Is Roger Federer the greatest tennis player of all time? It’s one of those questions that history is perhaps best left to answer – yet it’s a tempting one. The stats would agree: he’s won more Grand Slams than anyone else; he spent a record 237 weeks as the number one ranked tennis player in the world; he even shares with Andre Agassi the peculiar privilege of having played at the highest altitude ever (they once had a rally on top of Dubai’s towering Burj Al Arab). Surely that’s enough?
As the Swiss arrives in Abu Dhabi for the Capitala World Tennis Championship this month, it will be with a trademark smile on his face. But as little as 12 months ago, even this was beginning to look a little strained. Last year he lost both form and the number one spot to his closest rival to potential tennis immortality, the tank-like tyro Rafael Nadal. Yet 2009 has seen a revival in a career some feared was starting to slide.
This summer he reclaimed his Wimbledon title; prior to that he won the French Open for the first time. It was an achievement of double significance. In doing so, he equalled Pete Sampras’ record of 14 major titles (he surpassed it the following month) and achieved something even ‘Pistol Pete’ never could: the career Grand Slam, claiming all four major tennis titles. 2009 was probably the most important year of his career, but how much is left in the great man? That is what fans of tennis will be wondering at Zayed Sports City this month.
Despite there being no ranking points on the line, last year’s Capitala World Tennis Championship produced some stunning tennis. It also formed a springboard for eventual winner Andy Murray to kickstart a dramatic rise up the rankings (in the process toppling Federer in the semis). Coincidence? No. As the first tournament of the year, it is a good indicator for the season. Even Roger admits, ‘It is a test to see where we are as players at the beginning of the year.’
If 2009 saw Federer breaking records, 2010 is when the question of ‘who’s the greatest?’ could be answered. In many ways it depends on his rivals. Last year saw Nadal have a quiet one. Injury limited the Spaniard’s baseline power game and he clearly suffered. A winter break and a fresh mindset should see the renewal of one of the most fiercely contested rivalries in tennis history, but it’s one which has both entertained and baffled fans.
John McEnroe put his finger on it, saying that when he played Jimmy Connors they hated each other. Federer and Nadal’s rivalry could never be deemed anything but amiable. Certainly you’ve not come to expect Mohammad Ali-style boasts from the pair. You could blame the media coaching that all the players receive, but it just doesn’t seem to be in Federer’s nature.
The Swiss is that rarity in tennis; in a sport in which the greats all tend to have the emotional security of a Greek tragic hero, he is a calm head. Jimmy Connors burned with a private fury; John McEnroe battled demons, himself and everyone else; Bjorn Borg was cold as ice in public, but reportedly troubled in private. Federer is just very different. ‘I am very quiet when I am off the tour,’ he admits. An apartment in Dubai suggests he might have a flashier side, but it proves just the opposite. ‘The people are very nice and respect my privacy,’ he says – something he clearly prizes as highly as his titles.
So we ask the man himself: is Roger Federer the greatest tennis player ever? Naturally, he is too modest to claim that particular trophy. ‘I am humbled and honoured to be mentioned as one of the best players of all time, but it is not for me to answer this question,’ he says, displaying that fabled Swiss neutrality. He also throws a few names into the mixer including Sampras, Rod Laver and that famed tennis legend, ‘etc’.
In truth, it’s an unfair question, but one which even Roger is curious to know the answer to, it seems. ‘I have many more years to go,’ he says, ‘so it would be great to have this question debated when I stop.’
In 2010, he’ll be 29. History and biology say that Federer is staring down the shadowy face of his particular peak. Top tennis players continuing well into their thirties are a rare sight these days. Spiralling prize money and a gruelling calendar are to blame. Federer appears to have his sights set on the long game, though, and talks comfortably of balancing schedules, peaking at the right time and all the usual sports hooey. But with his place in history set, a family and two kids, a career prize fund of nearly US$51million and a raft of endorsements (we like his coffee maker the best), it’s a sure bet that every slip this year will be pecked at by media vultures searching for any sign of a man resting on his laurels.
