Suave Federer's legacy extends far beyond records, GOAT debate

·3-min read

Roger Federer's fans call him the greatest of all time but the Swiss heads into retirement third on the all-time list of most Grand Slam titles, having been surpassed by long-time rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

While the timing of the 41-year-old Federer's announcement Thursday was unexpected, the decision to bring down the curtain on an incredible career was less so, given his struggles with a knee problem.

Father Time inevitably caught up with the 20-time Grand Slam champion, who admitted his creaking body was no longer up to the rigours of the sport after more than 1,500 matches over 24 years.

Federer's last appearance came in a quarter-final loss to Hubert Hurkacz at last year's Wimbledon, where he broke through in 2001 with his famous win over Pete Sampras before lifting the first of his eight titles two years later.

Federer was out on his own as the sport's alpha male when he overtook Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam wins at Wimbledon in 2009, with Nadal trailing on six majors and Djokovic on just one.

As the rush of big titles began to slow for Federer from 2010, his two great rivals stepped on the accelerator, consistently winning Grand Slams over the following decade, even though Federer returned to winning ways in 2017 and 2018.

Nadal pulled level on 20 Slams after winning the French Open in 2020 and Djokovic joined the party after scooping three majors during a stellar 2021 season.

The Spaniard surged in front with titles at this year's Australian Open and Roland Garros, while Djokovic eclipsed Federer by triumphing at Wimbledon for the seventh time.

With each of the "Big Three" supported by their own phalanx of die-hard supporters, many fans are captivated by the debate about who will ultimately emerge from the golden age of men's tennis on top.

The number of major titles is not the only factor used to determine where players sit in the pantheon but it is increasingly used as the go-to metric.

- Style and substance -

Federer has won the most overall career singles titles of the three, with his tally of 103 only bettered by American Jimmy Connors, who won 109.

Djokovic is unrivalled in terms of time spent at number one, notching 373 weeks at the top so far, with Federer on 310 and Nadal on 209.

The Serbian, who lags behind his two major rivals in the popularity stakes, also boasts a winning record in head-to-head matches against both, although Nadal edges Djokovic in their Grand Slam meetings.

The numbers do not lie and while records alone will never tell the complete story, in the fullness of time it could be Federer's elegant style rather than simply his accomplishments that sets him apart from his peers.

"I was lucky to play so many epic matches that I will never forget," said Federer, thanking all those who played against him.

"We pushed each other, and together we took tennis to new levels."

Nadal has said he does not care much whether he finishes top of the pile in terms of Grand Slams, but paid a fond tribute to the retiring Federer.

"I wish this day would never have come. It's been a pleasure but also an honour and privilege to share all these years with you, living so many amazing moments on and off the court," said Nadal.

Federer's farewell comes days after Carlos Alcaraz crowned his meteoric rise by capturing his first major at the US Open, the 19-year-old becoming the youngest man to ascend to the world number one ranking.

As Federer bows out, the battle for tennis immortality turns to the rivalry between 36-year-old Nadal and Djokovic, 35, the Swiss legend leaving an indelible mark on the sport with his place in history secured.

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