A few years ago, while still one of the top-ranked players in his sport, he was struggling. He’d get to semi-finals and even finals, but falter, beaten by a cache of younger, hungrier and more aggressive players. His game, on the other hand, had stagnated, become reactive, defensive. At that point I thought he should retire while still close to the top. The idea of him consistently getting bested by a younger crop, but still good enough to be ranked in the top 4 in the world, was not enough reason – in my mind – for him to continue. A latter-day ‘golden child’, he could walk off into the sunset with accolades and appreciation ringing in his ears. But he chose to go on. And he proved me wrong. And I’m so glad for that fact. Because he has now proved – at least to me – that he is the greatest EVER sportsperson of all time.
Muhammed Ali called himself ‘The Greatest’, but that was tongue in cheek. Others gave him the title ‘Greatest of All Time’. But then what about Rocky Marciano, who ended his career with a 49-0 record? Or Sugar Ray Robinson, regarded as the best pure boxer ever? Ali did lose five fights and was well past his ‘box by’ date when he was smashed to boxing Kingdom Come by Larry Holmes. So, in my view, Ali being labelled ‘GOAT’ smacks of emotion; a reflection of what he stood for, and did, outside the boxing ring.
And in the great scheme of things, why not Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis, Wayne Gretsky, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Pele, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Diego Maradona, Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo di Stefano, Michael Jordan, Sir Don Bradman, Sir Garfield Sobers, Jack Nicklaus? Or even Margaret Court, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Martina Navratilova, Bonnie Blair, Nadia Comaneci? The list is long and will definitely lead to heated debate, perhaps even ending some friendships – such is the force of opinion.
In a recent Facebook post, Rajdeep Sardesai ranked him as the Greatest, but qualified it as the ‘Greatest of the 21st century’ – ahead of other luminaries such as Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Usain Bolt, Rafael Nadal & Michael Phelps (in that order). Why just the 21st century, Rajdeep? Yes, I know it’s a great cut-off line, but if you can’t compare a 21st century athlete with one from the 20th century, how does one compare a LeBron James to a Michael Phelps? The fun in exercises like this is to try and put things in some sort of context, subjective though they may be.
So what is it about Roger Federer that makes me say that he is the GOAT? There are playing as well as personal reasons.
In my time on God’s green Earth, I have always been a sucker for touch over power. So John McEnroe over Bjorn Borg. Seve Ballesteros over Tiger Woods. Sunil Gavaskar over Sir Viv Richards. Sugar Ray Leonard over Marvin Hagler. Derek Jeter over Barry Bonds. And Roger Federer over everybody else.
Now, of course, that’s a personal viewpoint. However, it is backed by 19 Grand Slam titles – including both the tournaments he entered this year – and ten further occasions of being a losing finalist, 42 semi-finals and fifty quarterfinal appearances. Fifty QF appearances means twelve-and-a-half consecutive years of being in at least the last eight of every Grand Slam tournament. Most don’t have a career half that long. That is consistency in what is probably one of the most physically demanding sports to try and make a living in. And to top it all off? His last two Grand Slam titles in his 36th year, an age by which he could be playing on the Champions Tour.
Federer’s relative stagnation between 2010 and 2016 must have grated with him. It was obvious that the power, stamina and playing style of the newer generation was at odds with his style – one that seemed as effortless. He glided across the court. He is about timing. He personifies touch. Yet, he can be ruthless.
But he seemed to have fallen into a defensive mind-set for over half a decade. Gone were his approaches to the net. He was trying to beat the Nadals, Djokovics, Murrays et al from the baseline. He wasn’t adapting. And worse still? Wasn’t playing what came naturally to him.
To me, a large part of the credit for pushing Roger to the numero uno GOAT spot is the quiet and unassuming Stefan Edberg. He must be commended for bringing about a change in Roger’s approach – one that has given him fresh impetus to take on the best, and beat them with his now revitalised game.
Edberg, a classic serve and volley player, reignited the confidence in Roger to go back to a style of play that brought him his initial success. He encouraged Roger to attack more, which is to serve and volley to put pressure on his opponents, but to do so only when he was in a comfortable position in the game or match. Just so he could re-build confidence in his own game, and not just as a means of reacting to his opponents’ pressure. Just as importantly, Edberg worked on improving the weak Federer backhand to a position which is now as much a potent weapon as the forehand.
Injuries in 2016 was actually a blessing in disguise. It gave Roger some time to rest his ageing body, but re-emerge with a game, and game plan that would surprise one and all. After all, it’s only in Hollywood where the hero can come back from a major setback and win his first major tournament. But then, as we’ve seen time and again, fact is always stranger than fiction.
I watched him win the Australian Open earlier this year, and I applauded. Not just for getting a monkey off his back, but also for the way in which he won. To be sure, he won the title, it wasn’t because his opponents along the way handed it to him. He then cemented his comeback, showing one and all that the Aussie Open wasn’t a flash in the pan, with titles at Indian Wells and Miami.
The masterstroke was in deliberately skipping the entire clay court season. He had nothing to gain, or prove by grinding through 3 months on a surface that is his weakest. And he took on all-comers at Wimbledon and won his 19th Grand Slam title without dropping a set, less than two months before his 36th birthday.
The hard court season beckons, and I look forward to Roger completing his own personal hat trick this year by winning the US Open. 20 Grand Slam titles has a nice ring to it.
He will be back next year, perhaps his last hurrah. And even if he doesn’t win another Grand Slam – though I wouldn’t bet against it – I will be a happy man for having seen, and supported, the Greatest Of All Time play a sport in a manner where he is seemingly touched by the Gods.