The Stability Factor, Roger Federer and Greatness
by Dan Martin | January 26th, 2009, 2:38 pm
  • 30 Comments

The Stable Shall Inherit Top Seedings

Roger Federer has reached his 19th consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal round and has a shot at reaching his 19th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal if he beats Juan Martin del Potro. Rafael Nadal has reached his 9th consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal and can reach his 5th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal with a win over Gilles Simon. Novak Djokovic has reached the semifinals of 6 of the last 7 majors and can make that 7 out of 8 if he takes down Andy Roddick in what could be a tense match. It may be dull to talk about Federer, Nadal and Djokovic consistently playing well in the biggest events, but reality is never that dull if we just take a closer look.


Consider that Pete Sampras’ best Grand Slam semifinal streak was 3. His best quarterfinal streak stretched from the 1991 U.S. Open through the 1994 Wimbledon Championships totaling 11 as he missed the 1992 Australian Open with an injury. I am not pointing this out to say anything other than it is difficult to reach the final 8 or final 4 of single elimination events over and over again. One injury or illness can easily derail a player on a tremendous hot streak. One opponent in the zone or one bad day can also snap a streak.

Differing Standards of Greatness

The Stability Factor, as I am naming it, has placed a demand on players of today’s generation to be good on all surfaces and to be eerily consistent in order to be considered elite. Every generation has its own set of standards for greatness. John McEnroe has regularly pointed out that players in his day did not care about the Australian Open. Jimmy Connors said he approached the game caring more about who he was playing rather than where he was playing. I can understand preferring to play Borg anywhere over and against trying to wrestle an extra Grand Slam title away from 2 time Australian Open champion Johan Kriek. Each era has different standards of greatness and as far as I can tell Ivan Lendl telling a young Pete Sampras that the Grand Slams were all that mattered was the primordial ancestor to the current standards of greatness.

It is frightening to think that Federer has reached the final 8 of every Grand Slam event since his round of 32 loss to Gustavo Kuerten at the 2004 French Open. Nadal seems to only be behind on the quarterfinal side of things due to being younger. Under the current circumstances, it becomes an indictment of how badly the U.S. system prepares junior players for the rigors of professional clay court tennis. That however is the topic for another column.

Murray Needs Stability

Using the Stability Factor to judge Andy Murray’s stunning loss to Fernando Verdasco reveals that Murray still has work to do. Murray reached the 2008 Wimbledon quarterfinal and 2008 U.S. Open final. He added Masters Series shields in Cincinnati and Paris. He also eliminated Roger Federer Masters Cup contention. I was ready to anoint Murray the eventual #1 in 2009. I also think Federer and Djokovic’s dismissals of Murray as the betting favorite demonstrated poor form on both Nole and The Fed’s part. Especially considering Murray has won 6 of his past 7 recent matches versus the world #2 and world #3. Funny how two guys who did not see eye to eye in 2008 about the tour’s pecking order suddenly agree in 2009. Murray is clearly the next closest player to the Nadal-Federer-Djokovic triad. Unless someone other than those 3 wins the Australian Open Murray is still #4 in my book.

Nevertheless, Murray’s loss to Verdasco coupled with Gilles Simon, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s quarterfinal berths certainly muddy the waters when ranking the best younger players on tour. Del Potro has won a slew of smaller events and now enters his second consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal. This is not Federer’s 19 consecutive quarterfinals, but it does mean the Argentine’s game may also be one of the stable factors on tour year round. Gilles Simon is in his first ever quarterfinal, but it is not hard to imagine Gilles showing up in the second week more often than not for the next few years. Tsonga’s biggest enemy is his health. Murray may have had just one bad day, but Grand Slam events are marathons and his own fiery temper may undermine his longevity. Having Roger Federer’s number is really nice, but it does not do Murray much good if he cannot win the five or six consecutive matches he needs to in order to face Federer. For Murray to reach #1 or to even distance himself from his promising contemporaries, he has to reign in his emotions and develop stability. On the flip side, Nadal, Federer and to some extent Djokovic can rest easy knowing they have plenty of chances to win big events because they are always playing deep into the draw. Reliability may be the best recipe for success on a tour where ever increasing numbers of players can hit insane shots.