But ending his career any time soon is clearly not on the cards. ‘I anticipate playing for many more years, so I won’t address stopping,’ is his rather definite and final answer. It is clearly a question he is getting asked a lot lately, and he softens a little on the subject of the future, admitting: ‘I love the sport too much to ever disappear from it. I know that when I am done, I hope to spend a lot of time with my wife and twin girls. But tennis will still see me.’
It’s good news for everyone. Greatest or not, tennis would miss Roger Federer. A new year just means he has it all to prove again, something which should delight fans at this year’s Capitala World Tennis Championship. And, as the man himself says: ‘You always want to beat your rivals.’ Good news indeed for tennis fans in the capital.
Capitala World Tennis Championship takes place at the Tennis Complex at Zayed Sports City from December 31-January 2
Rafael Nadal (No.2 in the world)
Pros: The man has arms bigger than most people’s thighs. A powerful baseline hitter when on form, his all-round game is impeccable.
Cons: Thanks to injury, a stop-start 2009 derailed a lot of last year’s season, with Nadal pulling out of the French Open and looking uncharacteristically beatable.
The big question: Can he recover his form of 2008?
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No.7)
Pros: In 2008, Tsonga reached the Australian Open final, beating the then on-form Nadal along the way with some powerful groundstrokes. Finally, he seems to be fulfilling his early promise.
Cons: Unpredictable is the word. Nadal got his revenge in last month’s Masters, swatting him aside with ease. A bad omen.
The big question: Can he keep his groundstrokes in check?
Nikolay Davydenko (No.8)
Pros: Something of a veteran these days, Davydenko is technically proficient and hits the ball early – almost Agassi-like. He thrives particularly on the hard courts and beat Nadal in the final of the Shanghai Masters in October.
Cons: His best days are gone. The nearly man of men’s tennis, he has never gone beyond the quarter finals of a major open. He is tidy and dangerous, but lacks consistency.
The big question: Will efficiency and determination be enough?
Robin Soderling (No.11)
Pros: Hard groundstrokes and a heavy serve are his main weapons. In the likely heat of the capital this should prove deadly.
Cons: A big man, he isn’t the best mover and is prone to losing concentration at vital moments.
The big question: Will the first serve percentage hold up?
Stanislas Wawrinka (No.21)
Pros: A late replacement for the injured Verdasco, Wawrinka has one of the most powerful backhands in the game, or so says John McEnroe.
Cons: Alas, that’s all he has. Perennial exits at the fourth round of all major tournaments mean he continually fails to cut it against the top players.
The big question: Can he raise his game to compete with the big boys?
Who plays who?
Tsonga vs Davydenko (Dec 31, 3pm)
Soderling vs Warwinkinka (Dec 31, 5pm)
Federer vs Soderling/Warwinkinka (Jan 1, 3pm)
Nadal vs Tsonga/Davydenko (Jan 1, 5pm)
Third/fourth playoff (Jan 2, 3pm)
Final (Jan 2, 5pm)
Get in the game
The Abu Dhabi Tennis League is the best-known tournament in the city, with two men’s divisions and both a ladies’ and a mixed-doubles league including independent teams and fitness clubs such as The Club, Abu Dhabi Ladies’ Club and the Hilton Abu Dhabi. Email jordan@arab marble.ae to find a team for you.
Alternatively, there is an in independent ranked ladder league of 50-60 players across the city. Entry is free; you need only find a court to play on and invite a guest to join you in order to get a ranked game. Email email@example.com to find out more.
Beach Rotana runs an open tennis competition in April (contact Mr Moafa on 050 521 3080), while the Inter- Continental Abu Dhabi runs tennis social mornings on Tuesday for ladies, although these are more coaching based. Call 050 821 4793 to get involved.