Federer’s Sacred Number

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There’s something poetic about Roger Federer. It’s undeniable. The man glides on the court; deftly melding pinpoint accuracy with grace and velocity. Several times per match, Roger reminds us that tennis is a sport that approaches art. He has elicited prose from prolific wordsmiths like David Foster Wallace. It’s perhaps why so many of us have become attached to him beyond reason. For those of us that bow to the Swiss Maestro, one question has been obsessing us over the past couple of years: is his Slam record of 17 safe?

With Federer and Nadal facing off in Sunday’s Aussie Open final, the question has never been fraught with so much meaning. The Majorcan stands to win his 15th Major, if he’s able to beat the man from Basel, in their first Slam final encounter in 6 years. That would move Nadal past Sampras on the careers Slams list, and would put him two back from Rog. Federer could hoist his 18th Grand Slam singles trophy, and first since Wimbledon 2012. This would thwart Roger’s biggest rival and widen the gap between his trophy case and that of the Spaniard.

If we are to look at the biggest threats to Roger’s sacred Slam record, two names stand out from the rest: Nadal and Djokovic. The aforementioned Rafa Nadal is 30 years old and stands at 14 singles titles (3 behind Federer as I’m writing this) at Majors. He hasn’t won a Slam since Roland Garros in 2014. And that was the last Slam final he reached, until Sunday’s Aussie Open against Federer. That’s close to 3 years without competing on the final Sunday of any Major. Nole Djokovic has collected 12 Grand Slam singles titles, and will turn 30 in May, just before Roland Garros kicks off. After a blistering 2 years that saw him capture 5 Slams, and hold all 4 trophies at one time, the Serb has slipped up and hasn’t won a Slam since the 2016 French Open. That includes two early round exits; a third round sendoff at SW19 last summer, and a second round loss this year Down Under. Rumors have been swirling about his personal life. Astute tennis observers have wondered if he has lost his mojo for good.

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If Nadal and Djokovic are the greatest threat to Roger’s record, and both of them have been slowing down as they have neared 30, the question we should ask ourselves is: at what clip have men in their 30’s won Slams historically?

In the Open Era (1968-today), only 19 Slams have been won by players after turning 30. Agassi, long considered a late bloomer, who hadn’t logged a lot of miles in the early portion of his career, only won 2 Slams after turning 30. Rosewall and Laver, who had a lot of tread left on their tires, are the record-holders for Slam wins after 30. Each Aussie won 4 after crossing that age barrier. Another thing to note: there has been a slow-down in Slam Winners after 30 in recent decades. From ’68 to ’77, 11 Slams were won by men who were over 30 years of age. From ’78 through ’87, only 2 Majors were won by men over 30. The ’88 through ’97 decade saw 1 Slam won by a 30+ year-old. ’98 through ’07 brought us 4 Slam trophies hoisted aloft by men 30 and over. And finally ’08 through today has delivered one Grand Slam taken home by a man having reached the age of 30. That’s an 11-to-2-to-1-to-4-to-1 progression over the last 5 decades.

Granted, there is the remainder of 2017 left to tabulate for the latest decade. And Sunday will be the 5th time two 30 year olds will face off with a Slam at stake. That guarantees we will have at least 2 Slams won in this decade and perhaps more. The old guard of 30 year-olds which includes Nadal, Wawrinka, and Federer are all threats at Majors. And both Murray and Djokovic will turn 30 in May before the French Open begins. That’s quite a cavalcade of trentenaires capable of bagging a couple more Slams with 3 remaining on the calendar. One might even say that of the 3 majors remaining, there’s a greater chance those are won by that group men in their 30’s than the rest of the field.

There’s been a theory peddled in recent years in tennis that better nutrition, a more rigorous fitness regimen, better exercise science, and even increased mindfulness have enabled top players to remain at the top of the game at a more advanced age. Perhaps it has. But as we’ve seen in our analysis of 30+ players, it hasn’t necessarily translated to more Slam trophies on the Men’s side. At least not yet. All 4 Slams this year would have to be won by men in their 30’s for there to be growth (5, up from 4) from the previous decade in Slams won by 30+ year old men.

Even if there is a bit more longevity in the men’s game, it is hard to imagine that any player would win 4 more after that age. Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, the record-holders for Slams post-thirty, played in an era of lesser depth. Today, a poor night’s sleep or a minor indigestion for a Top 5 player could have him slip up enough to lose against a player ranked 100 spots below him. It happens all the time. And that doesn’t even factor in a group of younger players who are all considered Grand Slam material. Gentlemen like Raonic, Nishikori, Alexander Zverev, and Dimitrov have been knocking at the door, and are likely to breakthrough in the coming years. Those are all men capable of snatching a few Grand Slam trophies away from the likes of Djokovic and Nadal. And that’s not counting the proven Major contenders like Murray and Wawrinka who have already crossed the Slam Chasm.

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After Sunday’s Australian Open final, Nadal will either sit at his current total of 14, while Federer will have pocketed his 18th, or Nadal will possess 15 Slam trophies while Fed will remain with his record 17. Djokovic, who is probably training at home in Monte Carlo at this hour, will obviously still have 12 Majors. In the event that he wins Down Under, Nadal would need another 2 Slams to equal Federer’s total — assuming Federer doesn’t win any other Slams — and 3 to pass him. Nadal hasn’t been in a Slam final or won one since the 2014 French Open. That’s a drought of close to 3 years. For Rafa to pass Roger, you would have to expect Nadal to win another 3 Slams for the rest of his career, on top of this year’s Aussie, past the age of 30. All while projecting: Roger without another Major win. For Nole to pass King Fed, you would have to expect Djokovic to win another 6 Slams, all after turning 30. While projecting: Rog doesn’t win another Major. That’s a ton to expect from Nole past the age of 30. He would have to win more Majors past 30 than any other man (both current record holders Rosewall and Laver hold 4 after 30), in an era with much greater depth and physicality.

Both scenarios that have Djokovic or Nadal passing Federer in total Grand Slams are highly improbable, if not virtually impossible. They assume unrivaled production from either player after turning 30 years of age, all the while inferring Roger will not add to his Slam trophy case. Yet, the Federer Express has shown us recently, and particularly this fortnight, that he’s able to play the kind of game that will have him threaten at Majors. He could very well capture another Slam or two. Starting with tomorrow.

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