Fatherhood Agrees with Me

On a personal note, I am glad to be back to writing about tennis. My wife gave birth to our first child in November and the wonderful yet exhausting role of parenthood hit me right as tennis entered its off season. I figured it was best to take an off season of my own. Our daughter is a very content and inquisitive baby. I can’t wait to introduce her to tennis.


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30 Comments for The Stability Factor, Roger Federer and Greatness

Giner Says:

Thank you for not bringing up the “Pete’s contemporaries were better players than Roger’s,” argument.

If former players didn’t take the Australian Open seriously, that is their loss. It’s still a Grand Slam with equal weighting to every other GS. A GS is a GS, and since greatness seems to be measured by number of GS titles, those former greats could have easily increased their count had they taken the AO seriously (Mr. Borg, I am looking at you).

I think that Fed and Djokovic’s write off of Murray’s chances were a sign of insecurity. They know that he’s beaten them in the last few. Nadal is the only one who didn’t take a jab at him, and would not have done so even if he had beat Murray in a semi-final. They (Djokovic in particular) shouldn’t have said that, because the only thing that separates Murray from the ‘I own a Slam’ club is one slam. Once he has one — and they know he will get one — they can’t say it anymore. He’ll be considered at least an equal favourite to Djokovic for any GS tournament. If Murray gets two Slams before Djokovic gets his second, I wonder how Djoker’s tune will change..

These two are intriguing players and I would really like to see Djokovic vs Murray matches more often (I hope they develop a personal rivalry like Fed and Nadal have), but unfortunately I’ve just realized how rare this is going to be unless one of them reaches #2 or #1. They can only meet each other in a final AND both Federer and Nadal must be have been beaten before the final. Davis Cup and TMC notwithstanding, this is probably not going to happen very often this year. I don’t see either player rising to #2 this year.

Congratulations on your first child, and welcome back Dan.


Daniel Says:

Excelent article! To me the most impressive record of Federer are the 18 consecutive semi-finals and counting in Slams and the “unbeatable” 10 consecutive Slams finals. This is where his greatness are: Consistency, tenacity, confidence, injury free, lucky, reliability…, really remarkable if we think in todays power and efort the players have to do week after week.


jane Says:

Hi Dan – I don’t have a chance to read your article just now, but I look forward to it. In the meantime, I wanted to give you a shout out: congrats on your baby girl!!! Look out Steffi Graf?


MMT Says:

I too find the, “We didn’t take the Australian seriously” excuse to be hogwash. If anyone of them did, they all would have, and thus would have been no more or less likely to win there. Furthermore, Wimbledon and the Australian Opens were completely different animals, so to assume that either Borg or McEnroe would have won there is incorrect.

Today, everyone takes the Australian very seriously, and still Federer has “only” won 3 times there, and Nadal never. It’s a hardcourt slam, so results in both should be similar, but they are not, so we the only thing about their Australian Open results we can know is that they never won there (with the exception of Connors).

Their loss.


MMT Says:

CORRECTION:

“…so results in both THE US OPEN AND THE AUSTRALIAN should be similar…”


Ra Says:

Great perspective, Dan, and congratulations!

Giner, I agree completely regarding insecurity, but I’d also add gamesmanship/mind-gaming as motivation for Fed’s and Novak’s criticisms.

The top of the field is really something special right now, and I’d probably rather see a year long best of 5 2009 masters’ cup than the usual ATP season.


Giner Says:

“Furthermore, Wimbledon and the Australian Opens were completely different animals, so to assume that either Borg or McEnroe would have won there is incorrect.”

What made those animals so completely different if I may ask. At the very least, Borg and McEnroe would have played each other there and one of them wins it.

And are you saying that the only reason they didn’t bother going there was because their rivals didn’t bother either? Imagine if Rod Laver didn’t bother (unlikely since he was an Aussie). We’d have no man in Open era to have ever won the calendar grand slam.

“Today, everyone takes the Australian very seriously, and still Federer has “only” won 3 times there, and Nadal never. It’s a hardcourt slam, so results in both should be similar, but they are not, so we the only thing about their Australian Open results we can know is that they never won there (with the exception of Connors).”

I’d say the results ARE pretty similar. Nadal’s best AO result was SF, and it is same with USO. Novak has won AO and made the final of the USO. Fed has won AO 3 times and USO 5 times. That’s pretty similar if you ask me.


Giner Says:

Nadal’s critics say that today’s Wimbledon grass and Roland Garros’s clay are the same animal but different colour (and those are two different surfaces, traditionally polar opposites), so I am quite curious to know what made the AO’s grass and Wimbledon’s grass so completely different in species.


