Why it’s fair to debate Federer’s ‘greatest of all time’ label

Roger Federer holds the Wimbledon trophy after defeating Croatia's Marin Cilic. (Alastair Grant/AP)

We’re all quite amazed by Roger Federer’s achievement in winning an eighth Wimbledon title and 19th grand slam — just a marvelous achievement for a class act.

After beating Andy Murray soundly at Wimbledon in 2012, a 30-year-old Federer had 17 grand slam titles, with perhaps more in the making. After all, at that point, Murray hadn’t broken through and won any of this three Slams yet, nor had Stan Wawrinka, and even the great Novak Djokovic had won only five of his current 12.

But it didn’t go that way for Federer. His next 15 grand slam appearances saw him in but three finals, five semis, and a mixed bag of early exits and surprising defeats.

But Federer’s 2017 has impressed beyond belief, as the Switzerland native has claimed his 18th and 19th career majors. No. 18, which came at the Australian Open, was an absolute testament to his mental fortitude and endurance, and an untested cruise to another Wimbledon title gave him No. 19.

Two things stand out about his latest victory — first, no human being has ever played better tennis at age 35, and second, I’m not sure we’ve seen a Slam run so free from pitfalls or roadblocks.

Federer didn’t drop a single set in the entire tournament. Twice he had the good fortune of playing opponents coming off five-set marathons in their prior round in Mischa Zverev and Canada’s Milos Raonic.

He also had the tremendous fortune to avoid all of Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, and Rafael Nadal. The past 48 of 50 grand slams have been won by these four in addition to the many trophies Federer has accumulated. Did Federer look poised and threatening enough to beat each and all of the aforementioned? Sure he did, but to not point out the lack of accomplishments of his opponents isn’t objective.

Then there’s the extended ATP Tour break and grass-court training Federer had that no one else did. No one blames Federer for skipping tournaments, including the French Open and the entire clay court season to be more ready to win Wimbledon, but you cannot argue it’s not a huge advantage for him to have done so. He doesn’t need the money or prestige or ranking points, and basically said so.

Roger Federer now has 19 career grand slam titles. (Alastair Grant/AP)

Take the schedule of, say, Raonic as a comparative point:

From the time Federer won in extremely impressive fashion in Miami on April 2, he went 73 days without playing a match before losing to Tommy Haas at the Stuttgart Open. In the meantime, Raonic plowed through tournaments in Istanbul, Madrid, Rome, Lyon, and finally the French Open in Paris. Ever get off a three-hour flight and feel exhausted? Try a three-hour match on clay the next day against a Top-20 player and see how you are then. Raonic played 16 matches, totalling 39 sets, most coming on clay, which is of very little help for the grass-court season.

Did the strain Melbourne can put on an older body factor into Federer’s call to get off the ATP treadmill for all of April and May? Hard to believe it didn’t have some part in it.

Look, Federer has clearly assembled the greatest resume a male tennis player ever has, and that’s been further cemented this year, but how much has been utter dominance, and how much impressive longevity?

Anyone with an abacus can point to grand slams and argue Federer has 19, Nadal has 15, and Pete Sampras has 14, and that’s how we know who the best is. Yes, we can all count that high. The debate is whether the Big Four Era, essentially beginning with Nadal’s ascension around 2006 or 2007, has been about four men being far and away the most skilled, determined, and undeniable above the rest of the potentially great players, or whether there’s a severe drop-off and the rest of the field needs to bear some responsibility for practically never pushing back against the dominant quartet.

Sampras has 14 grand slam titles and retired at age 31. No, his collective achievements won’t be considered as incredible as Federer’s, but he obviously played on an ATP Tour that had more than three or four great players capable of stepping up and winning multiple majors. His era started with the likes of Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, and Ivan Lendl as excellent players and dealt with Jim Courier and Andre Agassi in similar superstar arcs.

Like Nadal, Sampras won a grand slam before age 20, claiming the 1990 U.S. Open. Federer’s first major came when he was nearly 23.

The greatest tennis year I’ve ever seen, to this day, was John McEnroe’s 1984. The American was 20-1 in grand slam matches (the blemish being the heartbreaking French Open final collapse vs. Lendl), and was a stunning 82-3 over the calendar year. All while playing a full Davis Cup schedule, and double-digit doubles tournaments with Peter Fleming. Have I ever seen a full year of Federer be as dominant as McEnroe’s 1984, or Djokovic’s 82-6 2015 season? No, and you haven’t either.

Federer has under .500 career records against both Djokovic and Nadal, and holds a narrow 14-11 record over Murray. Sampras has a winning record against all his main rivals. Yes, Federer has lost a good chunk of those matches while being older than these foes. Well, he pounded them similarly when he was in his true prime and they were younger and more inexperienced. It goes both ways.

I’ll listen to an argument Federer has put together the greatest resume ever, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t valid discussion points that the field he plays in, and almost always has, just isn’t brimming with great players past the Big Four.