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Federer Chasing History…Still?

Federer Chasing History…Still?

This is a guest post from Adam Gale, a huge tennis fan who blogs at Tennis Martian. You can also follow him on twitter – @tennismartian. I found it a very interesting read and I hope you do too. Without further ado…

Federer Chasing History…Still?

Does Roger Federer have a claim to the greatest longevity in the Open Era? It’s tempting to assume he does. After all, the Swiss soars in most comparisons with the greats of the past. The very fact that he is performing so well at 31 years old –reclaiming the number one spot, winning his seventh Wimbledon –might make the answer an obvious yes, to his younger fans.

A brief look at the history books, however, makes it clear that Federer has a long way to go if he is to be the longest-lasting champion of the Open Era. Is he really close to Andre Agassi, who reached his last grand slam final at 34 years old – 15 years after reaching his first? Or Jimmy Connors, who retired at 44, having played over 1500 professional matches (Federer has now contested 1066)? On the surface, it would seem, he isn’t close at all.

But what does longevity mean? If a former champion is still around at 40 years old, losing every match they play, does that add in any way to their legacy? Surely it’s about more than mere survival? I believe that if you look at meaningful longevity –how long a player lasts as a major force, at or near their best –Roger Federer is far closer to the top of the list, and in fact has the potential to move into first place.

Jimmy Connors

Jimmy Connors – Last Reached a Major Final in 1984; Retired in 1996

Let’s look again at Jimmy Connors. The American was a serious threat both at the slams and in smaller tournaments until Wimbledon 1984, the last time he reached a major final. Before this point, he had won over 85% of his career matches (984/1147), and had taken 104 titles, eight of them majors. From mid-1984, until the end of 1989, however, his winning percentage dropped noticeably, to 75% (216/287). Though he reached six major semi-finals in this period, he lost each of them easily in straight sets, and won only four titles overall. In the ‘90s, he won no titles, and fewer than half of his matches (42/85).

Ivan Lendl, another player known for his longevity, saw his win-loss record fall dramatically from 87% (889/1038) up to and including Wimbledon 1990, to 67% (182-62) between then and his retirement in 1994. Even Andre Agassi, who remained a significant force right up to his last US Open final in 2005, had begun to suffer a decline in consistency two years previously (his career win-loss before the clay court season of 2003 was nearly 80%; after then it was closer to 74%).

In each of these cases –and these are the three men who have a serious claim to greater longevity than Federer in the Open Era –decline preceded retirement by at least a couple of years. In each of these cases, indeed, this decline set in between the ages of 30 and 32, after somewhere between 993 career matches played (Agassi) and 1147 (Connors).

Suddenly, they don’t seem so far ahead of Federer, who has yet to decline at 31. In fact, Federer’s winning percentage so far this year -87% (64/73) –is better than at any time since 2006. If he were to persist at anything remotely like this level for another full year, he would effectively match Connors, who should still currently be considered the most durable male champion of the Open Era. If Federer were to last two or more years, he would go ahead of Connors in terms of meaningful longevity.

I believe Roger Federer is not only able but in fact likely to do just that. Firstly, he clearly still loves what he does. He loves the game, he loves the competition and he loves the lifestyle. Mental burnout –such as took down Borg or Wilander -does not seem likely. Secondly, the Swiss seems to be the freshest 31 year-old tennis player in living memory. His smooth and efficient style puts very little stress on his body, and his approach to training and scheduling has always been smart. With a little luck, this has enabled him to avoid the injuries -little and large -that had started to wear out Connors, Lendl and Agassi by their early thirties.

Of course, just because he could last a few more years, it doesn’t mean he will. Staying free from injury always involves an element of luck, and so far he has been lucky. Furthermore, his twins will presumably start school in a couple of years. For Roger and Mirka, who seem to love the itinerant lifestyle of the tennis circuit, this might be a deal breaker. If the girls can’t travel, maybe Mirka can’t travel; if Mirka can’t travel, maybe Roger won’t enjoy the jet setting quite so much any more.

Roger, Mirka and The Twins

It is ultimately impossible to know when and how Federer will decline or retire. It is clear, however, that he has the potential to be the most successful thirty-something player in decades (one has to go back to golden oldies like Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales to find truly unmatchable longevity). Indeed, given the ever more physical nature of the modern game, he has the potential to be the most successful thirty-something player for decades to come. Most of his tennis may be behind him, but if he is willing and able to keep at it, Federer still has the chance to add to his formidable legacy, even beyond the grand old age of 31.

About Tennis Martian

Adam Gale, aka TennisMartian, is a tennis writer and fan with particular interests in the history of the game and using statistical analysis to better understand it.

27 comments

  1. What a nice post. This really got me thinking, to be honest. I always like to hear Roger say that he’s looking forward to playing for “many more years”. But after the grand 2012 that he’s just had, does he feel like he needs to achieve anything else? It’s no question that he can keep playing for the history books, but for how much longer will he continue to do so?

    I never really thought about his daughters attending school, either. And ever since Roddick retired, I have been thinking about when those thoughts will play a major role on Roger’s mind. Maybe if he loses major matches like Djokovic in 2011, or if he has a repeat of years like 2008 or 2010.
    Anyway, good post. It’ll be interesting to see where Roger’s career goes from here.

  2. I think because of Roger’s great health over the years, he will be able to stay in top form for the next three years at least. He has the motivation, the skill, and the work ethic. I do think the biggest concern to his motivation will be his kids and Mirka – as pointed out, his wife might not be travelling as much in the future with the kids entering school and that could affect him.

    • It’d be fascinating to know what players actually expect from retirement, other than just ‘the end’. I mean, it seems to hit some of them (I’m thinking Sampras and Borg) like a brick wall.

