REVOLUTION, ROGER FEDERER’S TENNIS:
WHAT DO THEY HAVE TO DO WITH EACH OTHER?
A LOT, ACTUALLY.
by Bob Avakian
The title of this article will likely come as a surprise to many—not least Roger Federer himself, since he is clearly not an advocate of the kind of revolution I am talking about, a revolution to bring about socialism and ultimately communism throughout the world, in place of the current capitalist-imperialist system that now dominates the world. Federer himself is not merely a tennis player with world-class—and, as I will speak to, unrivaled—abilities; he is also a multi-millionaire, on the verge of becoming a billionaire, as a result of business deals and investments that his tennis achievements have made possible. (At the same time, Federer has devoted significant resources, and personal efforts, to charity benefitting children in southern Africa in particular, and he is widely respected and admired for being, at the risk of sounding corny, “a genuinely nice guy” on a personal level. Federer, from the small country of Switzerland, is one of the most recognized, and popular, athletes in the world, not only among tennis fans but more generally, and that is not just because of his accomplishments on the court, or simply because of successful “marketing of his brand,” but also because of what people perceive in his personality.)
What is put forward in the title of this article—that Federer’s tennis has a lot to do with revolution—can be understood to be profoundly true, once there is the necessary appreciation for both Federer’s unique, unmatched approach to and performance in tennis and what the revolution I am speaking of is, and needs to be, all about. Here, I am not going to enter directly into the debate about whether Federer, or on the other hand one of his current main rivals, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in men’s tennis ( although I have made a case for why that title legitimately rests with Federer in an Appendix at the end of this article). What defines Federer’s tennis, and more than anything sets it apart from even his greatest rivals—more than all of his great accomplishments, playing at the highest level of men’s tennis for nearly two decades, from the time he was around 20 to the time, now, when he is approaching 40—is the artistry and beauty of his game. And the revolution I am talking about—a revolution guided by communism, in its further development with the new communism that has resulted from decades of work that I have carried out—this revolution, and the radically different society and world that it aims to bring into being, could not do without, and has as one of its main goals and requirements, precisely an appreciation of and the flowering of beauty and artistry, in many different dimensions of human endeavor.
As I have emphasized, one of the essential qualities that defines human beings is “the need to be amazed.”1 Certainly, in the tennis of Roger Federer there is a continual source of amazement. It is not simply that he can—and, in the course of his matches, repeatedly does—hit every conceivable shot (and many that seem inconceivable). It is not just the fact that, if you pay careful attention, you can see an incredible display of skill and artistry even when Federer hits a ball to a ball girl or boy (young people responsible for collecting and distributing balls to the players) between points in a match. It is, more than anything, the footwork, the movement—the flow—as Federer floats around the court to get himself in position to hit the ball. While with more or less everyone else among the world’s top men’s tennis players—including Djokovic and especially Nadal—their movement is broadcast with various noises, and their striking of the ball is often accompanied by audible, and often loud, grunts, Federer moves silently, seemingly effortlessly, and the only sound accompanying his strokes is that of the racket meeting and delivering the ball, with an incredible consistency, to just the spot where he intends it to go. Metaphors that could be invoked to describe this movement, such as those comparing it to ballet or other dance, are not, in this case, cliches but actually come close to capturing the fluidity and beauty of Federer’s movement.
Djokovic and Nadal are clearly great tennis players—legitimately considered among the greatest of all time—but one of the things that sets Federer apart from them (and this may seem ironic or even illogical at first) is the fact that their greatest strength is their consistency, while in the course of a match, or a tournament, Federer is likely to have more “ups and downs.” Nadal is relentless, intensely playing each point, and even each shot, as if the whole match depended on it; and, besides—or, in a real sense, even more than—his highly skilled shot-making, it is the wearing down of his opponents through this relentlessness that marks Nadal’s game and accounts for his great success. The key to Djokovic’s game is his defensive skill, which rests to a large degree on his considerable physical flexibility: he is able to return powerful (and/or well-placed) serves and great ground strokes by his opponent, time after time, in a way that puts Djokovic in at least a “neutral position,” and often at an advantage, in relation to the opponent, enabling Djokovic to eventually turn defense into offense and win the point. Here, again, although in a somewhat different way than with Nadal, it is Djokovic’s consistent relentlessness that is his greatest strength.
