Roger Federer has now won 1,202 main-draw tennis matches as an ATP singles player. He has played almost 1,500 main-draw matches. Out of all those matches played, many will fade into the fog of forgetfulness. QUICK — whom did Federer beat in the quarterfinals of Istanbul several years ago? What about the round of 16 in Dubai a decade ago? A few people who make it a point to study their favorite player’s complete match history might have memorized those answers. People in those cities might very easily recall those answers. Yet, on a broader, global level, with over 1,200 wins to remember, hundreds of Federer matches will slip into the mists of unretrieved memory.
For a Federer win to stand out, it has to possess a special quality.
Some wins are huge because of the prizes. Therefore, all 20 of Federer’s major championship match wins are instantly memorable and recognizable. A casual Fed fan, not a die-hard, should be able to get 16 out of 20 right. (Die-hards can’t consider themselves die-hards if they don’t get all 20 of those opponents correct.)
Some wins are important because of the opponent or the situation, if not both: Federer beating Novak Djokovic in the 2011 Roland Garros semifinals and then in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinals represents a pair of memorable match wins because Djokovic was so great at the times of those victories.
Some wins are memorable because of what they led to in the future. Case in point: the win over Tommy Haas in the fourth round of the 2009 Roland Garros tournament, and that 3-4, 30-40 break-point save in the third set. The Igor Andreev fourth-round match at the 2008 U.S. Open falls into that same category.
Some wins, however, aren’t memorable for the reasons outlined above. Not all wins are memorable because a championship was won, or because a Big 3 opponent was defeated, or because an escape led to a significant achievement several days later.
Some wins can be memorable simply because of what they reveal in the player, reminding people around the world — fans (who are biased), yes, but also commentators (who are not supposed to be biased, and who try to assess the sport objectively) — why an athlete became so special and has forged such a remarkable career.
Roger Federer notched that kind of win on Thursday against Borna Coric in Rome.
Yes, Coric’s forehand let him down in a match the Croatian frankly should have won:
Coric's forehand letting him down big time in this third set. Holds BP at 2-2, dumps FH into the net. 0-30 at 4-4 on Fed's serve, misses FH way long. 30-40 at 4-4, missed forehand wide. All make-able.
— Matthew Willis (@MattRacquet) May 16, 2019
Yes, Coric certainly had to help Federer get over the finish line. Federer — as I might have said a time or two before — was fortunate.
Yet, can we quickly step back and realize what we are talking about here?
A 22-year-old top-15 tennis player — who had a full day of rest before this match — was able to kick back and relax early on Thursday afternoon while a 37-year, nine-month-old tennis player played two sets of tennis and had to save seven break points, then come back just a few hours later to play the 22-year-old.
The 22-year-old player roared through the first set.
The 37-year, nine-month-old player had to get treatment for a blister on his right thumb.
That would seem to be enough for the 37-year, nine-month-old player to overcome… but WAIT: There’s MORE!
Remember when the 37-year, nine-month-old player — one year ago — was moved to No. 1 Court at Wimbledon and lost to Kevin Anderson? Never mind the fact that Federer had match point and was not uniquely bothered by the court assignment; nevertheless, the refrain emerged from some corners of the tennis community that Federer finally tasted what others on tour more regularly have to deal with: playing on the non-center court and different conditions.
On this Thursday in Rome, Federer was playing on a court he hadn’t taken before. The match began in tricky sun-and-shadow conditions which do not exist on the main stadium court.
Federer trying to change up his return position (hanging way back to return the kick serve), but it's not really working vs Coric, who looks so secure from the baseline.
Not often you see Fed return serve out of frame.
— Matthew Willis (@MattRacquet) May 16, 2019
If one is to make note of Federer’s good luck, one must also note the bad luck as well.
Sun-and-shadow conditions. Alternate court assignment. Slippery, wet lines (for which Federer criticized chair umpire Carlos Bernardes).
The thumb blister.
Two matches in the same day.
The opponent was rested and had not played a match earlier on Thursday.
The opponent was 15 years younger.
If ever Roger Federer was set up to fail — if ever a collection of circumstances put him in a bad spot — this was it.
Yes, Coric’s forehand let him down. Yes, Coric’s forehand let this match get away from him.
Yet, this match never should have come down to one or two points. Even if someone was to note that Coric allowed this match to get away, the easy-to-forget part of the equation is this:
Federer had to fight like hell to be in a position for Coric’s balky forehands to matter.
This is such an underappreciated aspect not only of tennis, or sports in general, but all competitions in various forms: You might win a competition you should have lost, in which case the loser deserves to bear a large share of the blame or responsibility for the result. Yet, the surprising winner of a close competition has to remain close enough to benefit from a late mistake or plot twist. If the competition is never close, a mistake doesn’t change the outcome. It doesn’t change who wins or loses. It merely reduces the margin of victory.
Federer had to fight to stay close enough so that Coric’s mistakes changed the actual outcome, as opposed to representing the difference between a 6-3 Coric third set and a 6-1 Coric third set.
Sports fans of all ages easily grasp the concept of “giving yourself a chance to win.”
What is more subtle — yet equally if not MORE important — is the companion notion of “giving your opponent a chance to lose.”
Federer did that. Because of his persistence, he won in the uncomfortable, unlucky, unenviable circumstance — unfamiliar court, tricky conditions, rested opponent, two matches in one day — his harshest critics say he can’t manage.
If you were to imagine a set of circumstances in which Roger Federer might struggle, you would come up with the set of circumstances which greeted his Thursday match against Borna Coric in Rome. The simple fact that he won isn’t what matters. That he won IN THESE CIRCUMSTANCES makes this one of the more memorable Federer wins out of 1,202…
… and counting.
It wasn’t a major championship. It wasn’t even a Masters semifinal.
It will still linger in the public memory of Federer’s career because of the extent to which it embodied the fighting qualities beneath the surface. It will endure because it once again revealed the lion’s heart underneath the balletic grace and the other “champagne and caviar” images associated with Federer’s identity as an extension of tennis and culture.
Federer-Coric, Rome 2019.
It was only a round-of-16 match in a tournament the Swiss is highly unlikely to win. Yet, 15 years from now, when we are contemplating his late-career match wins, this one will be a little more memorable than most — not the 2017 Australian Open, of course, but more than the many rivers of matches Federer has won routinely.
Symbolism can be empty. Roger Federer has a way of making symbolism highly substantive. That is one way to articulate the holistic excellence of a remarkable sporting life.