Roger Federer’s retirement from competitive tennis means the sun is starting to set on a golden generation of men’s tennis, underpinned by the extraordinary feats of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. News of his retirement has reignited debate about whether he is not just a great of men’s tennis but the GOAT: the greatest of all time.
For many, Federer stands alone at the apex of this and every other generation. But this view is not borne out by the numbers. Federer has won fewer grand slams than Nadal and Djokovic, spent fewer weeks at world number one than Djokovic, and won fewer ATP titles than Jimmy Connors.
However, raw numbers are an inadequate measure of sporting success. For one thing, they obscure the effect of events that disrupt equality of opportunity across the generations. For example, the numbers do not reflect the recent COVID interruption (and subsequent exclusion from competition of the unvaccinated Djokovic), nor do they capture the transitional period from amateur to professional tennis.
How many grand slam titles would Rod Laver have won had he not been banned from grand slam events for five years (1963-1967) following his departure from the professional tour? Laver won 11 grand slams during his career, including a calendar grand slam (winning all four slams in the same year) both prior to, and following, his ban. The achievement of even one calendar grand slam has eluded Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
Even if we had a fair and accurate means to compare sporting success across generations, this would not settle the question of greatness. For sporting greatness is not reducible to sporting success. This distinction may be what Federer fans allude to when they refer to him as the GOAT. Rather than nostalgia for a time when the numbers stacked up in his favour, they may be pointing to a broader notion of sporting greatness.
What makes sporting greatness?
We should embrace a more nuanced understanding of sporting greatness than one restricted to rankings and titles. Victory is one sporting value among many. To operate with the restricted view overlooks important sporting values that were the hallmark of Federer’s career: excellence, aesthetics and integrity.
Federer played “total tennis”. He possessed the full repertoire of skills and capacities – elements of excellence – that the sport tests and makes possible. During his prime, he could serve-and-volley to win points quickly or grind out long rallies from behind the baseline.
As he entered his mid-thirties, he reinvented his game to play on the baseline and take the ball earlier. While his rivals relied on executing a narrower set of “excellences” supremely well, Federer adapted his game to whatever the circumstance demanded by showcasing different elements at different times.
The great players do not just perfect the sport as it is, they alter our understanding of what it can be. While aesthetics is central to a sport such as gymnastics, it is incidental to tennis. An ugly point counts for just as much as a sublime point; ungainly strokes can be as effective as elegant strokes.
However, Federer’s style was uniquely pleasing to the eye. He brought tennis to new aesthetic heights with the grace and fluidity of his strokes and his smooth explosive athleticism. He showed that efficiency need not come at the cost of beauty. His style eliminated the distinction between racket and player; in his hand, the racket was an extension, not an addition. Federer revealed new aesthetic possibilities in tennis while never compromising on the pursuit of excellence.
Finally, Federer’s greatness also lies partly in his ethics. His integrity as an athlete was most clearly evident in how he conducted himself on the court, how he managed his rivalries, and, perhaps most memorably, how he competed against his greatest rival.
For one so acquainted with winning, Federer knew how to lose well. Throughout his career of more than 1,700 matches, he never retired from a match, never feigned or submitted to injury as a contest began to slip away. He was awarded the ATP sportsmanship award 13 times, an accolade voted on by his fellow professionals on the men’s tour.
At each stage of his career, he cultivated relations of reciprocal respect and appreciation with his main rivals, whether it was Andy Roddick in his early period, Nadal in his middle period, or Djokovic in his late period. Through his rivalry with Nadal in particular, we witnessed competition at its best – a mutual quest for excellence in which both players laid down a challenge to each other, and in so doing extended each other’s abilities and improved one another in the process.
While their complementary strengths and weaknesses combined to make for compelling contests, the moral quality of the Federer/Nadal rivalry also stands out. They showed us how to compete well. They competed as fiercely as two athletes can, for the highest stakes in their sport, yet neither resorted to the morally dubious means of cheating or gamesmanship.
Even when chasing history, they proved that competition does not have to be cutthroat. Their example puts the lie to any cynical view of competition according to which rivals must be enemies and every opportunity for advantage must be seized. In doing so, Federer and Nadal have done a service not just to tennis but to sport.
Federer has honoured and deepened a tradition of tennis that stretches back through his idol, Pete Sampras, and Sampras’s idol, Rod Laver. This tradition prizes attacking flair, fluid technique and impeccable conduct. The modern history of men’s tennis arguably begins with Laver, so it is appropriate that the Federer era ends this weekend at the Laver Cup.
In the final analysis, where Federer stands in the pantheon of great tennis champions is less important than how he broadened our understanding of sporting greatness itself. Success is part of it, but only part – excellence, aesthetics, and integrity also define the greatest of all time.