With Federer it is different. As more than one observer has commented, Federer is an artist, and with an artist you are going to have times of brilliance, beyond what others are capable of achieving, and you are also going to have times when that brilliance does not fully shine. Ironically again, to some degree errors on Federer’s part (and specifically what, in tennis terms, are considered “unforced errors”) stem from his tremendous abilities, particularly his movement and footwork, which allow him to be in position to hit a variety of shots at a given time, and his “racket skill” which enables him to execute so many different shots. There are many instances when Federer gets himself into a position where he has many options in terms of hitting a shot, and on some occasions having so many options—rather than being more limited and forced to just play quickly and “instinctively”—actually results in Federer “out-smarting” himself, including sometimes when he “changes his mind at the last second” about where and how to hit the ball, causing him to either hit an ineffective shot or to miss a relatively easy shot and lose the point. One of the things that makes Federer so uniquely great and breathtaking to observe is that we see the artist at work, trying things that others would not dare to try, willing to fall down at times, in the immediate, in order to find the way to reach the greatest heights.
This comes through in all aspects of Federer’s performance on the court. There is the unrivaled precision, combined with artful deception, in Federer’s game. This finds perhaps its most concentrated expression in Federer’s serve (starting the point), which is one of the very best and most impactful in the men’s game. In the case of Federer, this is not because of raw speed and power—there are many in the men’s game who significantly exceed Federer in those categories—but rather because of disguise (it is very difficult to tell where Federer is going to deliver his serve) and placement (he regularly succeeds in putting the ball right where, or very near to where, he intends to place it with his serve). With his ground strokes, once the point is underway (on his own serve or that of his opponent), it is the same—the same deception and precision, combined with effective power, or subtle “touch.” Watching Federer “paint the lines” (hit the ball right on, or very close to, a sideline or the baseline) is indeed like taking in a breathtaking painting. And there is no equal, anywhere in tennis, to his balance and racket skill at the net (volleying back a shot by the opponent from a position near the net) and here, too, he often makes even the most difficult of these shots seem effortless.
Once again, it is the movement that underlies all this and makes it all possible. As tennis author and journalist Mark Hodgkinson puts it, in a book analyzing not just Federer’s prowess and accomplishments but his unique presence on the court: Federer “Moves Like A Whisper.”2
To some, in particular those who have never concerned themselves with questions of this kind, this might seem “forced,” but in the way Federer is able to use his movement, and his other remarkable skills, to neutralize and overcome the raw power of the “heavy hitters” in men’s tennis, there is an analogy to how the stranglehold of the world’s most powerful oppressive forces could actually be broken and shattered, by the creative action of masses of people, freeing them to embark on the road of bringing into being a society and world free of oppression. But the comparison and relevance of Federer’s tennis to revolution cannot, and should not, be reduced to that. Beyond that, it is the fulfilling of profound human needs—“the need to be amazed,” the appreciation of artistry and beauty—that is the link between the tennis of Roger Federer and the revolution that humanity needs.
Federer’s tennis is not simply the product of a genetically-established high-level athleticism, but also of a great appreciation for the creative and innovative, beyond that of even his most highly skilled world-class contemporaries and competitors. Among the highest level tennis champions, it is only Roger Federer who will frequently experiment with shots, running the risk of losing a point, or even a game, during the course of a match in a high-stakes tournament. It is only Roger Federer who would feel, and at times say openly, that if he did not do this he could find such a match boring, even while he was winning. This is not a “lack of discipline” on Federer’s part, but once again a real appreciation for, and giving life to, an artistry and beauty that can and should characterize the sport of tennis—and does, in its highest form, in the game of Roger Federer. There are a few others near the top ranks of tennis who are willing, or who feel the need, to try “trick shots” and other displays of artistry, at the risk of losing a point, a game, or even a match. Nick Kyrgios, an athletic and highly-skilled young player from Australia, is the most striking example of this, but neither Kyrgios nor anyone else besides Federer has achieved the combination of brilliant artistry with the necessary focus and, yes, discipline—channeling and translating this into world-class level competitive tennis, with the consistency required to repeatedly win matches and tournaments, including the most prestigious and highly-prized Grand Slam tournaments (which involve all, or nearly all, of the world’s top tennis players and require winning seven consecutive matches, within the two week period of the tournament, in order to claim the title).
