Novak Djokovic claimed his third Wimbledon title, his third Grand Slam singles title in the past five Grand Slam events and his ninth Grand Slam singles title overall with a convincing 7-6 (1), 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-3 win over Roger Federer. Djokovic has not only clearly established himself as the best tennis player in the world right now but he is staking a claim to be mentioned among the top players of the Open Era. His mental toughness during matches used to be questioned but Djokovic has refuted that criticism.
Federer is in an interesting stage of his career. He is in excellent physical condition and not plagued by injuries but because he is 33 years old there is a tendency to say that every new win adds to his legacy but that when he loses his age is a valid excuse. The reality is that Federer is the second ranked tennis player in the world and age had nothing to do with what happened in his match with Djokovic. In fact, prior to the Finals, none other than Bjorn Borg--arguably the greatest tennis player of the Open Era--declared that Federer was at the peak of his powers. Federer's 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 semifinal win over Andy Murray impressed Borg so much that he predicted that Federer would beat Djokovic: "That's the best I've seen him play for many years, the best for maybe
10 years. He's serving so well. It was great tennis. On Sunday, Federer will definitely be the favorite to win. He is playing well, moving well, he was doing everything he was supposed to. He is hitting the ball so cleanly and playing with a lot of confidence."
If Federer had beaten Djokovic, we would be subjected to an endless series of articles declaring that this result once again proves that Federer is the greatest tennis player of all-time. Federer's loss, though, will likely be dismissed because Djokovic is five years younger than Federer. By this way of thinking, Federer has an unbreakable hold on the greatest of all-time title: if he wins, then he further distances himself from the competition but if he loses that is no problem because he should not have been expected to win. I cannot recall any other athlete's legacy being treated this way.
Djokovic's win over Federer should be analyzed not in the context of the age difference between the players but rather in the larger context of Federer's career, which is that Federer has been remarkably durable and he has dominated lesser lights--a consistency for which he deserves credit--but he has not been dominant against the two other great players of his era, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Federer's struggles against Nadal are well documented--Nadal leads the head to head series 23-10, including 9-2 in Grand Slam matches--but Djokovic's Wimbledon triumph improved his head to head record against Federer to 20-20. Djokovic has beaten Federer two out of three times in Grand Slam Finals and 10 out of 15 times in Finals overall, meaning that when both players are at their best Djokovic has been better. Why should it be taken for granted without any discussion or analysis that Federer is better than Nadal and Djokovic, let alone the great players from previous eras?
Federer has had a remarkable career. He holds many records that testify to his longevity, including most Grand Slam singles titles (17). He is the Emmitt Smith of tennis and there is no shame in that. Emmitt Smith was a great running back who lasted long enough to set the NFL's career rushing record, eclipsing Walter Payton--but no serious NFL commentator would rank Smith ahead of Payton or Jim Brown or at least a half dozen other NFL running backs. Borg is the Jim Brown/Sandy Koufax of tennis, setting a high standard that may never be matched and then retiring at the peak of his powers. Borg's Davis Cup record is impeccable; he holds the mark for youngest
player to win a Davis Cup match (15 years old) and he also won a record
33 straight Davis Cup singles matches. Borg won at least one Grand Slam title for eight straight years (a record later matched by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer before being broken by Rafael Nadal, who accomplished the feat for 10 straight years). Borg also pulled off the Wimbledon/French Open double for three years in a row (a mark that may never be equaled).
Perhaps most impressively, Borg still holds the all-time record for Grand Slam tournament winning percentage (he won 11 of the 27 Grand Slams he entered) and Grand Slam match winning percentage (89.8%). He reached the Finals in 16 of his 27 Grand Slam appearances (59.3%). To put those numbers in perspective, consider that Nadal has won 14 of the 42 Grand Slam events that he entered (33.3%), Federer has won 17 of the 65 Grand Slam events that he entered (26.2%) and Djokovic has won nine of the 43 Grand Slam events that he entered (20.9%). Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have each reached the Finals in less than 50% of the Grand Slams that they entered.
The tennis ranking system perhaps rewards durability over greatness/dominance but even in that category Federer has not established an edge over his two main rivals during the time that their careers overlapped. Federer holds the record for most overall weeks as the number one ranked player in the world (302) but he accomplished that before Nadal and Djokovic hit their primes. When those three players have been in or reasonably near their primes (from late 2008 to the present), Federer has held the number one ranking for 65 weeks but Nadal has been number one for 141 weeks and Djokovic has been number one for 154 weeks.
Federer is lauded for his tennis artistry and, subjectively, his game may be more aesthetically pleasing to some people's eyes than the games of Nadal and Djokovic--but all-time greatness should be determined based on results, not aesthetics, and by that standard Borg, Nadal and Djokovic deserve a lot of the praise that is showered in Federer's direction. Appreciating Federer's durability should not come at the expense of recognizing the accomplishments of other great tennis players.