Why Roger Federer Is the Greatest Champion in Any Sport
Unlike most sports where debates over greatest of all time can rage far and wide, there is little argument about who stands as the GOAT of men’s tennis. The better question may be whether Roger Federer is the greatest individual champion in the history of any sport.
By virtually every measurement, the ageless Federer stands alone as the greatest men’s tennis player in history. And remarkably, at age 37 and 15 years removed from his first Grand Slam triumph, he remains a threat to win anywhere, any time, on the men’s tour.
How has he done it? There’s no simple answer, but perhaps this comment sums up as well as anything what’s it like to be Roger Federer playing at the top of your game.
"For me, it feels like everything’s in slow-mo coming toward me, and you feel like for the opponent, everything’s going super fast," Federer said in an ATP World Tour interview. "That’s when I feel at times invincible. It’s very rare, but it has happened in the past, and it’s a beautiful feeling to have. I guess it’s the ultimate feeling to have as a tennis player or as an athlete."
Here is a breakdown of all the ways the Swiss champion is the indisputable GOAT of men's tennis and a champion in life.
Records that Speak for Themselves
The list of records Federer has set during his career seems at times endless, including holding at various times the most Guinness World Records in one discipline (29). First and foremost, he owns a record 20 Grand Slam titles, including being one of only eight players in history to win the career Grand Slam of the Australian Open (six titles), French Open (one), Wimbledon (eight) and U.S. Open (five).
He owns the record for most Wimbledon crowns and shares the record for most Australian Open championships with Roy Emerson and Novak Djokovic. In addition, he’s the only player in history to win five consecutive U.S. Open championships (2004-08). Between 2004 and 2010, he advanced to a record 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, including 10 consecutive finals.
His record-setting dominance, however, goes well beyond the Grand Slams. Federer has spent a record 310 weeks during his career as the No. 1-ranked men’s player in the world, 24 more than second-place Pete Sampras. And no one in the history of the sport comes close to the remarkable 237 consecutive weeks he spent ranked No. 1 from 2004 to 2007 (Jimmy Connors is second at 160 weeks). He is the only player in history to go three consecutive calendar years without interruption as the No. 1 player in the world (2005-07). He also is the oldest player ever ranked No. 1 (36 years, 320 days).
Great Rivalries Made Him Greater
Federer’s record-setting feats are all the more impressive when you consider that he has excelled in an era that has featured many of the greatest men’s players the game has ever seen. His greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, is second all-time in Grand Slam titles at 17, and is arguably the second greatest men’s player ever. Then there’s Novak Djokovic, who’s tied for third all-time in Grand Slam championships with 14.
Imagine how many more Grand Slam titles Federer might have won if he hadn’t spent so much of his career competing against these all-time greats. In addition to his two greatest rivals, Federer also has spent much of his career battling such stars as Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and Andy Murray.
For Federer, though, these rivalries were an instrument of his success on the tennis court, rather than a hindrance to extending his dominance even further.
"Eventually, Nadal came and he made life hard for me, and I had a hard time accepting that he’s going to be my rival now for a while," Federer said. "It took me awhile to understand that I can draw a lot of energy, and it could actually push me forward to actually improve my game one step further, and then the same thing happened with Djokovic, the same thing happened with Murray, and so forth. … I think you always need somebody you can have a great rivalry with, and for me, thank God I had them."
Great athletes are defined not only by their dominance over a career but by the roles they played in some of the sport’s greatest individual moments. Win or lose, Federer has found himself at the center of some of the most memorable matches in the history of the sport.
The 2008 Wimbledon final against Nadal, in which Federer was denied a record-setting sixth consecutive championship, is regarded by many as the greatest tennis match ever. The match lasted nearly five hours before Nadal prevailed in five scintillating sets.
The following year, Federer again found himself immersed in an epic, four-hour-plus Wimbledon final, this time against Andy Roddick. In the longest Grand Slam final ever based on games played, Federer triumphed 16-14 in the fifth set to break Pete Sampras’ all-time record for Grand Slam titles.