B. Shepherd Says:

Congrats on the baby! Great article. But your article might suggest a different conclusion on one of your points: Fed didn’t insult AM before the tournie (as some say). He only said (not in his words but kind of yours): the stability factor is the stuff Grand Slams are made of, so to put AM as “the” favorite is surprising, since he hasn’t proven he has the s.f. yet. And he was right, no? I am sure AM will one day have it. But for now Fed was right, and I didn’t think arrogant, just honest.


tennisontherocks Says:

“Furthermore, Wimbledon and the Australian Opens were completely different animals, so to assume that either Borg or McEnroe would have won there is incorrect.”

Wilander won aus open on grass twice, but never wimbledon. In his interview on tennis channel, he pointed out the timing of the two majors as one key factor. He always went deep into clay season leaving him bit tired and underprepared for the wimbledon. But he had more time to prepare for the Aus open in December. In Nadal’s case, clay success helps set the tone for grass, but usually leaves him empty for US open.

and Dan, congrats on your baby!!!


Kroll Says:

Very interesting article Dan, and congratulations of course. But I think Borg did not play AO because he always lost at the USO and his aim was to score the Grand Slam and not More slams, a point that pervades your article. I think he said that he would have played AO only if he won the first three slams of the year. Its not so much about taking it seriously, as about having different aims than the modern one.

Giner
—–
“Nadal’s critics say that today’s Wimbledon grass and Roland Garros’s clay are the same animal but different colour”

Its actually an embarrassingly uninformed view lacking any nuance. Grass has gotten slower, yes but thats only one of the elements involved in the dynamics of a moving, spinning ball bouncing on a surface.


Dan Martin Says:

Thanks for all of the good vibes. My daughter is really tall for a 12 week old baby. 95+ percentile in height so maybe Venus, Maria, or Lindsey will be her role models. Then again she may be 100% disinterested in tennis and that will be fine too.


sar Says:

Giner, As far as gamesmanship with Novak and Fed goes…Fed said the other day,I will take on Andy in five sets anytime. He also made a bigger stink than Novak did last week. Fed did the head game on Murray. Murray let it get to him. That’s what I think.

And if Murray wins one, then he will be exactly on par with Djok in that regard, but Djok will still have 3 more masters.

Jane, yes I would like Djok to win but remember it took the great Sampras three years to get his second slam.


Kroll Says:

Ra, sar

I dont think its gamesmanship on part of Federer, just on the part of Djoker, who’s achievements are not much greater than Murray’s. Fed’s attitude is understandable, something that is I think common to a lot of top players. Irrespective of whether or not they have lost matches to lesser players, I think top players have a Need to understand that they can lose to a lesser ranked player. Fed for example was dismissive of Rafa’s quality till he started matching him everywhere so now if he loses to Rafa, he makes less noise and excuses since he thinks its OK to lose to Rafa. (Sampras wasn’t all that different) He’s probably accepted that grudgingly of Djokovic but not yet for Murray and others. Its an ego thing which makes him think “Is he really good enough to beat me on any day?” For Rafa, Fed would now answer Yes, maybe Djoko a little, but Murray? Not yet.

But the Djoker has not won a lot so I have no idea why he would be so disingenous regarding Murray’s ascent.


Danica Says:

Just wanted to congratulate Dan on birth of his beautiful daughter. Enjoy ;) and may all her dreams come true :)


jane Says:

Kroll, Dan, et al,

I agree that overall Novak should not have echoed Federer’s sentiments about Murray. I assume he must’ve been feeling forgotten or something, and perhaps (as he is wont to do) reacted defensively: having just won the Masters Cup, having WON the AO last year, it must be a little disconcerting (or even ‘deflating’) to hear that Murray is the fave, not only above him but above Fed and Rafa too.

He should’ve handled it better. HOWEVER, personally I do not think it was gamesmanship.

Read the press conference. The journalists lured him into a reaction, saying something to the effect of “what do you think about Murray being 3rd after Roger & Rafa?” “what do you think about being leap-frogged, etc?” Djokovic reacted to this tempermentally, but I do NOT think Novak planned to “get into Murray’s head” or anything. It just came up and he reacted.

Nor do I think that Roger planned to play mind games with Murray.

