Is how a player or team wins important in sport? Of course it is. Clearly, winning has to be prioritised over style. If it means that one needs to “win ugly”, as Brad Gilbert wrote, then so be it, yet when I think of the sporting moments that make my spine tingle, like truly great Art, then style enters the equation. The real goal is to combine the two. Throughout my life I have been gifted the good fortune to witness some truly exceptional talents: Becker, Edberg, Agassi, Sampras, Nadal and Federer. Having only snatched brief glimpses of Laver and Borg play, I cannot honestly evaluate them. Accepting my limitations in this regard, I am still confident in my assertion that Roger Federer is the Greatest Of All Time, not just because the statistics prove the point, but also because of the effortless panache that he plays with. Sunday the 8th of July 2012 further cemented this in my mind when Federer beat a physically superior Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final to clinch his record seventeenth Grand Slam title.
Most judges will tell you that watching tennis became somewhat boring when it began to be dominated by big servers like Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivanisevic, Mark Phillipousis and Pete Sampras in the 1990s. All too frequently games were reduced to monochromatic, repetitive dead ends. Ace, serve, winner, ace, double fault, rally, ace, ace, repeat. There were occasional kernels of excitement but, overall, when evaluating the undisputed king of this era, Pete Sampras, you would be forced to admit that he was far too reliant on his huge serve. Federer was not bequeathed with a weak serve. Far from it. Yet, the beauty of his serves are in their intrinsic variety. For example, the “slow aces” that he regularly executes where the power, topspin, placement and angle of his serves repeatedly result in aces. The best example of this was his second serve against Nicolas Kiefer in the 2006 Australian Open, a shot that seemed to defy physics. Let us review Federer and Murray in the Wimbledon tournament this year. Murray scorched 90 aces across his 7 matches to Federer’s 71, yet in the final, it counted for nothing as Federer beat him using skill, not power. Federer changed the game forever, making it more exciting and watchable. Gone are the short service-conquers-all games. In are actual rallies to win points, thinking on your feet, reacting to the opponent, playing clever drop shots and backhand winners. Proper skilful tennis replaced raw power. In 2003, Federer beat the ace merchant Philippoussis in straight sets in the Wimbledon final and in the following two years, he bested Roddick, another huge server, twice. Incidentally, Roddick notched the fastest serve on record (155 miles per hour) in the 2004 Davis Cup. Children watching the game, searching for inspiration, in the PreFed era, may have have been unmoved by what they witnessed. Not after Federer arrived. As Boris Becker commented after Federer’s 2003 triumph, “This is a good example for any junior watching. You don’t need to serve at 135mph. We have seen the future, it arrived today”.
When learning to defeat the big servers early in his career, FedEx developed a powerful return of serve required to nullify the 140mph first serves that he faced. FedEx’s return of serve isn’t heralded as much as, say, his forehand. However, it is equally as lethal. His famous 2007 return of Roddick’s 140mph serve has to be seen to be believed. Once he gets players into a rally, he always backs himself to bamboozle them with his technique. You rarely see a server get 10 or more aces against FedEx as he is so good at returning. His movement before his opponent serves is what helps him to do this. That and his tactical awareness and quickness off the mark enable him to make returning look easier than it actually is.
Crowds love the incredible array of shots that he displays. His forehand often reaches 100mph in play. Most players that have beaten FedEx, particularly Nadal, target his backhand. Not because it is weak but for the simple reason that his forehand is too good. He developed his forehand uniquely by getting large amounts of speed and topspin onto the shot. This potent combination has helped him produce countless winners. However, it is the poise and elegance that he uses when hitting his forehand that differentiates him from the other greats. It’s not just the power of his forehand, it is the accuracy and the seemingly effortless way in which he dispatches winners. Unquestionably, Federer is the most stylish and elegant player ever to pick up a racket. His one-handed backhand is unique among modern Grand Slam winners with most players utilising the two-handed version to get more power on the shot. Not so the Express. There is a purity to the joy of watching him ping one-handed backhand winners. Again, it is not the power that he gets on the shots, it is the accuracy, spin and placement that makes them so effective.