      I get the impression Roger fully appreciates that he’s on to something special, and is in no hurry to say goodbye to it. On the other hand, I can’t see him making anything other than a smooth transition into retirement when he does decide on it. I wonder what he’ll do then…President of the Swiss Confederation perhaps?

      • Since he loves tennis so much, I imagine he will get involved in some capacity. Maybe he won’t be involved right away, but perhaps 5-10 years after his retirement.
        I’d really love to see Myla Rose and Charlene Riva get into tennis, if they want to of course. You have to think given who their parents are, they would be natural athletes. Even if they don’t play tennis, they could still probably be great athletes in other sports.

      • It must be hard though to go back into it when you’ve been at the top of the game. Not sure I see him coaching. Maybe some kind of ambassador role later on. Or he might not even get involved at all. He’d be a quality pundit/commentator though to have at the slams, insight like no other!

      • Great comments, guys, I’m glad that someone has finally posted about this, because I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It would be really interesting if he considered coaching. If he ever does, I think I might follow that player just because he’s coaching them, haha! And I too thought of him as a commentator someday. I think he’d be great at it, and it would be fun to hear what he would comment on while the match is playing, even a little reminiscing on when he was on tour. It’ll surely be interesting to see how it all plays out.

  3. Lovely article. Federer, we believe in you every step of the way, whether you retire or not.
    Go Rog.

  4. What do you think of Fed’s 2013? Do you think he’ll go slamless again? Does he dominate like parts of this year? I see a slam next year but it gets harder with age!

    • I think he’ll certainly be in contention, & it’ll really come down to those key matches with Djokovic, Nadal (assuming he plays again!) and Murray. It’s tough at the top, but I learned years ago never to count Federer out. I’ll go 50-50 for Roger to win a slam.

    • I definitely think he has a chance to win another slam. I think with some good rest at the end of this year and some time to think about his goals for 2013, he will be in tremendous shape. I mean, he already has achieved world no.1, so we know that he definitely has a chance. And I know that age plays a role, but we can forget that everyone else is aging too. Obviously it’s not much to talk about, but you just have to look at how their playing affects them. Djokovic, Murray, and obviously Nadal have rough styles of play, and each have been out for injury often. You can probably count on that fact that they won’t be in Roger’s state of form when they’re in their 30s, if they even make it to that point.

      • And Nadal more often than others, but Murray has had recurring back injuries this year, and Djokovic really burned out last year and around the time of the Olympics this year.

  5. Wimbledon will be his best chance, of course, but the AO could be very interesting, especially with the status of Nadal in question.

    • Seems he’s fallen out of favour with the AO Open surface past 2 years. Slowed down quite abit and Djoker owned him in ’11 and kinda blew up against Dull this year. Maybe he’s due a good run.

  6. As a fan, I feel conflicted. No doubt I do want Roger to play as long as possible but a part of me also want him to leave tennis at top of his game. I don’t think I can bear him grinding out like Agassi or Connors as I feel its a torture to watch them play on court sometimes. I would be happy Roger retires by 2013/4. In all fairness to him and his family, its time for him to watch his 2 girls grow up, have another baby or get a dog. He has given so much to us through tennis, the journey with him has been amazing and will continue to be so. The legacy he built will inspire younger generation of players out there. I am now preparing myself the day Roger will not longer walk on court to wave his magic wand…its going to be a very sad day indeed.

  7. Great post, man! :D About slamLESS 2013? I don’t think so, or I just don’t want to think on something like that. I think that the chance this year he has on Wimbledon again, but first of all he has the chance on Australian Open. I think that the crucial moment in 2013 and in all career long from now will be Roger beating Nadal on a Grand Slam. If Roger is “lucky” to get Nadal in his half it will be the best chance for him to “finally” beat him on a big stage after soooo many years, now when the AO will be first tournament Nadal to play after 6 months.
    You said that he has achieved almost everything, I say that next motivation for him may be this! :D

  8. Excellent post. I think he can still take a slam, most likely wimbledon or the us open (the way he lost there the last 4 (!) times still baffles me, he always plays fantastic there). But, in all fairness, he does need some luck in the draw : not Berdych/Tsonga/Delpo in the QF, then Nadal or Murray in the SF and Djokovic in the Final. That would be too much. I do wonder however how motivated he’ll be next year, he silenced all the critics this year. Maybe now he finally feels he has nothing left to prove any more (rightfully so).
    @ Marijan: Beating Nadal in a Slam would be great. Unfortunately, I think if they would’ve met this year at Wimbledon, Federer would win. I think Nadals absence/not playing well enough to reach the final this year preserved his H2H against Roger. For instance, I think Federer would’ve beaten Nadal at Madrid (maybe), Halle (for sure), Wimbledon (probably) and Cinci (pretty sure). I’m afraid that in 2013, Roger will not reach the level of autumn 2011 and summer 2012. Nadal will most likely be his winning self again and get his make his H2H even better.

    • Yeah it’d have been interesting to see them meet at Wimbledon. Nadal lost to Kohly early in Halle so wasn’t in great form.

      I kinda think this year was his last chance to win USO. Olympics screwed it up for him, if he hadn’t played that he would prob have won it. If he got past Berdych I reckon he’d have beaten Murray

  9. Thanks for the comments guys! Will be great to see how it all pans out, in 2013 and at the World Tour Finals, where he’s always got to be a favourite.

  10. I do’nt know. I’m afraid Murray will become an even tougher opponent for Roger.
    There is something I absolutely don’t understand though: How can anyone cheer for Murray ? He curses and shouts after EVERY point, even when he gets aced! It’s ridiculous, and bad for tennis. He’s just not a role model, or a spectacular player. Even after winning the US Open the guy stays completely lethargic, as if he had lost! He is a great player, but the things I mentioned still stand. I even like Djokovic more.

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