his 30s. But he was playing Roger and Father Time. He had no chance.


    2. “Let’s judge Roger’s performances seriously, but objectively. On the courts, he has come up against four generations of players. Seven years ago, he was already the world’s number one. In 2011 and approaching 30, he is ranked third in the world but he continues to play extraordinarily. It’s unprecedented.”

      Judge his career objectively. Like any other great, look at their last few years (unless they retired upon the first sign of decline); they played without winning a major. Agassi is a bit of an outlier. But even he didn’t win one his last three years.

      Objectively, Roger has declined.


      “Objectively,” Novak is so dominant that he is beating a better-than-ever-Roger.

      That’s the line in the sand. No numbers conclude that Roger is better now than he was in 2005-06.


      1. wilfried

        Hi MAtt,

        I never saw Roger play in his prime as I only started watching tennis again in 2009, therefore I can’t really compare Roger’s current level with his best level ever.
        I agree with you that it is highly unlikely (preposterous like you call it) that his current level may be better than what it used to be in his prime.
        On the other hand those who point to a lack of strong opposition during Roger’s prime have also a point imo; Roger’s first 10 slamtitles came against 10 different opponents of whom most didn’t have any experience of playing in a slam final.
        Want to watch the match bewteen Roger and my fellow countryman David now.


      2. Wilifried,
        Roger is better now than he was 10 years ago and his era was weak are two totally different arguments. Both are unfounded and lack relevance. Djokovic is 10-8 during the “great” era, as people like to call it. What would you call the era today? He’s beating a 34 year-old and an clumsy Brit handily. Who else you got?


  7. blackspy

    This discussion has developed in ways I couldn’t imagine, but I guess it’s part of it’s beauty. That being said, I want to underline that the following comments are not meant to start a brawl or harass anyone, but to put into light some aspects that are maybe overlooked.

    Firstly, thanks Trigg for noting the start of the underlying change in Federer’s game although that my purpose was to highlight the obvious changes (racquet, gameplay), which really showed from late 2013 (if not 2014). Besides that:

    -on the stamina/speed front I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree with Trigg and wilfried: I personally consider stamina and recovery to be the two sides of the same coin and in my view the loss is obvious in more ways than one. 5-set games(or long 3-setters) when he walks in the final set, Federer playing the point after a long rally and winning the point in a couple of strikes or losing it otherwise about 90% of the time, the percentage of court he tries to cover, his shots on the run, his play on clay, the percentage of balls he hunts down are just the obvious ones. I’ll give one telling example here: Rome finals in 2006 and 2015. In the first, had a couple of shots gone his way, he could have beaten the best clay-courter of the time, in the latter he had only a theoretical chance and he arrived there pretty unexpectedly.

    -on the backhand department I think that he traded flatness/accuracy/deadly slices for consistency/lost power-not a dissimilar trade that the one he did on the forehand. Here the trade seemed pretty fare as he gave his opponents a considerably smaller target than in the last couple of years when the lost power/speed had made his backhand quite unstable. In general l would like to note that one handed-backhand is a more versatile weapon that the two-handed, but more risky too. We have the heavy backhands, especially effective on clay and slow surfaces (e.g. Wawrinka, Thiem), the old-school one’s (slice is dominant) perfected for quick surfaces (e.g. Lopez, Karlovic) and some more versatile ones (e.g. Gasquiet). I don’t think that having a one-handed backhand is necessarily a weakness, but it demands a different approach in the modern game-but that should be the subject of a different analysis. Federer’s backhand (designed initially as an old-school one) although beautiful is not the most solid one in a topspin shot, because of the technique he uses, as other have noticed long ago. More importantly, the baseliners’ game he employed magnified these weaknesses.

    -serve&volley: Federer had that from the start- someone has to search old videos to see his S&V early days. His volleys(touch in general) were always top-notch, and on serve(rarely plays flat anymore) the new racquet covered the power deficit caused by age. I may digress a bit here, but I want to mention that statistically volleyers are often aided by experience (and consequently, age) and that historically one-handers have a bit longer careers(shorter rallies for better or worse, usually adept at net play)-that may explain partially Federer’s longevity on the tour.

    -the stats: as Matt has already highlighted numbers can be deceiving if you don’t know how to explain them. Here we can see the steady decline in tiebreakers the last few years, which combined with the stable 1rst serve percentage can mean one thing:nerves and stamina issues in the tie-break, both closely connected to age. Yes, his stable serve holds and he wins a lot of points, but which ones and with what gameplan? His quick-strike, high-risk tennis helped stay his decline, on the surfaces he can play that kind of tennis that is, because, let’s admit it, he wisely focuses clearly on the surfaces/tourneys where he feels well (no Miami, no Montreal, Rome was an afterthought after an early loss in Madrid).

    -quoting Incondite:[ideal of “the greatest” …beating anyone at his own game …slams lost]. I think these are related to the late adaptation in equipment and wrong gameplan choice. I’ll hold my comments and keep those thoughts for an eulogy when the time comes…

    Finally, I guess it’s interesting that had Federer defeated Djokovic in all their meetings this year, Nole would still be no 1 in ranking points. If that doesn’t ring a bell about his limited/selective presence on tour with everything that it implies, I rest my case.


    1. Well done, blackspy. This is Nole’s time, his era. It’s simply incredible on Roger’s part to be the guy trading blows with the Serb in these big tournaments, in the finals, etc. Roger is playing with so much class, so much fundamental skill, a palatable wisdom about the game. But he’s a shadow of himself.