As much as there is a “magical quality” to Federer’s tennis, it is at the same time the product of consistent hard work—both off the court, in physical work-outs, to reach the peak of fitness, and on the court, in endless hours of practice. And there is the constant striving to increasingly master the game mentally. Federer is a great student of tennis. It has been noted, and demonstrated in practice, that he is very often able to tell (in observing the footwork and position, and knowing the “preferred tendencies,” of his opponent) where that opponent is going to hit a shot, even before that opponent has begun his stroke. And Federer possesses the greatest ability to adapt his game, including in the middle of a match—something that can be seen not only by serious students of the game but even by more casual observers in paying attention to the changes he makes in his approach, including the kind of shots he chooses to make, whether he “stays back” on the baseline or increasingly “comes to the net,” and so on.
All his mental as well as physical preparation and continual “refinement” of his game underlies and is the basis for Federer’s ability to both have tremendous success competitively and to do so with his unparalleled artistry. Hodgkinson writes that, early on, Federer was inclined toward the stand that doing things with artistry was even more important than winning, even as Federer has always had a very strong competitive drive. This was reflected, even fairly far into Federer’s success atop the men’s game, in the fact that Federer resisted using the “drop shot” (hitting the ball just a little ways over the net, especially when the opponent is far back in the court), believing that this shot was somehow a violation of the aesthetics (and perhaps the ethics) of tennis. But, not only did Federer change his mind on this and develop one of the game’s most effective, and yes artistic, drop shots, but more generally, and fortunately for Federer—and for everyone who appreciates the beauty with which the game of tennis can be played—Federer has achieved an unrivaled combination (or synthesis) of artistry and competitive achievement overall.
And he has continued to adapt to competitive challenges, and to technological changes that have affected the competitive challenges. For example, less than a decade ago, Federer was still playing with a racket that was smaller than those of nearly all of his major opponents, feeling that he possessed the necessary skill to hit the shots he needed/wanted to hit, and to avoid excessive errors, with this smaller racket. But the rising level of competition finally convinced Federer to increase the size of his racket, which has played a significant part in his finally gaining a decisive upper hand over his long-time rival and significant nemesis Rafael Nadal. In coming back from a knee injury and surgery in the latter part of 2016 and resuming competitive play in early 2017, aided by the increase in his racket size, Federer worked systematically to improve his backhand stroke, which was key in enabling him to overcome the tactics Nadal had used against Federer to force him on the defensive and out of position, making him more vulnerable to winning shots from Nadal. (For those interested in some of the more technical aspects involved in how Federer has been able to offset Nadal’s tactics and decisively gain the upper hand in matches with Nadal—or, as Federer himself has put it, “crack the Nadal code”—in a footnote below some of the details involved are discussed.*)
Federer has continued to play competitive tennis on a world-class level, vying still to be at the very top of men’s tennis, into his late 30s (which is extraordinary, since in terms of world-class tennis, this is definitely considered “old”). It is remarkable that Federer has been able to retain a powerful competitive spirit, and at the same time an unequaled “cool,” not only during the time when he was the undisputed “number one” in men’s tennis (and frequently referred to then as the Greatest Of All Time) but for many years after that as well. It is one thing to be “hungry” and “focused” when one is young and “rising,” striving to get to the very top of the rankings—or in the situation with Djokovic, who has yet to become, but has openly declared his intention to become, the holder of the most Grand Slam titles and presumably the honor of being declared the Greatest Of All Time—but it is a whole other matter to continue to strive for greatness at the highest level long after one has seemingly achieved all there is to achieve, as has been the case with Federer for some time now.
But, even as he was planning, after another knee injury and surgery, to return once again in the summer of this year (2020) to compete at Wimbledon, the most prestigious of the Grand Slams—and the tournament where Federer has had the most success, winning 8 times—with the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, including the cancellation of this year’s Wimbledon tournament, it is unclear when Federer will return to tennis (interestingly, the French Open, normally held in the late spring, has been re-scheduled for the fall, and as of now has not been canceled—see below, in the Appendix, for the relevance of this to the “GOAT” question). In any case, before too long, Federer’s age will finally catch up with him, and he will retire from world-class level competition. When he does, it is likely that Djokovic and/or Nadal (who are both about 5 years younger than Federer) will continue playing for a few more years; and, if they have not done so already, it is possible that one or both of them will then surpass Federer’s Grand Slam titles record, which now stands at 20 (again, more on this, and how it relates to the question of Greatest Of All Time, in the Appendix below).
