Reading the Readers: Still Roger

Thursday, September 19, 2013 /by
Photo by Anita Aguilar
Photo by Anita Aguilar

One mildly fortunate consequence of a slow week on tour is that there’s more time to read the readers. Rafa and Serena may reign supreme in the rankings right now, but not in emails—those still belong to Roger. If you have a question or a comment for this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com.

*****

Steve,

Do we have to endure more GOAT talk for the next three or four years, or however long it takes Rafa to get close to Roger’s 17? Can we call a stop to it now?—Sonali

Yes, we are going to have endure it; and no, we can’t stop it—only Rafa’s famous knees can do that. Which is too bad, because I thought I had detected a lull in the use of the GOAT word of late, after Federer put Pete Sampras safely in his Grand Slam rearview mirror. 

I’ll just say one thing about the coming contretemps for now. We’ve been told that we can’t compare players from different eras—I say we can, as long as we agree that all informed opinions on the subject are valid, that there will never be an ironclad way to declare anyone the GOAT, and that the whole thing is just for fun. But thinking about Nadal and Federer, I realize that it isn’t just difficult to compare players of different eras, it’s tough to do it for players from the same time period as well. 

Nadal and Federer have very different styles, different strengths and weaknesses, and different surfaces on which they dominate. Rafa will likely end up leading the head-to-head (he’s up 21-10), while Roger will likely end up leading in the weeks spent at No. 1 (he’s up 302 to 102)—though as it stands now, the first of those may get more lopsided while the second gets less so. But even a seemingly cut-and-dry measurement such as number of Grand Slam titles will probably just stir up more confusion and argument. If and when Nadal gets closer to Federer’s record 17, the question of how many French Open titles is too many French Open titles to qualify Rafa as an all-around GOAT will almost certainly come up.

I think the fact that Nadal has a career Grand Slam (Golden Slam, in fact) inoculates him from the charge of being a specialist. Still, he might not want to wait three years to win his next non-clay major, the way he just did. I don’t even want to begin to imagine the fights that will break out if Nadal passes Federer and ends up with 18 majors, but 12 or 13 of them were won in Paris.

Now that I’ve written that answer, Sonali, I’m just going to agree with you: I’m sick of the subject already.

*****

Steve,

Can you tell me why some writers always say that Roger never plays Davis Cup? It happened again this weekend when the other Big 4 were playing and he wasn’t. If you look at the Davis Cup records, Roger has 32 singles wins, which is only one less than Andy Roddick. And everyone says Roddick was such a Davis Cup hero. Will you please set this record straight?—Ben

I will set it half-straight. You’re right to object to people who claim that Federer “never” plays Davis Cup, if those people actually exist. Federer has played 22 ties, while Roddick played 25, Novak Djokovic has played 20, and Rafael Nadal has played 15. 

But you also can’t compare Federer’s commitment to someone like Roddick’s. From 2001 to 2009, the American played every World Group main-draw tie he could. Since 2004, Federer has only played relegation matches for Switzerland (with the disastrous exception of a 5-0 first-round loss to the U.S. last year). When he became No. 1, Federer decided that he would do what he could to keep the Swiss in the World Group, but the prospect of playing four ties every year to win the Cup, combined with the rest of his schedule, was too much. In 2007, Federer skipped a first-round tie that Switzerland lost to Spain. The same weekend, the U.S. went to the Czech Republic. Roddick won a clinching Sunday match over Tomas Berdych, the team won its first tie on clay in years, and they went on to win the Davis Cup at the end of the season.

Does it matter that Federer hasn’t been totally committed to Davis Cup? Not to me, though I'm not on the Swiss team. He made his choice, and it worked for him. Tennis players were once bound to do the bidding of their national tennis federations, but they’ve been free from that for 40 years, and I don't think they should play DC if they don't want to play it. Yes, it would have been great to see Federer in the team competition; he was passionate about it early on, though he had his issues with the Swiss federation and at least one captain. But when I think of the career of Jimmy Connors, who rarely played Davis Cup, I don’t downgrade him because of it. Federer missing a Cup on his résumé is not the same as Sampras missing a French Open or Borg missing a U.S. Open on theirs.

I like seeing the star players involved in Davis Cup. I loved watching Djokovic, Rafa, and Murray in that environment this weekend. But that’s not what the competition is about. It's about team and country and fans, and it delivers drama no matter who is playing. Davis Cup doesn’t need Roger Federer, or any individual player, and that may be the highest compliment you can pay it.

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