The Greatest of All Time. All sports have this moniker, and none of them could unanimously say who is the “GOAT.” It’s the same for tennis, and in a storied sport that has bannered Laver, Borg, McEnroe, Agassi, and Sampras, deciding who is the greatest is somewhat a competition in itself amongst fans.
One name, however, stood out among the rest and had been connected to this honorific for the past fifteen years or so. The “Swiss Maestro,” as he is called, Roger Federer, has not only dominated the sport of tennis for the better half of his career but has also captured the hearts of millions of tennis fans worldwide.
Roger did not make much fanfare when he started his professional career. He was considered a talented prodigy who possessed an all-around aggressive game, including the one-handed backhand that was already going out of fashion even back in the late ’90s. However, he didn’t produce results that were expected of him. His attitude also didn’t help: he famously got easily angered when things didn’t get his way. Fans who know Federer now probably will not recognize him today from how he acted in his early years. He was far from the composed gentleman and steely competitor he is now.
His defeat of then erstwhile GOAT Pete Sampras at the latter’s favorite tournament, Wimbledon (also widely considered the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world), basically predicted Federer’s status as a future grand slam winner himself. While Sampras was already far from his best form in 2001 when he lost to the then twenty-one-year-old Federer, it was still widely considered a “changing of the guard” moment. Unfortunately, Roger would lose in the next round, which was disappointing, and it took him two more years to fully realize his potential. But when he did, it changed the sport forever.
Federer won the first of his eight Wimbledon Championships in 2003 against Mark Philippoussis, fulfilling his childhood dream of lifting the Gentlemen’s Singles trophy in Centre Court. Of course, he could have quit then and there, but what followed was nothing less of legendary: he won three more grand slams the following year (including his first Australian and US Open Championships), cemented his #1 ranking, and proved to all his doubters that he is the best tennis player in the world. He repeated the same feat in 2006 and 2007, amassing a total of 12 grand slams in this period of dominance, in addition to 4 Year-End Championships and 13 Masters titles.
However, even his fans couldn’t deny that there are still gaps in his resume. He lacks an Olympic medal, and he has not won the French Open, the lone grand slam on clay, despite having won multiple titles (including Masters) on this surface. He had come close to winning the Coupe des Mousquetaires thrice, losing to the same person in the final. But all great heroes, after all, deserve a good rival.
Rafael Nadal, unlike Roger, did not take long to create his mark in the game. He won his first French Open title at age 18, defeating then world no. 1 Roger along the way. Rafa will continue to be a thorn in Roger’s side, defeating him in three straight French Open finals, including a devastating 6-3, 6-1, 6-0 victory in 2008, which prevented Federer from completing the “Career Grand Slam,” or winning all four grand slam tournaments. This rivalry will continue to spellbind fans in the next few years, becoming the two best players in the world and thus always meeting in finals. Rafa will ultimately overtake the top rank position away from Roger in 2008.
It wouldn’t take long, however, for Roger to get his bearings back. In 2009, after yet another finals loss to Rafa, this time at the Australian Open, Federer finally won his lone French Open title by defeating Swede Robin Soderling in the final (Soderling famously knocked out Nadal in the fourth round, the latter’s first-ever loss in Paris). His 14th grand slam title tied him with then GOAT and tennis idol Pete Sampras. A month later, Roger will also win his sixth Wimbledon title, increasing his grand slam count to fifteen and overtaking Sampras’ record, and to the eyes of many, taking his GOAT status as well.
Nadal, however, isn’t the only rival that Roger had to contend with. 2008 saw the rise of Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Britain’s Andy Murray, whose collective dominance in the next few years earned them the group moniker the “Big Four.” Considered the elder statesman in the crowd of ’87 talents, Federer worked hard to keep his status at the top, and he did relatively well. It was clear, however, that his period of dominance was well behind him. From his historic record-breaking grand slam win in Wimbledon 2009 until 2016, for instance, Roger only managed to win two more grand slams, while Nadal and Djokovic won eight and eleven, respectively. Moreover, he only managed to keep his #1 ranking briefly on two occasions in these seven years, which was right after his grand slam wins. The rest of the time, he was second best to his rivals.
After a series of disappointing grand slam finals losses in the previous years, Roger prematurely ended his 2016 season to have knee surgery, his first-ever significant injury, and surgery in his long career. It was the beginning of the end for pundits, and with his third rival Murray dominating and reaching the top spot, things were looking bleak for Roger. For the first time, actual echoes of retirement started to be heard in tennis circles. But as usual, the GOAT did not disappoint.
Entering the 2017 season healthy but bereft of practice, nothing was expected of Roger, and both his fans and fellow players were just happy to see him back on the court. He entered an exhibition tournament, the Hopman Cup, as a warm-up, which meant that he did not have any competitive matches going into the first grand slam, the Australian Open. The rust showed in his game, culminating in a few set losses and longer matches that he would have finished quicker in his peak. But Federer improved as he went along, and his miraculous recovery became the story of 2017 when he somehow reached the final to face his old rival, Nadal (who himself came from a long injury break).
