With his 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 win over Novak Djokovic Sunday, Roger Federer won his fourth consecutive U.S. Open championship — a men’s tennis Open Era record. The championship also ties him with Roy Emerson for second place on the all-time list of men’s career Grand Slam titles (12), leaving behind Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver (both with 11), and trailing only Pistol Pete Sampras who has a ridiculous 14.
Federer is in pretty elite company as it is, but only one man stands between him and being the greatest tennis player ever. Okay, maybe two.
You can read countless articles from numerous coaches and analysts as to why Federer is so great. They’ll pretty much all say the same thing: he has tremendous focus on the court, he has great footwork, and he has unfailing mechanics.
Having those help. But Federer is great because he knows how to play tennis. And I’m not talking about hitting a forehand or serving, we’ve already established his amazing mechanics. I’m talking about his understanding of how to win a match.
You play the right points. The dirty little secret in tennis that not many people emphasize is that to win matches all you need to do is hold your serve (more easy than not if you have at the least a solid serve) and you break your opponent’s serve just once to take the set. Do that again and you’ve just won.
Federer knows this better than most. Conserve your energy. Hold your serve, which is always advantageous to the one serving. Play high-percentage tennis, hit cross-court, and minimize unforced errors. Choose the moments during your service returns to go on the offensive and pound the opponent hard.
I’ll use gambling in Las Vegas as an example, and Danny Ocean in Ocean’s 11 said it best: “Cause the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes. The house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet and you bet big, then you take the house.”
Your opponent is the house, and that moment when you need to take it up a notch to break serve is the betting big part. If you watch Federer play, he’s probably the most relaxed player in the whole tournament. Why? Because he’s not sweating every point, nor does he have to win every point. He learned long ago that playing every point is somewhat detrimental to the match itself and to your overall play career-wise. It’s something the very talented Marat Safin never learned himself.
Look at Rafael Nadal. He’s won three consecutive French Open titles (the hardest Slam) for two reasons. One, he’s supremely fit. Two, he’s tough and he’ll play every point to wear you out. That’s the way he plays. That’ the way to win on clay. But remember that he’s still only 21 years old. He’s young enough to do that. But I bet that he’ll adjust his style as he gets older (unlike the great Michael Chang), adapt to a less-strenuous style to hopefully avoid injury (he’s already had some) and simply because he’ll learn he doesn’t need to.
Take a glimpse at Federer’s U.S. Open results, round for round. He played a total of 23 sets, losing only two of them. Only five of the sets went to a tiebreaker, two with poor Djokovic who SHOULD have won both those sets by the way. Federer won another ten sets at set scores of either 6-3, 6-4, or 7-5; in order words, he won the set by a single break (and I’m not looking at individual sets to see if Federer was broken himself and and had to break his opponent more than once). He did not doughnut a single opponent, but he did win three sets with a set score of 6-1.
I’m not trying to take anything away from Federer’s game. He has serious game. Saving seven set points in the first and second sets against Djokovic takes absolute skill and focus. But to win 12 Grand Slam titles means more than just hitting winners up the line, knowing when to approach the net to volley, or attempting a drop-shot with your opponent three feet behind the baseline. It’s about knowing how to win.
And Federer’s dominance over the last two years is proof enough. Out of the last eight Grand Slam championships, Federer has won six of them. And of the two he didn’t win, the 2006 and 2007 French Open, he lost in the finals to the same clay court god Nadal. Analysts can’t stop repeating the fact that clay is Roger’s worst surface to play on. But that’s trying to artificially create a weakness for the man even though he was still the second-best player at Roland Garros.
Here’s an interesting statistic of Roger’s utter dominance over his peers the last few years. Dating back to the 2004 Australian Open, Federer has made it to the Grand Slam finals in thirteen out of a possible sixteen, with a record of 11-2 in those finals. That’s absolutely disgusting.
All throughout the U.S. Open telecasts, it was repeated by many of the commentators that Federer will never be considered the best tennis player in history unless he wins a French Open, even if he finishes his career with twenty major titles.
He’s only 26 years old, mind you. He’s reached the last two French Open finals, and he has beaten Nadal on clay before (although Nadal did say he was a bit tired that Master Series tournament in Hamburg (May 14-May 20, 2007). He’s better on clay, and I think he will win the French Open before he’s through. But knowing Federer, he wouldn’t stop at winning just one.
Twenty Grand Slam titles might seem like a stretch for Federer to achieve, but I wouldn’t bet against the greatest tennis player ever.