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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Federer is among the pantheon of tennis greats

While it may have been at three in the morning, Roger Federer’s improbable run to the Australian Open final this past weekend culminated in an emphatic five-set victory over Rafael Nadal, giving the 35-year-old Swiss a powerful case for the greatest male tennis player of all time.

I’d be dishonest if I said I follow tennis religiously. In fact, I don’t think I have ever watched a full tennis match in my life. But regardless, as a fan of sports in general, it is important to recognize the presence of greatness. In just looking at the facts, what Federer was able to accomplish in the land down under is a perfect example what makes the best athletes truly great.

Before Sunday, the last major title that Federer won was Wimbledon, in 2012. He also took a six-month hiatus from the tour this year, and at 35, his body is no longer what it once was. Clearly in the twilight of an illustrious career, Federer’s 17th seeded ranking seemed appropriate considering how far he had fallen after his glory years. But then, the amazing happened. Suddenly, Federer was the old Federer. The man went on a tear, and his improbable run to the final included knocking off four top-10 players, No. 10 Tomas Berdych, No. 5 Kei Nishikori, No. 4 Stan Wawrinka and then No. 9 Raphael Nadal.

In a blast from the past, both men faced each other in a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2011. For so long, Federer-Nadal was “the” matchup. In a sport dominated by the best, these two were the cream of the crop. Yet as both have gotten older, stars like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have taken over the spotlight. But the respect and admiration for two of the greatest ever has always remained, and for them to meet once again, in perhaps the final battle of one of the best rivalries ever, was a dream for any tennis fan.

Federer’s win may be his last, but also may be his most important. The victory gave marked him as the fourth-oldest to ever win a Grand Slam, and with 18 major titles, he is the first player in history to win three Grand Slams at least five times. With that resumé, it’s hard to make a case for why he shouldn’t be the best player ever, and for Nadal, who is five years younger but now four trophies behind Federer, the task of catching his rival just became a lot steeper.

With this victory, I couldn’t help but think about the greatest athletes ever. Although I never witnessed Michael Jordan, I have seen LeBron James dominate the NBA on the road to winning three titles, including last year’s improbable comeback over the best regular-season team ever. And as another Super Bowl with Tom Brady approaches, watching New England’s quarterback remain a constant juggernaut in the NFL over the 16 years is another one instantly comes to mind.

Whether you hate them or love them, athletes like these deserve a tremendous amount of respect for being able to be at the top of their game for so long. And now it’s a no-brainer that Federer is part of that same elite. While tennis may not be the most popular sport, its challenge and pressure on the individual is certainly one of the most intense. Roger Federer proved this weekend that no matter what the critics say, the best can always find a way to pull it out. Even in the match against Nadal, Federer struggled to control his tried and tested weapon — the forehand — but rallied and composed himself to end the match with a pinpoint forehand that Nadal had no chance with. It was a tremendous end to a tremendous match, and showed Federer’s mental toughness to grind out the win. He is certainly another great in a long line of sports icons, but his win on Sunday will not be forgotten for a long, long time.