Why the name?
What else could it be called? Roger Federer dominated his peers unlike any player since at least Bjorn Borg. Consider that he is the only player born in the fourteen-year span of 1972-85 who has more than three Slam titles; he is probably the number one reason why this is the case. Federer won 17 of his generation’s 23 Slam titles, or 74%, more than Borg’s 69% (11 of 16). “Weak Era Theory” aside, Roger simply owned his peers. More on that in a moment.
Best Players by Birth Year
1979: Ivan Ljubicic (CRO), James Blake (USA), Juan Ignacio Chela (ARG), Ivo Karlovic (CRO), Nicolas Massu (CHI), Michael Llodra (FRA), Albert Montanes (ESP)
1980: Marat Safin (RUS, 2), Juan Carlos Ferrero (ESP, 1), Fernando Gonzalez (CHI), Xavier Malisse (BEL)
1981: Roger Federer (SWZ, 17), Lleyton Hewitt (AUS, 2), Nikolay Davydenko (RUS), Feliciano Lopez (ESP), Mardy Fish (USA), Jarkko Nieminen (FIN), Julien Benneteau (FRA)
1982: Andy Roddick (USA, 1), David Ferrer (ESP), David Nalbandian (ARG), Tommy Robredo (ESP), Mikhail Youzhny (RUS), Guillermo Coria (ARG)
1983: Fernando Verdasco (ESP), Phillip Kohlschreiber (GER), Dmitry Tursunov (RUS), Alejandro Falla (COL)
I’ve been a bit more liberal with the names included, as this is a generation still active, or at least fresh in memory. Birth years 1980-82 is the heart of the generation, with 1979 and ’83 being far weaker.
Imagine being Lleyton Hewitt or Andy Roddick: 2003 ends and you’re playing well, both with a Slam and year-end No. 1 or 2 under your belt while still in your early 20s. Then this soft-spoken Swiss guy rises up and utterly dominates tennis, while you toil away, year after year, never able to get past him and win another Slam. This scenario is particularly telling for Andy Roddick, who lost four Slam finals to Federer and won only 3 matches out of 24. Despite that fact, Roddick had an excellent career, finishing every year from 2002-10 in the Top 10, with 32 titles to his name including one Slam and five Masters. Andy retired relatively young by today’s standards, just after turning 30 in 2012, but he saw the writing on the wall–falling from No. 8 in 2010 to No. 14 in 2011 and No. 39 in 2012.
In 2001, at the age of 20, Lleyton Hewitt was the youngest player to reach the No. 1 ranking since the ATP computerized rankings began in 1973. He was No. 1 for 80 weeks — more than Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier, Gustavo Kuerten, Ilie Nastase, Mats Wilander, and Boris Becker. After two year-end No. 1 rankings in 2001 and 2002, Hewitt entered 2003 on top of the world. Yet it soon became clear that a couple of his peers were surpassing him: Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. He remained a top player for a few more years, but by 2006 he had slipped out of the elite, unable to compete with the newer, bigger, more powerful generation that was coming up. As of this writing, Hewitt just played his last Grand Slam, going out in the second round of the Australian Open. Though he hasn’t been in the Top 20 for seven years, he will be missed.
As for the Swiss Maestro himself, it is difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said. But to return to the topic of his dominance over his generation, consider his head-to-head against peers (born 1979-83) who were Top 10 players: 195-36, or 84.4% – which is better than his overall winning percentage against all players. Of all players in Federer’s generation, the only two who were able to win more than three matches against him were Lleyton Hewitt (9-18) and David Nalbandian (8-11).
Federer’s fans occasionally bemoan the fact that he’s no longer the player he was during his absolute peak, from 2004-07. While this is undoubtedly true, we should not lose sight of the player he is now, still ranked No. 3 halfway between his 34th and 35th birthdays. The vast majority of all-time greats were either long retired or fading out at Roger’s age.
Maybe Roger will buck the trend and remain an elite player into his late 30s, but it seems unlikely. While he is showing no signs of further decline—yet—any setbacks, such as his current knee injury, could damage his momentum. Regardless, we should appreciate the great player while he’s around.
Underachievers and Forgotten Players
David Nalbandian and Marat Safin come most readily to mind. These two challenged Federer in terms of talent, but neither had the mentality and focus to be a perennial champion. Nalbandian is on the short list of most talented player never to win a Slam in the Open Era, and Safin is often mentioned as an almost-great who should have been an all-time great.
Nalbandian was the most competitive peer of Federer’s, winning 8 of 19 matches (42.1%) and their first five matches. After those five, Roger seemed to figure out Nalbandian, with an 11-3 record from the 2003 Tennis Masters Cup onward. The only players with a better percentage against Federer in 10 or more matches are Tim Henman (46.2%), Rafael Nadal (67.6%), Novak Djokovic (51.1%), and Andy Murray (44%), all either significantly older or younger. Regardless of his level of disappointment, Nalbandian had a solid career, the highlight of which was his victory over Roger Federer in the 2005 World Tour Finals, as well as his two Masters in 2007.
