20 Grand Slam winner Roger Federer will be seen in action once the clay-court season is over. Considering that Federer won his 1st Grand slam when he was 22 it is incredible that at 37, he is not just a contender but among the favorites.
Federer’s breakthrough Grand Slam win was at the 2003 Wimbledon where he defeated Andy Roddick and Mark Phillippousis in the semis and the final. The next year he won 3 Grand Slams to be the 1st player since Mats Wilander in 1988 to win 3 Majors in a single year. 2004 also saw him as World Number 1 for the 1st time and in the period from 2004 to 2007, he won 11 Majors. Federer’s domination of world tennis led to this period being called a “weak era”.
Why a “weak era”. The two main reasons are his winning 11 out of 16 Grand Slam titles against various “weaker” contenders and overall having “weak” competition such as Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian and Nikolay Davydenko.
Lets check out his Grand Slam Final opponents. In 2004 he won against Safin, Roddick and Hewitt. In 2005 he won against Roddick and Agassi, while he lost to Rafa and Safin in the semi-finals. In 2006 he won against Baghdatis, Roddick and Rafa and lost to Rafa. In 2007 he defeated Fernando Gonzales, Rafa and Novak Djokovic and lost to Rafa yet again.
Now let us analyse Federer’s performance against these players.
Safin, incidentally the tallest ever world number 1 handed Federer a defeat in the 2005 Australian Open, one year after losing to Roger. Thereafter Federer won each of their next 3 matches in the Majors in straight sets, suggesting that he had the measure of the giant Russian. . It is also pertinent that Safin has won US Open defeating Pete Sampras and Australian Open defeating Lleyton Hewitt, and had also helped Russia to two Davis Cup titles, which shows he in his own right was a strong player. His destroying Sampras at the US Open in 2000 against whom he has a positive 4-3 head-to-head also shows he certainly is not a weak player.
Roddick had a skewed 3-21 record versus Federer. However interestingly, the 1st Major they met at was the 2003 Wimbledon where it was Roddick who was the favorite. Even in 2004 Roddick was expected to be an even contender. However Federer destroyed him and took an unassailable psychological edge. Otherwise Roddick was certainly not a weak player, which is seen by his positive 5-4 head to head versus Novak Djokovic, including 4 straight wins in 2009-2010.
Hewitt had become the youngest Number 1 in the world in 2000 before he was 21. The 2001 US Open Champion and 2002 Wimbledon champion led Australia to 2 Davis Cups wins before he was 23. Hewitt in fact had a 7-2 head to head versus Federer, before Roger upped his game and won 16 of the next 18 matches to finish their career at 18-9. Interestingly Hewitt won 2 of their last 3 matches which shows that he was not a poor player, but Federer had read and analyzed his game to outclass him. The Hewitt-Rafa rivalry has the same pattern with Hewitt winning 4 of his 1st 5 matches before Rafa won the next 6 for a 7-4 career head-to-head. In the 2004-2007 period Hewitt defeated Rafa twice at the Australian Open and lost once at the French Open.
Agassi and Novak need no mention, and before we come to Baghdatis and Gonzales, lets quickly discuss a few of his other competitors in that period.
David Nalbandian and Roger Federer ended up with a 8-11 career head to head. David won their 1st 5 matches including 2 Grand Slam matches. Federer then pulled ahead and won 11 of the next 14, including one match each at the 4 Majors. Nalbandian had defeated Federer at both Australian as well as the US Open prior to 2004-2007, and then in this period Federer won all their 4 Grand Slam matches. At the 2005 year end tournament David was the winner. So how was he a weak opponent? In fact if one sees the Nadal-Nalbandian match up, one sees that Rafa lost his 1st 2 matches in 2007 and then won 5 in a row. The pattern is the same, a great player initially losing to a tough opponent, and then mastering him.
Nikolay Davydenko is a player most popularly quoted as the weak opponent faced by Federer during the “weak era”. Federer defeated him 12 times in a row, including two US Open and one Roland Garros semifinals. Davydenko then won 2 matches versus Federer and then lost his final 7 against the Swiss magician.
Nikolay-Rafa makes for an interesting study. Apart from Djokovic, Davydenko with 6-5 is the only player who has played more than 10 matches versus Rafa with a positive head to head. Rafa won 4 matches on clay and 1 on hard courts and lost 6 matches on hard courts to Nikolay. The 1-6 on hard court certainly enhances Federer’s 2 wins at the US Open semi finals.
Against Ferrero, Federer lost 3 of his 1st 5 matches, then won 8 consecutively, which shows that he took his time, then sorted out Ferrero. Now, in this period, of 2004-2007 Ferrero has 2 wins vs Nadal and these are his only 2 wins vs Rafa in a 2-7 head-to-head. This shows he certainly was not a weak opponent.