I think both of them were asked questions by the press / media (questions that may’ve been leading), and as a result maybe their egos were affected, maybe they answered less cautiously or generously than the should have, and so forther. But I don’t see any proof that this was pre-meditated gamesmanship.

We should blame the yellow journalists (;-) at least in part.


jane Says:

Last I check, “forther” is not a word. I meant “forth”.


Gordo Says:

Yay! A baby girl. You must be totally proud. Congratulations to your family.

Well – the top 8 seeds have never made the quarters at the AO – still.

Interesting enough, Murray drifted in and out of yesterday’s match horribly. I don’t think it was Federer or the Djoker’s comments that would have gotten to him – at the elite level you cannot let opponent’s talk, be it relatively innocent comments to the press (which I believe these were) or trash talk, such what as Safina unloaded on her last opponent.

The thing I find unusual is the masthead of the AO official website. Who is front and centre? Not last year’s men’s winner, not the world’s number one, but Federer, who lost in the semis in 2008.

Why would they not have given Djokovic or Rafa the prime spot in their online display. I just find that unusual. Of course, if Roger wins hoists the trophy it will have been just eerily prophetic, n’est-ce pas?

On a different note, if someone tells the press he is going to “kidnap his daughter back, kill an Australian and explode a nuclear bomb in Australia” shouldn’t that be grounds to bar Damir Dokic from entering the country and trying to crash Jelena’s party? What a nutbar!!!


Danica Says:

Gordo, can you please post a link to that sentence of Damir Dokic? I mean, he should not be allowed to get near to her anyway and if he does come to Melbourne, that should be kept from her.


MMT Says:

Hi Giner – I have a feeling your an Aussie, so please don’t take offense, but I believe there were many differences between the old Kooyong facility and the All-England club.

First, the surface at Wimbledon was firmer and more consistent, whereas Kooyong was more humid, sticky and uneven.

Wimbledon has always had high lush green back fences with no advertisements and a roof hanging over the spectators reducing stray noise, sun glare, and until 1986 white balls – all creating a near perfect environment to hear and see the ball. At Kooyong there was no roof, lots of outside noise, sun glare and spectators were forever waving white fans and such directly in the line of sight of the players, making it harder to pick up the ball and hear the spin coming off the racquet.

Also, with no roof Kooyong was often windier, and infested with summer insects which most players found difficult to cope with.

Also, Wimbledon is in the middle of the season, with neither injuries nor fatigue as a major factor, whereas the Australian Open was held alternately either at the very end or very beginning of the season, each with their own implications on player’s fitness and preparedness for a high level of play.

I’m just saying results by surface don’t necessarily convey because the playing conditions still vary significantly and assuming that these guys would have won more Aussie opens if they had played is not a safe assumption.

For example:

Mats Wilander won the Aussie Open on grass in 1983 and 1984, and never got past the QF at Wimbledon.

Sampras reached 8 US Open finals and won 5 times but only reached 3 Aussie finals with 2 wins.

Borg won 6 of 9 French Opens he entered, but never won the US Open when it was on clay and only reached 1 of those finals (75-77).

Lendl’s made 8 US Open finals in a row on hard courts, but only 3 on hardcourts in australia and never both in the same year.

The US Open, one of two hardcourt slams have seen just 4 first time GS finalists in the last 10 years, whereas the other hard court slam, the Australian, has seen 9 in the same period.

My point is we shouldn’t assume similar results, in apparently similar events, and as such, the argument that the champions of the past who didn’t take the Aussie Open seriously would have won more slams if they had is a COP OUT.


Noel Says:

Dan,
Heartiest congratulations and happy parenting/coaching your not-so-little angel! :)


Gordo Says:

Danica – here is the link, from an Aussie news report 3 years ago, but you can find it elsewhere as well. Bong – cuckoo!! Yikes.

http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2006/01/19/1137553679062.html


Al Says:

That players of the 1970s and early 80s didn’t take the Australian Open seriously MUST be considered, it’s simpleminded to look at the pure number of total Grand Slams won and consider it the absolute barometer of all-time greatness.

So here’s a proposal (admittedly not without flaw) that allows for it. Ask contemporaries and experts, factor in the court surface, and consider the quality of opponents at the time. Then make an assessment of how many Australian Opens Connors, Borg and McEnroe would have won. You’d have to say they’d have won a minimum of two each (Borg probably three). In future, when making your GOAT claims, weigh the speculated number.

