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By Raymond Lee | Wednesday, September 28, 2022


Roger Federer's remarkable record, his fluid style and grace on and off court make him the one champion who cannot be replaced.
Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty for Laver Cup

People often say that eventually everything can be replaced.

In sports, this theory is generally true.

Serena: If I Want to Come Back, I Can Definitely Come Back

Even the greatest in any sport seems to have a young player or players who succeed them and may eventually surpass them.

I can truly say that this is not the case with Roger Federer!

Over the last few decades all of us have been accustomed to various things to look forward to in the tennis world. Obviously, we all look forward to the Grand Slams. We look forward to seeing the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup.

But most of all we all look forward to seeing our favorite players, their style, how they move and how they hit the ball.

Roger Federer is the epitome of champion stylist that many love to see and strive to be although that is virtually impossible for anyone to achieve.

Most of us know the story of Roger Federer and how highly he was viewed as a young player. The potential for the young Federer was huge but many young players have had great ability and never made it.

Unlike a number of young prodigies like Ellsworth Vines, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Bjorn Borg who set the tennis world on fire with their performances as teens, Roger Federer started more slowly and took some time to fully develop.

It really wasn’t until his 2001 Wimbledon five set upset of Pete Sampras, who many called the GOAT at the time, that people began to really notice the brilliance of this young gifted player.

Federer did not win the 2001 Wimbledon, but finally broke through to win his maiden major at the 2003 Wimbledon. Federer defeated Andy Roddick in the semifinals and Mark Philippoussis in the final without losing a set.

What impressed me was his brilliance in returning the powerful serves of Roddick and Philippoussis. Federer was so quick that both Roddick and Philippoussis rarely got an ace. Federer was totally in control despite several tiebreaks in both matches.

I thought after watching the match that Federer could be a genius and a possible future all-time great. He seemed to have everything, a strong serve, a good volley, an awesome forehand that nowadays is often called the finest forehand ever and a top notch backhand. However what impressed me the most over the years was Federer’s great fluidity of movement and footwork. Everything about Federer’s game is fluid and smooth.

Federer is able to get into position easily due to his superior footwork and mobility to hit his powerhouse forehand and dominate the point. His direction of choice from the middle of the baseline tends to go to the right handers backhand or left hander’s forehand although that depends on the situation on the court.

The powerful serve and forehand one-two punch was the equivalent of a big serve and powerful volley in the old serve and volley days, probably better considering that Federer won 89% of his service games for his career. That career percentage number in the past would have led the ATP in a number of years and that was the norm for Federer! Admittedly nowadays it is easier to hold serve than in the past but still it is an incredibly impressive serving stat that Federer holds.

The expectations were very high for Federer at the US Open as you would expect for the No. 2 seed. However, surprisingly Federer was upset by his nemesis at the time, David Nalbandian, in four sets in the fourth round. Andy Roddick went on the win the 2003 US Open and claim the No. 1 ranking that year barely over Federer by a margin of 160 points!

This was a clear disappointment of course but 2004 started a streak of domination rarely seen. In 2004, Federer finished with a 74-6 (92.5%!) and won three majors losing only to former French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten in straight sets in the third round.

This would be the last loss Federer would have in a major that year! Federer won Wimbledon again and the US Open. You add the Australian Open that he won earlier in the year and 2004 was one of the great tennis seasons of all time. That year Federer won 11 tournaments out of 17 entered.

In retrospect 2004 would have been the best chance Federer had for a Grand Slam considering that Rafael Nadal was not even entered in Roland Garros. My best guess if that if Federer had found a way to defeat Guga, who was compromised by chronic hip injuries that he would have won the French Open and the Grand Slam.

The next year Federer did not win the first two majors. He lost to Safin in the semifinals in one of the finest matches I’ve seen and as you would suspect he lost to, who else, Rafael Nadal in their first meeting at the French Open. It was considered a mild upset at the time although even then many favored Nadal but in retrospect it was not an unexpected result.

On other surfaces aside from clay there was really no one at the time to really challenge Federer! It would take the match of a lifetime that the super talented Safin played in the Australian that year to defeat the tennis machine called Roger Federer.

Naturally Federer won Wimbledon and the US Open fairly easily over Andy Roddick and an older Andre Agassi losing only one set to Agassi.

That year 2005 Federer came close to breaking John McEnroe percentage record for the Open Era of 82-3 with a record slightly worse at 81-4. Another unbelievable tennis year for the almost invincible Federer.

