Why Federer Still Has Something to Prove

Is Roger Federer as great as they say?

Or is the competition these days not what it once was, say when Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors, and Bjorn Borg were playing in the same pro tournaments together?

Okay, granted, the '70s was the Golden Age of Tennis with its overload of talent, of legends that have long gone down in history. A special time never to be repeated.

It corresponded roughly with the Tennis Boom in the U.S. and elsewhere, on a recreational player level, and also in TV fan interest. (You could extend the time period some if you want to include what is considered the second* best match ever played, the 1980 "Thrilla at Wimbledon" between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which boasted the greatest tiebreaker ever, won by "Johnnie Mac," even though the
"Iceman" Borg took the title 8-6 in the fifth.)

Federer has won 10 Grand Slam tournaments to date, at the tennis-tender age of 25. There are whispers that the retired Pete Sampras doesn't like the look of things, in that his record of 14 major championships is in danger of being broken, and that he is considering a return to Wimbledon this summer, to pad his advantage over the stellar Swiss. (Such speculation was more recently squelched by Sampras.)

Yet one only needs to recall that it was Federer who upset Sampras in five sets in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2001 — to snap "Pistol Pete's" four-year (1997-2000) supremacy on Centre Court — to realize how sorry such a venture might turn out. (An over-the-hill Sampras lost ignominiously to Swiss journeyman George Bastl in five sets a year later, before improbably capturing the 2002 U.S Open over Andre Agassi in four, his grand finale.)

Earlier this year, Federer won the Australian Open over the vastly improved Chilean, Fernando "El Bombardero de la Reina" Gonzalez (thanks in great part to the hard work and insight of Fernando's new coach, Larry Stefanki). Federer admitted afterwards that Gonzalez "played better than me" in the first set, but the world's number one performed another magical escape act with two set points against him in the opener ... then shifted into cruise control to win in three straight.

Up next is the French Open, and if he wins it, Roger can lay claim to a "Federer Slam," like the "Tiger Slam" accomplished by buddy Tiger Woods in 2000-2001, in taking four majors in a row if not in the same calendar year (in Fed's case, it would be Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2006, plus the 2007 Australian and French opens).

Australia's Laver is the only player, male or female, to twice capture four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year, accomplishing that remarkable feat in 1962 and 1969.

If Federer wins the French and Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this year, he will be the first tennis player of either sex to win a legitimate Grand Slam since Germany's Steffi Graf did so in 1988.


So are we getting a little ahead of ourselves? Of course we are. Standing in the way of Federer's apotheosis is Spain's Rafael Nadal, who has won the last two championships at Roland Garros. Until stopped by Federer last Sunday at the Hamburg Open, Nadal was in the midst of an amazing clay court victory skein that ended up at 81 consecutive matches won on the surface, after last year breaking Argentine Guillermo Vilas's clay streak of 53 straight matches, set in 1977.

Will Federer also slay Nadal in Paris? Federer seems poised to finally take the title, but against a more rested Nadal, if they both reach the title round, the odds would probably still favor the Spaniard.

Experts concur that Federer needs to dictate play by using his serve and going to the net more — as he did in Hamburg — in order to prevail against the only player who presently owns a winning record against the King.

In a certain sense, the best outcome for Federer to overcome this career hurdle would be for some player other than Nadal to get to the French final against him. There can be no denying that Nadal, for his mental strength, is one of the few players who can get into Federer's head, other than Argentine Guillermo Canas, of course, who beat the world's number one on two recent occasions.


If you follow sports in a broad range, and over history, you can arrive at the conclusion that today's athletes are stronger and fitter and yes, better, than past champions. In this scenario (and in spite of the steroids), Barry Bonds is better than Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, Ronaldo is better than Pele and Maradona, Woods is better than Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus. And Federer is better than Laver and Sampras.

The case of Sampras seems especially germane. In the modern era he is statistically the best grass court player of all time. He won Wimbledon seven times, more than Laver and Borg, the latter winning the title five times in a row, before eventually falling to McEnroe in 1981.

But Sampras never won the French, although he got to the semifinals in his prime, in 1996, losing to eventual champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia. McEnroe also never won in Paris, defeated in five sets by Czech Ivan Lendl in 1984, the American's best year when he posted a 96.3% winning percentage (he went 82-3), over second place Federer's 95.3% in 2005 (81-4).

Connors, for his part, got to the semifinals on two occasions, but never garnered the elusive trophy.

Today, Federer talks glibly about how the French is not an obsession (Sampras did the same), and that he was pleased that last year he got to the final, an improvement on his 2005 performance, when he lost to Nadal in the semis.

Fair enough. It seems that nothing ruffles Federer. Not history, not players past and present; he is delighted to be considered in their elite company. (Still, he recently conceded to the press in Australia that he is willing to be acknowledged as a tennis "genius.")

Hey, is there anyone out there ready to argue that point?


Connors said after Federer won his fourth straight Wimbledon over Nadal last summer, that he now saw Roger in "Borgian" terms, that is the single-mindedness and unflappability that characterized the Swedish prodigy. In reading a diary recently of Federer's off-court life, it did remind of Bjorn's simplistic and unfettered way of passing time, even if Roger does not indulge in perusing comic books, as far as we know.

