A significant amount of the coverage leading up to the U.S. Open Final focused on Roger Federer as an ageless tennis deity who has remade his game and even developed a new shot (which--with his characteristic humblebrag modesty--he calls "SABR," meaning Sneak Attack by Roger) that supposedly is an unstoppable weapon. That is all well and good, except that this coverage has been rendered largely meaningless by a story that should be the headline grabber but likely will not capture as much attention as all of the praise that has been heaped on Federer: the real story is two-fold, namely (1) Novak Djokovic defeated Federer in the U.S. Open Final in four sets and (2) Djokovic is clearly the best player in the world, even if he has not named a shot after himself or convinced writers that it is their sworn duty to wax poetic about his every breath, move and statement.
Much of the mainstream media coverage of tennis defies logical analysis. It does not make sense to assert that (1)
Federer is as good as he has ever been and (2) that he is the greatest
player of all-time while relentlessly ignoring Federer's struggles versus
Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. If Federer is as good as he has ever been and if Federer truly established himself years ago as the greatest player of all-time then he should still be winning Grand Slams. Otherwise, it is only logical to assert--at a minimum--that even if Federer achieved greatest of all-time status at some point in the distant past he has since been supplanted by Nadal and Djokovic. Logically and conceptually it simply does not compute to say that Federer is the greatest of all-time and that he has developed a new shot that makes him better than ever but that the successes of Nadal and Djokovic are irrelevant in terms of the greatest player of all-time debate--and this does not even take into account the fact that a very good case could be made that Bjorn Borg is better than all three of them.
There is no question that Federer is very durable. That durability has enabled him to amass some impressive career numbers, including his record-setting 17 Grand Slam singles titles. However, Federer has appeared in 66 Grand Slam events and his .258 Grand Slam winning percentage is not even close to the record Grand Slam winning percentage posted by Borg (.407). Borg never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam, he lost in the second round just once and he made it to at least the quarterfinals in 20 of his 27 appearances (.741). Federer has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam six times, he has lost in the second round once and he has advanced to the quarterfinals in 46 of his 66 appearances (.697).
Federer's head to head struggles versus Nadal are well documented, with the tally currently standing at 23-10 in Nadal's favor, including 9-2 in Grand Slam matches and 6-2 in Grand Slam Finals. Nadal has not been nearly as durable as Federer, though Nadal has been durable enough to win at least one Grand Slam for 10 straight years (2005-14), breaking the mark of eight set by Borg and later matched by Pete Sampras and Federer. Nadal is tied with Sampras for second on the all-time list with 14 Grand Slam singles titles but Nadal's Grand Slam winning percentage (.326) is much better than Federer's or Sampras' (.269). Injuries have limited Nadal at various points in his career and especially since the French Open in 2014 (Nadal's last Grand Slam singles title) but Federer has suffered an even longer drought, with his last Grand Slam winning coming at Wimbledon in 2012 (Federer's only Grand Slam title since 2010).
The Djokovic-Federer head to head rivalry is now tied at 21-21, but Djokovic enjoys the edge in Grand Slam matches (8-6) and Grand Slam Finals (3-1). Federer won five of their first six head to head encounters but Djokovic has captured 20 of the next 36, including each of the past three times that they have met in a Grand Slam Final. Djokovic has won 10 Grand Slam titles in 44 appearances (.227) while losing twice in the first round and twice in the second round and reaching the quarterfinals 34 times (.773, a percentage even better than Borg's).
If Federer had defeated Djokovic in the U.S. Open Final then this would have been cited as yet another piece of evidence that Federer is indisputably the greatest player of all-time--but Djokovic's win against Federer seemingly does not in the slightest way dent Federer's claim to that title. When Nadal beat Federer like a drum, Federer's fans made the excuse that Nadal was a clay court specialist. Now, Djokovic is beating Federer on hard courts (U.S. Open), on grass courts (Wimbledon) and on clay (2012 French Open, 2015 Italian Open) but nothing can seem to loosen Federer's supposedly secure grip on the mythical greatest of all-time title.
If Federer were washed up and just playing out the string then one could make the case that at least some of his losses to Nadal and Djokovic should not count when determining the pecking order among these three players--but the reality is that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been in or reasonably close to their primes from late 2008 to the present. During that time, Federer has been ranked number one in the world for 65 weeks, Nadal has been ranked number one in the world for 141 weeks and Djokovic has been ranked number one in the world for 164 weeks. During that same time span, Federer has won five Grand Slam singles titles, Nadal has won nine Grand Slam singles titles and Djokovic has won nine Grand Slam singles titles. It is difficult to make a reasonable case that Federer is better than Nadal and, considering Djokovic's recent success (three Grand Slam wins in 2015 while appearing in each of the four Grand Slam Finals), it is at least arguable syllogistically that Djokovic is better than Federer as well; after all, if Federer is as good as ever and Djokovic is beating Federer on multiple surfaces than Djokovic is not only better than Federer now but he is better than Federer has ever been.
Just once, it would be refreshing to see a Federer supporter in the media write an article making a point something on the order of "As Federer advanced through this tournament I was reminded of why I like his game so much and why he is so highly regarded but after Federer lost to (Djokovic or Nadal) I was also reminded that, while Federer excels in wiping out the lesser lights, he has never established clear superiority over the other two great players of his time." Federer's SABR turns into a butter knife when he faces Nadal or Djokovic and it is difficult to picture Federer having the necessary mental or physical energy to contend with the relentless Borg in his prime.