At the End of 2011, the Greatness of Roger Federer in Context

In past years I was never a huge Roger Federer fan. No particular reason…there was just nothing about his game and style that made me feel passionately one way or the other.

As I have begun seeing more “live” tennis, writing about the pro tours, and dissecting the numbers (stats), my views have changed on a great many things. The greatness of Roger Federer is one of them.

Numbers don’t lie. They can sometimes be manipulated, but they don’t lie. The numbers that Roger has put up tell a story of overwhelming greatness even on this “downside” of his illustrious career. He may not be the dominant player he once was during his prime, especially against the likes of current rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. But his Basel and Paris wins added some nice perspective and context to his career accomplishments.

Roger won his 69th career title by winning the Paris Masters, the final Masters tournament of the season. He won in commanding style over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Actually, “commanding” isn’t a strong enough word to describe how well Roger played during that tournament week, and how well he is playing at this stage in the ATP calendar.

At a time when everyone else seems to be fading and dealing with injuries, Federer is hitting the ball as well as he ever has with no hint of physical letdown. This bodes well for his chances of taking home a record-setting 6th ATP Tour Finals title. He currently shares the record of most ATP Finals titles with Lendl and Sampras, each with 5. Roger finds himself poised, once again, to set himself apart from even the elites of the game in terms of greatness.

With Roger’s win in Paris and his earlier win the week before in Basel, here are a few stats to chew on regarding Mr. Federer and his greatness:

The Milan indoors in 2001 was Roger’s first tournament title. The Paris Masters in 2011 was his 69th tournament title. Surprisingly, it was his first Paris title. Marseilles 2000 was his first appearance in an ATP singles final. The Paris Masters final was his 99th. The Basel title was his fifth title at that tournament, and gave him a total of 5 tournaments that he has won at least 5 times (Halle, Wimbledon, US Open, Basel, ATP Finals – 26 total)

Let’s put these numbers into perspective. For career titles alone, you would need to add up the top two players’ (Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic) total career titles (74) to better Roger’s total of 69. If you were to add up the total number of career titles for the #2 and #3 ranked players (Nadal and Andy Murray), their total of 67 — less than Roger’s total alone.

Part of this incredible number is inherently due to Roger’s longevity on the tour. Roger turned pro back in 1998. Rafa turned pro in 2001, Novak in 2003, and Andy in 2005. But none of the top 3 (with maybe the exception of a healthy Nadal) look to be on anything close to that pace in terms of title productivity.

A small journey down the rankings adds an even greater level of perspective to Roger’s total of titles. If you add up the total number of career titles for the guys ranked below Roger at 5-8 (Ferrer, Berdych, Tsonga, Fish – the bottom half of the final elite 8 that are currently in London), the total is 40. Even when you add in the guys ranked 9-12 (Tipsarevic, Almagro, Del Potro, and Simon) the total number of career titles is only 60.

Let’s look at Roger’s 99 appearances in ATP finals. 99 finals…Are you serious? The only active player in close contention is Nadal with 66. Djokovic has 42, Murray has 30, Ferrer has 25. Do any of these guys, Nadal excluded, realistically have a chance of even coming close? If the likes of Roddick (50), Hewitt (42), Ferrero (34) and Davydenko (27) can’t come close with their long successful careers, it’s highly unlikely any of them will.

And all of these stats don’t even take into account the numerous other “big” records, including Roger’s total number of Slam finals (23), total number of Slam titles (16), and his freakish streak of Slam semifinal appearances (23) and total number of Slam semifinal appearances (29).

There was once a time when Roger’s seeming lack of passion, winning in routine fashion, and jabs at opponents with subtle arrogance kept me from fully appreciating the totality of his achievements. Now, however, I am fully appreciating the magnitude of his achievements, the technical excellence of his shot-making, and the continued excellence he displays on court at a time in his life when he could completely rest on his laurels.

When you put it into the context of the length of Roger’s on-court productivity, the opponents he has faced over the years, and the seeming lack of physical toll it’s taken on his body and mind, there really are no words that could adequately describe what Roger has been able to accomplish.

No, wait. There are words: the greatest of all time.

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