But, as truly great as Djokovic and Nadal are, and with whatever specific number of Grand Slam titles they ended up winning, when they leave tennis there will be others, young and hungry, who will rise to, or near, the level of play that has characterized the best of Djokovic and Nadal. With Federer, however, it is not a matter of quantity, not something that can be captured simply with statistics—the number of Grand Slams and other tournaments won, the amount of time as the top-ranked player, and so on—but much more one of quality: the artistry and creative genius of Federer, which has no equal in tennis, in any era, including the present one. As much as the governing bodies of a sport—and the television networks and other financial institutions which profit from it—seem to feel the need to market things in terms of “rivalries,” and this is definitely the case with tennis, there really is no “rival” to Federer, no one whose approach to the game and performance on the court compares to his or gives expression to the same synthesis of artistry and accomplishment. When Federer leaves, it will be a long time, if ever, before someone comes along who will bring to tennis the beauty and, yes the awe and wonder, that Federer has embodied and inspired.
To return to the theme of this article, as expressed in the title, in the future being aimed for with revolution based on the new communism, tennis will not play the same role as it does in the world as it is now, dominated by the dynamics and dictates of the system of capitalism-imperialism and consequently restricted far too much to those with (or with backing from those with) a certain level of finances and resources. But, as spoken to in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America—a sweeping vision and concrete blueprint for a radically different and far better society and world—there will continue to be a need for and importance to sports, with an emphasis on basic sports activities involving the masses of people, to promote their health and recreation, but also providing for full-time (professional) sports, which will take place within the overall framework of the relations and values of this radically new society, and will serve to foster friendship and comradeship among those competing, and those following such competition, while promoting and giving expression to the joy, the beauty and the wonder that sports, at its best, can inspire.3
From this perspective, as we look forward to and work actively to make a reality of this revolution, and everything it will finally make possible, if we do not wish to diminish the vision and the goal to which this revolution must aspire, and the kind of society and world it must strive to bring into being, we cannot fail to appreciate beauty and wonder, in the natural world and in the creations of human beings, even now amidst the terrible conditions which this currently ruling system of capitalism-imperialism imposes on the masses of humanity. And from that standpoint, the tennis of Roger Federer has a great deal to do with the revolution we need, even as that revolution will give rise to beauty, and give expression to the need to be amazed, in ways beyond what can even be imagined today.
* Note on Federer’s Gaining Decisive Dominance Over Nadal:
Nadal is left-handed and, particularly with his forehand, he hits the ball with a lot of “top spin,” which causes the ball to bounce high after it lands (this is true on all tennis court surfaces but is especially so on clay, which is by far Nadal’s favorite surface, on which he is most effective—more on that below, in the Appendix). Both of these factors (Nadal’s “left-handedness” and his extreme top spin) for some time enabled Nadal to create a lot of problems for Federer in their matches, because (for various reasons, including the fact that the net is lower in the middle of the court than it is on the sides) hitting the ball cross-court is easier and less risky than hitting it “down the line” (over the higher part of the net, on the same side of the court the player is on when hitting the ball). So, in the course of points in matches against Federer, Nadal would repeatedly try, with a large amount of success, to hit the ball with his forehand cross-court, where Federer (being right-handed) would be forced to hit the ball, not with his own forehand—his stronger stroke—but with his backhand. And the extreme top spin with which Nadal hit his forehand cross-court—causing the ball to bounce up to shoulder height, or sometimes even higher, before Federer could “make contact” with the ball—often resulted in a situation where Federer either hit a weak shot, setting Nadal up to hit a “winner” ( a shot Federer could not return) or Federer actually “missed” with his backhand (hit the ball into the net or “out” of play), giving Nadal the point. And this was especially so in the frequent exchanges where Nadal would hit forehand after forehand with top spin to Federer’s backhand—something Nadal was often able to do, because it was difficult for Federer to “redirect” the ball “down the line,” to Nadal’s backhand, and in attempting to do so Federer would run a higher risk of mis-hitting the ball and either losing the point outright by hitting it out, or into the net, or hitting a weak shot in response to which it would be easy for Nadal to hit a winner.