We now come to Baghdatis and Gonzales. Is 2 Finals out of 16 enough enough to label an entire era weak. Certainly not. Moreover before defeating Gonzales, Federer had defeated Novak and Roddick in the same tournament. Similarly Baghdatis to reach the final had defeated much higher ranked players like Roddick and Nalbandian and dangerous floaters like Stepanek and Gimelstob. Pertinent to mention that Nalbandian reached the semifinals by defeating Fabrice Santoro 7-5, 6-0, 6-0. Santoro in the circuit was considered a dangerous player as he had defeated top ten players 40 times which is a record for any non top ten player. This shows the form Nalbandian was in, and Baghdatis defeating him was highly creditable, but the great Roger Federer awaited.
The main point about “weak era” has therefore been addressed that opponents were actually not weak but due to vastly superior level of play Federer got the better of them, even in the case of those players who were defeating him earlier.
Further how can any era which has Rafa Nadal in it be a weak one ? In 2004 itself, in their 1st meeting Rafa defeated Federer at Miami. In 2005, he took a 2 set lead at Miami but Federer recovered to win the match in 5 sets. Rafa defeated Federer at the French Open in 2005, 2006 and 2007 French Open. In 2006 and 2007 they met in 8 finals, with Rafa winning in 7. In fact Rafa had an early 8-4 career head-to head lead by mid 2007, and Federer’s win in Wimbledon 2007 ( a hard fought 5 set win ) and Masters cup 2007 decreased it to 8-6. Therefore Rafa being very much part of 2004-2007 shows it was not a weak era.
Logically, if 2004-2007 was a weak era Federer should have longer winning streak than those of champions in other periods. Well, Federer’s longest streak was 41 matches in 2006-07 which along with Borg’s 41 match streak in 1980 is only the joint 5th longest winning streak in tennis history. Gullermo Vilas ( 46 in 1977), Ivan Lendl (44 in 1981-82), Novak Djokovic 43 in 2011-12 and Borg in 1978) and John Mcenroe ( 42 in 1984) have longer streaks. The weak era logic does not succeed on this point too.
Now, lets have a look at players who have defeated Federer in the 2004-2007 period.
I propose a detailed analysis for 2004 and a brief look at the other 3 years. The1st to defeat Roger in 2004 was Tim Henman who had won 6 of his 1st 7 matches with Federer, before Roger won the next six. Federer also lost to 2002 French Open Champion Alberto Costa in the 2nd round of Rome Masters and to 3 time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros. Thereafter Slovakian Dominic Hrbaty upset him in the 1st round of Cincinnati Masters while Tomas Berdych won against him at the Athens Olympics. An important win in the year was over Guillermo Coria at Hamburg which ended the clay court giants 31 match winning streak.
In 2005 Federers lost to Marat Safin ( Australian Open), Richard Gasquet (Monte Carlo), Nadal ( French Open) and David Nalbandian ( Masters Cup). In 2006 Nadal won at the Dubai Open, Monte Carlo, Rome, and the French Open. He lost to Andy Murray at Cincinnati.
In 2007 his loss to Guillermo Canas snapped a 41 match run. He also lost to Nadal ( Monte Carlo and French Open) and to Fillippo Volandri (Rome). Notably he defeated Rafa at the Hamburg finals, to end Rafa’s run of 81 consecutive wins on clay.
Thus analysis of losses show that apart from losses to the peerless Rafa and to champions like Kuerten and Costa, he has lost even to relatively unknown players like Volandri and Hrbaty. This shows that in competitive tennis, one needs to be at peak of performance all the time, in each and every match. It also shows that while wins are taken for granted, they actually are not as easy as they seem.
Interestingly, way back in 2006, Roger Federer had been asked what he thinks of the people who say his wins in the slams were due to weak competition. Roger had replied “To all those people i say pick up a racket and play against Nalbandian, Ljubicic, Safin or Moya. Domination is not about poor competition, its about making the difficult look easy”.
Just as Rafa’s domination on Clay is not because it is a weak clay-court era, but because he plays better than his opponents, similarly, Federer, at peak of his powers won in 2004-2007 because he was better, and not because it was a weak era. There were lesser Grand Slam champions in that era not because they were not good enough, but because he did not allow them to become Champions.
To conclude, the era was not weak, but Federer with immaculate level of tennis got the better of most opponents. Even after 11 years of the era discussed , the King is still around, ranked 2 in the world and competing to win. Hence in 2004-2007, the era was not weak, it was a transitional era in which he seized the opportunity to not just win several Grand Slam tournaments and reach the number one rankings but establish a domination over his worthy competitors.