In 2006 and 2007 Federer won his seemingly usual three majors in a year losing only in the French Open final to guess who, Rafael Nadal.

It seemed at that point that if Federer wasn’t in a major’s final that it had to be an error. After all isn’t Federer automatically in a final for any major? And does winning a major count if you don’t defeat Federer to win the major?

Federer in those years especially had the aura of total invincibility. Frankly he deserved it considering that he almost never lost. Sometimes you would get the feeling the opponent knew he was beaten before they even played.

From 2005 to 2007 Federer was in ten straight finals of majors until another young player of immense ability upset him in the semifinals of the 2008 Australian Open. That player was Novak Djokovic who defeated Roger that year in straight sets before defeating Tsonga in the final in four sets.

After that loss Federer began another streak in reaching the finals in eight straight majors. That meant overall Federer reached the finals of any major from 2005 to 2010 in 18 of 19 majors. That is consistency of the highest level. Federer didn’t have the up and downs in playing level that some players have. Even when Federer was off his normal game he still played well.

During Federer’s top five consecutive peak years from 2004 to 2008 Federer won 12 of 20 majors! He won 46 of the 81 tournaments he entered and was in the finals of 59 of them! His overall won/lost record was 327-39 or a winning percentage of near 90% at 89.34%.

At that time Federer was starting his period of invincibility Pete Sampras owned the record for total lifetime majors at 14! This was a record many thought was never going to be broken after Sampras retired in 2002! But just a mere 8 years later, in 2010 Federer would break what was thought to be an unbreakable record and continue until he reached his current and final total of majors at 20. Federer seemed to zoom past that “unbreakable record” like it was nothing.

Consider that Open Era tennis has only been around since 1968. Before that year, professional players like Gonzalez, Laver and Rosewall couldn’t play the majors. In retrospect, Sampras' mark really was a record that was very vulnerable to be broken and broken quickly. You also have to take into consideration that there were boycotts in the early days of Open Tennis and many players didn’t enter majors like the Australian for various reasons. Jimmy Connors and Evonne Goolagong for example could not enter the 1974 French Open because they were going to play World Team Tennis. In just a few years three players passed Sampras’ number of 14.

I must write that in Sampras’ favor, his record of six consecutive year-end No. 1 finishes is perhaps his best accomplishment and puts Sampras in rarified air.

Federer was the consummate professional. He always finished any match he played. Federer never once retired from a match, he entered all the majors unless he was injured and his will to win was as great as any player’s.

In his career Federer has won 20 majors in 81 attempts. He has won 103 tournaments overall in 367 attempts and his lifetime winning percentage is 81.98% on a 1251-275 record. Just fantastic numbers.

Federer has played 1531 matches in his career that is apparently No. 9 all time behind Ken Rosewall at 2375, Bill Tilden at 2123, Pancho Segura at 2037, Rod Laver at 1989, Pancho Gonzalez at 1918, Roy Emerson at 1711, Josiah Ritchie aka Major Ritchie at 1645 and Jimmy Connors at 1558. All of them were tremendous players. Laver, Gonzalez, Tilden, Connors and Rosewall have been at time called the greatest of all time. Federer of course is obviously one of the clear choices when it comes to discussing the players who are among the all-time greatest. Some would even argue that if you don’t call Federer the GOAT you aren’t of sound mind.

An aside: I don’t know if any player can come close to breaking Ken Rosewall’s record for most competitive matches played at a top level. If a player plays 100 matches a year for 23 years he or she would still be behind Rosewall!

I’ve been writing about Federer’s numbers which are staggering but he also was aesthetically pleasing to many of the viewers and fans of tennis. He was one of the unique players that made everything look easy. I have heard about people discussing Rod Laver in years past which he seemed to be constantly hitting the lines and how it seemed so simple. Well Federer was that way in the manner he floated across the court and hit the most astonishing of shots with ridiculous ease. You would think to yourself it cannot be as easy as Federer makes it look and of course it wasn’t. That’s how it often is for the truly great ones.

The Great Rivalries

Just about every great player in tennis history has been associated with great opponents. Roger Federer was lucky (or perhaps unlucky) to have a number of super players battling him tooth and nail for the top spot. There were so many legendary matches that the great Federer player played. But I do think that his three main rivals were Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. All four of them had memorable matches against each other.

Andy Murray

Murray is one of the most gifted players I have ever seen. Murray has great mobility and wonderful groundstrokes plus one of the greatest returns of all time. His backhand is one of the greatest in history and he had and still has great touch.