In recovering from a knee injury and surgery, and in preparing to return to competitive tennis, in the latter part of 2016, Federer focused on improving his backhand—aided, again, by his now larger racket—which enabled him to “stand his ground” on the baseline (rather than being pushed back farther and farther behind it, in an increasingly defensive position) and, from that position on the baseline, “take the ball earlier” with his backhand (before it could bounce as high), giving him more control and the ability to hit winners with his backhand and generally to hit backhand strokes with more variety, including by “re-directing” balls “down the line” to Nadal’s backhand, his less imposing shot. This resulted in Federer beating Nadal in the final of the Australian Open (one of the four annual “Grand Slam” tournaments) in early 2017. Since then, in matches played between the two, Federer has beaten Nadal 4 out of 5 times—the only exception being a semi-final match in the 2019 French Open (another of the Grand Slams), a match on clay, played moreover in conditions so ridiculous, with such powerful gusts of wind, that it was impossible for Federer to come close to playing his normal game, which relies, much more than other top players, not so much on power but at least as much on finesse and “touch” and fundamentally on movement to get in position to hit an incredible variety of shots—all of which was effectively impossible under the conditions. [back]
Appendix: The Greatest Of All Time
As spoken to in the main part of this article, in one sense the argument about who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in men’s tennis (a debate that now centers around Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic) is mis-placed, especially if (as is generally the case) this debate focuses on matters of quantity—numbers of Grand Slam titles, etc.—because with Roger Federer it is above all a matter of quality: the unique and essentially irreplaceable artistry he brings to the game, playing on a world-class level. But, without abandoning that decisive understanding, let’s examine the question of quantity—in a scientific way, drawing on relevant evidence in its significant dimensions.
First of all, in what is generally regarded as the most essential measure of greatness and achievement, there are the totals of Grand Slam titles won. While, as I will speak to shortly, this number, taken by itself, is not adequate to determine the issue of greatness (or, specifically, Greatest Of All Time), it does provide one important part of the picture. The current Grand Slam title numbers are: Federer 20; Nadal 19; Djokovic 17.
Looking into this further, however, we see that a clear majority of Nadal’s titles (12 of the 19) have been won on one particular surface—clay—at the French Open Tournament. It is true that a large number of Federer’s Grand Slam titles have been won on his most favored surface—grass, at Wimbledon—but the majority of Federer’s titles have been won on other surfaces. And it is not simply the case, as more than a few commentators are known to say: “Well, Federer is the best on his favorite surface, and Nadal is the best on his.” If we subtract from Federer’s total of 20 the 8 he has won on grass at Wimbledon and subtract from Nadal’s total of 19 the number he has won on clay at the French Open (12), we end up with this count: Federer 12, Nadal 7—a difference far greater than the total numbers (20 and 19).
Beyond that, clay is not just “another surface.” It is a very different surface than either grass or “hard courts” (courts consisting mainly of asphalt or concrete), the other surfaces on which Grand Slam Tournaments are played. Clay causes the ball to bounce higher and effectively “slows down” the game, with the result that hitting “winners” (either with the serve or other shots) is more difficult, and those players whose game relies to a large extent on lengthy rallies, wearing down opponents, have an added advantage. All this plays heavily into the strengths of Nadal’s game. That there is not just a minor but a qualitative difference between clay and the other main tennis court surfaces is reflected in the fact that, on the one hand, in the men’s game specifically, there are at least 10 people who have won the French Open but have never won another Grand Slam title, while there are a number of tennis greats, with multiple Grand Slam wins (on grass and/or hard courts), who have never won on clay at the French Open—including not only Pete Sampras (with 14 total Grand Slam titles) but also Jimmy Connors (8), John McEnroe (7), Stephan Edberg, and Boris Becker (6 each). (Also, among women, those who have won multiple Grand Slam titles but never won at the French Open include Venus Williams, Virginia Wade, and Martina Hingis. And, although she has won at the French Open, Serena Williams—who can legitimately be considered the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, and indeed is one of the world’s greatest athletes in any sport—has had much less success on the clay at the French Open than she has on other surfaces.)
