The fans finally stopped screeching. Tired photographers bent low to snap their last shots. The giddy Swiss couple rolled up their “Federer is betterer” banner. outside the locker room, Roger’s darling daughters, in bright spring frocks, were skipping around and playfully tugging at tournament director Tommy Haas‘s hands. And the reporters finally filed their exuberant stories about Roger beating Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 7-5 to win his 90th career title. Finally, when the blue and lavender confetti settled on Indian Wells’ vast but now empty Stadium 1, there was just one question left to ask.
Where does Roger Federer stand amidst the greats – the greatest athletes of all time?
Fierce Michael Jordan – legs splayed, nails at crunch time – is said to have had the greatest athleticism. That’s a slam dunk. Muhammad Ali changed the political landscape more than any other athlete, although Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King were game changers, too. Way back when, Jim Thorpe excelled in many sports – and Babe Ruth “made” modern baseball. Soccer couldn’t have thrived without Pele.
More recently, Usain Bolt bolted out of nowhere, Michael Phelps stroked his way to golden glory and Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady and Serena have done wonders. Bo Jackson, who excelled in two sports; Tiger Woods; and two Clevelanders, Jim Brown and that Cavalier fellow LeBron, are all in the conversation.
And Roger should be, too. He’s darned good, with a record 18 Slams won over 14 years. He was No. 1 for a record 302 weeks. His balance is balletic – his beauty is intoxicating. Did Picasso sculpt his backhand? What other elite athlete has given us such dreamy artistry while possessing such a fearsome arsenal of weapons? His forehand pins and pounds.
His technique should be patented. Overall he’s been healthy – and shockingly consistent. His record of reaching 23 straight Slam semis is, to me, his best record. He has a foundation for African kids. He helps his rivals and celebrates his sport’s heritage – just ask Rafa, Rod Laver or Wawrinka. He’s said to have the best “tennis wife” in the game. And he’s funny. He was hilarious in a recent press conference when joking about his wretched singing group, “The One-handed Backhand Boys.”
Let’s not even talk about how clear-eyed a photographer he is – just check out his Instagram. And Svetlana Kuznetsova joked (sort of) that the father of two sets of twins is better at reproduction than any of us. All the while, Roger has grown – more than any tennis player since Andre Agassi. And he delivers drama. Whether weeping after an Australian loss to Rafa or being in the two greatest matches of our era – the 2008 Wimbledon final and this year’s Australian Open final – who else so often plays his way onto the sport’s big stages?
His recent late career surge kicks reality in the shins. And he’s adored by so many. He’s the man who makes people happy. “Roger’s as close to perfect as you can get,” observes former LA Times Sports Editor Bill Dwyre. “I keep thinking that it’s going to end. I’ve been writing ‘passing the torch’ columns for four or five years now, where I ask will it be Milos Raonic, or Taylor Fritz – who will it be? After awhile, I stopped because this guy is just not going away…We think the normal aging process will do that.
“I don’t think he’s normal. When he dies…I hope they can take a look, because he’s 35 now and he’s out there flying around – he’s quicker than all the kids, he hits harder, he’s smarter, and when it’s over he looks at the fans and says all the right things. My wife sent me a text after his first set saying, ‘I’m so happy’ with a picture of Roger with little hearts. This is my wife!
“He’s an icon on the level of a Michael Jordan or Pele, the Mannings or Tom Brady. maybe the numbers aren’t there, but the perception and the vision of what this guy does, how he comports himself, is right up there with all of them.”
Federer’s longtime agent, Tony Godsick, told IT that the keys to Roger’s success are his longevity and his love of the sport. He spoke of Federer’s authenticity: “Fans look at him and know that he’s never trying to be something that he isn’t. What you see is what you get. People like to see massive stars win, especially after they’ve gone through adversity. And Roger’s won in every region of the world. He loves travel, and being in different countries. He reaches back and honors the greats of the game… He’s been coached by legends going back to Tony Roche, and knows he owes them a debt of gratitude.”
To Stan Wawrinka, “Everything Roger’s doing on and off court he’s done for more than 15 years. He gives back…and always with a smile. He always does a lot for every tournament he plays. On court, he’s just amazing. The way he’s playing is just so beautiful, just so nice. Everything looks perfect. He’s moving amazingly well – he has amazing touch. He’s doing everything you can possibly do.”
But could we possibly get Roger himself to reflect on his own greatness? We didn’t dare ask him, “Are you the greatest of all time?” Still, after Indian Wells, we asked him this: “Such an extraordinary achievement, Roger…Can you talk about your own achievement and where it comes from? Is it from your basic athleticism and skill set, or your commitment to the game – your commitment to the physical side? Talk about the building blocks of your career and your greatness.”
Roger replied, “Look, my biggest weakness was [not] being able to focus every single week and have the same drive for the 25, 30 tournaments I used to play. It’s natural that you’ll favor certain surfaces or certain continents…I’ve learned how to block that out and just enjoy every week I play. I also play less, which helps. So when I do play, I’m very excited. I’ve gotten time away from tournaments, whether that’s a vacation or training…Every time, I feel the benefit.
“I’m very thankful to the team I’ve had for so many years that has…made it easy for me to work hard…It’s not an easy thing, but when you have the right team in the right place with the right people, it actually ends up being a lot of fun.”
What’s also fun is to speculate whether tennis can claim that Roger is the best athlete of all time. But, what’s even more fun is, for all these years, to have relished a man who can’t help but astonish us.