Fans of Roger Federer must be experiencing a kind of sporting no man’s land. As this year’s tennis season rages on, Federer is out of the picture.
Big names win big titles, but the usual roster of champions is missing an obvious name. Though eagerness is directed towards Federer’s upcoming appearance for the ATP 500 event in Basel, his absence is noticeable, having not played since Wimbledon 2021.
In his last match, he was defeated by Hubert Hurkacz in three sets. The score line of 6-3, 7-6, 6-0 is a particularly sour note to end on and mixes uneasily with any optimism that fans might have for his future.
It got worse when Federer dropped out of the rankings for the first time earlier this month. The ATP website bears a bizarre “Inactive” marker that one would expect on profiles of past giants of the sport, long retired.
With this recent decline, a reasonable question is whether Federer is out of the GOAT race?
If we define “greatness” in our world of tennis by a number of Grand Slams, then the answer is arguably – “yes”.
While Federer broke the record for reaching 20 majors after winning the Australian Open in 2018, Rafael Nadal equalled Federer’s record in 2020 by winning the French Open and became the new record-setter by reaching 21 at the 2022 Australian Open, then 22 at the 2022 French Open.
Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, made a sterling performance at Wimbledon this year, overtaking Federer’s 20 slams but also being just one behind the Swiss’s record for eight total and five consecutive titles at The All England Club.
The other important factor is that Nadal and Djokovic still possess enormous staying power; to keep appearing in these major finals, overcome chief rivals and defeat their big three counterparts for the title.
Nadal’s victory in Australia was significant because he had not won the tournament since 2009 and experienced a hard-court renaissance. On the way to his 2022 French Open title, he defeated Djokovic in the quarter-finals – a complete reversal from his surprise 2021 exit at the hands of the Serb.
Djokovic has shown his fortitude by winning the most important tournament of the year at Wimbledon after the drama of being locked out of the Australian Open. He remained fiercely competitive and technically consistent, despite not playing any tournament matches between Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
On the other hand, Federer has not defeated Nadal or Djokovic since 2019. 2019 is also crucial because it is the last time Federer won the Miami Open as part of what I would call the “key tournaments” – either a grand slam, Masters 1000 or ATP Finals.
At Miami, Federer was loose and free from outcome. He was hitting his backhand much as he did in 2017 with more power and flair. His movement was fluid, and he was quick to use any opportunity to attack with precision.
There is one glimmer of hope, however. Though Federer has been beset with difficulties in recent months, trying to rehabilitate his surgically operated knee, if his footwork is solid, he could still have a chance at winning another “key” title. The mental position of playing in what could be his last season would surely give Federer the energy to give his all.
But whatever happens to the grand slam count, Federer’s tournament participation or the success of the remaining “big three”, there are qualities that can keep Federer in the running as “the greatest”.
Whether it’s his graceful style of play, the elegant mixture of power and precision, the all-court game from the net and baseline, his demeanour during and after play, his gentlemanly attitude, or the way he transcends the game – to some, he is, and always will be, the GOAT.
Do you think Federer will always remain the GOAT? Can he mount a successful comeback to win a “key tournament”?
And can Nadal and Djokovic continue to stretch their major count? Leave your comments below.