This difference in surfaces is strongly reflected in the head-to-head competition between Federer and Nadal: On every surface except clay Federer has the advantage, while on clay Federer’s wins against Nadal are less than 15%!
There is also the fact that changes, beginning more than 15 years ago, in the other surfaces besides clay—and in particular the grass at Wimbledon—has meant that, even while it is still the case that on Wimbledon’s grass the ball tends to “skid” through the court, overall the courts at Wimbledon do not “play faster” than many of the hard courts. In short, these surfaces, other than clay, have become much more similar, with grass no longer significantly different than hard courts—and the difference is certainly nothing like that between grass, and hard courts, on the one hand, and clay on the other. Thus, Federer’s wins at Wimbledon—which have come after these changes began there—are in no way in the same category as Nadal’s at the French Open.
All this puts into perspective the actual significance of Grand Slam titles won by each. Even if Nadal were to equal Federer’s total of 20 by winning the French Open this year (assuming it is actually held), that would not change the reality that Federer’s total of Grand Slam titles is much more meaningful in terms of being representative of overall accomplishment.
In regard to Djokovic, his Grand Slam total of 17 titles is also more evenly spread out among the different tournaments, with most coming at the Australian Open, but also significant numbers at Wimbledon and at the U.S. Open, the last of the 4 Grand Slam Tournaments. (Notably, Djokovic, like Federer, has only won once at the French Open.) A number of commentators have offered the opinion that Djokovic, who is presently healthy and in “top form,” is likely (some even say “almost certain”) to catch or surpass Federer in number of Grand Slam titles.
This, however, is not certain. Federer won a majority of his titles before 2010, when he was in his 20s—although it is a measure of his greatness that he has won 3 titles in the last 3 years, at the age of 35 or older. Djokovic is now 33, and just as Federer faced very strong competition, from Nadal and then from Djokovic as he hit his prime just after 2010 (when he was in his early to mid 20s), as alluded to in the main part of this article, there are now a number of very talented younger players in the men’s game, who are just as hungry to win Grand Slams as Djokovic is to become the all-time Grand Slam title winner. Besides the question of age in general (and again, in terms of world-class tennis competition, being well past 30, and especially beyond 35, is “old”) there is also the fact that, with increasing age the likelihood of injuries, including more serious injuries, increases, and Djokovic has already not been free of injury during the overall period when he was at, or near, the very top of the men’s game. (It is another manifestation of Federer’s greatness that he has not only won a number of Grand Slam titles at 35 and older, but that he has done so after being sidelined with a knee injury serious enough to require surgery and then a period of rehabilitation.) For these reasons, among others, one is inclined to reply “not so fast” when hearing predictions that Djokovic will (almost) certainly surpass Federer, and overtake Nadal as well, in Grand Slam titles (besides the very real possibility that Nadal will win more Grand Slams, particularly keeping in mind his peculiar success at the French Open, there is also the fact that it would be a mistake—one which has been made before with regard to Federer—to discount the possibility of his winning one, or more, additional Grand Slam titles).
In terms of the GOAT argument, there is the fact that Djokovic has an overall narrow lead over Federer (27 to 23) in head-to-head matches. Here it has to be noted that this is the result of the fact that Djokovic gained the upper hand over Federer in head-to-head matches only after Federer was well past 30, while Djokovic was only in his 20s. Djokovic has continued this overall dominance in recent years, although a number of the matches he won were very close, and in 2 of their last 3 matches Federer has either beaten Djokovic—as he did convincingly in the end-of-the-year championships in 2019—or he has very, very narrowly lost to him, as happened in the 2019 Wimbledon final. (In that final Federer had two “match points”—a situation where he needed only to win one of the two next points in order to finish the match victoriously—on his own serve, but he was unable to finish Djokovic off and eventually suffered a heartbreaking loss in a classic match that was extended to nearly 5 hours. See the footnote below for some analysis of why Federer did not succeed in winning one of those two match points.**)
It was after this devastating defeat that Federer rebounded and decisively defeated Djokovic in two straight sets (2 sets to 0) in the end-of-the season championship (although Federer did not go on to win that tournament). It is true that Federer lost to Djokovic a couple of months later in the semi-finals of the Australian Open (a tournament won by Djokovic), but in that semi-final match Federer was clearly injured and not capable of playing anywhere near his best. Assuming world-class tennis is able to resume, in more or less its full dimensions, before so much time has elapsed that finally Federer has actually passed his prime, it remains to be seen whether, as he has with Nadal, Federer can gain a decisive upper hand over Djokovic, one more time, before Federer does finally decide it is time to give up competitively playing the sport he loves.