      Yeah, that point from Incondite about trying to beat guys at their game, with antiquated equipment; a good reminder of Roger’s ultimate flaw.

      Roger’s beautiful (fundamental) game does enhance the longevity, as you say. He doesn’t work nearly as hard as other #1s (Nadal, Djokovic). Things came easy for Roger. That’s turned-out to be a disadvantage. When he’s had to really work, some of that grit wasn’t there. Obviously.

      If you want to see a great example of the early serve and volley, watch the Federer/Sampras Wimbledon match 2001 (I want to say 4R). Tremendous, natural, net play from the youngster.


  8. Trigg

    “Objectively, Roger has declined.


    “Objectively,” Novak is so dominant that he is beating a better-than-ever-Roger.

    That’s the line in the sand.”

    I wrote an answer trying to make clear that it is not “the line in the sand”. Then, I gave it another thought, and I deleted my previous post.

    It’s confusing. Roger has certainly improved his game, I am quite sure about it. He also has certainly lost a part of his physical abilities, but overall, I do believe that he plays better now. Ergo, I have to agree with you about the line in the sand: while Novak is perhaps not as dominant as Roger was at his peak — I have to conclude from my observations that Novak is indeed better that a better-than-ever-Roger. And he’s also better than Roger ever was — Djokovic 2015 vs Federer 2007 (I have matches to compare) — I just can’t see how Federer would have won more matches than lost. The difference is tiny, of course. It’s not always vintage Djokovic nor vintage Federer.

    So, for me, the key question is: who would be better — Novak 2015, or a hypothetical Fed 2015 at his physical peak? I admit I don’t know the answer. Is it a part of tennis evolution, or do they both defy tennis evolution? I don’t know either, although I first thought it was normal evolution and improvements in the game.

    @Incondite: I agree with lots of points you made in your post. Yes, stamina/recovery are two sides of the same coin, but it’s not linear. Mental fatigue is also important, as blackspy noticed.


  9. Trigg

    ” He doesn’t work nearly as hard as other #1s (Nadal, Djokovic).”

    Matt, it could be just an impression. He covered more distance than Novak in their last matches. In fact, Novak plays 5 seconds per point more (and since he takes more time to serve — in avg 23 seconds to 17 — it’s in the same range), while he plays 2 points more per match. It’s not that big.


    1. “Didn’t” work nearly as hard.

      Fed accumulated wins more easily than Novak has in his era, so far. Enhances the longevity. Part of what is fooling the culture.

      An error in verb tense.


  10. Trigg

    Glad you’re here. It’s almost a chat now. Yes, Novak’s game changed a lot in this compartment recently. I hope he will be even more aggressive with his FH, the way he tried to do in Beijing. It could be a game changer for him.

    But trying to find the avg time between two serves, I found this delicious piece, from 2008:


    I am certain you’ll enjoy.


    1. Thanks, I will check the link.

      Novak’s run has scary potential. He is finding better and better form and the field is weakening, no question about that. He had to work is ass off for that first 10. He should be able to find the next 4-5 with much less resistance. But then again, tennis and life are unpredictable, so we’ll have to wait and see.


    2. Oh my, I just gave it a glance and can’t wait to read. Ha. Thanks. Will find some time tonight to dig into it.

      I have another post in mind soon to champion my Americans, Sock and Johnson, for again, a week later, making good showings in these draws (Basel, Valencia), and for commenting on a hypothetical, if Nadal and Rog meet and Nadal prevails, and for reiterating a few questions that are more common sense than anything. How do you explain Nadal’s (a world class athlete) horrific form earlier in the year (but as recent as September) becoming this kind of success on the indoor HC no less. That kind of disparity in form is bizarre, whether it’s a lawyer, a footballer, a dentist, a swimmer, dancer or a tennis player. Injury aside, how does one explain such difference in form? I don’t trust it one bit.

      A friend of mine and I just talked about golf in this way: what happened to David Duval or Ian Baker Finch? Golf is a bit different because of what they call the “yips.” There is so much mental play in golf, some can go sour for no apparent reason, but even this is extremely rare at the top of the sport. Again, I don’t know why people give Nadal a pass. More on this in my post.


  11. Trigg

    Yes, the field is weakening. We had an exceptional period with three all time greats playing at the same time, perhaps even the three best players of the open era. It won’t mean that we shall have a “weak” era, but a normal one, in my view. Let’s hope for the best for Novak, although I am very happy with his achievements so far.


    1. It’s a long year of tennis, so Djokovic will have to defend his great ’15. Guys will be coming for him, so, indeed, it won’t be handed to him; but he is in a favorable spot.


  12. Trigg

    ” How do you explain Nadal’s (a world class athlete) horrific form earlier in the year (but as recent as September) becoming this kind of success on the indoor HC no less”

    I’ll answer to this question by mail.


  13. wilfried

    Off topic, I’m sorry, but it has to get off my chest,
    The Paris draw is published.
    What I expected came true: it’s the second time in a row (first in Shangai, now in Paris) that my fellow countryman David Goffin is drawn in the same bracket of the draw with Andy Murray.
    It’s clear to me that some people ‘absolutely’ want Murray and Goffin to play against each other before they squareoff in the Davis Cup final.
    Fabio Fognini prevented this from coming true in Shangai by beating David Goffin there.
    Now they give it another shot.
    Just my two cents on how draws are so to speak ‘randomly’ composed.


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