The GOAT has extricated himself from some impossible situations with his raw genius. If you have not seen his shot against Roddick in 2002 in Basel, check it out. Roddick slammed a shot deep into the corner before Federer jumped up, gazelle-like, and almost volleyed a winner past him! Who else could play that shot? Most professional players will make the odd great shot but Federer consistently gets out of trouble by playing outrageous winners. Unquestionably, no article on the Express can be written without mentioning the 2009 US open semi-final against Djokovic when Federer hit that famous tweener to win the point. The GOAT himself said it was his greatest ever shot. There is a point where Art and sport merge in that instinctive, natural, creative moment where something timeless and memorable is forged. Federer is an artist. He plays shots that make me shout at the screen when I am watching. He raises crowds to their feet much like a musician playing live. Sport is not just about statistics. Seventeen Slams, 286 weeks at number one, these are yardsticks to prove his greatness. We need them, but they do not fully articulate his talent.
Nadal. Legend. Powerhouse. Look at the head to head record and Nadal leads 18-10. So, Nadal has his number right? Wrong. Of the 28 times they have met, 50% of these were on clay where Nadal leads the head to head 12-2! On hardcourt, Federer leads Nadal 6-5. Switch to grass where Federer leads him 2-1. So on 66% of surfaces, Federer has a better head to head. When the King of Clay won 3 Grand Slams in 2010 and Djokovic dominated 2011, not many observers gave FedEx a chance to regain a foothold at the upper echelons of the game. It was almost impossible to see him winning another Slam. In sport, as in other walks of life, there is something magical about a beaten warrior coming back from being down and out to re-take the throne and make no mistake: Federer was beaten in his quest for another slam before Wimbledon 2012. Most would have wilted under the stranglehold that Nadal and Djokovic had exerted on the game yet Federer is steely and durable as well as stylish. When Nadal came along, he changed the game again, much like he had when the big servers had ruled at the beginning of his epoch. Instead of putting the emphasis on massive serves, Nadal emphasised slugging it out in long baseline rallies and he put all his effort into the physical side of the game. Of course, he is a skillful player. That newfound focus on out battling other players with his ferocious forehand worked for him. Djokovic, with his famous gluten-free diet, then outmuscled Nadal. That’s the problem with a strength-based game, there will always be somebody who is stronger than you. Nadal and Djokovic smashed Federer off the court in 2010 and 2011. He looked physically inferior and a man whose time was up. However, Federer kept playing his game and Nadal and Djokovic played themselves into the ground. To regain number 1 in the rankings and win his 17th Slam after almost two years without one, in the midst of battling with two brutal foes, is what sets the GOAT apart from every other player. Federer became the oldest player since Arthur Ashe in 1975 to win Wimbledon with his 2012 triumph.
Watching the 2012 Wimbledon final with Murray, what struck me was that in the first set which Murray won, he bullied Federer physically and imposed his game on him only for Federer’s skill and genius to eventually outwit Murray. Thus a player in his physical prime was beaten by a player past his physical best. There was actually a moment where he seemed to break Murray’s heart when he played a drop shot which Murray chased and just about returned. Having drawn him into the net, Federer then lobbed him! Murray fell over while scrambling to retrieve the lob and Murray cursed his racket after the ball was called good. No matter how physical he made the match he was outwitted at every turn. It was amazing to witness.
Nadal had won more Grand Slams by the age of 25 than any other player in history notching 11 Grand Slams very early in his career with 7 of these coming on the red Parisian dirt. The French Open is a worthy Grand Slam but Wimbledon is the most prestigious tournament there is. Why? Because grass is the most difficult surface to win on. The ball moves a lot faster on it which means the player’s reactions have to be instant and more accurate. Clay is more suited to baseline rallies as the ball moves slower on the surface. You have more time to retrieve the ball on clay than on grass. Therefore it suits Nadal’s hustling physicality. However, there can be no doubt about which surface is more suited to skill. Perhaps this is why Nadal has only won two Wimbledon titles. When I was growing up, the French Open was, if not an afterthought, then most definitely a distant second to Wimbledon. For Nadal to stake a GOAT claim, he simply has to win more Wimbledon titles. Winning 63% of his Grand Slams on clay is not enough.
Who knows where the GOAT will go from here. Will his 2012 Wimbledon win be a sign of a revival? Could he win another Grand Slam? We are in unchartered territory. I for one feel privileged to be around to watch it all unfold, the skill, the genius. Savour it, because one day, we will be back to big servers and hard hitters trying to beat each other up on the tennis courts.