How Roger Federer Ruined Tennis: Introduction

As we turn the corner on the tennis calendar to begin our slide into summer and then into fall (Wimbledon, (Olympics) and the US Open), we are at a pretty interesting point in the tennis narrative. This is synonymous with me saying that we are at an interesting point in the history of tennis. Of course, we’re talking about men’s tennis.

What a story it’s been. What a history. The focus of my argument appears to be the 21st century. This more or less defines the Federer era, winning his first major in 2003 though he turned pro in 1998. This is the general origin of the end of men’s tennis as we know it.

Of course, we will discuss the game that preceded this Federer era (Federera). Ha.

To be clear, the tone of this article has a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the title suggests a darker world where the game we loved has since lost its deep, international competitive beauty, and that Federer is somehow the culprit. However, one has to sense some hint of sarcasm as Roger Federer has been a sheer delight for almost every tennis fan who’s been paying much attention to tennis since the early aughts. In the end, we search often for irony which really takes into account both the perceived good in this case and the hypothetical bad. So, reader beware.

The year is 2016. Novak Djokovic has just won the French Open and now has possession of all four major ATP championships. Moreover, he is on the verge of continuing this incredible run of championship tennis by taking aim at his fourth Wimbledon championship, then perhaps an Olympic gold mid-summer, and finally defending his US Open crown, accumulating his 3rd one of those prestigious trophies. He has a Calendar and even a Golden Calendar Slam in sight. So, granted, the Serb has already done the near impossible, but what is still in play is even more formidable.

With no one seemingly able to present any meaningful challenge (though we’ll continue to talk about the tennis matches as they come into view), how does this man not continue his climb towards Federer’s 17? Seems a foregone conclusion, or at least a very tantalizing possibility. What Novak has done is historical, but perhaps we ain’t seen nothing yet.

How did we get here? There is a prevailing theory that this is the greatest era of tennis, this era that began with Federer, that included the rise of Rafael Nadal only to have yielded to the Serbian juggernaut. This is the true golden age of men’s tennis where we have seen the three greatest players of all-time take to the courts in a kind of mano-a-mano battle to determine GOAT. That’s the argument in nutshell. Note the two (2) important parts of this argument: three players and the term GOAT. That’s much of what the men’s tennis conversation amounts to. This seems grand, but it’s belittling to the sport. The sport hasn’t benefitted from this lack of perception.

In effect, what this argument says is that the tennis that preceded Roger, Rafa, and Novak should be relegated to a 2nd tier, that this 21st century version is the highest form the sport has seen, that these are the greatest players of all time, etc.

I do not necessarily disagree, but it’s more complicated than that. I argue that the prevailing signal from tennis commentary lacks perspective.

Sure there are variations on this theme, but that’s the gist of this triumvirate world of men’s tennis. One can see that this hysteria that began in Roger’s kingdom and passes through the land of Rafa and has become deafening in the Nole uprising is a quintessential example of presentism – that neither the past nor the future exists. I have referred to this as a prisoner of the moment phenomenon, to which we’re all naturally vulnerable. Either way, to some historians, this philosophical position can be troubling; it’s potentially flawed, and at the very least pretty annoying.

As we prepare to go back in time to chart this ruination, let’s recall many of the things we have said to each other when comparing players from the past to players from the present. The money involved in the sport today makes today’s sport quite different in so many ways: the luxuries or resources offered to players (from prize money to science & nutrition to technology) and the way this affects the approach to tournaments year-round are major factors. You can parse these two factors until you really see how different the sport is from when McEnroe ruled tennis to when Nadal and Djokovic fought for control of the tour a few years ago. Different sports, really. The equipment, the courts, the pay structure, and recovery as the conversation goes. And what about the history each player has had as a context for their games? Imagine how different tennis history was for Boris Becker compared to Novak Djokovic. This is a big part of this article, how Roger affected that perception of history, of the sport’s sense of greatness.

This element of historical context affects all sports. If you followed Kobe Bryant’s career in much detail, you know one thing for sure: he desperately went after the legacy of Michael Jordan. There are numerous examples to evidence this claim. The point here is a current player (at the time) had a specific benchmark to propel his game and motivation. We all have this at our disposal: history defines our own lives’ expectations and goals.

Beyond the different prize checks (incentives), different equipment (racquets and strings, for example) and nutrition/recovery science (mysterious world of not-yet-banned PEDs), the historical context is a huge factor that people really don’t consider. With this in mind, we might say that the greatest players are ones that blaze their own trail (though history affects them as well, of course). But they seem to shatter the paradigm, turn the sport universe on its head, redefine that sporting landscape. Those are the great ones. What follows them, in many ways, then, is a different sport.

We will look at some numbers, the style of the game, maybe some specific matches and the conversations that emanate from this evolving world of men’s tennis. Is this an exhaustive study. Hell no. This is a tennis fan’s passion to understand the game and share in this discussion with other tennis fans.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

21 comments

  1. A great intro! Looking forward to reading the rest, and I completely agree here. GOAT is a meaningless term for a sport which is constantly changing, perhaps players could be defined at the best of their respective eras, but going around proclaiming Novak to be the second coming of Tennis-Jesus is funny at best and delusional at worst .

  2. I agree that “presentism” is a problem. One question to consider is whether presentism afflicts tennis more than other sports.

    I think people are naturally inclined to measure a sport’s great champions by their recollections from childhood. It’s almost as if people think a sport really started when they became old enough to follow it and remember it. I was born in ’74 and Connors was my first tennis hero.

    I think a sport’s overall popularity can significantly impact its susceptibility to presentism. The more popular the sport has been, and the longer the period of its popularity, the less likely it is to be afflicted with presentism.

    The further back in time we go, the less likely the public is to have seen those great champions in action. Fans can always watch video footage of the greats that came before them, but the further back we go in the “golden age of television,” the less content is available. Most Americans didn’t start getting TVs until the 1950s. That fact alone means there is little video pre-dating 1960 or so. Even then, there were only 3 networks until the advent and popularization of cable TV. This further reduces the availability of video before the early- to mid-1980’s. Few people born after the early ’60s have ever seen Laver, Newcombe, Gonzales or the other greats that came before the Open Era.

    Taken alone, this doesn’t really put tennis in a different position than any other sport. Most people haven’t seen Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio or Sandy Koufax play baseball, either. However, those baseball players are still recognized as the greatest of the greats and remain part of the standard against which all other players are measured.

    Why are baseball players who played before the TV era still lionized while their counterparts in tennis are often forgotten? I think the reason is baseball’s overwhelming popularity and its place in historical and current American culture. It was the national pastime. Everyone followed it. The feats of those great champions became part of American cultural lore and were passed down from one generation to the next.

    The same cannot be said of tennis. People like it but few follow it as passionately as they do baseball, football, or basketball. Before television, people’s direct exposure to these sports came from attending games in person. Millions of Americans watched the Yankees play live ever year before there even was television. Far, far, far fewer saw Laver at the 1969 US Open.

    The absence of mass exposure prior to the widespread popularity of TV and the exponential increase in the number of networks prevented those early tennis champions from gaining widespread cultural significance. This has given tennis a shallower collective memory pool than baseball or football. The disparity is probably not as great between tennis and basketball since the NBA wasn’t founded until 1946.

    1. Matthew, good stuff. Federer did a lot to bring tennis to the mainstream. Whereas you needed a family member probably to introduce it to you as a kid (less the case than some of those other sports you mention, for Americans that is), tennis is pretty popular now since Federer, who has been marketed alongside Tiger and MJ.

      The case of Federer (and his successors) definitely speaks to this presentism

      Thanks for reading and adding insight.

What say you?