In any case, while Grand Slam titles and head-to-head competition are a significant part of the picture, in terms of determining who deserves the title of Greatest Of All Time, they are not the only factors that matter and they do not, by themselves, settle the question. As indicated above, the fact is that Federer has only been overtaken by Djokovic in head-to-head competition in more recent years when Federer has been in his 30s, even past 35—an age when, before Federer (and Serena Williams, in the women’s game), tennis players would have been considered well past their prime, certainly in terms of winning Grand Slam tournaments, something Federer has done as recently as 2018 (and very nearly did the next year at Wimbledon). Federer’s “longevity” is another important dimension to his greatness and to the argument for his status as the Greatest Of All Time. This is not just a matter of “hanging in there,” even at the very highest level, but of continually adding to an incredible record of accomplishment.
Looking at overall achievement, Federer has won far more tournaments overall (103) than either Nadal (85) or Djokovic (79). He has won far more matches (1,227) than Nadal (977) or Djokovic (893). He has gotten to more Grand Slam finals (31) than Nadal (27) or Djokovic (26). Federer has won more Grand Slam semi-finals (47) than Djokovic (36) and Nadal (33). Even more remarkably, Federer has far out-done both Djokovic and Nadal in consecutive appearances inGrand Slam semi-finals (23) and quarter-finals (33), accomplishments that are incredibly difficult to achieve.
It would be possible to go on at greater length into various statistics (and, while I believe the most relevant statistics strengthen the argument for Federer as the Greatest Of All Time, there are some that could be cited that are favorable to Djokovic or Nadal); but again, statistics, while part of the picture, do not give the full story, nor get to the essence of the matter. So, with regard to all that has been spoken to here, let me end with what I wrote near the conclusion of the main part of this article:
But, as truly great as Djokovic and Nadal are, and with whatever specific number of Grand Slam titles they ended up winning, when they leave tennis there will be others, young and hungry, who will rise to, or near, the level of play that has characterized the best of Djokovic and Nadal. With Federer, however, it is not a matter of quantity,not something that can be captured simply with statistics—the number of Grand Slams and other tournaments won, the amount of time as the top-ranked player, and so on—but much more one of quality: the artistry and creative genius of Federer, which has no equal in tennis, in any era, including the present one. As much as the governing bodies of a sport—and the television networks and other financial institutions which profit from it—seem to feel the need to market things in terms of “rivalries,” and this is definitely the case with tennis, there really is no “rival” to Federer, no one whose approach to the game and performance on the court compares to his or gives expression to the same synthesis of artistry and accomplishment. When Federer leaves, it will be a long time, if ever, before someone comes along who will bring to tennis the beauty and, yes the awe and wonder, that Federer has embodied and inspired.
