January 29th, 2017 will go down as one of the most memorable dates – if not the most memorable date – in the history of tennis. For Federer fans, you might as well make it a public holiday. After nearly five years of waiting, Roger Federer finally claimed what has collectively been called #18.
By itself, Federer’s capture of another grand slam title is not earth shattering news. Going into today, the Swiss legend had 17 titles to his name – the most of any man. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think he could add one more. However, as mentioned earlier, Federer’s last grand slam victory came five years ago on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon, against a then slamless Andy Murray. Today, at 35, he was playing in the finals of the Australian Open. His opponent? Just a 14 time grand slam singles champion known as Rafael Nadal. Both men were coming back from long injury lay offs – Federer’s much longer. To top that all off, there was the teeny weeny fact that Federer had lost 23 of the past 34 matches they had played.
All of this, and the fact that practically no one thought the sporting world would be treated to another Federer – Nadal classic, gave this match an electric feeling. However, there was one more reason why this match was christened the most important tennis match in the history of tennis.
At the start of the day, that number represented the difference between each man’s Grand Slam haul. Federer had always been the chased, Nadal the chaser. This match represented a golden opportunity for either man. If Nadal could close it down to 2, the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) argument would be thrown so wide open, it would make Brexit and Trump’s victory feel like junior tennis news by comparison. That conversation would only get louder as the season inevitably marched towards Roland Garros – Nadal’s kingdom. The way the Spaniard had been playing down under, the chances of him collecting his tenth French Open title, and thus reducing that number to 1, were very high. If Federer could win however, he would drive home a crucial nail in the coffin of the GOAT debate. To do it, he’d have to defeat a man he hadn’t beaten in a grand slam match since 2007 – a decade ago. To put it into context, the last time Federer defeated Nadal in a grand slam singles match, Steve Jobs was still alive and had just announced the first iPhone to the world.
That last line, has been the singular resounding argument against Federer’s claim to the greatest of all time title. How can he be the best of all time, if he isn’t the best of his generation? There is a natural counter question to that. If he isn’t, who is? Nadal? Well if we say Nadal is the best of his generation because he has a winning record against Federer: if we are picking the best of this generation based on H2H, then how about those Nadal has a losing record against? Djokovic. Davydenko. Correjta? Dustin Brown? Tennis is a game of match ups and Rafa is a bad match up for Roger – especially on clay, the surface they have battled on the most, and is simultaneously Nadal’s best surface and Roger’s worst.
Well what about consistency? There are many ways to quantify this. Consecutive finals appearances. Consecutive semis, quarters… you name it. You could also up the stakes and consider the number of weeks each man has spent at number one. Using this barometer, Djokovic (with 223 weeks) sits comfortably in 4th position – two spots above Rafael Nadal (with 141 weeks). Federer? He’s miles ahead in that department, with a whooping 302 weeks as the top dog.
There are so many ways to discuss who might be the greatest of them all. I’ll pick a final one. Achievements. Slam victories aside, this includes other must have victories in the sport such as Davis Cup wins, Olympic medals garnered (particularly gold), World Tour Finals wins and the like. Federer’s got victories in all of these tournaments (he’s got silver in singles and gold in doubles at the Olympics). Nadal? One simple stat. No World Tour Finals wins. None. I believe this is telling of the Spaniard’s career. Against Federer, he’s got the advantage, but Nadal has never come out victorious against the 8 best players in the world, at any given time. Federer’s done it six times.
We’ll leave this neighborhood of our discussion and stroll back down under. We all know what happened. They played and they fought in a manner so reminiscent of their heydays, people are now thinking retirement? What retirement? This match was a treat for the older retired legends of the game, and an inspiration for the younger generation. It reminded us of two aging kings who took our beloved sport to such stratospheric heights that it has inspired a whole set of exciting players ever since. However, these two are the originals of this generation. Fire and Ice. Grit and Beauty. Finesse and Power. Ying and Yang. Like eternal forces, their recent collision reshaped the landscape of the tennis universe once again. This is not just a legendary rivalry. It is the rivalry. This was the match and what a match it was. The fact that Federer won it playing a gritty Nadalesque form of tennis, overlayed with a Federian attacking style not seen since his glory days – the fact that he did it at 35 – was as resounding a statement as anyone could make. With a short forehand winner smack on the line, he had his #18.
There are many who believe the debate is still open. However, here is the fact. The defining number has changed.
That is what it stands at now. The difference between the eternal challenging force, and The Greatest.