by Matt Zemek
A lot of tennis writers are spending today — Sunday, January 28, 2018 — trying to write about something they have written about before. If these tennis writers are relatively new to the industry, they might not have written about this development a lot. However, anyone who has written about tennis for the past 15 years has written about this news story 19 times before today: Roger Federer won a major singles tennis championship.
What is new that can be said? What is entirely original that others haven’t already written? Maybe a granule here or a kernel there, but in the broader scope of reality, not that much.
In many ways, one very interesting way to shed light on Federer’s greatness and dominance is to point out a bunch of statistics about other ATP players past and present which — if mentioned in isolation — seem impressive, but cease to be as soon as the context provided by Federer enters the picture.
Pete Sampras lost in only four major finals. Roger Federer lost 10.
Sampras lost in only five major semifinals, Ivan Lendl nine. Federer: 13.
Sampras and Lendl both lost in just six major quarterfinals.
Okay, one might say — Sampras and Lendl were great players, combining for 37 major finals between them. Of course they didn’t lose all that often late in majors.
It is true that Sampras was a great finisher. 14-4 in major finals is a very enviable record. Lendl was not the closer Sampras was, but he did make more major finals (19) than Sampras (18), which is why Lendl is reasonably seen as the most underrated ATP player without 10 or more majors.
Yet, let’s continue this little game by considering three players who spent a ton of time in the top 10 during Federer’s era… and who never won a major title because Federer and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were consistently standing in the way (and sometimes Andy Murray or Stan Wawrinka).
David Ferrer has lost 11 major quarterfinals, Tomas Berdych 10, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 9.
Roger Federer has lost nine major quarterfinals himself.
The point? Federer has taken plenty of lumps: 10 losses in major finals, 13 in semis, 9 in quarters.
10 times the Swiss has made the final of a major and lost — just one short of Lendl’s 11 major final losses. Not much daylight between the two numbers, right?
23 times Fed has made the final four of a tournament and not won it.
32 times Federer has reached the final eight of a tournament and not lifted a trophy.
Federer has done a lot of losing late in the majors. A lot — and more than his contemporaries.
“He wins all the time.” Well, in context, that isn’t necessarily the case. When he learned how to be great — starting at Wimbledon in 2003 — the key insight into Federer’s extraordinary level of achievement is that he almost completely stopped losing before quarterfinals.
Beginning in 2003 at Wimbledon and continuing through this 2018 Australian Open, Federer has played 56 major tournaments. He has failed to make the quarters in only SIX of them.
He has made the final (30) in over HALF of those 56 tournaments.
He has made the semis (43) in over 75 PERCENT of those 56 majors.
He has made the quarters (50) in just over 89 PERCENT of those 56 big-four events.
Those facts reveal the true heart of Federer’s march to 20 majors and now 6 Aussie Opens, both first on the all-time lists (the Aussie Open titles being shared with Roy Emerson and Novak Djokovic). Yet, let’s present these facts from one more vantage point to underscore how often Federer has LOST, that the reality of winning a major title has been anything but automatic over the larger march of time.
If Federer has made 30 finals in his last 56 majors, it means he has failed to make the final in 26 separate major tournaments in that span.
If Federer has won 20 majors in those 56 tournaments, it means he has failed to win 36 separate times in that span.
Volume — that is the Federer legacy everyone else cannot match.
Is he the best men’s tennis player ever? I’m not sure, and I cannot stress enough that if Rod Laver had been able to play professionally at the majors throughout the 1960s, he might have forged records everyone — including Fed — would be chasing today.
What the history books cannot argue, however, is that Federer is the most successful four-major-tournament player in men’s tennis history.
The volume tells the story in ways other concepts don’t.