Close behind the two Wimbledon classics might be the 2017 Australian Open final, which pitted Federer against Nadal in a Grand Slam final for the first time in six years. Federer, who hadn’t won a Grand Slam since 2012, roared back from a 3-1 deficit in the fifth set to win five consecutive games and defeat Nadal in a Slam tournament for the first time since 2007.
Defeating Father Time
Perhaps the greatest testament to Federer’s greatness has been his ability to atop the game well into his late 30s, years after most players have reached their peak and either retired or begun to fade from the upper echelons of the sport.
After a lapse of more than five years from the top of the world rankings, Federer reclaimed the No. 1 spot in 2018 after his 36th birthday. In the same year, he captured his sixth Australian Open crown and 20th overall Grand Slam title.
Federer’s ability to defy the effects of age has left former greats such as John McEnroe astounded.
"It’s still beyond belief," McEnroe said in a February 2018 interview. "It’s one of the craziest things I’ve seen in the 25 years I’ve been doing commentary and in the additional 15 I played, to see a guy at that age, play at that level, and move better than he did, to me, when he was 28. I don’t understand how the hell he’s doing it. It’s truly amazing to watch."
For his part, Federer continues to believe he has plenty of gas left in his tank to compete among the world’s best.
"If I am still on tour, it is because I believe I can still win tournaments, still beat the best, and I’m showing that," he told a Chinese television network.
The Comeback Kid
During his nearly two decades of excellence, it’s easy to overlook the fact that at multiple points, it looked as if Federer’s best days might be behind him, or that he might permanently lose his place among the sport’s elites. Each time, he defied the skeptics.
The first signs of decline in his game came as far back as 2011, a year when he failed to win a Grand Slam title for the first time since 2002.
The next year, however, he rebounded with his most match wins since 2006 and his highest winning percentage and most tour titles since 2007, including another Wimbledon crown that again vaulted him to the world’s top ranking.
The next several years saw Federer plagued with various injuries that led to a four-year Grand Slam championship drought and prompted many pundits to declare his days of greatness over. Federer proved them wrong again, returning to the top of the game in 2017 with titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, where he became the oldest champion at the All England Club in the Open era and first player since Bjorn Borg in 1976 to win the tournament without dropping a set.
After seeing his ranking drop all the way to 17th at the beginning of 2017, Federer had begun his unlikely climb back to the top of the sport.
Former player and longtime coach and analyst Brad Gilbert notes that Federer has an ability to take off long stretches of time to recuperate from injuries and train, and come back stronger and fresher.
"That’s the greatness of Roger, his game comes so easy," Gilbert said on ESPN at the 2017 Wimbledon. "I think on the six-month break (in 2016), he actually came back about five years younger. There’s a lot to learn in how he’s not overplayed. He plays a schedule conducive to what he wants to do, and he takes time off when he needs it to train."
The Mental Edge
Whatever declines Federer has experienced in his physical abilities over the years have been more than matched by his mastery of the mental elements of the sport. That may explain more than anything why he has been able to bounce back from so many setbacks over the years and elevate his game time and again, despite growing older.
"He has this unique ability even when in times of struggle … he brushes that off a lot more easily than anyone," McEnroe said. "That is an incredible quality to have."
Federer says that developing the mental aspects of his game has been every bit as important to his long-term success as his physical skills and conditioning.
"The mental edge is so crucial for an athlete," he said. "If you know that things are not going to go well, the mental side is always going to be there. There were a lot of things I did well when I was younger, but the hardworking part and really believing that I can do it day in and day out, week in, week out, that I didn’t have. That’s something I really had to work really hard at, and over time, I was able to get that, and it’s the difference maker.”
A Gift of a Body
While Federer’s mental game may explain a lot about his legacy, there’s no overlooking those physical attributes that continue to pay dividends in his game as he inches closer to 40.
Federer’s speed, fluidity and amazing shotmaking ability have never abandoned him, and his all-around skills have made him the best all-court player in the history of the game, capable of excelling on any surface. Known for his powerful groundstrokes and smashes, nifty footwork and clutch serving, Federer also has developed his own signature shot known as the SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger), in which he attacks an opponent’s second serve with a half-volley.
