Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are, arguably, the three greatest men’s tennis players in history. Serena Williams, who said the US Open would be her farewell, was without question the sport’s greatest female player.
When Federer won his 15th major title at Wimbledon in 2009, he surpassed Pete Sampras as the greatest male major champion tennis had ever seen. It never occurred to anyone on that historic day that Nadal and Djokovic would actually surpass him someday.
Nadal has 22 major victories, Djokovic 21 and Federer 20 — the last coming at the Australian Open in 2018 at the age of 36.
Roger Federer, a 20-time Grand Slam champion, announces his retirement
People love to argue about who is the greatest of all time. That acronym — GOAT — has become overused to the point of silliness.
It really doesn’t matter whom you consider the GOAT in tennis. Here’s what we know for sure: The Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic left every other man who ever touched a racket in the dust when it came to winning majors — and they did it while competing against one another.
That’s not to knock Sampras or Rod Laver, who won the calendar Grand Slam twice but lost out on five prime years of his career because of archaic tennis rules about pros playing in Grand Slam events in the 1960s.
But Federer wasn’t just a champion; he delivered must-watch tennis. He played the game with a grace and style unlike anyone else. He was a wonderful winner and a graceful loser. Even after falling in his last major final, a five-set classic to Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2019, he kept his sense of humor. That was the year the tournament introduced a fifth-set tiebreaker at 12-all and Djokovic won it after Federer had two match points while leading 8-7.
“For me, they picked the wrong year to have a fifth-set tiebreak,” Federer said in the post-match on-court interview.
During his dominant period, Federer won both the US Open and Wimbledon five years in a row — he has eight Wimbledon titles in all. He also won the Australian Open six times. The only major he didn’t win at least five times was the French Open, which he only won once in large part because Nadal was — and is — almost impossible to beat on clay.
A few more numbers: Federer was No. 1 in the world for 310 weeks, including 237 in a row (that’s four years and 29 weeks). He was last No. 1 in 2019 — when he was 38 — and in his last appearance in a major championship, he reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2021, a month shy of turning 40.
Unfortunately, he lost in straight sets in the quarterfinals to Hubert Hurkacz, including a 6-0 third set. That turned out to be his final appearance in a major championship. He finished with a remarkable record of 369-60 at Grand Slams and reached 31 finals. Ten of his 11 losses in finals were to Nadal or Djokovic, which again raises the question of how many titles Federer — or the other two — might have won had they not had to face one another for so many years.
To lend a little perspective, it is worth reviewing the records of Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, elite players who faced one another for much of their careers. Lendl and Connors won eight majors, McEnroe seven—a total of 23 championships. And they were all great players.
That’s how extraordinary the 21st century Big Three have been. There are those critical of Djokovic, sometimes for his on-court demeanor and sometimes for his refusal to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, costing himself two chances at major titles this year. There are others who find Nadal’s notoriously slow pace-of-play difficult to watch — especially on clay, where his matches tend to last forever.
Federer has certainly played his share of lengthy matches — the 2019 Wimbledon final lasted just under five hours on grass — but it’s hard to find many detractors of his, on or off the court.
A timeline of Roger Federer’s glorious tennis career
He is as approachable as any top tennis player has ever been. He has endured countless injuries, surgeries on his knees and on his back that took him off the court for long periods, without complaint. He was counted out as a serious contender in Grand Slams when he went four years — from 2012 to 2016 — dealing with lengthy absences because of various injuries and rehabs.
But he came back to win again both in Australia (twice) and at Wimbledon. That made it difficult to doubt him when he said he thought he had one more comeback in him after his most recent knee surgery 13 months ago.
But when he announced he wouldn’t play Wimbledon or the US Open this year, there was little doubt the end was near.
Why Roger Federer is the most graceful athlete of our time
Williams went out — or so it would appear — on the second grandest stage in tennis, at the US Open. Federer will apparently go out at a glorified exhibition — an event he helped create and is an investor in — that has little meaning. Still, he will play his final matches in London, where he had his greatest moments in the sport.
Nadal is 36 and, like Federer in his latter years, dealing with an aging body that won’t always cooperate with what his mind wants it to do. Djokovic is 35, but there are serious questions about how many more majors he will get to play if he refuses to be vaccinated.
In the meantime, Federer and Williams, who were born seven weeks apart, are exiting the stage, taking their 43 combined major titles and their historic places in tennis with them.
Their departures leave a hole in the heart of their sport. Others will take their places as major champions. No one can replace them.