** Note on Federer’s Narrow Loss to Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final:
Federer’s failure to win one of the two match points he had on his serve in the 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic has to do, on the one hand, with Djokovic’s “grittiness” but even more, and more concretely, with minor mis-steps on Federer’s part. On the first of those two match points, Federer narrowly missed his first serve—which, if he had gotten it in play, would very likely have resulted in his winning the point, and the match—and on the second serve of that point, after Djokovic returned the serve to a spot deep in the middle of the court, Federer attempted to hit the ball back on an angle into Djokovic’s backhand corner, which if it had succeeded would likely have put Djokovic on the run and given the advantage to Federer, with the probable result that Federer would have prevailed. But, in attempting this, Federer “went for a little too much” (hit the ball on too sharp an angle), with the result that the ball landed out and Djokovic won the point. On the next point, Federer’s first serve was in and, in response to a fairly routine return by Djokovic, Federer chose to come to the net, with the aim of finishing the point off quickly with a successful volley that Djokovic could not return (or could return only weakly, setting up Federer to finish off the point with his next shot). But, in this case, Federer’s “approach shot” (the shot he hit to set up his coming to the net) did not have quite enough on it (it was hit toward Djokovic’s forehand corner, but not deeply enough or at a sharp enough angle to force Djokovic into a position where he could only hit a weak shot in return, enabling Federer to finish off the point, and the match, from a solid position at the net). Instead, in response to Federer’s approach shot, Djokovic was able to set up well and hit a forehand winner, which got past Federer at the net and landed securely within the court, beyond the reach of Federer’s attempted forehand volley. From there, a no doubt momentarily deflated Federer lost the next two points and the game—and the chance to finish the match off then and there—although he was far from “folding,” and in fact he continued to fiercely battle Djokovic for another 8 games, before losing the final match-deciding “tie-breaker.”
Again, credit definitely has to go to Djokovic for “hanging tough” and “refusing to fold” when he was on the brink of defeat. But, at least as much, this was a matter of Federer quite understandably feeling the great pressure of being “oh so close” to what would have constituted one of his greatest victories—winning a Grand Slam title, at this late point in his career, in a match against another great player who has dominated Federer for most of the last few years. The result was that, in a situation where literally inches decide things, Federer failed, by the thinnest of margins, to prevail. If Federer had played either of these two match points a little less anxiously, it is very probable that he would have succeeded in winning the match. (With the first match point, Federer could have “gone for a little less” with his first shot after Djokovic’s return of serve—hitting the ball toward Djokovic’s backhand corner but “leaving a little more margin,” to make sure the ball was “in,” while still being an effective shot—and then working from there to gain the advantage in the point and finish it off. With the second match point, here again having an aggressive approach, as Federer did, rather than passive one, is right and necessary—and also difficult, because in a situation like this it is very tempting, and seemingly easier, to just keep the ball in play and hope that the opponent will make a mistake and “give you the point.” But, instead of “coming into the net” right away, Federer could have again “worked the point” a little longer, in order to get a clear advantage and then finish the point by coming to the net or with a winning ground stroke. Or, if Federer were going to come to the net early in the point, as he did following his first shot after Djokovic’s return of serve, then it would probably have been better to hit an “approach shot” into Djokovic’s backhand corner, forcing him to hit a difficult “passing shot,” which could then be volleyed away for the win. Of course—of course!—it is easier to offer these opinions here and now, far removed from the court and the crucial moment of play, and without any of the pressure that inevitably accompanies such a momentous situation, in which a decision has to be made on literally a “split-second” basis; but observations removed from the heat of the moment can be valid and valuable—and, in any case, I could not resist offering these observations here, for whatever they are worth!)
As I wrote in the main part of this article:
It is remarkable that Federer has been able to retain a powerful competitive spirit, and at the same time an unequaled “cool,” not only during the time when he was the undisputed “number one” in men’s tennis (and frequently referred to then as the Greatest Of All Time) but for many years after that as well. It is one thing to be “hungry” and “focused” when one is young and “rising,” striving to get to the very top of the rankings—or in the situation with Djokovic, who has yet to become, but has openly declared his intention to become, the holder of the most Grand Slam titles and presumably the honor of being declared the Greatest Of All Time—but it is a whole other matter to continue to strive for greatness at the highest level long after one has seemingly achieved all there is to achieve, as has been the case with Federer for some time now.
Ironically, however, that very determination almost certainly results in a feeling of tremendous pressure, especially up against one’s major competitors, in a situation where beating them still has great significance, especially after they have for some time had the upper hand over you, as was the case for Federer in his 2019 Wimbledon championship match against Djokovic. [back]
1. See “Materialism and Romanticism: Can We Do Without Myth?” This is an excerpt from Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World, which is available in BA’s Collected Works at revcom.us. [back]
2. Mark Hodgkinson, Fedegraphica, A Graphic Biography of the Genius of Roger Federer, Updated edition, Aurum Press; Revised edition, 2018. “Moves Like A Whisper” is the title of the fourth chapter of this book. [back]
3. The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, authored by Bob Avakian, is available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org and revcom.us. [back]