If you insist on a more objective standard, then maybe consider whoever won the annual Madison Square Garden tournament (though it was invitational, not ‘Open’) as having won half a Slam. My memory is it was a highly prestigious tournament, as least as much so as the Aussie Open.


Esquilax Says:

Wasn’t it Agassi who said he regretted not coming to the Australian Open earlier in his career? I recall one on-court interview where he said it to JMac too and he agreed.


Dan Martin Says:

I think slams are more or less transferable from era to era within the Open era of tennis if some allowances made for the Australian Open. More problematic are things like Masters Series events. Prior to 1990 they simply were not called Super 9′s. The WCT tournament in Dallas was huge at one time. In 1986 the semifinals in New Haven were Lendl v. Connors and McEnroe vs. Becker with Lendl and Becker winning 3 set semifinals only to see Lendl beat Becker in the final. New Haven today is the successor to the Hamlet event after spending a few years off the men’s tour stops all together. Hard to transfer those results. Anyway fun stuff.


MMT Says:

Gordo: based on that article, it’s official: Damir Dokic is a bona fide loon who needs psychiatric attention.


Dan Martin Says:

Federer reaching 19 consecutive semifinals is to my mind as impressive as any of his accomplishments. To reach the final four in every one of 4 3/4 years worth of Grand Slam tournaments is beyond description.


Tom.A Says:

Not sure if anyone has said this (too tedious to read all these comments), but sadly Nadal has NOT reached his 9th consecutive Grand Slam Quarterfinal as D.Martin stated. He lost in the 4th round of the 2007 US Open to David Ferrer in four sets (the only Grand Slam match that Nadal has lost after winning the first set btw).

So, he has reached his 5th consecutive Quarterfinal at a Grand Slam event, Aus Open 2008-Aus Open 2009. But has reached the QF’s in 11 of his last 12 Grand Slam events.

Respect everyone.


Giner Says:

“My point is we shouldn’t assume similar results, in apparently similar events, and as such, the argument that the champions of the past who didn’t take the Aussie Open seriously would have won more slams if they had is a COP OUT.”

What I’m saying is that if someone can win slams on Wimby grass and RG clay (and/or hard court), then they’ve demonstrated all court ability to adapt to a range of surfaces, including differently nuanced grass.

You brought up some examples comparing AO success to USO success, but I think you’re oversimplifying. There are more factors than just surface, I agree, but I don’t believe they’re big enough factors that a guy like Borg couldn’t win at least one.

What does it take to win an AO? Were there any AO specialists who won several AO’s but sucked at the other slams?

You also said that a guy like Borg or someone else who never went there wouldn’t win an AO simply by going there because his peers would also go there. Logic holds that if his peers who also never went there decided to go just because Borg was going, then a clash between them would yield one player the title, thus still adding to Slam count.

“Also, Wimbledon is in the middle of the season, with neither injuries nor fatigue as a major factor, whereas the Australian Open was held alternately either at the very end or very beginning of the season, each with their own implications on player’s fitness and preparedness for a high level of play.”

In my opinion, it’s a lot harder to win the French and Wimbledon back to back 2 weeks apart than to win one of them and then the AO which is 6 months apart.


Giner Says:

“Mats Wilander won the Aussie Open on grass in 1983 and 1984, and never got past the QF at Wimbledon.

Sampras reached 8 US Open finals and won 5 times but only reached 3 Aussie finals with 2 wins.

Borg won 6 of 9 French Opens he entered, but never won the US Open when it was on clay and only reached 1 of those finals (75-77).

Lendl’s made 8 US Open finals in a row on hard courts, but only 3 on hardcourts in australia and never both in the same year.”

A finer point here is that Lendl and Sampras DID win at both the AO and the USO. I’m not saying that if Borg went to Australia every year that he would have won 6 AO’s, but I can very much see him winning at least a couple.

There are more factors at play than just the surface, but I don’t think that these factors at the AO grass specifically conspire against a Wimbledon champ. I think they are neutral.

Maybe Sampras was inspired by playing in front of his home crowd, maybe the death of his coach was too much for him in Australia, or maybe he ate the wrong food whenever he came to Australia or had a black cat walk in front of him. I do not think the factors involved in players successes at AO (other than surface and conditions) are unique to the AO. The same factors in play could have applied anywhere.

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