Safin was the No. 2 player in the sport at the age of 21 in 2000, a year in which he spent nine weeks as the No. 1 player in the world, defeated Pete Sampras in straight sets to take the US Open title, and won two Masters. It looked like tennis finally had a new, young elite player to join the aging Agassi and Sampras. Yet he was to finish only two other years in the Top 5, 2002 and 2004, and he won only one more Slam and three more Masters. A fine career, but not an all-time great.
Another to consider is Guillermo Coria, who was ranked in the Top 8 from 2003-05, then saw his career collapse in 2006 – for a variety of reasons, including service issues, marital problems, and injury.
Lesser-known Joachim Johansson deserves mention as someone who looked like at least a second-tier player but saw his career destroyed by injury. At the end of 2004, it looked like Sweden would have have an heir to Thomas Enqvist and Thomas Johansson in the “If not quite Borg/Wilander/Edberg, then at least Nystrom/Jarryd” category. Joachim finished the year No. 11, at age 22, including a Slam semifinal appearance and an ATP 500 title, but couldn’t recover from a variety of injuries.
Did You Know?
Roger Federer’s 2006 was widely considered the best season of the Open Era since Rod Laver’s great 1969, only recently surpassed by Novak Djokovic’s 2015. He won three Slams, was the finalist in the fourth, won the World Tour Finals, four Masters, 12 titles overall, and a ridiculous 91-5 record. Four of those five losses were to his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, and the other to Andy Murray. But here is what is interesting: in all but one of those matches, Nadal was still 19-years old, as was Andy Murray, who was ranked No. 21 when he beat Federer at the Cincinnati Masters. When Nadal defeated Federer in the French Open final, he had just turned 20; it was his fourth and last win over the No. 1 player that year (Roger would beat him at Wimbledon and the World Tour Masters).
So think about that for a moment: The best player in the sport, and one of the best all time, lost four times to two teenagers during his best season, and a fifth time to one of them a few days after he turned 20. In his best season. Other than that, Roger was 91-0.
Top Ten Players of the Generation
- Roger Federer
- Lleyton Hewitt
- Andy Roddick
- Marat Safin
- Juan Carlos Ferrero
- David Ferrer
- David Nalbandian
- Nikolay Davydenko
- Tommy Robredo
- Mikhail Youzhny
Honorable Mentions: Fernando Gonzalez, Guillermo Coria, Fernando Verdasco, Ivan Ljubicic, James Blake, Feliciano Lopez, Mardy Fish, Jurgen Melzer, Ivo Karlovic, Juan Ignacio Chela, Philipp Kohlschreiber.
Number one is easy, as Federer was (and is) to his generation what Borg was to his. I also feel reasonably confident with my No. 2-4 rankings, although Hewitt, Roddick, and Safin could be arranged in a variety of ways. While Safin was the most talented of the three, and Roddick the most consistent over a long period of time, I give Hewitt the edge because he’s the only one who had a sustained period of time as No. 1, even if it was in the “soft spot” of 2001-02 when men’s tennis was seeing a regime change.
After that, it gets tricky. If you changed Ferrero’s Slam win to a runner up, he would probably rank behind Ferrer, Davydenko, and Nalbandian, all of whom had better overall careers aside from one match. The “Mosquito” wasn’t the worst player to win a Slam, and was an elite player for several years but like many of his peers, he saw his career drop off in his mid-20s. He slipped out of the Top 10 in 2004 and never returned, with a later career similar to Hewitt’s. But he did win a Slam and attain the No. 1 ranking for a short period of time, things that Ferrer, Davydenko, and Nalbandian never did.
David Ferrer has had an unusual career path, peaking in his late 20s and early 30s. Other than Federer, he is the most consistent player of his generation and will go down as one of the greatest players never to win a Slam, along with his contemporary Nikolay Davydenko, who filled a similar role before Ferrer’s peak. Ferrer has the reputation of a player who maximized his modest talents – was not a great player, but a consistently very good one. While he has winning records against similarly ranked players like Tomas Berdych (8-5) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (3-1), unlike those two there is a sense that it would have been (and is) impossible for him to win a Slam because Ferrer’s “A game” simply cannot touch the “B games” of Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer.
There’s a steep drop-off after Davydenko, with Robredo and Youzhny earning their way into the Top 10 through longevity. Guillermo Coria, Fernando Gonzalez, Ivan Ljubicic, and James Blake were all better peak players, but none had the overall career accomplishments of Robredo and Youzhny.
Addendum: Twelve Highest Ranked Players of Gen 10 (as of 2/8/16)
3. Roger Federer
6. David Ferrer
25. Feliciano Lopez
26. Ivo Karlovic
32. Philipp Kohlschreiber
34. Guillermo Garcia Lopez
39. Tommy Robredo
40. Gilles Muller
52. Paolo Lorenzi
54. Nicolas Mahut
56. Victor Estrella Burgos
57. Fernando Verdasco
As you can see, this generation still has quite a few players around, although only two in the Top 10. Considering that this generation will turn 33 to 37 in 2016, expect almost all to be gone within another year or two, with maybe a few hold-outs playing into their late 30s.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Marianne Bevis