Fact: This was a 250-point tournament.
Fact: Roger Federer played Guido Pella in the quarterfinals.
Fact: As Rafael Nadal fans will be quick to say, Rafa doesn’t play clay-court 250s during his year.
A word many people in the community of tennis fans like to use is “vulture.” The word is used as a verb, meant to convey the idea of flying in and picking up scraps with other elite players resting or otherwise unable to play. Certainly, some will say that Federer “vultured” this title in Stuttgart, Germany, en route to his 98th career title, moving within 11 of Jimmy Connors for first place on the Open Era ATP title list. As far as it goes, within the confines of the discussion, the claim is correct. I won’t mount an argument against the claim. It stands. It doesn’t need to be refuted.
The only necessary response: And? So what?
Yes, Federer picked off some low-hanging fruit by playing only four matches to win a title — not that it was easy. Facing the serves of Nick Kyrgios on Saturday (semifinals) and Milos Raonic in Sunday’s final translated into pressure-packed tiebreakers. Federer split two breakers against Kyrgios on Saturday, but he won the one which counted in the third set. He then remained solid in Sunday’s second-set breaker while Raonic double-faulted at 3-4 to permanently cede scoreboard leverage. The margins were small, but Federer normally stands on the right side of them on grass. Federer’s break from the clay season means rust in his first week back on tour is going to be part of the equation to some degree. This year, Federer finally broke through that rust to win the grass Stuttgart tournament for the first time.
It is not a Masters event. It is not Wimbledon. It is not, in a larger sense, a hugely important tournament. It is just a 250. It is little more than “vulture pickings,” many will say with convincing and reasonable logic.
And yet, even though this tournament is small potatoes on many levels, Stuttgart symbolizes something very important in the process of assessing Roger Federer’s career… on multiple levels.
A first point to make about Federer’s pursuit of Jimmy Connors is that Connors’ 109 titles came from playing anywhere and everywhere, in out-of-the-way places such as North Conway, New Hampshire. Pack a suitcase, hop on a plane to an obscure town, win a small tournament. Connors, Guillermo Vilas, Ivan Lendl, and other prominent pros in the late 1970s and early 1980s fattened their title counts by playing continuously on a less regulated and governed tour with so many more tournaments, affording players ample chances to lift trophies.
Today’s ATP Tour is much more regulated and streamlined. The sport is more physically demanding as well, which makes it harder for players to do what David Ferrer and Nikolay Davydenko did in their primes: namely, play every week. All the elite players manage their schedules relatively tightly and focus on the majors and Masters 1000 events. The 500s serve as occasional tune-ups or as home-nation events, as has been the case for Rafael Nadal in Barcelona and Federer in Basel each year. The way players need to approach life on tour in the 21st century deprives them of the chances to win championships which were available to the elite pros of 40 years ago.
To be clear, this doesn’t detract from the greats of the late 1970s or early 1980s. Winning titles is what players step on a court to achieve.
The point of emphasis is that if the Big Three’s title collections seem smaller, it’s largely because the demands and regulatory parameters of professional tennis — as a business and as a war of attrition — have profoundly changed.
Can you imagine Nadal on clay in the 1970s? He would have run wild the way Vilas did, only more so.
Can you imagine Djokovic in the 1970s at his peak? He would have exceeded Connors with the consistency of his groundstrokes and defense.
Overall championship counts simply don’t reflect the greatness of today’s elite players, and Stuttgart underscores, in multiple ways, how Federer’s 98 titles fit as part of that dynamic.
This was Federer’s 18th grass-court title. Federer has played professional tennis for more years (20 — since 1998) than he has won grass titles (18). That’s a very small number for a man who has won more Wimbledons than any other man, dead (salute, Willie Renshaw) or alive (Pete Sampras).
Why is that number so small? We know why on a general level. Grass is the one surface without a Masters 1000 event on tour. That’s a fact everyone in tennis is aware of. What is also widely known is that before 2015, the elite players in men’s tennis typically played only one warm-up grass event before Wimbledon, given that there were only two weeks between the French Open and The Championships. After playing one major tournament in France, the idea of playing each of the two grass warm-up weeks before Wimbledon was simply not a reasonable proposition. Only now can someone such as Federer skip clay, move to grass, and play two tournaments — Stuttgart and Halle — before moving to the All England Club.
Yes, it’s just a 250. Yes, Federer has not played overwhelmingly tough fields in many of his Halle championship runs. That’s all true. The Federer critics, viewed through a narrow factual lens, are not wrong to make these claims.
Yet, what the critics miss — and what raw numbers of championships will always fail to fully reflect — is how much Roger Federer has been deprived of ample opportunities to collect more grass-court championships.
Imagine if there had been three weeks between Roland Garros and Wimbledon throughout Federer’s career, not just in the last four years. Federer would likely be well over 100 titles by now.
Imagine, then, if grass had a two-and-a-half-month season the way springtime clay does.
Federer would almost surely have passed Connors’ 109 titles by now.
Stuttgart, a little ol’ ATP 250, is not — in a larger sense — a big deal on tour. Yet, this event — which did not exist as a grass-court opportunity for Federer as recently as 2014 — could be the very event which helps Federer to accumulate a few more titles and eventually surpass Connors on the all-time list.
If Federer wins Stuttgart in the year 2020 for title No. 110, there would be a considerable degree of symbolic significance attached to the feat in ways Jimmy Connors, more than anyone else, would instantly be able to recognize and appreciate.
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