Is Roger Federer the greatest male tennis player of all time? Depending on who you are and what defines your perception of success, the answer will either be a yes or a no and as such, there’ll never be a unanimous answer to this question. Most proponents of Federer’s claim to the title of G.O.A.T, go with the majority feedback… or the perceived majority feedback – I am not sure a comprehensive poll was ever done.
One thing is certain. Federer has been by far the most intriguing, enigmatic, and perhaps inspirational male tennis player of the past two generations. We will never run out of superlatives to quantify or qualify what Federer’s done this year and why should we? Just when the excited dust from the Swiss Master’s latest historical earthquake settles, he delivers another one.
But this is Roger Federer. A tiny fact it appears we were all forgetting. This is a man who once could not control his fiery desire to win as a boy. And fire under control is still fire.
Ironically, on no other surface has Federer’s game stirred up more historical dust than on Center Court, Wimbledon. It was on Center Court that Federer beat his predecessor, Pete Sampras, snapping a four-year title streak and essentially putting an end to a Wimbledon era of dominance. He would usher in his own era of dominance two years later, with a masterful first Grand Slam title on Center court Wimbledon. He would go on to match Bjorn Borg’s record of winning five Wimbledon titles in a row. To top that up, though a loser, his stirring comeback from two sets to love down against Rafael Nadal, was an integral part in creating what many have touted as the greatest tennis match of all time – The 2008 Wimbledon Final. It was also at Wimbledon, a year later, that Federer finally eclipsed a record many thought would last for decades. Federer won his 15th grand slam title, edging ahead of Sampras who has 14 grand slam titles to his name. Center Court is also where Federer won a then record extending 17th grand slam title, all the way back in 2012.
That was five years ago, and the dust amidst the grass, once constantly unsettled by Federer, became servants to different masters. Murray broke Britain’s long Slam drought, the very next year on Center Court. Djokovic would get the better of Federer in back to back contests in the years 2014 and 2015. Murray would claim a second Wimbledon crown, last year. However, the dust that stirred and danced between the blades of grass, spurred by the balletic tip tap of its master’s footsteps, threatened to become his grave last year. It was on Center Court that Federer fell symbolically and quite literally, in his defeat at the hands of the Canadian Missile, Milos Raonic. In that poignant moment, many including myself thought the legendary story had come to a familiar end. Sooner or later, all legends would be toppled by time, a young upstart, or a bit of both.
However, all his success in 2017, all the tournament victories and dreamy back to the future runs have led Federer on an inexorable step back home – back to where it all began, and back to unsettle the dust amidst the grass blades of Center Court, once more.
But this is Roger Federer. A tiny fact it appears we were all forgetting. This is a man who once could not control his fiery desire to win as a boy. And fire under control is still fire. What Federer has done this year, is unleash a blaze of fury on the ATP tour not seen since the turn of the decade. A fifth Australian Open crown was quickly followed by his third sunshine double and after what now appears to be a genius decision to skip the entire clay court season, Federer overcame a minor hiccup in Stuttgart to take Halle. The 2017 win-loss record speaks for itself. 24 – 2. Stuck somewhere in those victories, an unprecedented annual three in a row against his greatest nemesis, Rafael Nadal.
However, all his success in 2017, all the tournament victories and dreamy back to the future runs have led Federer on an inexorable step back home – back to where it all began, and back to unsettle the dust amidst the grass blades of Center Court, once more. It appears that Wimbledon has been waiting for him. If the Aussie Open was an acid test for Federer, pushing him to his limits with three brutal five set matches in a row, Wimbledon has been a soothing and familiar bath. Federer arrives at the final, yet to drop a set. Every potential assassin – Mischa Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych – has been thoroughly dispatched. His fellow juggernauts, – Nadal, Djokovic and Murray – skewered on the way. None of them made the semis. It appears as though Wimbledon has like a bride, submitted itself to Federer once more. Or has it?
Over the last seven years, Federer has occasionally fallen to a separate breed of player from his fellow big four members. The Giant breed. Del Potro, Berdych, Soderling, Raonic, Tsonga, and even Isner. They have all had the measure of Federer at one point or the other over this time scale. A few like Tsonga, Berdych and Raonic, can boast victories over Federer, on his beloved Center Court. The new generation? They just keep getting bigger and bigger. There is one other occasional Federer thorn not mentioned in this group, largely for dramatic effect. Cilic. The fearless Croat. Of all the giants, Cilic and Del Potro stand alone as grand slam champions. Cilic however, has been Federer’s most recent tormentor, defeating the Swiss in the semi-finals of the 2014 U.S Open. That was en route to his singular slam. While Federer defeated Cilic in last year’s Wimbledon quarter-final, he had to do it by coming back from a two sets to love deficit. Many believe that match weakened an already physically ailing Federer, and left him ultimately defenseless against Raonic in the semis.
Marin Cilic is in the final of this year’s Wimbledon tournament and will face Federer for the crown. Should Federer win, he’ll pull away from Sampras in another way. He’ll stand alone as the only male player to have captured Tennis’s most prestigious title, eight times. 8th Heaven. An elusive dimension and air that no other player has walked in or breathed. It would also be another argument point in the considerable argument of Federer G.O.A.T proponents. This match, however, represents more than that. While Cilic cannot be classified as the next generation (and considering Tennis’s new longevity, this is now open to some debate), he does represent a breed of player that has been trying to displace the traditional 6’2″ champion for quite some time. No player taller than 6’3″ has won Wimbledon since Goran Ivanisevic did it at Wimbledon, in 2001. He is listed in as 6’4″. Searching for the last above 6’4″ player to conquer the All England Club? Richard Krajicek at 6’5″, won it all in 1996. Marin Cilic stands at 6’6″ and should he win, would become Wimbledon’s tallest champion in the past two decades, at least. He might also have a chance to become the tallest multiple slam winner in recent memory. I’ll have to check if anyone taller has won more than one slam.
If this holds true, then Cilic would have gone a long way to dispel the theory that big man tennis can’t produce consistent slam title runs. It might also usher in a dramatic shift in the mentally of the local club coaches – the good men and women who act as first mentors for tomorrow’s champion. They might start thinking of that really tall kid who walked into their academy yesterday and think “Hey. He’s got as good a shot as the other ones.” Either way, Tennis wins, history is made, and a stereotype is shattered – age or height are no barriers to success in tennis.
If you are a lover of earth shattering history making like me though, you’ll be thinking “you know what, I’m ready for an 8th heaven.”
Let the best man win tomorrow.