Fed back to no.2: Is the weak era theory overrated?

Roger Federer won his 23rd ATP Masters Series title at Shanghai last Sunday and en route overtook Rafael Nadal in the rankings to reach no.2.  At 33, Federer is the oldest no.2 since Andre Agassi in 2005.  That period (i.e 2003 to 2007), we were told, was one of the weakest in men’s tennis and Federer apparently was lucky to feast on this era and hog slams by the bagful.  So what happened now?  How did Federer manage to get back to no.2 so late in his career in the golden age of tennis?

There will be suitable explanations, no doubt.  Andy Murray is not the same since back surgery.  Rafael Nadal has been waylaid by injury frequently this year too.  Wawrinka didn’t step up after Australian Open.  Milos Raonic is still ’emerging’.  That leaves only Novak Djokovic and he too has been less than robotic when it comes to consistency.  Which means Federer could, with some more helpings of the great good luck that God has been kind enough to grant him, even finish the year ahead of Djokovic if things go totally pear shaped for the latter and Federer slam dunks the indoor swing.  Just a one off, freak year, will be the explanation.

Which is exactly the point.  There is a term for it: law of averages.  The entire weak era/strong era myth has been based on the unsupportable assumption that the rest of the Big Four would be able to maintain their level forever and unstintingly.  It was assumed that they would, year after year, dominate the tour so successfully and consistently that, in an alternative version of history where Federer was just the same age as Djoko or Murray, he wouldn’t have amassed even close to the number of slams he has.  2014 has proven, once and for all, that this was never going to be the case.   What goes up must come down.  Murphy’s Law cannot be defied for very long, when all is said and done.

The point, to now spell it out even more baldly, is that even in that alternative version of history, there was surely going to be a point when the highly physical version of tennis that the rest of the Big Four have played would catch up with them and wear them down.  Not permanently, maybe, but surely forcing temporary lulls or even hiatuses.  During 2011-12, Djokovic began to lord over Federer though he still did lose at both French Open and Wimbledon in different years.  By end of 2012, Djokovic had even usurped Federer as the king of indoors.  At that time, Federer was still prepared to slug it out from the baseline.

But on Saturday at Shanghai (a tournament Djokovic won last year), Federer played a more high risk game built on serve volley and net rushing to beat him in straight sets.  While the match was a lot, lot closer than the scoreline suggested, the fact that Djokovic could only earn 1 break point (as against 10 by Federer) shows how dominant Federer was in his service games.  The best returner in the game could not find a way past a charging Federer.  At the age of 33.  It bears repeating.  Earlier this year, Federer beat Murray at Australian Open with similar tactics.

In other words, it is highly questionable whether Djokovic and Murray truly gained a lasting edge on Federer that they did not possess earlier.  The popular argument has been that early in their career, their game was not yet developed enough to take on Federer while later on they had matured enough to demonstrate their superiority over him.  Federer’s victories over both Djokovic and Murray this year (as also, for instance, his victories over both at Wimbledon in 2012) do raise serious doubts over that notion.

What or rather who remains is, of course, Nadal.  There is no question that Nadal was the proverbial bee in Federer’s bonnet from the beginning.  And the bee morphed into a frightening monster as the years rolled by, casting a shadow over Federer’s glorious legacy.  Pete Sampras did not face Richard Krajicek and Lleyton Hewitt (players who owned a favourable head to head against him) often enough for them to dent his aura of invincibility.  Federer unfortunately had no such ‘luck’.  At aforesaid Australian Open, Nadal beat Federer even more easily than Fed beat Murray. Perhaps, with Nadal’s double backhand getting weaker and weaker, Federer may finally make up lost ground in the rivalry.  Colour me skeptical, though.

Which brings me to the last part of the write up.  That is that Nadal was already there in those so called weak era years.  And rose to no.2 in 2006 and troubled Federer greatly in the 2007 Wimbledon final.  Nevertheless, in both 2006 and 2007, Federer still bagged 3 slams each anyway.  As I observed in an earlier write up, it has really always been about Federer-Nadal rather than Big four.  With the greatest respect to Djokovic, he has not been as influential a force as they were and are.  And with two slams, Murray even less so.

Give or take a few years, but it would still have been largely Federer and Nadal battling for the slams.  Of course, there’s no way to prove it but then, the whole weak era theory itself is based on cherry-picked stats and favourable, biased interpretations of what-if scenarios to suit a certain narrative that seeks to discredit Federer for reasons best known to those who pursue said agenda.

Besides….if Federer had indeed had the benefit of being a bit younger, he would not have had to go past not one but four top class serve and volley players at Wimbledon – Sampras, Tim Henman, Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic.  In 2001, a  19 year old Fed did dethrone the then reigning champion Sampras but fell to Henman at the next hurdle.  In 2003, against a weaker field, Federer cruised to the title.  So, what if Federer had only been 19 in 2003, with a bunch of formidable fast court specialists out of the way.  Maybe he would have held onto his Wimbledon fiefdom for longer as also his US Open dominance.  In 2008, Federer perceptibly slowed down and gradually slid off his peak.  In the process, he ceded ground to new champions as also more slams for Nadal.  It is a point that, of course, the weak-era camp would like to believe has nothing to do with the discussion.  But in this alternative scenario, that slowing down process would have been postponed, thus keeping Federer in contention for more slams.

Anyhow, the above was to demonstrate there is no end to what-ifs.  At least this latest feat of amazing longevity should hopefully seal the debate over Federer’s greatness once and for all.  He may not be the greatest of all time and it may be up for debate as to whether he is greater than Nadal.  But to pretend he does not deserve every one of his 17 slams is deluded and, I am afraid, reeks of jealousy and spite as also blind denial of history as it actually unfolded.  As an advocate of free speech, however, I do not grudge the right of people to feel jealous of a great tennis champion if they wish to.  Carry on, wayward haters. ,

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