HRFRT: Federera

Are you wondering about that build-up in the last article? Did you follow the reasoning, the design of the argument?

The tour was still evolving massively with our current Masters and Majors landscapes, that we see today, not quite in full bloom. When you watched tennis in the 90’s, the Americans were pretty dominant, with Sampras leading the way, and Wimbledon and the U.S. Open were generally considered the superior venues; and Masters titles didn’t yet carry the weight they do today. Regarding those two majors, this could be an American perspective, but those are, really, what most people would probably consider the top-two majors, with certain flaws and a history of less (even poor) representation from great players outside of Laver and Borg in those other two majors (AO and FO). I will definitely entertain debate of this hierarchy, but given the historical lack of interest in the AO and the idiosyncrasies of the FO, WB and the U.S. Open unquestionably maintained the sport’s coordinates on greatness; that was the reality; and Pete’s tennis was thriving in those championships, almost at the expense of the other two. He began collecting majors, surpassing Laver and Borg and approaching the big number 12 of Australian great Roy Emerson.

In 1999, Sampras defeated Agassi at Wimbledon to equal Emerson’s mark of 12 major championships. The following year, he defeated Rafter at Wimbledon, marking his 7th WB title, equalling William Renshaw with seven Wimbledon titles and establishing a new all-time majors mark of 13 total. He would win, of course, the 2002 U.S. Open and retire shortly after, leaving the sport with the then record of 14 majors.

If you look back at that list of all-time majors, you see the broad arch of the progress of the sport, especially up to Sampras. This seems pretty natural in terms of its development.

Emerson and Laver set the bar in those relatively early days of the sport, Emerson establishing his Major singles record a year before the Open Era. This is most likely why we hear Laver’s name more prominently in these discussions of greatness. Emerson won one more major than Laver, but Laver is the name you hear most often when we talk of the greats of the sport. I would argue, as well, that perhaps Emerson’s reliance on his native Australian Open (he won 6), whereas Laver, who of course won them all, but included four Wimbledon titles gives the nod to Laver (who of course also has the Calendar GS to build his authority, so duly noted).

Laver won his last major in 1969, sneaking into the Open Era. Bjorn Borg won his 11th, tying Laver, at the French Open in 1981.

Eleven years passed between Laver and Borg. Then we had a kind of cluster fuck of greats who were unable to quite threaten that number eleven. Look at the list. Pretty astonishing really. Other than Bill Tilden (ten majors), who played in the 1920s, we see a few get stuck at eight: Rosewall, Connors, Lendl and Agassi. Then a splendid group reach seven, including McEnroe and Wilander; lastly, Edberg and Becker reached six majors total.

These are great tennis players who simply beat the crap out of each other. Lendl made the U.S. Open final eight straight years! McEnroe made only one AO SF because he really didn’t pay much attention to it and one French final where he lost a tough five-setter to Lendl.

Why didn’t a guy like McEnroe dominate more tennis tournaments? He was almost untouchable for a few years, but seemed to lose some motivation upon Borg’s retirement and then just seemed to keep his tennis at home in London and New York City.

A big concern of this article, this argument about Federer, is that the past greatly influences the present, more than you might admit. These players in the 80’s and early 90’s had the number eleven as a gold standard. It seemed a bit out of reach for most of them and given the depth where one particular player found it very difficult to win 5 or 6 in a row, with the AO not seemingly part of the regular rotation, there just wasn’t enough hardware to go around.

Twenty years later, Sampras finally reached and passed that milestone. His dominance at those two majors was enough to pass Borg, but he added two AO, as that tournament began to carry more significance. But he was done, both physically and numerically. It took nearly twenty years, but he did it. And look at all of the greats in-between who came-up short. Sampras seemed to have set a pretty unreachable number.

I’m afraid this was the tone of the tour. Guys didn’t necessarily stick around. Whether it was the depth, guys beating the crap out of each other (tremendous rivalries), or the brutal scheduling and match format in the Masters tournaments, guys like Borg, McEnroe, Wilander and Becker (among others) did not stick around. These are exemplary cases with these particular players who simply ended their careers very early. A quote from Becker that I recently came across speaks to this climate:

“In 2012, Becker described his approach to retirement. ‘I had won so much by 22, a number of Wimbledon titles, US Open, Davis Cup, World number one. You look for the next big thing and that isn’t in tennis.'” 

This has to seem like a guy on a different planet. The tour today doesn’t echo this sentiment much at all. It’s a different tour with a different climate.

If you followed tennis through the 80s and 90s, this should’t be that enlightening; either way, we are clarifying the historical context for Federera.

