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Roger Federer’s retirement from competitive tennis means the sun is starting to set on the golden generation of men’s tennis, buoyed by the extraordinary performances of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. News of his retirement reignited the debate over whether he is not just a great in men’s tennis, but also THE GOAT: the greatest of all time.
For many, Federer alone is at the pinnacle of this and every generation to come. However, the numbers do not confirm this opinion. 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 insufficient measure of sporting success. First, they mask the effect of events that distort equality of opportunity across generations. For example, the numbers do not reflect the recent COVID interruption (and the subsequent exclusion of an unvaccinated Djokovic from competition), nor do they capture the transition period from amateur to professional tennis.
How many Grand Slam titles would Rod Laver have won if he hadn’t been banned from Grand Slam events for five years (1963-1967) after retiring from the professional tour? Laver won 11 Grand Slams during his career, including the Calendar Grand Slam (he won all four Slams in the same year), both before and after his ban. The success of even one calendar grand slam eluded Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
Even if we had a fair and accurate means of comparing athletic achievement across generations, it would not solve the question of greatness. Because sporting greatness cannot be reduced to sporting success. This difference may be what Federer’s fans are getting at when they call him the GOAT. Rather than nostalgia for a time when the numbers stacked up in his favor, they may point to a broader notion of sporting greatness.
What makes a sports size?
We should adopt a more nuanced understanding of sporting greatness than one limited to rankings and titles. Winning is one of many sporting values. To work with a limited view overlooks important sporting values that have been the hallmark of Federer’s career: excellence, aesthetics and integrity.
Federer played “total tennis”. He possessed the full repertoire of skills and abilities—the elements of excellence—that the sport tests and enables. At his best, he could serve-volley and score points quickly or grind out long plays from behind the baseline.
As he entered his thirties, he reinvented his game to play on the baseline and take the ball earlier. While his opponents relied on a narrower set of “excellences” to execute brilliantly, Federer adapted his game to whatever the circumstances demanded, performing different elements at different times.
Great players not only enhance the sport as it is, but change our understanding of what it can be. While aesthetics are essential to a sport like gymnastics, they are secondary to tennis. An ugly point counts the same as a noble point; clumsy moves can be just as effective as graceful moves.
However, Federer’s style was uniquely pleasing to the eye. With the grace and fluidity of strokes and smooth explosive athleticism, he brought tennis to new aesthetic heights. He showed that efficiency does not have to come at the expense of beauty. His style removed the distinction between racket and player; in his hand the rocket was an extension, not an addition. Federer revealed new aesthetic possibilities in tennis while never compromising in the pursuit of perfection.
Finally, Federer’s greatness also lies partly in his ethics. His integrity as an athlete was most evident in how he conducted himself on the court, how he handled his competition, and perhaps most memorably, how he competed against his greatest rival.
Federer knew how to lose well. In a career that spanned more than 1,700 fights, he never retired from a fight, never feigned or succumbed to injury when the contest began to fade. Thirteen times he has won the ATP Sportsmanship Award, an award voted on by his fellow professionals on the men’s tour.
At every stage of his career, he cultivated relationships of mutual respect and appreciation with his main rivals, whether it was Andy Roddick in the early period, Nadal in the middle period or Djokovic in the late period. His rivalry with Nadal, in particular, has seen us witness the best of rivalry – a mutual pursuit of excellence in which both players challenge each other to stretch each other’s abilities and improve.
While their complementary strengths and weaknesses combined to create 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, but neither resorted to the morally dubious means of cheating or playing games.
Even in the pursuit of history, they proved that competition does not have to be ruthless. Their example belies any cynical view of competition that rivals must be enemies and every opportunity must be taken to advantage. Federer and Nadal thereby proved a service not only to tennis, but also to sport.
Federer honors and deepens the tradition of tennis that goes back to his idol Pete Sampras and Sampras’s idol Rod Laver. This tradition values attacking flair, fluid technique and impeccable manners. The modern history of men’s tennis arguably begins with Laver, so it is fitting that the Federer era ends this weekend at the Laver Cup.
In the final analysis, where Federer stands in the pantheon of tennis’ great champions is less important than how he expanded our understanding of sporting greatness itself. Success is a part of it, but only a part – excellence, aesthetics and integrity also define the greatest of all time.