In the wake of his retirement, my thoughts on the tennis career of Roger Federer.
At the Laver Cup in September 2022, Roger Federer played his last professional tennis match. It was the end of a top-tier career spanning nearly a quarter of a century and, as my favorite player on the tour, it’s a bittersweet feeling to know that he’ll no longer be competing for titles and records. Federer is only about four months older than I am, and I’ve sympathized with his narrative in recent years of being one of the older players trying to fend off the inevitability of being surpassed by the next generation.
There have been a lot of debates about which professional tennis player is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). Over the decades, names like Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and others have all been proposed, each with impressive records to their name. Even among players currently on the tour, Federer has long competed with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who are five and six years younger than Federer, respectively, but who have each unquestionably cemented their status as one of the all-time greats. There’s a very compelling argument that the three of them together are the best three players in the history of the game.
I’m not sure there’s anything to be gained by another debate about who is the definitive “best.” Do Nadal’s record 22 Grand Slams make him better than Djokovic (21) and Federer (20)? Does Djokovic’s record of the most weeks (373) spent as the number one player in the world make him superior to Federer (310) and Nadal (209)? Does Federer’s record of ATP Tour titles and final appearances (103 and 157, respectively) put him ahead of Nadal (92 titles, 130 finals) and Djokovic (88 titles, 126 finals)? With three such accomplished players and a ridiculous number of stats from which to choose, I think it’s more productive to just admit they’re all in the running for the mantle of Greatest of All Time.
For me, though, there are a few of Federer’s many accomplishments that really stand out as particularly impressive and are, in my opinion, records that are very unlikely to be broken anytime soon, if ever:
1. Between February 2004 and August 2008, Federer was the No. 1 ranked player in the world for 237 consecutive weeks. If you’re not familiar with tennis rankings, you get points for every tournament you play, and more points the deeper into a tournament you go. Which means that, to be the No. 1 player, you have to play a lot, and you have to finish at or near the top of the tournament a lot. If you’re looking for a comparison for just how insane this record is, consider that Jimmy Connors, who is second on the list, was No. 1 for 160 consecutive weeks.
2. Federer won twelve of the twenty total Grand Slam tournaments during that period of time, finished as the runner up four other times, and made it to the semifinals three other times. He only lost before the semifinals once. Even after this incredible run, the next five grand slams were all ones where he also either made it to the final (twice) or won the tournament (three times).
3. Federer has a record 23 consecutive appearances in Grand Slam semifinals, meaning for nearly six years straight, he was one of the final four players at each and every Grand Slam tournament. If you factor in quarterfinals (making it to the final eight), that streak extends to 36 consecutive Grand Slams (or nine years).
4. Federer has five or more Grand Slam titles at three of the four Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open), and has five consecutive Grand Slam titles at two of those three (Wimbledon and the U.S. Open).
5. Throughout his entire career (1,526 matches over 24 years), Federer has never retired from a match in progress, and has only withdrawn from four matches in total (none at Grand Slam events).
Aside from all the records and the winning, which are certainly fun, one of the things that I loved most about watching Federer play tennis was how graceful he was and how effortless he made even the most complicated skills look. At his best, he was simply unstoppable; able to play nearly impenetrable defense while being able to fire off winners from virtually anywhere on the court. Whether it was a tweener (hitting the ball between your legs), behind the back, or on the run facing away from the net, he almost always seemed to make the shot, much to the astonishment and frustration of his opponents. It was fun to watch him play. And especially in later years when Federer wasn’t at the height of his powers, you never knew when that brilliance would show through. It might be for an entire match, or a set, or even a couple of rallies, but his shots consistently made the highlight reels of every tournament he played because they were just so good.
On top of all that, he was a class act. After some rebellious younger years, Federer was a model of composure and poise. He didn’t throw racquets or berate the umpires or make excuses and talk trash about his opponents. He was always cordial, always respectful and appreciative of his opponents (even when he absolutely thrashed them), and no one on the ATP Tour has anything but nice things to say about him.
If you’re not familiar with Roger Federer, please enjoy this video compilation of some of his most impressive rallies, shots, and winning points:
It always feels strange when an athlete or celebrity retires. Most of us don’t know them. We’ve never met, we weren’t friends, but still it feels like something has been lost. Federer has been my favorite player since his epic 2008 Wimbledon loss to Nadal (considered by many to be one of the best tennis matches ever), and for the past fourteen years I’ve been in his court (no pun intended), rooting for him every time he set foot on the grass, clay, or hardcourt.
He will be missed, but he definitely doesn’t have anything left to prove to the tennis world.
Enjoy your retirement, Roger. It was a joy to watch you play.
Word Count: 1,059
Submitted To: "I Write: Enter the Second Decade"