As Roger Federer won his 19th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon 2017, his three major rivals all missed the semifinals. Rafael Nadal lost a five-set round of 16 match to Gilles Muller; Andy Murray hobbled to the finish, beaten in 5 by Sam Querrey in the quarters; while Novak Djokovic couldn’t complete two sets in his quarter final against Tomas Berdych. It was a lop-sided final four: Federer, Berdych, Querrey and Cilic. Plus ça change, non?
Two things stick out when you look at that foursome. The first of which involves a reassessment of the generational divide that Roger Federer is currently astride of; the second examines how Federer’s style, once considered outdated, may put more distance between him and his rivals.
Federer (35) is more than four years older than Berdych (31), and has six and seven years on Querrey (29) and Cilic (28) respectively. They’re a generation apart. This also makes him a generation older than his (current) main rivals Andy Murray (30), Rafa Nadal (31) and Novak Djokovic (30). The generation beneath these modern greats includes Milos Raonic (26), Grigor Dimitrov (26) and David Goffin (26), while there’s another group below them, including Nick Kygrios (22), Dominic Thiem (23) and Alexander Zverev (20), who represent the future of the men’s game.
Roger’s peers are actually Andy Roddick (34), Lleyton Hewitt (36), Marat Safin (37), David Nalbandian (35) and Nikolay Davydenko (36). Aside from Hewitt (2016), all have long since retired. The next group in age above them includes Mark Philippoussis (40), Gustavo Kuerten (40) and Tim Henman (42) – all a generation older than Roger. Older still is the group of legends that Federer faced when he first made the tour. Sampras (45), Agassi (47), Ivanisevic (45) and Rafter (44) were in their twilight years when Roger first announced himself on the tour. They are, in fact, two generations older than Federer.
If you’ve lost count, Roger Federer has beaten players from (and by extension, won Grand Slam titles in) six (6) different generations. Common wisdom suggests that number is three or four, but that’s simply not the case. For arguments sake, could you take a name from one of these groups, place it in another and call the two players peers? It doesn’t hold water. In a considerable list of achievements, this might be his most staggering.
Of Federer’s three nearest rivals, two couldn’t conquer injuries at Wimbledon while the third (Nadal) has had more injury-enforced absences than the rest combined. Each has dealt with injury in the recent past, while Roger has missed only three Grand Slams since 1998.
Federer’s game isn’t based on staying in rallies; he aims to kill them off before they mature. Gliding across the court, his graceful style doesn’t put undue strain on his body. Indeed, Federer has only twice succumbed to significant injury during his career: a case of mononucleosis in 2008, and a knee injury sustained while running a bath for his daughters in 2016. His is a style built for longevity rather than long rallies.
But the sport changed early in Roger’s career. Faster courts and better racquet technology sped up the game. The single-hand backhand died, serve-and-volley disappeared and baseline dominance became the norm. Players got stronger and fitter, stayed in points longer, and match-length records tumbled every season. Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, more often than not, the protagonists involved. As a result, however, the strain on the bodies of the best players has taken a toll; mounting injuries are a natural progression.
Perhaps the thing that has allowed Roger’s main rivals to compete and get the better of him – the stamina to chase down every ball and meet it with even more power – is the very thing that may see them fall before he does. Nadal, Djokovic and Murray each play a style of tennis that puts immense stress on their bodies. As the injuries mount up, all that stress – enough to collect 30 grand slams between them – may end up curtailing their careers; the signs are emerging, and in Nadal’s case surfaced long ago. It’s a cruel irony: the closer they get to Federer, the harder it is to catch up.
Roger Federer will be 36 when the US Open begins in August, quite possibly with a number 1 seed. As his closest rivals count the physical cost of a style specifically designed to beat his, he makes his way into an everlong sunset. His opponents stumbling as he gets ready for one more great rally.