Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1998—
Major titles: 20
After 20 years, 20 Grand Slam titles and innumerable flights of artistic fancy, are there any praises still left to sing?
When Federer was new to the tour in the late 1990s, he took his share of bad losses like anyone else. But his reaction to one of them in particular was telling. The young Swiss was annoyed most of all by the fact that his opponent’s technique was not even remotely as “beautiful” as his own.
While many people would not immediately equate a player’s aesthetic appeal with his ability, Federer was onto something about his own game, and what would ultimately raise it above every other male player’s in the Open era. He would fuse the stylish with the substantive, the artistic with the effectual, the elegant with the dominant. Federer would make the tennis textbook sing, and show that, at least in this sport, there was a use for beauty, after all.
The artistry in Federer’s game was apparent from the start, even if the extent of its effectiveness wasn’t. At a time when sonic serving, baseline grinding and two-handed slugging were in the ascendant, Federer provided an alternative that was both old-fashioned and brand new: an effortless service motion, a sweeping one-handed backhand, a topspin forehand that he used to create rather than just rally, a willingness to play the net, a flair for the sensational response, and an ability to win with something more subtle and varied than brute power.
Federer’s role models were the last generation of all-courters—led by Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras and Boris Becker—which he grew up watching in the early ’90s. Federer would come to the world’s attention as a 19-year-old in 2001, when he upset the best of that generation, Sampras, in a five-set classic on Centre Court and ended the American’s long reign at Wimbledon.
That day, Federer was the better net-rusher, but he didn’t start his own reign on Centre Court until he adapted to its new, hardier grass and began directing his attacks from the baseline. In doing so, he was taking the same step back as his peers. Federer would use what he learned from the last of the great 20th century players to make himself into the first great player of the 21st.
Court Report: Roger Federer wins Laureus Sportsman of the Year
Volatile as a teenager, by 2003 the 22-year-old Federer had his emotions in check and his varied game molded into a cohesive whole. His straight-set win over Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon semifinals was the eye-opener. As Federer dipped, angled, dropped and powered the ball past the pre-tournament favorite, it was clear that he had a level—or three—that his rival couldn’t reach. “Full flight Federer” was born. The heir to the Sampras throne would come from Switzerland, not the U.S.
After his first Slam win at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer would soar through one of the most dominant four-year stretches in ATP history. From 2004–2007, he won 42 titles, including 11 of the 16 majors played, amassed a 315-24 match record, and spent a men’s-record 237 straight weeks at No. 1. His 2006 peak, in which he went 92-5, reached 16 finals and won 12 titles, is one of the four best seasons of the Open era.
Only one tournament, and by extension one player, eluded Federer’s grasp. He would lose to Rafael Nadal in the semis or finals at the French Open each year from 2005 to 2008. But with a friendly assist from Robin Soderling, who upset Nadal in Paris in 2009, Federer completed his career Grand Slam.
Still, Federer couldn’t stop Nadal from knocking him off his No. 1 perch, in fittingly spectacular fashion, in their epic, era-defining 2008 Wimbledon final. While Federer’s rule wouldn’t be as absolute after that, he didn’t precipitously decline, either. He reached all four Grand Slam finals in 2009, won the Australian Open in 2010 and Wimbledon in 2012, and set a seemingly untouchable men’s record by reaching 23 consecutive major semifinals. His long quest to win an 18th—and presumably final—major in his 30s made him more popular than ever.
Court Report: Federer in Match for Africa 5
Federer never stopped searching for answers. He worked with Paul Annacone, Stefan Edberg and Ivan Ljubicic; he switched to a new, larger, more potent racquet; he went back to his 20th-century net-rushing roots. Finally, all of those efforts paid off in 2017. Sidelined for six months with a knee injury, and coming up on his 36th birthday, Federer nevertheless put together his best season in a decade, going 51-4 and winning his 18th and 19th majors at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Perhaps sweetest of all, Federer found an answer to his lifelong nemesis, Nadal. Swinging with more freedom from his backhand side than he ever had before, Federer won all four of their meetings that year.
With that late-career renaissance, Federer dispelled any doubts about his status as the Open era’s best male player. His 20 Grand Slam titles and 304 weeks at No. 1 are men’s records, and his 97 tournament wins are second only to Jimmy Connors’ 109—it’s not out of the question that Federer could break that mark, too. By discovering new aspects of his talent and reversing what seemed to be an inevitable decline, Federer at 36 has made anything seem possible.
He has also shown that there really were new praises left to sing, about his achievements and his role in the sport. If Federer’s story in his 20s was about, as the writer David Foster Wallace said, the beauty that a uniquely gifted athlete can create, Federer’s story in his 30s is one that all of us can learn from: It’s about the possibilities, rather than the limitations, that come with getting older. No tennis player has loved his job as much as Federer. It’s not a coincidence that no one has done it as well.
Defining Moment: “This one stands alone,” Federer said after his five-set win over Nadal in the Australian Open final last January. It wasn’t hard to see why Federer would feel that way about his 18th Grand Slam title. He did it at 35, which makes him the second-oldest man to win a major. He did it against Nadal, his nemesis. And he answered the most-asked question of the previous five years, “Can Federer win another Slam?” Now it never needs to be asked again. Roger Federer, as he proved in Melbourne, can always win another Slam.
Desert Smash: A Celebration of Celebrity, Charity and Tennis Unlike Any Other
The 14th annual Desert Smash charity tennis event is Tuesday, March 6, and there are many reasons to mark your calendar. Here are just five of those reasons, including the event's host, Serena Williams.
Desert Smash is the kick off to Indian Wells, which will be broadcast on Tennis Channel over the next two weeks.
*** STREAM DESERT SMASH LIVE on TENNIS.com ***
*** WATCH LIVE on TENNIS CHANNEL ***
*** PURCHASE TICKETS AT https://desertsmash.