Roger Federer & the weak era argument

An unusually perspicacious tweet.

One of the oft-repeated theories trotted out to malign the great Swiss maestro’s career is that he won a bulk of slams in an extremely weak era of tennis. Of the 16 slams held between 2004 & 2007, Federer won 11 of them. The only men who stopped him from winning the lot were clay court specialist Guga (in 2004), clay court Nadal Rafael Nadal (2005-07) (its not a typo, I couldn’t think of a better adjective to describe Nadal on clay than Nadal) and a superhuman effort by mercurial Marat Safin (2005). It is my personal belief that Safin is the only player who can beat Federer even when Fed’s playing at his absolute jaw-dropping best.

From 2004 to 2006, Federer lost just 15 matches (winning 247) in three whole years and set records for consecutive wins on hard & grass courts. Like Asterix & Obelix (with a little help from Getafix) stood between Julius Caesar & completely ruling Gaul, Rafael Nadal (with a little help from Toni Nadal), stood in between Federer & all court domination. Federer’s 7 losses on dirt in said era was second only to Rafa’s 2 losses. There is always one player in every era that people say was born in the wrong year. It could not have been truer for Federer had Rafa not been around. There is literally no limit to how many titles Federer would have won circa 2004-06. Hell even a robot would have lost more than 15 matches due to law of averages.

Just like nCr = nCn-r, all this domination is actually proof that Federer played in a weak era for his detractors. They claim the only competition he had was Rafa and he won most of his titles before Rafa learnt how to play on surfaces which could not be used to mould pots & pans and statues & sculptures. That Federer could not sustain his exploits after Rafa hit his stride is a clear indicator, in Fedetractors‘ minds, that Federer only won when he had no competition. Pwned!

The aim of this post is not to say Federer is blameless in his losses to Rafa and lately, Nole. The aim is to take a look at his contemporaries. Rafa & Nole fans can try and twist the arguments as much as they want but the clear irrevocable fact is that they are not Federer’s peers. Rafa is 5 years younger and Nole is 6 years younger. It would not be grossly incorrect to say that a player’s contemporary is the guy who was born or turned pro 1-2 years before & after the said player was.

Contrary to popular opinion, there are very rarely more than 4-5 players/teams in contention for any title. Federer turned pro in 1998. It was around this time that these players turned pro:

Marat Safin (b. 1980) – 1997

Juan Carlos Ferrero (b. 1980) – 1998

Andy Roddick (b. 1982) – 2000

David Nalbandian (b. 1982) – 2000

Lleyton Hewitt (b. 1981) – 1998

I don’t think it would be disingenuous to say that these 5 players along with Federer would make the proverbial “class of future stars” in the time when the era-defining players of 1990s, Sampras & Agassi, were showing signs of their respective downswings. Strangely enough, all of these players reached their first slam semifinal (Yes! Even Roddick – 2003 Australian open) before Federer reached his first and other than Roddick, all of them reached their 1st ever slam final before the Swiss maestro. Roddick was late by just 1 tournament.

All of the aforementioned players, barring Nalbandian, were slam winners and number 1 ranked tennis players in the period of 2000-2004. Another interesting factoid is that, once again barring Nalbandian, the others were multiple slam finalists and ranked world number 1. Safin & Hewitt were two time slam champions to boot viz as many as Andy Murray & Stan Wawrinka. The 5 men won 5 grand slams and reached 9 other finals between them. Suffice to say they were no slouches.

Fedemporaries‘ performance at the then Tennis Masters Cup now called ATP World Tour Finals was pretty impressive as well. In the tournament, where the top 8 players in the world took part, each player qualified multiple times which in itself is a splendid achievement. In addition to qualifying, all of them reached the semifinals of the said cup more than once. Hewitt was a two time winner and Nalbandian famously denied Federer from equalling Johnny Mac’s whirlwind 1984 record of 82-3 from two sets to love down in Shanghai. Ferrero reached one final losing to Hewitt and another semifinal. Roddick and Safin reached 3 and 2 semis respectively.

They were multiple champions at what is now called the ATP 1000 series of tournaments. Safin (5 wins – 3 finals), Roddick (5-4), Ferrero (4-2), Hewitt (2-5) & Nalbandian (2-4), won multiple titles (18) and reached multiple finals (18) in what are considered the 3rd best tournaments (after slams & tour finals) in ATP’s hierarchy. They were also impressive performers in team competitions with only Nalbandian (3 time finalist with Argentina) failing to win the Davis cup. All the others played crucial roles in their countries’ respective wins in the most prestigious team competition.

Federer was touted for greatness for at least some time before his first signature win over Sampras at SW19 in 2001. John McEnroe, who was commentating during the match, said, and I am paraphrasing here, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Federer going for the slam record 10 years from today”. A 2 whole years before Federer won his 1st slam! In 2005, when Federer won his 2nd US open and just his 6th slam, David Letterman said this on his show while interviewing Federer, “People are now falling all over themselves to say that likely you could become the greatest player of all time”.

Federer was a bit of a late bloomer and won his 1st slam, which was also his 1st slam final, when he was nearly 22. Most of the legends either reached or won their first slams whilst in their teens and generally are well established by the time they are 22-23. If you dig just a little bit deeper into the quint’s records, almost all of them won their titles before Federer won his 1st slam. Only Roddick & Safin won a slam after Federer hit his stride.

A very developing competitive class that was obliterated by Federer once he righted his mind. Both Nalbandian & Hewitt dominated Federer initially. Hewitt famously won a Davis cup tie from 2 sets to love down in 2003. He won 7 of his first 9 meetings against Federer. Nalbandian won his 1st 5 matches against Federer. Once Federer sorted out his tantrums & rage issues, he completely turned both rivalries on its head. He leads Nalbandian 11-8 & Hewitt 18-9.

Federer winning in a weak era is a duplicitous statement. Just like how a dictator would eliminate all his potential rivals/threats to capture absolute power, Federer pounded the adversaries of his age group into submission. Roger Federer made a developing strong era into a weak era and dominated all comers and goers winning match after match in glorious style hitherto unmatched. In the era of baseline grinding power tennis, Federer is the only guy who wins with finesse and panache.

Ultimately what nonpluses me is this amazingly fallacious circular logic. Federer is apparently not GOAT because he won in a weak era (not very unreasonable) but Nadal & Djokovic are somehow the GOAT because they have dominated the not-GOAT?

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