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Monday, September 19, 2022

Federer and McEnroe (Updated)

Roger Federer announced his retirement last week. He will play the Laver Cup (a Europe v. U.S. exhibition tournament) next week, then hang it up. Federe has not played in more than a year and has missed big chunks of the past several seasons with various injuries. He lost his last match at 2021 Wimbledon quarter in straight sets, with a third-set bagel, at one point slipping and falling on an easy volley; you could tell his body was no longer right.

I am an inveterate Federer-stan. I stayed in his camp in the G.O.A.T. debate--until it became impossible to deny reality that Nadal or Djokovic was better. This is true on any measurement: 1) Grand Slams championships (Nadal 22, Djokovic 21, Federer 20*); 2) Weeks at # 1 (Djokovic); 3) Head-to-head (16-24 v. Nadal, 23-27 v. Djokovic). What is left for Federer-stans is the inarticulable grace and artistry--Federer and his game looked different than everyone else, beautiful beyond ordinary tennis. It is telling that in the coronation of U.S. Open champion Carlos Alcarez as the next great player, he is described as combining the best of Djokovic and Nadal; no one mentions or compares him to Federer, because no one replicates Federer's game.

[*] Sports what-ifs are easy, but Federer should have 22. He inexplicably gave away a 2-set lead to Juan Del Potro at the 2009 U.S Open Final and blew two match points against Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon Final.

I circled around to John McEnroe. Like Federer, McEnroe's game looked different than everyone else, having some balletic beauty that no other players (even players with a similar serve-and-volley style) shared or replicated. And that grace and beauty elevates the player in the history, even if the numbers do not match the memory. That is partly why we remember McEnroe's relatively brief run at the top. And it is why we will remember Federer in a place even when the record book places others ahead of him.

Update: A fellow Federer-stan suggests additional metrics under which Federer retains G.O.A.T.-ness. Federer's peak 4 1/2-year run (2003-2008) is unrivaled. He spent 237 consecutive weeks as world # 1 (almost double Djokovic) and remained # 1 from the beginning of 2005 to the end of 2007. Aside from two losses to Nadal in Paris, he was so far above the rest of the world. He made the semis in 46 tournaments, including 23 in a row; even if he did not win, he was always in the hunt. (Similar to Jack Nicklaus who has the most major titles and the most second-place finishes). Points well-taken.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 19, 2022 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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