But Federer as serene and unflappable as Borg on court? That is a stretch. Federer does get mad, a state of emotion that he manifests by yelling after certain points, like when he was being pressured by Russia's Marat Safin in the 2005 Australian Open semis, after holding match point — an encounter that got away from him like a clay court encounter in the same year against young Frenchman Richard Gasquet, when Fed also squandered a match point in his favor.

In consulting various tennis cognoscenti for this article, the consensus was that it would take a very strong serve-and-volleyer to defeat Federer on grass, or even on hard courts.

Former world number one Lleyton Hewitt made the point several years ago that the only person who could really stop Federer in his tracks would be an in-his-prime Sampras.

Right now, we don't have that sort of option, unless you want to pencil in Safin, who has the raw power to intimidate Federer, if not the mental constitution to do it over the long haul.

So for the moment that leaves us with Andy Roddick, and let's face it, even with the coaching rah, rah from Connors, he is not the ideal candidate to dethrone Federer at Wimbledon, having already fallen on his face in the 2004 and 2005 finals.

Someone recently said that the guy who is going to be able to beat Federer on a consistent basis is not on the ATP circuit yet, which seems to be a realistic point of view.


But back to the French. What does it take to win the championship considered the most grueling of them all? It takes a crazy, born to grind-it-out-on-clay player such as Thomas Muster, who won it in 1995 as the putative "King of Clay," thus vaulting the Austrian to number one in the world amidst controversy because of his mediocre record on other surfaces. Or a tennis prodigy such as Andre Agassi, who everyone assumed would win the French a slew of times, due to his brilliant baseline play, but who did it only once, in 1998, to become only the fifth player in history to win all four major championships in a career.

To emulate Borg, who won the title six times, and in his last couple of championships hardly letting opponents take a game, is likely not within Federer's or Nadal's ken. To date, Borg is the best clay-courter who ever lived, while Sampras is probably the best grass-court player. Which leaves Federer as the best all-arounder? Or would that be Laver, who in most tennis polls is considered the co-equal of Sampras at the top of the historical heap.

Still, we return to Paris. Agassi did what Sampras did not, and McEnroe and Connors before him ... which was to win the French and get the monkey off his back.

So if Federer falls into that Roland Garros loser trap, how great can we call him?


A great champion — in any sport — is also defined by great and enduring rivalries. In tennis, in that memorable '70s era, there were defining matches involving: Laver vs. Newcombe, Nastase vs. Ashe, Connors vs. Ashe, Connors vs. Borg vs. Vilas vs. McEnroe, and Rosewall vs. most of the former. The Australian legend's devastating losses at age 39 to Connors in the 1974 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals dramatically lifted Connors' incipient star, before "Jimbo" also went on to become one of tennis' geriatric marvels with his amazing run to the semifinals of the 1990 U.S. Open at age 39.

And Federer, who can he count on besides Nadal to raise him to such Olympian heights? The rest of the competition on the ATP tour these days is not exactly dazzling. The dour — though relentlessly competitive — duo of Ivan Ljubičić and Nikolay Davydenko doesn't fit the bill, nor the more dynamic U.S. combo of Roddick and James Blake, although any of the four can give Federer fits on certain surfaces, if not in the manner of Nadal on clay.

Gonzalez could rise to the occasion at Roland Garros, or he could turn out to be a one-Grand Slam-final wonder, where the company is plentiful. Other lesser known players are likely to make a move, providing upsets, since that always happens in the majors, though mostly at Wimbledon, due to the slippery fast surface that shortens points and favors huge-serving players such as 2001 champ Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia.

So the 2007 Paris prognosis? Interesting, even fascinating, win or lose for Federer.

*The 1937 Davis Cup encounter between Don Budge and Gottfried Von Cramm is considered the best match ever played. American Budge prevailed 8-6 in the fifth set against his German foe.

George Soules is the author of the "Playboy Book of Tennis," a former Washington Post freelance writer, award-winning Internet sports columnist, and bilingual (English and Spanish) radio and television tennis commentator.

Comments and Conversation

May 25, 2007


Good Article, hope you don’t mind a few corrections. They are hidden in there, I wonder if you were setting a test to see if we were reading it properly :):

1/ Borg won ‘80 Wimbledon 8-6 in the 5th set, not 7-5
2/ Federer beat Sampras in the 4th round at Wimbledon in 2001 (not the 3rd)
3/ Sampras got to the Semi-Finals of the French Open in 1996 (not 1994)

In terms of career achievement, I have to say that Connors 3 out of 4 in 1974 is pretty special. He didn’t play the French Open for various reasons from 1974 to 1978 (his peak years). To answer how he would do on Clay against the likes of Borg during those years was answered by the 1976 US Open where he beat Bjorn on Clay. (US Open being on clay for 3 years from 1975 to 1977).

May 25, 2007


also, McEnroe’s record-holding season was 82-3, not 81-3. Federer’s chance to match it came in the final of the Master’s Cup where he lost to Nalbandian in five (I think) to drop his record from 81-3 to 81-4.

May 25, 2007


and isnt it fernando gonzalez?

May 26, 2007

Marc James:

Thanks for the corrections, guys.

July 21, 2007

Roger Legg:

Undeniably, Federer should be considered one of the all time greats based on his Grand Slam record. However, Rosewall could not participate in his prime between 1957-1967, having turned professional-10 years. He held the No.1 ranking in the world 1960-1965. Similarly the immortal Laver was barred between 1963-1967. How many more slams could either of these giants have garnered?

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