Roger Federer turned pro in 1998, but the express really started to roll in 2001. That year he won his first singles match on the tour (Milan indoor), made the QF at the French and beat Sampras in 4R at Wimbledon. In 2002 he won his first Masters, Hamburg, on clay, beating Safin 1 3 and 4.

Beginning in 2003, he won his first major at Wimbledon (age 21) and his first year-end championship over Agassi.

In 2004, he won three majors, losing to Kuerten in the 3R at the French Open, the year before Nadal began his reign of terror at RG. 2004 was the true beginning of the Fed Express where he won the three majors and also won three Masters titles (Hamburg, IW and Toronto).

In 2005, two more majors and four more Masters titles, the format still Bo5 for many of those tournament finals.

In 2006, three more majors and four more Masters titles. He equaled McEnroe’s 1984 feat of winning 12 tournaments and his 92-5 was the best since Lendl’s 1982 record of 107-9.

In 2007, three more majors and two more Masters titles.

2008 began the slow decline which certainly included the rise of Nadal and Djokovic. He won one major in 2008, two in 2009,  (while reaching all four major finals and breaking Sampras’ mark of 14).

You know how the story goes.

To my point, here’s how Federer changed the complexion of the sport.

Roger’s style

First of all, he brought a very complete style of play to the sport. Whereas we had many great players throughout the history of the sport (obviously), Roger was just more complete. He can play brilliantly from the BL, with a OHBH that gives him a ton of variety and this has certainly been a more compact and consistent shot than Pete’s OHBH, for instance. Watching a vintage Sampras match pretty clearly unveils the vulnerability of his game. Roger’s BH was very effective. His FH obviously is one of the best the game has seen. This is Roger from the BL.

We know his S & V has been all-time when he’s used it. His OH smash and serve, not to mention the certain je ne se quoi of his all-court fluidity and shot-making, whether it’s a OHBH flick, his great slice BH or BH smash, etc. The artistic and lethal quality of his shots have made the guy globally famous (to go along with his records). He brought an entire arsenal to the game that had never been seen before.

McEnroe was simply brilliant at the net, Pete pretty much similar with that huge serve to intimidate opponents, keep them on their heels. Sampras could certainly play from the BL but his game was more beach volley ball, tremendous athleticism. Conners had the flat THBH, great return of serve and Borg another great game from the BL adding a ton of spin.

Roger had a fully developed game, could adapt and this is what made him a man for all seasons, all surfaces.

Roger’s fiendish scheduling

I really only looked at Pete’s Masters schedule, roughly, but the point there was that he, and I believe many others, played the Masters tournaments back in the day with a little more discretion. Becker missed a ton of Masters tournaments in his day. This was probably in part due to the match format, of having to expend so much energy in a five-set final against a very tough opponent. Slowly, however, in the early aughts, this format changed to a best-of-three. By 2008, any best-of-five format at the Masters level was extinguished. Not that it makes a ton of difference, but even in this most recent era, Djokovic had only 3 of his 29 Masters titles under said best-of-five. Federer had several by 2008 though he continued to accumulate. The wild-fire had already started.

Roger played every tournament, nearly. Now, perhaps if I’d looked at some other European journeymen I would have seen this tendency to play a more consistent schedule, a seemingly insatiable appetite to play tennis year-round. But Roger played and played. Early-on he was a threat in doubles at the Masters tournaments with Max Mirnyi and Bjorkman. He played 250 and 500 level tournaments and won those as well:

The tour was becoming a full-time job 😀 That quote from Becker above was from a forgotten language on this tour. Federer didn’t miss tournaments no matter what the surface and he often won.

His statistical argument is ridiculous. Even Djokovic will have trouble with some of these numbers. Roger brought a work ethic to the sport that, quite frankly, no one had seen. He was coming; he was non-stop. And he won, setting the bar higher and higher as he went.

Where it took Pete 20 years to break that seemingly untouchable record of 12 majors, Roger was seizing the day and demolishing the record books. He was obliterating the past, doing so with a style that overcame tennis fans and pundits alike. Roger has been in the top 8 since 2002. He spent more time at #1 than anyone. He put a strangle-hold on the tour for 3-4 years there that only Djokovic seems capable of matching (he’s doing so, as we speak, actually).

Roger changed the sport in this way. These two factors (style and scheduling) enabled him to play fearless tennis everywhere, all year. His athletic approach (soccer, badminton, basketball, etc) has given him the fluidity to go long, as I say. Contrasting Federer and Nadal helps explain this. Roger is build to play forever. His game is low resistance, elegant and light. We know Rafa’s isn’t this at all. Roger is almost 35, folks. I still don’t think people really register that number. Rafa just turned 30.

The Field

The last point of today’s discussion is the field in which Roger played, or we should say dominated.

I touched on the 80s and 90s. I am pretty sure I’ve heard people say that Pete played in a soft field. This is just plain illiterate.

