The 2012 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals arrives in November, and No. 1 ranked Roger Federer still tops the list. Eight years have passed since his meteoric rise to the top of the tennis world, and while other great players have challenged and disappeared, he has outlasted the usual shelf life for greatness.
Tennis fans and critics often scrutinize Federer’s prime years. The pro-Federer perspective is that he really was much greater than his own tennis generation, including the likes of Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick.
Often, it’s the next generation of tennis players’ supporters who dismiss Federer’s best years as built largely on the shoulders of 98-pound weaklings. Certainly Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray present a historically superior cast of competitors. Right?
Was it true that Federer’s 2004 rise demoralized his championship competitors, or were the others a worn-out group that was already slipping from their flirtations at the top?
The Lost Generation
Federer’s tennis contemporaries are often disparaged. After all, three of its brightest stars burned out before their time. Safin, Hewitt and Roddick had all tasted early Grand Slam success but were then eclipsed by Federer’s rising sun.
They were a generation that faced tennis upheaval. Some called them soft or mentally weak. Others said they were traumatized by Federer’s mighty ascension.
Fair or not, the others did not hang their heads. It was doubtless, at times discouraging, but they did not shrink away from the fight. Even talented David Nalbandian won matches from Federer and could be a tricky opponent. The best of the rest made their marks.
Safin was the talented 6’4” Russian with friendly eyes, dark, curly hair, a scruffy chin and a muscular physique. He figured to win many Slams behind booming groundstrokes, a lethal backhand and the talent to defeat Pete Sampras and Federer on his good days. He won his two Grand Slam titles from 2000-2005 but was relegated to the periphery for another few years.
He also had a fiery temper and set an ATP tour record with 87 broken rackets in one year. Consistency was his nemesis, and by the time he reached the top, he could no longer sustain the burden. He said, "There was nothing else to achieve,” Jill Lieber reported in USA Today. "Still, there was an emptiness in my heart. I had everything, but I had nothing."
Hewitt was no stranger to Federer from their juniors days, and he usually held the upper hand on his Swiss rival. His counterpunching intensity and scrambling foreshadowed the great Rafael Nadal, and his feistiness suggested a willingness to stick out his skinny chest and take on the world.
In 2004, Hewitt was obliterated in the U.S. Open final by Federer, but he kept on fighting with his cap turned backward over his long, surfer locks. He wasn’t going to give an inch, even though his peak had ended, and his body fell apart to one injury after another. He would never win a third Grand Slam.
Roddick was expected to take the baton of American tennis and serve his way to stardom. He was resilient even if his backhand was a push. Again and again, he came back from defeats to Federer, only to lose again, stuck forever with his lone 2003 U.S. Open title.
Ever the pragmatist, Roddick was never deluded by the deficiencies of his talent in trying to overcome the Swiss Maestro. He came agonizingly close to defeating Federer at the 2009 Wimbledon final, but it’s not easy killing Superman. Roddick had spent his best efforts and would retire three years later.
In 2004, history changed forever with Federer’s first three-Slam year. He looked like a new brand of hero with his samurai ponytail (gone by the end of the year), headband and lithe footwork. He had taken his leap of success without a coach as he looked to close out his year by winning the 2004 Tennis Masters Cup held in Houston, Texas.
Federer was a supernova, exploding into the tennis landscape. His sudden mastery of his all-court skills would prove to be the defining force that shattered the previous ways of tennis. There were technology and court-surface changes, but the essence of change will always be enforced by the feats of its heroes. He created a new standard of excellence.
The Lost Generation tried one last time as a field of eight to slow down the Federer Express. Their big four gathered together along with serve-and-volley expert Tim Henman and clay-court specialists Carlos Moya, Guillermo Coria and Gaston Gaudio.
The tournament’s media coverage wondered who could stop Federer, and each of the other seven players put on a brave face and cautiously talked about the challenge ahead.
Federer refused to step down. He said at the opening media press conference, “I think the opponents, they know that also in the back of their minds that they have to play great tennis to beat me.”
The other three did their best, and all reached the semifinals. Hewitt crushed Roddick and would also defeat him again a couple months later in the Australian Open semifinals. Then came the injuries and he would all but disappear. He is today’s sad footnote to an aborted career.
Safin responded with a close semifinal match including a memorable 20-18 tiebreaker loss in the second set. He would have one measure of revenge by defeating Federer and Hewitt for the 2005 Australian Open title. He would never realistically contend again.
Federer crushed Hewitt twice en route to winning the Masters Cup. He had evicted his juniors' tormentor for the last time in a meaningful match. The message was clear. It was only a matter of counting many more Grand Slam titles.
How many more Grand Slam titles Federer’s contemporaries could have won had Federer not ascended is an unanswerable question. Could they have held back the next big three while carving out their own greater career legacies?
The Once and Future King
Eight years later, Federer tops today’s version of the big four. He is the Northstar of tennis’s past and future. There are still big tournaments to claim, rivals to conquer and legends to write.
Once more, the field is gathered to slow down the Swiss Maestro, though his great rival Nadal has been sidelined by injury and will most likely not participate.
The Swiss Maestro is older but wiser. He is a more complete player with greater skills if no longer possessing his youthful footwork and explosive game. There are whispers that he is slowing down, and that he cannot keep extending his great career at the top.
Federer must battle the prime years of Djokovic and Murray who tag-team the draws with grinding and energetic play. This next generation with Nadal has often been lauded because it could stand toe-to-toe with the aging genius warrior.
But unlike other members of his Lost Generation, Federer will never have to look back and wonder if he wasted his potential. Perhaps, his greatest achievement of all, and the hallmark of his talent, was his consistency to be immortally great for nearly a decade.