Sports·THE BUZZER

Roger Federer's greatness goes beyond the numbers

His men's Grand Slam titles record has been surpassed by the other two members of the Big Three, but Roger Federer is still arguably the greatest player of tennis' golden age.

The retiring tennis maestro played with unmatched elegance

Roger Federer won the last of his record eight Wimbledon men's titles in 2017. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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Saying that his 41-year-old body is telling him it's "time to end my competitive career" after three injury-plagued years, the Swiss great announced today that he'll walk away from pro tennis following next week's Laver Cup team event in London.

Given his age and knee problems that have prevented him from competing since his quarter-final loss at Wimbledon in July 2021, Federer's announcement isn't exactly a shock. But fans had hoped for a victory lap after Federer indicated this summer that he'd like to play one more time at Wimbledon, where he won a men's-record eight of his 20 Grand Slam singles titles.

In addition to his Slam triumphs, Federer captured Olympic doubles gold for Switzerland in 2008 with teammate Stan Wawrinka, and singles silver in 2012 in London, where he lost the final at the All England Club to Britain's Andy Murray just a few weeks after beating him in the Wimbledon title match on the same court.

Since making his pro debut at the age of 16 in 1998, Federer has won 103 tour-level titles and racked up 1,251 singles wins — both second to Jimmy Connors in the Open era. He holds the record for most consecutive weeks atop the men's rankings, and for oldest men's No. 1 (he regained the top spot at age 36 in 2018, the year he won his final major). At the height of his powers, Federer won 11 of the 16 majors played in the 2004 through 2007 seasons.

The stats are staggering, but the best way to appreciate Federer's brilliance was by watching him play. Powerful yet graceful, fiercely determined yet elegant, Federer sometimes seemed as much an artist as an athlete. Over the course of his career, he became not just the finest player in tennis but the sport's ideal gentleman — a stunning evolution to anyone who remembers the bratty, ponytailed teen whose on-court tantrums marred his early days on tour.

With Federer exiting the stage, tennis has now lost arguably the greatest men's and women's players of all time in the span of just a few weeks. Serena Williams announced last month that she was retiring (or "evolving away from tennis" as she put it) before losing in the third round of the U.S. Open, which is expected to be her final tournament.

Serena is almost universally acclaimed as the greatest women's player ever, even though her 23 Grand Slam singles titles put her one short of Margaret Court's all-time record. Court, the argument goes, won most of hers in the far-less-competitive amateur era, and besides, Serena connected with fans and shattered cultural barriers in ways that Court could never dream. When we're debating all-time greats, vibes can matter just as much as numbers.

That's also the case for Federer on the men's side. Yes, his one-time record of 20 men's singles Slam titles has been surpassed by both other members of the Big Three. Rafael Nadal is up to 22, Novak Djokovic to 21, and they're probably not done, considering they combined to win three of the four majors this year. But, for some tennis fans, neither of them can match Federer in terms of pure style. Nadal's fighting spirit is incredible, and he's every bit the gentleman Federer is both on and off the court, but his game is more about brute force and determination. The relentless Djokovic will probably end up with the record, considering he's the youngest of the three and in super-human physical condition, but his personality can rub people the wrong way. He also may have harmed his own legacy by throwing away two Slams this year because of his refusal to get vaccinated.

In the end, greatness is in the eye of the beholder. You can make a good case for any of the Big Three being the GOAT. But, when we look back on this golden age of tennis in the years and decades to come, Federer will probably be the one remembered most fondly. Read more about his marvelous career here.

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