161? Just a Number For Federer

This week, Roger Federer surpasses Jimmy Connors' record of 160 successive weeks at number one. Federer said that he has been "waiting for this moment with a lot of impatience." He went on to add that "this was one of the most important records" out there, and that especially for him "this was the most significant record" to break. Here is a minor twist: he did not say these quotes this week. He made these comments back in December of 2006, after winning the ATP Masters Cup in Shanghai.

That's right! He has been so dominant that if he did indeed drop his racket, never picked it up again since that day, he would have still broken Connors' record by the time you read this article today. This number of 161, it's just a number. The deeper meaning of his new record does not involve numbers. One hundred and sixty-one weeks at number one was no more than a record that Federer was expected to break.

But the way that he set the new record? Nobody would have guessed it, scripted it, foreseen it. Let's look at some other numbers that provide a better understanding of this phenomenon (and yes, I have no difficulty at all referring to Federer and/or his accomplishment in this manner).

Since 2004, he played 269 matches and only lost 15 of them. For you math-obsessed fans, that equals to 94% of his matches, in this period. Try any other player during a three-year period and see what is the closest that you can come up. No, I have not done it, but I would be curious to know. He has also won 35 tournaments since 2004, almost averaging 12 tournaments a year! In the process, he won nine Slams, for good measure!

Okay, enough with numbers that render the number 161 into "nothing more than a number." Confused? Let's clear it up with a simple statement: Connors' 160 weeks and Federer's new record (stil going, going, going...) are almost like comparing apples and oranges.

Jimmy Connors was number one during 1974-78 time period, a period in which, conveniently, the biggest rivals of his career were not at full speed. John McEnroe was busy playing college tennis, and at the dawn of his career. Ivan Lendl was still playing with white Kneissl rackets and learning how to speak English. Ken Rosewall, at the age of 40, was his first opponent in a Slam final in 1974. John Newcombe's moustache was turning gray. Guillermo Vilas was a one-dimensional clay court specialist who maintained a respectable 4-5 record against Connors.

Okay, there was Bjorn Borg, and Connors deserves credit for beating Borg twice at the U.S. Open during that period, one of them on clay in 1976 (arguably the biggest unsolved mystery of the '70s). Nevertheless, the period of his record consisted of the years during which his competition was at it's weakest. Federer, on the other hand, has faced today's competition at their best while he was marching towards his record. Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, David Nalbandian, Rafael Nadal, Juan Carlos Ferrero, all at one time or another during this stretch, threw their best stuff at Federer. Other than very rare moments, Safin at the Australian Open and Nalbandian at the Masters Cup, both in 2005, Federer took their best stuff, folded it in two, and curve-balled it right back to them.

Jimmy Connors was also hardly dominating the way Federer has been during these last three years. In fact, two of the years that Connors was number one, 1975 and 1977, he did not win a Slam title. Furthermore, he did not even play Roland Garros and Australian Open those years. If Federer had a similar year or two since 2004, he probably would not have remained at number one for this many consecutive weeks. Slams did not count as much back in the '70s ranking system.

Let's change pace and indulge in the "reality" game momentarily.

If you were tennis fan back in 1977, would you consider Connors the best player of the year or Vilas, who won an astonishing 15 tournaments and lost in the finals of another six? If you closely examined the year 1978 in tennis, would you consider Borg, who won Roland Garros and Wimbledon as number one, or Connors, who won the U.S. Open as number one? As a matter of fact, wasn't 1974 the only one of those years where Jimmy Connors was, without a doubt, the best player in the world? The answer is yes. The remaining time of his 160 weeks record his statistical number one was not in doubt, but whether he was the best player or not was very much in question. To say the least, it was good subject for debate around tennis club cafeterias.

To Connors' credit, his run of successive weeks at number one ended in 1978 and immediately restarted one week later, lasting another astonishing two years. So the more impressive part of Connors' accomplishment is actually the fact that he was number one 244 weeks out of 245 between July 1974 and April 1979. But still, the question remains the same as above. In a nutshell, 1974 was his only dominant year.

Are there any question marks about whether Federer deserves the statistical number one, as well as the "best player" accolade during his 161 weeks? I think not! Could he perhaps even reach 245 consecutive weeks without interruption? Barring injuries, it is very possible.

Still want to stick with numbers? Okay, here is one for you: how about Federer winning his last 14 tiebreakers in a row? As one fitness coach that I have known would say, that's "confidence and respect." However, let's not get confidence and arrogance mixed up. Federer is popular, not thanks to his records, not thanks to his win or title records. He is the man, because he is the "softest" dominator tennis has ever known. Normally, people root for the underdog, except in Federer's case. Normally, people don't enjoy watching one-sided matches, except for Federer's matches.

