People will argue for a long time, and perhaps forever, about who was the greatest of the three. Was the greatest the exquisite Roger Federer, who danced like Astaire on the court and had the hands of a surgeon and probably should have played his matches while wearing a tuxedo?
Was the greatest the gladiator Rafael Nadal, who chased every ball as if it was a grenade heading for innocent people and hit each shot with every ounce of the life force pulsating inside him?
Was the greatest the outsider Novak Djokovic, who grew up in a childhood of echoing bombs and fed off the kinetic energy that always surrounded him and taught himself to turn opponents’ strengths against them, to return their serves at their feet, to become a wall when a wall was required, to rise on the big points?
Today, we’re not going to talk about that. I’ve come to believe that the greatest of the three is the one YOU want to be the greatest. The greatest is simply your favorite.
But here’s something else, something that I think about as Roger Federer steps away from tennis. He may or may not be the greatest.
But he is the reason.
He is the reason Rafa Nadal found the best in himself. He’s the reason Novak Djokovic kept finding new heights. He’s the reason that men’s tennis over the last 20 or so years has soared. He has done for tennis what Dick Fosbury did for high jumping, what Wayne Gretzky did for hockey, what Dan Marino did for football, what Simone Biles did for gymnastics, what Steph Curry did for basketball.
He showed what is possible.
Before Federer — and let’s stick with the Open Era because tennis changed so much even over the last 25 years, much less going back to the Rod Laver era — there was an understanding that a tennis player could only be so good, so versatile and so consistent. When Federer won his first Grand Slam tournament — 2003 Wimbledon — you would have probably said the players with the most Slam titles in the Open Era were:
Pete Sampras, 14
Bjorn Borg, 11
Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, 8
John McEnroe and Mats Wilander, 7
Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, 6
OK, start at the top. Sampras was not a great clay court player — he only once made it to the semifinals of the French Open, and he never won a Masters-level clay tournament. He made 10 consecutive major quarterfinals from 1992 through 1994, which is great, but the rest of his career was significantly more tumultuous.
And Sampras was the pinnacle, the very best and most consistent it seemed that a player could be in this new era. Borg never won a hardcourt major championship (though he reached four U.S. Open finals) and retired when he was 25. Agassi’s career was impossibly chaotic, filled with dramatic ups and downs, as many first-round losses as grand slam victories even before he began his decline. Connors, McEnroe, Becker and Edberg never won the French, Lendl and Wilander never won Wimbledon.
In those days, I think, people saw tennis as being similar to golf — even the best players had good weeks and off-weeks, they were better in some tournaments than others, they had relatively short peaks and retired pretty young.
And along came Federer.
He was different in every way. He was great on all the surfaces. He was great every week he played. If I had to pick one amazing statistic out of the bucket of amazing Federer stats, it would be this one: From Wimbledon 2004 through the Australian Open 2010, he reached the semifinal of every single major championship he played in. Every single one. That’s 23 consecutive major championships (of which he won 14).
Over that time:
Australian Open: He won three, lost in the final once (to Nadal) and lost in the semifinal twice (to Marat Safin in a fifth-set tiebreak and to Djokovic).
French Open: He won one, lost in the final three times (all three to Nadal) and lost in the semifinal once (to Nadal, naturally).
Wimbledon: He won five and lost in the final once (to Nadal).
U.S. Open: He won five and lost in the final once (to Juan Martin del Potro).
These days you can point to stretches, particularly by Djokovic from 2011 to 2016, that are similarly dominant*, but when Federer did it, it was impossible. In less than six years, he won as many Grand Slams as Sampras’ record. Six of his nine losses over that stretch were to Rafa Nadal.
*From Wimbledon in 2010 to the French in 2016, 24 majors, Djokovic won 10 times, reached seven finals made the semifinal in all but one.
And, yes, Federer did it all with a breathtaking grace that, in the words of David Foster Wallace, inspired “Federer moments,” where “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.”
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I have spent countless hours watching Federer’s best shots on YouTube — also Nadal’s best shots and Djokovic’s best shots and others like Gael Monfils and, now, Carlos Alcaraz — and it seems to me that what separates Federer is, well, a couple of things.
First, he has the best hands in the history of tennis. There will be those who will argue for McEnroe, and I get that, Mac had incredible hands, but Fed is in his own sphere. It is utterly remarkable how many times in Fed’s career that he was out of position, that he was pulled off the court, that he was left only a helpless lunge away from the ball — and those magical hands would allow him to hit a preposterous winner.