The overall record between the two is 14 to 11 in favor of Federer. Murray has given Federer many problems over the years as he would almost any player in history but Federer, generally speaking seemed to have the upper hand in the majors.

When they met in the 2008 US Open final, the 2010 Australian Open final and the 2012 Wimbledon final, Murray won only one set and that was the first set of the Wimbledon final in 2012 which Murray won 6-4. Murray did get revenge at Wimbledon the next month for the Olympics by winning in straight sets.

Their closest match in the majors was the 2013 Australian Open semifinals which Murray won 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2 in the fifth set.

It’s a great rivalry but except for the 2013 Australian Open semifinals none of the matches seemed to equal the epics that Nadal and Djokovic had with Federer.

Novak Djokovic

When Djokovic first burst onto the scene as a top player it seemed that he would always play the warm up act to Nadal’s and Federer’s feature act. That changed in 2011 when Djokovic started the tennis season winning his first 41 matches!

It was a year where Djokovic was winning on every surface and he was even defeating Rafael Nadal on clay where Nadal was almost unstoppable. It seemed that a Djokovic versus Nadal 2011 French Open final was inevitable.

Roger Federer however was skeptical of this assumption and played one of his greatest clay court matches to defeat Djokovic in four sets 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 to reach the final against Nadal. Simply a wonderful match by Federer.

Even at the 2019 Wimbledon final, Djokovic managed to win the match by winning three tiebreakers and the match 13-12 in the fifth set. It was a match I thought Federer had outplayed Djokovic but Djokovic won the important points to win the match.

These two have played so many legendary matches in which the result could have easily changed on just one point. For example, at the 2010 and 2011 US Open Djokovic denied match points to prevail. The 2011 US Open had Federer up 5-3 40-15 in the fifth. Federer hit an excellent serve to Djokovic’s forehand that Djokovic amazingly returned for an outright winner! This changed the complexion of the match. Djokovic eventually won that semifinal 7-5 in the fifth.

Overall they have played 50 matches with Djokovic winning 27 of them but as I wrote earlier, so many of the matches hinged on a point or two that Federer easily could have had a head to head lead.

Rafael Nadal

Despite the fact that Nadal has played fewer matches against Federer than Djokovic I consider Nadal to be Federer’s greatest rival or at least the rival I enjoy watching Federer play the most. They have played 40 matches against each other as opposed to Federer playing 50 matches against Djokovic. Nadal leads 24-16 although Federer has won 6 of the last 7.

There was something about their individual styles of play that allowed for rallies that could take your breath away. Perhaps it was that Federer often used his great forehand to hit inside out to the great Nadal forehand. Perhaps it was the Federer touch versus the Nadal heavy topspin. Perhaps it’s the contrast with Federer’s powerful attacking game versus Nadal’s great counterpunching skills. Of course Federer’s defensive skills are also phenomenal as is Nadal’s powerful topspin from the baseline. Who knows why the matches between these two are so great? All I know is that whenever they have played, I would watch the match and assume I would be possibly being seeing something historic.

Many consider the 2008 Wimbledon final that these two played to be the greatest match of all time. It was clearly a fantastic match with Federer rallying from two sets down winning tiebreakers in the third and fourth sets. Federer led by one game often in the fifth set while Nadal had to hold in the darkness in order to survive in the match! The tension was enormous yet somehow Nadal won the match 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7!

The previous year’s match at Wimbledon was also fabulous although it did not dizzying drama of the next year. Roger won the match 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2.

All and all they played six matches of five sets. The first being their second meeting at the Miami Open in the final which Federer rallied from two sets down to win in the fifth set.

Now of course I knew both were spectacular players but I thought that possibly an extraordinary rivalry was beginning when a good friend for mine who had seen tennis for decades told me that the 2006 Italian Open final was the greatest match he had ever seen.

Historically, there have been many great rivalries on the men’s side. Gonzalez versus Hoad. Gonzalez versus Kramer. Laver versus Rosewall. Connors versus Borg. McEnroe versus Connors or Borg. Lendl against Connors and McEnroe.

Federer versus Nadal and Borg versus McEnroe are among the only men’s rivalries in the Open Era that produced multiple five-set finals in multiple majors.

In many ways Federer versus Nadal is a more modern version of Laver versus Rosewall. They have said about the rallies between Laver and Rosewall that it wasn’t just the shots but the shots hit off the shots. In order words both players (Laver and Rosewall) were able to hit extraordinary shots off the other great player’s extraordinary shots that may be winners or a very forcing shot against other opponents.