In what can be considered the most important and one of the greatest grand slam finals in history, Federer defied the odds and his losing record against Nadal by dealing him a five-set loss and earning Roger his eighteenth grand slam title, extending the all-time open era record in his wake. His excellent form continued in the next few months, culminating in back-to-back Masters titles in Indian Wells and Miami (beating Nadal in winning both) and then winning his record-breaking eighth Wimbledon title, his nineteenth grand slam. Roger also gained the #1 ranking from Murray, the first time in five years since he held it. By all means, this renaissance signaled hope that Federer would continue to play the sport for years. He again broke his grand slam record by winning his twentieth grand slam title, defending his Australian Open in 2018. He also won his 100th career ATP Tour title, joining a very select group of tennis players.
But as they say, all good things must come to an end.
While Federer still played at a high level since his 2018 slam win, his rivals also started to pick up their games. Novak Djokovic and Nadal, fully recovered from their slumps and injuries, would go on to split the slams after that. Roger then, who was for most of his career the frontrunner in slam records, started to feel the two nip at his heels, and what was an enjoyable sojourn at the top, winning titles left and right to stay there, became a furious race for survival to keep his moniker as the greatest ever. But unlike before, Roger is starting to show signs of wear and tear not only physically but also mentally. Back to back terrible losses in Wimbledon, long considered his best slam and only chance of keeping the record, spelled disaster. It was also how he lost both that was bothering: losing from two sets-up in 2018 and then from match point up against Djokovic in 2019. It was clear that Roger had entered a period of decline that could not be denied for the first time. The COVID-19 pandemic also did not help by making the entire tennis tour schedule go haywire.
Federer again had knee surgery at the end of 2020 and returned this year with minimal success, far from his 2017 renaissance. He did well at his best tournament, Wimbledon, reaching the last eight but again losing a winnable match against Polish youngster Hubert Hurkacz. Since then, Roger Federer ended his season and underwent yet another knee surgery, casting doubts on any future chances of success. In his absence, his rivals Djokovic and Nadal had both won twenty grand slam titles to tie his record, with the former just one match away from breaking it at this year’s US Open.
No one knows what 2022 onwards will bring. As a Federer fan, I would love him to pull another 2017 and win more slams to extend his record and hopefully keep it. But the truth is he is pushing his 40s now, and no one in the modern era has won slams at his age. And with rivals five years younger still capable of winning at the latest stages of tournaments, seemingly without a batch of new blood consistent enough to stop them, likely, Federer will not end up with the slam record. Djokovic already took most of them, including his weeks at #1 and Australian Open records, so it is not far from uncertain that he will overtake him in slam count, too.
But the GOAT term has never been an objective one. How does one define greatness, anyway? Sure, Roger was undisputedly the best tennis player for most of history and had the results to prove it. But so did Sampras before him, before Roger eventually overtook him, thus ending his GOAT status. Of course, one can argue Nadal and Djokovic would be doing the same once they win that elusive 21st grand slam and Roger doesn’t win another one. But Roger is more than just his records. Any tennis fan will know that since that 2001 Sampras match, Roger was tennis.
Tennis, more than individuals, has always been a sum of their parts, including rivalries. The eighties saw Borg and McEnroe, the nineties Agassi and Sampras, and of course, Federer and Nadal. Aside from this, however, there was also the rivalry between men’s and women’s tennis. While men’s tennis during the early 2000s was transitional after Agassi’s and Sampras’ declines, women were enjoying a second golden age with the Williams Sisters and the Belgians, Henin, and Clijsters, dominating not only the sport but the crowds as well. Tennis was popular then, the women being more popular than the men, but it never became as popular as a whole until when Federer entered the scene.
Roger Federer was the perfect ambassador for the sport: dominant, well-spoken, but mostly, plays tennis like no one else. In an era of contemporaries focusing on topspin baseline play, Roger’s variety and attacking tennis was a breath of fresh air. As a result, this game was appreciated not only by players but by casual spectators as well. Federer’s prize money, endorsement deals, and sportsmanships awards are testaments to not only his greatness but his innumerable contributions to the sport he loves. He not only carried men’s tennis on his shoulders commercially during his period of dominance but was a vital cog on it, becoming the billion-dollar industry it is today. This does not even count the number of players who started playing tennis and turning pro just to become like THE Roger Federer. Indeed, his contributions to the sport cannot be fairly measured simply on his achievements on the court.
Nadal or Djokovic may end up winning more major titles and breaking all his records. However, I believe that when all the dust settles, Roger Federer will still end up the GOAT, perhaps not unanimously, but to the substantial majority. The way he elevated tennis to the prestige and competitiveness it is now is unparalleled. While tennis history might as well remember him as third-best when he ends his career, greatness cannot just be discerned in numbers. Greatness in sports is something more complex, something intangible that encompasses a player’s entire essence. In a way, Roger is tennis, and everyone, fans or haters alike, will feel a part of them die when he finally decides to hang his racket. The End of the GOAT may be fast approaching, but his legacy, as tennis itself, is eternal.
Jay-ar G. Paloma
Jay-ar G. Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. Jay-ar likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard. Leave your love notes to Jay-ar here: firstname.lastname@example.org.