And the even crazier part is that desperate shot could be ANYTHING — it might be a lob, might be a drop-shot, might be low slice, might be a laser down the line, etc. No, nobody could ever do more with their hands.
In fact: Here’s how good Federer’s hands were — the mid-2010s, when Federer was already in his mid-30s — he invented something called the SABR attack. I used to think it was the “Saber Attack” (or “Sabre Attack,” because that seems like how they might spell it in Switzerland) but it was, in fact, the SABR, which stands for “Sneak Attack By Roger.”
And here’s how it worked, quite simply: Federer would run toward the net just as the ball was being served at him.
This doesn’t actually sound like a strategy so much as a good way to get hurt. But Federer’s hands were so ridiculously good that it seemed like every time he tried it, magic happened. Well, we’ll count them down, here are five most absurd SABR shots that Roger Federer has ever hit:
(5) Against Frances Tiafoe, he once charged a serve, picked it up off the ground and hit a backhand that bounced off the top of the net and fell over.
(4) Against Novak Djokovic, he once charged a serve that looked like it would race by him on the right. Instead, he reached out with the racket, punched it back, and Djokovic was so flustered he simply hit his next shot into the net.
(3) Another time, Federer charged a too-short Djokovic serve and simply blasted it for a winner.
(2) Against Stevie Johnson, he once charged a serve, picked it up on the short hop (how in the world did he do it?) and pounded it at Johnson, who was so taken aback that he simply couldn’t even catch up to it.
(1) Against Jack Sock, he once charged a 132-mph serve, reached down with his racket and while turning his head he somehow blocked it just over the net. It was inconceivable, and yes that word means what I think it means. He then beat Sock in the cat-and-mouse game at the net, and Sock was so blown away that he climbed over the net and started chasing Federer around.
So, yeah, the hands.
The second thing is less technical: Nadal and Djokovic each hit countless incredible, ludicrous, nonsensical winners, but they hit them out of necessity. Federer was just a little bit different. Federer seemed on constant lookout for opportunities to create art. He hit his trick shots — the around-the-post shot against Nick Kyrgios, the through-the-legs passing shot at the U.S. Open, the many behind-the-back and through-the-legs shots that sent the ball shooting toward the ballboys and ballgirls — with an impish delight. He would often smother a grin after he hit them. He was tennis delight.
There is something very strange for me about the Federer, Nadal, Djokovic triumvirate: I really like all three of them. I know this isn’t true for everybody — I know a lot of people don’t like Djokovic, especially lately — but for me, they are all such extraordinary athletes and wonderful characters. This has never been the way I saw rivalries. I always picked a side. I was pro-Magic, which made me anti-Bird. I was pro-Borg, which made me anti-McEnroe. I was pro-Ali, which made me anti Frazier. I was pro-Tiger, which made me anti-Mickelson. I was pro-Navratilova, which made me anti-Evert. I was pro-Sugar Ray, which made me anti-Duran.* I was pro-Ric Flair, which made me anti-Hulk Hogan. Alas, I was pro-fiddling Devil, which made me anti-Johnny and I still don’t think he deserved that fiddle of gold.
*The only time I can remember actually crying after a sports event that didn’t involve one of my teams was when Roberto Duran beat Sugar Ray Leonard in their first fight.
With the Big Three, though, I honestly like them all. Djokovic became my favorite because I associate most with his game and his uphill struggle and, frankly, because he always looked like he could use a little more support. But they’re all so great. I never once rooted against any of them.
And Federer — unquestionably, to me — is the most important one. He’s the guy who shined the light the others followed. It doesn’t surprise me that both Nadal (24-16) and Djokovic (27-23) have winning records against Federer. He’s the one they were aiming at. He’s the one they designed their games to beat. He’s the one who set their dreams.
Federer retiring now at age 41 feels a bit sad, but his greatness lasted so much longer than any of us could have realistically hoped. He won Wimbledon at 22. He won Wimbledon at 35. He began as a bomber who would blow opponents off the court with the pace and ferocity of his serve and forehand. He ended as a virtuoso who hit every shot imaginable, and some that only he had imagined.
He is tennis’ Man for All Seasons.
Anyway, we can’t be sad he’s gone. Because he isn’t. Every single player for the next 25 years will have a little Federer in them.