As with Laver and Rosewall shots that Federer and Nadal hit that would be winners against almost any other mortal player would often be zooming back at unusual angles, spin and pace, sometimes for winners.

I do think that for breathtaking rallies that perhaps I’ve never seen a greater match up than watching Federer against Nadal.

For years the Big Four, then the Big Three after Murray was injured seemed to win virtually every major. Often all of them would be playing the semifinals. It was a uniquely strong top four in tennis history. My thought is that they dominated not because the rest of the field was weak but because they were so talented.

It’s very rare in tennis history that we have had four players that played at such an incredible level and had such super talent.

The 2009 Wimbledon Final

I would be remiss if I didn’t not mention the wonderful 2009 Final that Roger Federer and Andy Roddick played.

Nadal was originally the top seed but withdrew from the tournament due to a knee injury.

Djokovic, who was the fourth seed while a great player was not quite at his peak yet and lost in the quarters to Tommy Haas in four sets.

Andy Murray, who was the third seed lost to Andy Roddick, the sixth seed in four sets. Murray would eventually win Wimbledon a few years later ending the long drought for Great Britain.

So it was Roger Federer against Andy Roddick, the 2003 World Number 1 and the owner of one of the most powerful serves of all time. Roddick was once timed at 155 miles per hour or 249.4 km/h. Currently the ATP tour has Roddick as the fourth best in history in holding serve at 90.1% in his career behind over Karlovic, Isner and Raonic. Roddick would hold serve approximately 91% of the time on all surfaces in 2009. Considering that Wimbledon is a fast grass surface you would assume Roddick’s serve would be all the tougher to break.

Andy Roddick was the sixth seed in 2009 at Wimbledon and with his serve you would figure he was very dangerous although Federer was clearly the heavy favorite. Roddick at least had the experience of already being in a Wimbledon final which should help somewhat.

Roddick won the first set 7-5 and the second set went to a tiebreaker. In the tiebreaker Roddick led 6 points to 2, four set points to take a two-set lead. Federer hit a brilliant half volley backhand winner from the baseline to cut the lead to 6-3 and won the next two service points to reduce the lead to 6-5.

The problem was that Roddick was serving. Roddick hit a second serve to Federer’s backhand which Federer hit crosscourt but short. Roddick hit a strong forehand approach to the Federer forehand and had an easy volley to take a two set lead. Unfortunately for Roddick the crosscourt backhand volley into basically an empty court was missed. Federer as you would expect won the tiebreak 8-6 to tie the match at one set apiece! An incredible rally by Federer from four set points down.

Federer also won the third set in a tiebreaker but Roddick bounced back to win the fourth set 6-3 to even the match and send it to the fifth set. As we all know, at that time Wimbledon had no tiebreaker. It was long and grueling but Federer eventually prevailed 16-14 in the fifth! Federer won his 15th major breaking the record that Pete Sampras set just 7 years before! Sampras was there to witness it and two other super Wimbledon champions, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver.

As I wrote before the Roger Federer forehand is considered by many to have the greatest forehand of all time. The great serve combined with his powerful forehand made him one of the toughest players to break in history. Federer was rarely aced and if his backhand was considered to be his weaker shot it still was an excellent shot with tremendous variety. Serves that were aces or unreturnable to mere mortal players often were returned by Federer.

During Federer’s peak years he often used a very short angle backhand slice to bring the opponent in where he was vulnerable at the net. It seemed to win the point a very high percentage of the time. In some ways it was sort of an angled drop shot that people like Djokovic, Nadal or Alcaraz use so often today. It was a very nice touch shot that combined with his great groundstroking power always kept his opponents off balance. It was beautiful to watch.

Federer has to be applauded for his ability to tweak his game to improve as he got older. He changed his backhand technique. He changed the style in which he returned and a number of other things. I think these little tweaks helped him defeat Nadal in Federer’s later years as well as Djokovic.

There was also a very human side to him that I believe the tennis fans related to. I recall one major final that Roger lost that he seemed extremely upset and sad. You could tell the fans empathized and felt for him.

They always say that tennis will be fine after any great player leaves. I guess that will be true. However, what are the odds of getting another Federer on the ATP?

The answer is zero.

We will never have another Federer.

Roger Federer played with grace and handled all the responsibilities of being a great player brilliantly.

Roger Federer is irreplaceable.

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer and tennis historian who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and Check out Raymond Lee's Article: Holy Grail: Why Winning the Calendar Grand Slam is Toughest Task in Sport.


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