Roger had some interesting match-ups early in the aughts with some tough matches against Safin and Hewitt who were both certainly tough outs for anyone, in any era. Roger had match point in the AO SF vs. Safin in 2005, losing to the talented Russian. He played a tough Agassi in these early years of the decade, too, but the American was getting a little long in the tooth.

In the end, here are the names from those draws, especially in the early part of the Federera: Agassi, Hewitt, Safin, Nadal, Nalbandian, Roddick, Ferrero, Coria, Youzhny, Gonzalez, and Philippoussis.

Then Djokovic arrives, along with Murray, Del Potro, Soderling and Tsonga, Wawrinka and Berdych.

This is part of the perfect storm that is Roger Federer. His style has been all-time. His thirst for tennis is only now possibly being matched by the Serb great. Lastly, the field has played a role, too, in his historical longevity.

This is the chicken and the egg question that people are talking about now. Was Roger so good that he dwarfed the field, or was the field soft enough to enable him to run roughshod all over the place, accumulating the kind of numbers no one had ever seen.

We probably agree there’s a bit of both in there, no? But as tennis fans, when you look at those numbers, you see an easier day at the office than what the boys in the 80s and 90s had to deal with.

Roger ruled the tennis world other than Roland Garros. He was easily excused this shortcoming because of the history of that tournament in the tennis imagination and the arrival of Rafael Nadal. Nadal himself has said Roger is probably the second best clay courter of all time. But keep in mind, like Sampras before him, he was already considered the best despite having not won a FO. The 2009 consolidation was icing on the cake.

This career GS added fuel to the fire. Remember the historical context. Roger could have never won RG, yet still have an incredible argument about his place in the game. No one won the career GS, this side of Laver. Agassi got it done, but his career isn’t really associated with dominance, but rather a guy who finally fulfilled some of his prodigious promise on the tennis court.

Roger didn’t need the career GS. But by 2009, now that was part of the history, the context, the model of what one should do.

Check this out: he matched the standard before him  to a T (7 WB and 5 USO), but improved the standard at the AO (this was now fully part of the GS resume, unlike the 80s). There’s the 16 majors that would have easily trumped Sampras.

But then he further destroyed the mold by capturing the French. The career GS is part of the standard now. The sport of surface specialists, of picking and choosing tournaments, etc., is a long lost narrative. Roger created a monster.

And that’s where we pick-up tomorrow. As Nadal, the ultimate clay specialist, established himself on the tour, he had to be impressed. With the changes to surface, equipment, scheduling and nutrition, the sky was the limit. That’s tennis according to Roger Federer.

Again, he created a monster. Or two.

7 thoughts on “HRFRT: Federera

  1. What a great write up, clean and thorough perspective on the sport and it’s history, I couldn’t have done it better myself! 😛 Looking forward to your FEDAL discussion, there is a lot of meat on that particular bone, keep’em coming Matt!

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  2. I completely agree that the Australian and French Opens were considered “minor” majors until the mid-80s or early 90s. Even today I probably hold the French Open in lower esteem than the others, probably because I regard clay as an inferior “specialty” surface.

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  3. I think we see more players developing a more all-around game today than we did in the past. Agassi was the first in the Open Era to achieve the career Grand Slam. 17 years later, three other players have done it.

    A large part of this is probably due to the homogenization of surfaces. The grass at Wimby is slower, the hard court in Flushing a little faster. Of course, for a long time 3 of the 4 majors were played on grass. The bottom line though is that as the extremes of the court properties have been eliminated, it makes more sense for everyone to focus on an all-around game.

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  4. I’m not sure you’ve explicitly articulated the main point of your thesis. Thus far you have written around it. I think you are arguing that while Federer has posted crazy numbers that appear to trump everyone else’s career achievements, changes in racket technology, scientific and medical advances, diet, fitness training, more heterogeneous playing surfaces and the accompanying changes in style of play have made the modern game much different that it was several decades ago, and that changes in the tour itself including “mandatory” participation in Master Series tournaments, match format, money, and an increase in the prestige of the AO and FO which brings them closer to on par with Wimbledon and USO have changed how often players play and which events they compete in, and that as a result of these changes comparing today’s greats with those of yore is really comparing apples to oranges.

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    • You are correct except that the last article does suggest that Roger’s “assault” on the tour and record books was significant and would have certain real consequences. That’s where I’ve left off.

      I think setting-up this historical context has been important for certain reasons.

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      • Alright. Thanks for your reply. I think that makes sense and I look forward to reading more of your posts. I just came upon this site for the first time in the last week or so but I have really enjoyed it.

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  5. Pingback: Federer is Ruining Tennis | Mcshow Tennis Blog

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