Chris Evert, one of the greatest women’s players ever, spoke of Federer’s rare physical talents in an interview on ESPN.
"There's no strain. He doesn't muscle anything," she said. "He kind of glides around. And that style just doesn't result in a lot of injuries. He moves naturally. He's got the fast-twitch muscles, so he glides across the court. His body is a gift."
A Man of Style
Federer’s stylish reputation on the court hasn’t been limited to his shotmaking prowess. He’s long been known for his fashion ensembles (complete with his signature R&F-embroidered outfits) and dressing to the nines, whether he’s smashing forehands or attending glittering social gatherings.
It’s no surprise, then, that he was named GQ Magazine’s Most Stylish Man of 2016, as well as International Man of the Year in 2005 by GQ Germany, and has drawn no shortage of endorsement opportunities during his unparalleled career. Federer was recognized as the world’s most marketable athlete by the London School of Economics in 2015 and 2017. In 2016 and 2017, the Forbes Fab 40 touted him as the top global athlete brand, exceeding the likes of LeBron James, and he was the top-earning tennis player off the court for 11 consecutive years from 2007 to 2017.
Federer’s celebrity status, which transcends his feats on the court, has even resulted in special edition Swiss and Austrian postage stamps in his honor.
Family Comes First
Federer has earned a well-deserved reputation as a devoted family man. He and his wife, Mirka Vavrinec, a former tennis pro herself, were married in 2009 and have two sets of twins — girls Myla and Charlene, born in 2009, and boys Leo and Lenny, born in 2014.
It’s not common for star players to balance parenthood with the grueling worldwide travel schedule that comes with playing on the ATP Tour, but Federer has found a way to make it work. He’s the first active player since Ivan Lendl in the early 1990s to have four children.
"My wife does a lot of work, as much as she can. And I try to help as much as I can," Federer said upon the birth of his second set of twins in 2014. "We have the grandparents as well and all my team members, they sometimes just tag along. Clearly, we also need some help on the road, so Mirka can have an opportunity sometimes to sleep in a little bit, or come to watch one of my matches."
In an interview this year with the Swiss newspaper Coopzeitung, Federer said his family may continue to grow in the years ahead.
"This topic is certainly not complete yet, but we will not deal with that until I finish my career," he said.
A Man of Many Tongues
Federer’s ability to excel on multiple surfaces while playing tennis is more than matched by his ability to communicate in multiple tongues. He speaks English, standard German, Swiss German and French, and often conducts press interviews in different languages.
Federer grew up speaking Swiss German but also became fluent in English at a young age because of his mother’s South African roots. He’s dabbled in Chinese, Italian, Swedish and some Afrikaans as well.
French is the language that Federer often associates with his youth and tennis playing.
"When I speak French, I am more in the world of tennis, technique, physical, because I always do my technical training in French with (training coach) Pierre Paganini," he said. "It makes me think of school also. When I was 14 or 16 years old, I was in (French-speaking) Lausanne at school. When I speak French, I always feel I'm a teenager."
While he often speaks English at home, Federer considers Swiss-German his family’s language. "It's me. It's home. It's who I am really, I believe. But you're right, I'm different according to the language I'm speaking."
Greatness Off the Court
Greatness for Federer hasn’t been limited to his triumphs on the court. His status as one of the most admired and respected athletes in the world stems in large part from his immense philanthropic efforts as well as his graciousness and personal popularity.
The Roger Federer Foundation, which he founded in 2003, has invested over $28.5 million in Africa and Switzerland, helping hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty. He has won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award twice and the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award 12 times. In a 2011 study by the Reputation Institute, Federer ranked No. 2 behind Nelson Mandela among the world’s most respected, admired and trusted personalities.
When Federer discusses the elements of greatness, his focus also turns to his experiences off the court.
"I think it’s also how you carry yourself off the court, away from the on-court hype that everybody knows, but also goes into your personal life, maybe the media, maybe your charitable work," he said. "I’m not sure you can show greatness all around your life. It’s not easy to achieve, and I’m still trying hard to get there."