The Loop

Roger Federer fans, it's time to start accepting that your man is no. 3

June 11, 2020

Simon M Bruty

The tennis news has been almost exclusively bad this year, and it started in January. Australia was burning then, and it felt like the possible cancelation of the year's first major was about as bad as things could possibly get. Then, of course, it got worse. The pandemic hit, Wimbledon was canceled, and everything else is still in doubt. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic managed to cover himself in glory by questioning vaccines and endorsing psycho-spiritual water healing (or something). Yesterday, the dismal procession continued with news that Roger Federer is out for the "season" because of a setback that required another arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

If anybody can recover and return to the highest level, it's Federer, but even writing that sentence feels like a platitude. Here are some hard facts: the man with the most grand slams of all-time is already 38, which means that if he went out tomorrow and won another slam, he'd be the oldest man (and oldest person) in tennis history to do so. Since this is Golf Digest, we'll call that the "Phil Mickelson Zone." That zone is like quicksand, in that the deeper you go, the more unlikely it is that you're ever getting out.

I have a poor record of counting great players out, and we live in an age of old guys pulling off unprecedented athletics feats, so I wouldn't be dumb enough to cross out the name of Roger Federer. Still, I think any reasonable fan would have to agree that the chances he rings the Grand Slam bell ever again are less than 50%, even if his recovery goes perfectly. By the time he returns, he'll be at least three years removed from his last major title. He'll be 39 years old. He'll be facing not just Djokovic and Nadal, but a younger generation that somehow, some day, finally has to break through (right?). Federer is quickly reaching that latter-day-Connors phase in his tennis life, where a deep, exciting run to a Grand Slam semifinal might be the most anyone can realistically expect.

I say all this not to bury Federer—I like him, I always have, and I hope he continues to succeed. I say it for the religious zealots of the tennis world known as FedFans, who need to start reckoning with a broader historical reality. The news of his injury is a great time to begin. The facts are these: When all is said and done, history is going to recognize that Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal were better players than the current GOAT. That's going to be a bitter pill for the Fed Cult, but it's better if they start to accept it now than having to reckon with it suddenly later this year, next year, or the year after when it becomes inevitable. If you have to swallow disappointment, it's better to do it in slow drips than all at once. Less traumatic that way.

Here are the only real numbers that matter: Federer has 20 Grand Slams, Rafa has 19, Djokovic has 17. If the French Open is held this year, Rafa will even that score in the fall. If not, he'll do it next season. Djokovic, younger than both of them, is still the greatest threat in the men's game, and as long as he remains powered by Thetans and Alex Jones' best supplements, I think it's inevitable that he'll also eclipse Federer. (I know a bird in hand is better than two in the bush, but at this point in time I think Rafa has a better chance than Federer to stay ahead of Djokovic.)

When you look at the individual rivalries, the news gets worse. Djokovic leads Federer 27-23, including 13-6 in all finals and 11-6 in all Grand Slams. (Djokovic also has the unique and underrated claim of being the only man in history to win all nine Masters 1000 events.) Rafa leads Federer by an even wider margin, 24-16, 14-10 in finals, and 10-4 in grand slam. Even when you remove clay from the equation—and why would you? If anything, the entire tennis universe is lucky more events aren't played on clay—Rafa is close at 14-10.

Federer's one claim is that he'll likely have the most ATP titles, but it's not enough. When you have fewer Grand Slams than your biggest rivals, a lower career winning percentage, and a losing record against both of them, you're third best. Period.

The "who's the GOAT?" question dominates the Big Three discourse, and I'm not lamenting that—it's fun, and until recently it's been ambiguous. Hell, it's still technically ambiguous. Life is bizarre, and stranger things have happened than both Nadal and Djokovic failing to reach 20. And as mentioned before, you can't bury Fed quite yet.

But bad news is likely coming, and maybe it's time for the Federer hordes to worry less about his ranking against his two greatest peers, and appreciate more the breadth of his career and the godlike skill of his game. In the latter approach, appreciation can deepen with the years. Base your love on comparisons, though, and the road ends in heartbreak. It's time to start adjusting now; get in the right mindset today. Discover your inner zen. Be at peace, and you'll barely feel it when the bludgeoning hammer blow of reality strikes.