Naatz: Roger Federer is the greatest athlete ever
Tom Naatz | Friday, November 16, 2018
This Sports Authority was unplanned. On Thursday night, I visited The Observer’s office to grab a pack of fruit snacks on my way to the library when my friend and colleague, Charlotte Edmonds, asked me what my hottest sports take is. And so here I am.
Roger Federer is the greatest athlete of all time.
A sizzling take. I’m not saying the Swiss tennis icon could dunk on LeBron or go one-on-one with Messi or break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record. But he is without a doubt the athlete who has dominated his sport for the longest consistent time period.
Federer made his pro-debut at the age of 16, in 1998. Twenty-one years later, he’s won 99 singles titles and 20 Grand Slams. He is the only male to have accomplished the latter feat.
But here’s where it gets impressive. Federer won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003. He won his most recent Grand Slam at the 2018 Australian Open. If you do the math, he was 22 when he won the first slam, and was 36 going on 37 when he won the last. He’s only missed significant time due to injury once in his career, when he sustained a serious knee injury in 2016. In a sport where all you do is run around on hard surfaces, that’s practically unheard of. He could still play for years.
Tennis fans on The Observer staff laughed at me. Multiple people yelled “Serena Williams?!” practically in unison. My colleague Carlos De Loera said, “the Nadal-ies will come for you.”
I mean no disrespect to either Serena or Rafael. Regarding the former, I am aware that she has won more Grand Slams than Federer, and won the Australian Open while she was pregnant. That right there might be the greatest athletic feat of all time. But I think Federer’s rivals offer stiffer competition than Serena’s. Throughout his career, Federer has faced the likes of Pete Sampras, Novak Djokovic and Nadal, arguably three of the greatest tennis players of all time. I just don’t think Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki or Victoria Azarenka fit the bill. Serena is still an incredible competitor (and the furor over her behavior at the U.S. Open was totally unjustified — that’s not even a hot take), but I don’t think she rises to Federer’s level.
I have a lot of thoughts about Nadal. He is certainly the greatest clay court player ever. Of Nadal’s 17 Grand Slam titles, 11 of them came on the clay of Roland Garros in Paris. But that means he’s only won six of the other ones combined. Federer, for his part, has only triumphed once in Paris. But that means he’s won the other three majors a collective 19 times. Nadal himself beat Federer several times in the French Open Final. If Federer’s career didn’t overlap with Nadal, he easily could have had another several French Open titles. Nadal also triumphed over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, largely regarded as the greatest match ever played, on grass, which is Federer’s best service. But one match does not a legacy make.
If you don’t buy my argument, then here’s a weird quirk of Federer’s life that proves God marked this man for greatness: He and his wife, Mirka have not one, but two sets of identical twins. One set of identical twins is a fluke of nature; two are just straight spooky. Couples having children have a one-in-70,000 chance of this outcome. Twenty years, 99 singles titles, 20 Grand Slams and two sets of identical twins — I rest my case. Roger Federer is the greatest athlete of all time.