Men’s tennis has seen most of its titles claimed by a few men for over a decade. This effort has been spearheaded by Roger Federer, who won the first of his record-breaking 17 Grand Slam titles in 2003, and is seeking #18 at this year’s US Open after his brilliant bid for another Wimbledon title was ended by Novak Djokovic. Even with his recent troubles, Federer is still lauded by many as the greatest ever. Many attempts have been made to describe the beauty of Federer’s game, so trying to do so at this point is redundant. The focus of this piece is why he is seen as the greatest.

When many speak of the greatest ever in any sport, they refer to the number of titles, championships, MVPs, etc, since there must be some sort of baseline from which we can consider certain GOAT candidates.

In tennis, the two main criteria are: 1.) having one Grand Slam, and 2.) being ranked number one. But over the years, as players have won multiple slams and have held the number one rank for years on end, people are looking for the person who has won the most slams, been number one the most weeks, even the most weeks in a row. Names like Rod Laver and Novak Djokovic are in the conversation because, at certain points in their lives, these men were dominant over the sport. In that respect, Federer should be the best with 17 Grand Slam titles and the most consecutive as well as overall number of weeks at the number one ranking. But nothing is ever that clear. 

One person who makes the GOAT conversation interesting is Rafael Nadal, the only player during Federer’s peak who could match him. His quickness on the court extended points and made Roger hit more high-risk shots than he would have liked to, and Nadal’s fierce lefty topspin forehand to Federer’s one-handed backhand is the perfect weapon against him.

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Worst of all, he has a strong winning record against Federer. But looking at Federer’s ten victories against Nadal really reveals Federer as the greatest. How did Federer find a way to win even once against the perfect solution to his game? Nadal should have demolished him every single time the two met. This can be attributed to Federer’s tremendous ability to adapt.

If you take a look at Federer over the years, he’s changed his game pretty much every year so that his opponents can’t get used to it. Federer has incorporated so many different looks into how he plays that you can’t possibly predict where he’ll hit the ball next, how hard, or with what kind of spin. This kind of evolution of his game is the sort of mastery that other tennis professionals can only dream of. Federer has transcended the game itself to become the absolute epitome of it, and it can in part be credited to how he was able to use his strengths to overcome his weaknesses and win.

At 33 years of age, Federer is still surpassing expectations of him, as evidenced by his run to a historic 10th Wimbledon final this year.

Although he lost, I couldn’t help but remember the last time people wrote him off after his tough loss to Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open Final, and how he came back to win the French Open that year. When he received the trophy in Paris, a commentator declared “... Federer] must surely be regarded now as the best male player of all time.” With the US Open coming up and Federer showing signs of going all in, you can’t help but wonder: could it happen again? What I think is the one factor that makes Federer the greatest, the one that separates him from the rest, is that you never know.