Most importantly, players who are this dominating do not normally behave like Federer. Let's speculate for an instant. Imagine if Lleyton Hewitt was in Federer's place. "Come oooooon!" with a fist pump to your opponent's face would have been a trademark and the cause of tennis-parent fights in junior tournaments. Imagine how magnified his "the world against me" attitude would have become and how many enemies he would have attracted. How about if we put Roddick in Federer's place? Oh my ... can you say not only "arrogant," but "annoying?"

One hundred sixty-one weeks at number one, 14 tiebreakers in a row, 35 titles in three years ... who cares? The beauty is not in the size of the flow of the river, it's how smoothly the river flows.

Comments and Conversation

February 28, 2007


This is a very nice article. Done a great job!

February 28, 2007


Federer is great but where are his rivals?…connors had borg, mcenroe,lendl…federer has nadal maybe on clay…i think now is an era where all the best athletes are in other sports…i think Borg and Lendl would have beated federer pretty regularly..mcenroe would have been about 500…connors about the same.

February 28, 2007


Since the days of Borg during that magnificent run in May and June between 1974 and 1981, no other player can rival what Federer is doing right now…Maybe Bill Tilden in the 1920s, maybe if Rod Laver did not miss 4 years of Slam tennis before the Open era…We are witnessing history unfolding in front of our eyes…and I totally believe that the great Pete Sampras was correct in predicting 17 or 18 Slams for Roger…Barring any major injury, this will be a reality for Roger and all of us will be witnesses! (Nike hypes “King” James in that commercial but I totally believe that Tiger and Federer are in a class of their own in the sporting world today…)

Great article Mert…

March 1, 2007


Federer is the best all round player I have ever seen. He will go down as the best ever. Great article Mert.

March 1, 2007


So, Mert. Do you like Federer or not? I really couldn’t tell.

March 1, 2007


Greatest Of All Time!!!!!

March 2, 2007


Is there anyway to rate the popularity of Tennis from the 70’s to the present? Was it popular during the Connors, Borg, McEnroe Era, then slumped during Lendl’s reign and regained popularity in the 90’s because of Pete’s and Andre’s rivalry? Is it followed closer now by more people because of Federer’s dominance?

March 3, 2007

Mert Ertunga:

Koen, Isik Bloomy thanks for the kind words.

Tallulah: Who does not like him? And why? We know shehan does.

Rodney: Read the article, the answer is there. The part about who Connors had to face during his streak.

Luis: Connors-Borg-McEnroe era was the most popular but it only lasted 3 years with all three of those at their best (1979-80-81)

For everyone else: Federer is about to break one more record: Vilas’ 46 match in arow win streak. He is at 41 now.

Keep the feedback coming

Mert E.

March 4, 2007


I don’t know the details of the Connors’ times, what he faced, how he coped. I see what I see tournament after tournament with Roger. This’s a guy that makes it look so easy, hey, I started taking tennis lessons at the age of 36. And enough with “Oh, he does not have competition, no strong rival” argument. Let there be, who keeps them? What, he’s the only one that cares and practices? I guess not. I’m sure they all work hard, as hard as Connors and McEnroe and Borg and Agassi and Edberg and Sampras worked. Yet they cannot beat him, he’s so much more superior. I feel lucky to watch him play, and admire his attitude so much, that I could write an article about him. But it’s best to leave writing about the best to the best writers. Well done, Mert…

March 5, 2007


Thanks for the feedbakc Mert.

I was wondering if you could comment on the impact today’s equipment would have on the games of great shotmakers of the past like Borg, McEnroe or even Sampras?

Nobody can doubt Federer’s shot making abilities and creativity since none of today’s players seem to even come close to the magic Federer does with his racquet.

But say you put the same equipment in the hands of yesterdy’s legends, John McEnroe or Bjorn Borg in particular…or even Lendl who I understand had quite a rigid work ethic (Vijay Singh with a tennis racquet).

Do you think they would be capable of producing the same type of shots or would you say Federer is in a league of his own?

Today’s players are monsters compared to those who played in past 3-4 decades. They’re bigger-boned, stronger, faster and very athletic. Just compare the average heights and weights of past vs present tennis pros.

My opinion is that given the same equipment and conditions, players of the past, even at their peak would still find it difficult to keep up with today’s power game. Simply because today’s athletes have evolved into the super-jocks that they are now.

Be interesting to see what you have to say.

Thanks again for the great article

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