I’m a bit of a sports nut, so we’ve had plenty of tennis watching in the last month. When we were first married we used to get up in the middle of the night and watch Björn Borg play Wimbledon. Can’t do that now, so it’s pretty much the Australian season.
This year was a celebration of the oldies, with no-one under 30 in the men’s or women’s finals. Serena Williams at 35, beating her older sister Venus (36) always looked inevitable, an unstoppable force. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal was a pure gift. Federer had no right to be there at age 35. Nadal is 30 and shouldn’t be there either. I thought Nadal would win, but I thought the match had nothing to do with who was the best player in the modern era.
The play was amazing. Federer rained down 20 aces to Nadal’s four, but Nadal’s serve was the more consistent. 73 winners flowed from Federer’s racquet to Nadal’s 35, but Federer was also making twice as many unforced errors. However, Federer’s strategy of attack paid off, winning five games in a row in the final set, after looking out of it, down a break at 1-3.
There is no single criterion for judging who is the ‘best player’, but the perception for many was that Nadal was better because he had a better head-to-head record with Federer, and dominance over Federer in Grand Slams since 2008, ignoring the fact that Nadal’s dominance only started when Federer was 27, arguably past his best, and Nadal five years younger was entering his prime. Federer winning has made some people think again, and so they should.
Grand slam tennis is a tough game for men. You have to win seven best-of-five matches on a row. Most champions win little in the way of slam tournaments after they were 26 years old. John McEnroe, Björn Borg, Stefan Edberg all won multiple slams, but were finished by age 26. Boris Becker won nothing after age 22.
There is a period between age 27 and 29 when some do quite well. After 30 almost no-one wins. Andre Agassi won two, Federer won one before this, and now Stan Wawrinka has won two of his three over 30. Other than that you have to go back to Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall. Remakably, Rosewall played professional tennis from age 22 to 32, and won eight slams, four before and four after his professional stint. While a professional Rosewall dominated everyone for a time, including Rod Laver for Laver’s first years as a professional, and deserves a mention when considering ‘best ever’.
Most, however, don’t win much after they turn 28.
I’ve taken a look at the dominance of each player over a seven-year period. Remarkably, Federer won 15/28 slams played from 2004-2010, plus runner-up six times. Nadal won 11/28 from 2008-2014, plus runner-up four times. Novak Djokovich won 11/24 in the six years 2011-2016. Then you have Pete Sampras winning 11/28 from 1993-1999, and Björn Borg 10/20 of the ones he played in from 1975-1981.
As to ‘best in the modern era’ you can take you pick from them. Djokovic is a year younger than Nadal and six years younger than Federer. I think it’s wrong to think of Federer as contemporaries of the other two, but they had to contend with him playing remarkable tennis after his prime, as well as with (Sir) Andy Murray, a year younger again than Djokovic.
Overall the story is that while Nadal claimed the French Open from age 19, Federer in four years from 2004 to 4007 won 11/12 of the rest, while being runner-up to Nadal twice in the French. That’s a dominance, the like of which we’ve never seen. Then in 2008, as he turned 27, he was beaten by Nadal in five sets at Wimbledon, 9-7 in the fifth, in what is reckoned the best match ever. Again in 2008 at the Australian Open, Nadal won in five, and Federer cried. He knew something fundamental had changed.
In the three years 2008-2010 Nadal won 6/11 and Federer 4/12, with Federer four times runner-up to Nadal’s zero. Then Djokovic took over.
There are many ‘records’ in tennis. I’m impressed with Djokovic’s highest number of ranking points as World No.1, and his 83% career Masters match winning percentage. With Federer it’s the sheer numbers, 18 slam victories, 302 weeks a No 1, 237 of them consecutive, 314 tour match wins in singles, and so on.
Nadal is a bit of a clay court specialist, with only five of his 14 slams on other surfaces, but like Federer, Djokovic and Andre Agassi, has won all four slams at least one. He plays like the Terminator, however, ferociously competitive on every point. His main contribution to tennis is not recorded in the records – his ferocious topspin on both sides.
Federer’s improvement in his topspin backhand, and advancing more to the net at Stefan Edberg’s encouragement, is one of the reasons he won at age 35. I believe he also chabged his racquet a few years ago, and Tennis Australia changed the court surface, making it faster than Wimbledon.
Other than that Borg’s percentages in the majors impress, for example 88.88% (24–3) five set match record.
Years ago Federer said that when he plays his best, he wins. For a long time he has seldom been able to do that over seven best-of-five matches in grand slam tournaments. This year, though wayward at times, he managed it.
As for the future, I suspect Djokivic, about to turn 30, might be finished. The space may open for Andy Murray for a while, and there may be more to come from Rafa and Roger. But we should be having 23 and 24 year-olds emerging. By and large, apart from the giant Milos Raonic, the Federer-lite Grigor Dimitrov, and the prodigious talent of 19 year-old Alexander Zverev, and our own Nick Kyrgios if he gets a coach and grows up, there is nothing much coming up. So the old stagers, Federer and Nadal, might win a few more before they are finished.
I love the women’s game, but it is just not comparable, playing only best-of-three. Rennae Stubbs made the ridiculous comment that Serena Williams might be the best athlete ever, male or female. Perhaps she hadn’t heard of Muhammad Ali, rated better than all the rest put together in a survey. Or even Don Bradman, whose batting average was about 60% better than the next best. Then there is Heather McKay in squash, who over 20 years was undefeated, and I believe only lost one set – to fellow Australia Marion Jackman.
That is not to say that Serena Williams has not taken power tennis to a new level. Clearly she has, and of the oldies, I think only Margaret Court may have had the physique, skill and temperament to match her.