Roger Federer may not have won every Grand Slam throughout his career but that hardly overshadows his 20 Grand Slam titles, nor does it quell the debate of whether or not he is the greatest tennis player to have ever played the game. After 24 years and one of the greatest competitive records in the sport’s history, Federer is retiring, which begs the question: should he be remembered as the Greatest of All Times (or GOAT)? Many tennis fans may argue that Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Rod Laver or Raphael Nadal (who now has 2 more titles than Federer after winning his 22nd Grand Slam) are more deserving of that title.
Here are three arguments for why Federer is the greatest tennis player, and three acknowledging that while he is great, he’s not necessarily the greatest of all time.
Why Federer is great but not the greatest
Lack of competition
Roger Federer dominated the tennis courts between 2003 and 2007, winning 12 out of his 20 Slams. In seven out of those 12 Grand Slams, Federer beat Andy Roddick (who admits he is one of the worst players to ever hold the no.1 ranking), Lleyton Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis, Marat Safin and Marcos Baghdatis, none of who are considered elite players, and who weren’t ranked highly when Federer won against them.
The average ranking of the players Federer faced in the finals during those years is 16.3. Back then, Djokovic’s average, for example, stood at 6.5, meaning Federer played against weaker players than Djokovic did in the finals at that time. Federer’s decline in wins coincides with the emergence of Nadal and Djokovic. His impressive record of Grand Slam wins should be attributed mostly to his lack of competition during those earlier years. Since 2007, Nadal and Djokovic have each taken their fair share of Grand Slam titles – though Nadal upped the ante in June 2022 by claiming his record-breaking 22nd Grand Slam title.
Actually, Serena Williams is the best
When considering who deserves to be named as “the best tennis player of all time,” gender should be left out of the discussion (although it usually isn’t). In which case Serena Williams would be considered the game’s best player ever. Even Federer himself has acknowledged her dominance in the sport.
Case in point: Williams’s record of 23 Grand Slam wins is more impressive than Federer’s 20. No one is close to flirting with Williams’s domination, and she holds a better Slam-Average (Grand Slams entered/won ratio). So, when only referring to men’s tennis, the claim that Federer is the GOAT may be legitimate, although worth a deeper discussion. However, when gender is taken out of the equation, it has to be Williams!
It’s impossible to compare over time
Comparisons across eras are insufficient. Training conditions and methods are becoming more professional as time goes on. Modern equipment and technology provide players with better equipment and different means of playing the game. Moreover, you can`t tell which players competed in a stronger era.
For example, can you tell if Federer is better than Rod Laver or Pete Sampras? Sampras competed with stronger players, like Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and Pat Rafter. Laver dominated the game no less than Federer, winning 11 Grand Slams despite the fact that he was not allowed to compete for five years in the middle of his career. It can’t be said conclusively that Federer is the best player to ever play the game—therefore, it shouldn’t be said.
Why Federer may really be the GOAT
Federer plays the most beautiful, elegant tennis ever
There are few things in sports as aesthetically pleasing and graceful as Federer’s tennis game. At his prime, his flair and creativity were phenomenal, while his movement is economical, in that he doesn’t run as far or as much as his rivals. His single-handed backhand is poetry, a thing of beauty, an all-time classic. In fact, every aspect of his game is executed effortlessly, with much style and grace.
American statesman Henry Clay once said: “Statistics are no substitute for judgment.” Following this logic, if Federer’s 20 Grand Slams are not good enough proof that he is the greatest player ever, many can argue that the way he plays is.
The claim about lack of competition is ridiculous
Federer ushered in the golden era of men’s tennis; he competed against Nadal and Djokovic, two players who have to be included in any GOAT discussion. Moreover, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka are stronger than their three Grand Slam titles (apiece) would indicate. If anything, it’s Federer’s talent that prevented those players from winning more Grand Slams.
Federer’s ability is likely what prevented Nadal from holding the record, until recently, for most Grand Slam titles, as much as Nadal’s ability with clay court serves prevented Federer from adding more wins to his record than he already has (excluding Federer’s Wimbledon 2019 semi-final win). The quality and strength of Federer’s competition is unquestionable. In fact, it has been said that Federer’s skills forced his competitors to up their game just to be able to compete with him.
Federer is the most versatile to ever play the game
Jimmy Connors, winner of seven Grand Slams, once told the BBC: “[In the modern game] you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard-court specialist… or you’re Roger Federer.” Federer won Grand Slams using all serves. He is the best of his era on hard and grass courts. (He did lose 11 finals to Nadal on clay, which arguably shows that Federer is the second-best on clay when compared only to the Spaniard.)
Versatility is what separates Federer from the rest. As mentioned, his one-handed backhand is a classic, and his forehand is one of the greatest shots in tennis, according to Pete Sampras. He controls every element in today’s tennis, such as the backhand smash and skyhook, half-volley and jump smash. And if that’s not enough, he has the character of a champion, as we all witnessed in the 2017 Australian Open final and 2019 Wimbledon men’s semi-finals.
The Bottom Line: Roger Federer’s skill, class, versatility and stylish game may make him the undisputed GOAT of the tennis world. However, the claims that he faced weak competition and that it’s hard to compare players over time remain a strong argument for those who believe he is not the best tennis player who ever played. Do you think Federer is the true GOAT?