Throughout the Open Era, we have actually seen a lot of mesmerizing performances. I say actually because when something nuts happens it seems rare, but the Open Era is barely over 40 years old. And in such a short time we saw the legends in the 70s and 80s in Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Mats Wilander; in the 90s we had Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi; and in the last decade we’ve been treated to and are still treated by Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic.
And of course a ton of other great players that I didn’t mention. Each of these guys has done something extraordinary at one time or another in their careers. Connors, Wilander, Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic all managed to win three slams in one year at least once. Agassi, Nadal, and Federer have career slams. Sampras was number one for six consecutive years. McEnroe had the best winning percentage ever in 1984. The list of achievements is endless.
And the player who has achieved more than everyone else is Federer. The fact of the matter is that no one ever dominated the game quite like he had from 2004-2007. He won 11/16 majors and numerous Masters titles, as well as 4/5 year end championships. And from 2004-2006 alone, he only lost a total of 15 matches (just three less than his total in 2012 alone). But we all know the greatness that is Roger Federer. We know that, at this point, literally every match he places bares some kind of historic significance.
The reason I mentioned past greats is because there have actually been a lot of “this is the greatest year by one player ever” years. I mentioned McEnroe’s 1984. There was Wilander’s 1988. Sampras, while never winning three majors, still had beastly years in from 1993-1995. Just recently, after Federer’s great years, we saw Nadal light it up in 2008 and even more so in 2010. And of course, Djokovic and the wonder year that was 2011. Of course we can argue all day about whose year was better and why, but for now, let’s focus on Federer (shocking, I know).
Statistically, and based on the level of play, I believe 2006 was Federer’s most incredible year. He reached 16 out of 17 possible finals, winning 12. He won three of the four majors for a second time and reached all four finals. He won then-record-tying four Masters titles and went undefeated for a third Tennis Masters Cup crown. His overall record was 92-5 (19-4 against top 10 players). He was virtually flawless.
But 2012 was even better. His record was a mere 71-12. He only won six out of 10 finals played (while playing 17 tournaments). He won three Masters and won only one major (his record breaking 17th at Wimbledon) in his lone final of the year. And he reached the final of the World Tour Finals, losing once in the round robin stage, as well. However, his mastery over the top 10 hardly diminished. He went 16-9 over his fiercest rivals (17-9 if you include his win over Juan Martin del Potro ranked 11th during the Australian Open). And that is a huge reason why I believed 2012 is Federer’s best year.
He started the year at 30 years of age and ended it at 31 (obviously). He’s now six years removed from his best statistical year. He hadn’t won a slam since the 2010 Australian Open and had only reached one final in 2011, losing to Nadal at the French Open. Djokovic and Nadal were dominating every big tournament on every surface. Murray had just hired Lendl and was supposed to make a big breakthrough (which he did). Djokovic remained number one and added to his slam total in Australia. Nadal won a record breaking seventh French Open title. Murray won the Gold medal at the Olympics and his first US Open title. So these three guys, all either 25 or 26 years old, are clearly the best in the world. And Federer was right there with them. He won Wimbledon, he won those three Masters (only Djokovic matched him there). He won the Silver medal at the Olympics. And the biggest accomplishment of his year? Spending about half of it ranked number one in the world. At 30/31 years old, Roger Federer was the best tennis player in the world, above all of these young guys.
Just recently, Djokovic said that in a lot of ways, his 2012 was even better than his 2011 because he managed to stay number one even when the competition grew considerably fiercer and the playing field was unbelievably and uncharacteristically even. The majors were split between the Big Four (last time this happened was in 2003, before the Federer Era). Both Djokovic and Federer showed that, when everyone is winning big titles, you have to amp up your consistency. And both did that. Djokovic doing it shouldn’t be a big deal; this should be his time and era to shine. But, almost unfortunately, he was forced to share that spotlight with that old guy on tour still beating up on the young kids.
When Federer won Wimbledon, the consensus was that he turned back the clock. The reality is, Federer didn’t have to turn anything back, he’s just done a great job of staying ahead. People will always argue about whether or not Federer is the greatest. And there are a few things that detractors can latch on to. But in my mind, there’s nothing that can be said to definitively disprove it. Not when he produces his best tennis in 2012. It’s one thing to still love the game when you’re entering your twilight years. But to be the best? Only Federer.
Fun fact: Federer has 17 slams to Nadal+Djokovic+Lleyton Hewitt+Murray+del Potro’s 20.
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