by Brice Polender
Novak Djokovic had what he considers to be the best season of his life in 2015 and what has been hailed by many as the greatest calendar year performance in the history of men’s tennis. With his victory at the 2016 Australian Open, Djokovic appears to be gunning for a year even greater than the one he had in 2015. At the top of his priority list, lie Roland Garros and the Rio Olympic Games.
Since the onset of 2015, the only blemish in Djokovic’s otherwise perfect run has been his loss in the final of Roland Garros. This is undoubtedly one of the greatest stretches ever, but it is not unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. For example, this current run parallels Djokovic’s own 2011, in which he won three majors and lost in the semifinals of the French to Federer. Federer himself has won three out of the four majors in a calendar year on three different occasions, and his 2006 can go punch for punch with Djokovic’s 2015 season in terms of the season as a whole. Both made all four major finals with the French proving elusive yet finished the season by capturing the ATP World Tour Finals. Federer finished 92-5 with four Masters Series 1000 titles and twelve titles overall. Djokovic, in comparison, won six Masters Series 1000s en route to an 82-6 record and eleven titles overall. Although Djokovic found more success at the Masters Series events, Federer undoubtedly was more dominant from opponent to opponent and had an ethereal aura surrounding him that even moved legendary writer David Foster Wallace to write about Roger Federer as a “religious experience”. Like Djokovic following up his 2015 with a title at the Australian Open to start 2016, Federer followed up his 2006 with a Slam win down under to start 2007. Ultimately, when stacked up against each other, it’s a toss up as to who had the superior season.
Regardless of who had the “better” season between Federer’s 2006 and Djokovic’s 2015, Djokovic’s run, although magnificent, is not the first of its kind. On the other hand, the stretch Federer has been on starting a year ago in Dubai has been groundbreaking. In all three majors that Djokovic won and the year-end Tour Finals, he has had to go through Roger: in the finals of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, Tour Finals, and in the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. At Roland Garros, the one major not won by Djokovic, Federer again lost to the eventual champion in Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. So over the course of the last four majors, Roger Federer has posted results of quarter-finalist, finalist, finalist, and semi-finalist each time losing to the eventual champion. Modern men’s tennis has never seen results of this caliber and at this level of consistency coming from a 34 year old, which is why Roger Federer is once again in a realm that we have not seen before in men’s tennis.
One of the most emphasized aspects of what Novak Djokovic is accomplishing is that it is occurring against the toughest competition in tennis history, both in the caliber of players at the top, as well as the depth of the top 50. What has seldom been highlighted is the fact that Roger Federer is having the success that he is having against a field that is so strong and deep. He went 63-11 on the year with 6 titles including a Masters Series 1000 trophy in Cincinnati. His head to head records against the game’s best, all of whom are at least four years younger than him, were very telling. Federer went 3-1 against Wawrinka including dismantling him at the U.S. Open 6-4, 6-3, 6-1. Against Murray he was 2-0 defeating him in straight sets each time at both Wimbledon and the Cincinnati Masters 1000. In his one match against his career-kryptonite in Nadal, Federer emerged victorious in the finals of the Swiss Indoors. Against Djokovic in the “best” season of his career, a 33/34 year old Federer went 3-5, handing Djokovic half of his losses for the season in addition to being the only player to beat Novak more than once in 2015.
Despite not beating Djokovic in the Majors, the very fact that a 34 year old Federer has given himself chances to win against a player in Djokovic that is playing the best tennis of his life, is remarkable. No match better encapsulated this like their semifinal match in this year’s Australian Open. Djokovic came out on fire playing perfect tennis and taking a two set to love lead with scores of 6-1 and 6-2. Despite Djokovic playing near flawless tennis, through different changes of pace and construction of points, Federer was able to raise his own level and disrupt Djokovic enough to take the third set 6-3. Despite losing the fourth set, Federer hung in there and gave himself chances. The set came down to a few points that very well could have gone Federer’s way. And besides the results of the match, Federer certainly passed the eye test when it came down to playing at a level and pulling off shots that we have never seen before from a 34 year-old.
To put the performance of Federer over the last twelve months into historic perspective, let’s examine other tennis legends who have had this kind of sustained success at age 33 or older. Ken Rosewall won 4 majors after age 33 from 1968-1972, and Andres Gimeno won the 1972 French Open at age 34. Those are the only two players in the Open Era to have won a slam after turning 33. Those slam victories are without a doubt impressive, but the role of physicality in tennis in the early seventies is just not comparable to that in tennis today. The importance of power, balance, flexibility, and explosiveness in today’s game makes the physical prowess that comes with being in one’s prime age so much more vital. This is why Roger Federer’s results at his age are so absurd.
The only player in the modern game to be in the same ballpark as Roger Federer when it comes to success in his mid-thirties is Andre Agassi. From his 33rd birthday until his retirement at age 36, Agassi made three grand slam quarterfinals, two grand slam semi-finals, and a lone grand slam final at the 2005 U.S. Open where he fell to Federer. No player in the prior 30 years had ever made a major final after turning 33, and Federer is the sole player to have done so since.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Agassi-Federer comparison is that after age 33, Agassi made his lone slam final at age 35. Federer still has a year until he reaches that age and has shown no sign of slowing down from his current level on court. It seems that the only legitimate roadblock to Federer’s ability to further build on his precedent of success in one’s mid-thirties is injury. Despite Roger requiring surgery for a torn meniscus, we have reason to be optimistic that it isn’t too serious, as he is scheduled to return in Miami only six weeks removed from the surgery. Regardless of what the future holds, the past twelve months of men’s tennis should be highlighted just as much by Federer as it has been by Djokovic. Although the spotlight has been on Djokovic’s dominance, Federer continues to add to the list of unrivaled feats that comprise his status as the greatest tennis player of all time.