Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon toys with a hypothetical.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has paralyzed the planet, and tennis sits last on the mind of pretty much everyone.
Deservedly so too: what’s the point in hitting a ball over a net or, worse, in watching two strangers doing the same thing, when every day thousands of folks are dying around the world due to a virus we don’t quite fully understand.
But with so much time on our hands, we still need to focus on some things every day in order to feel a semblance of being accomplished as individuals. This is why every Monday, we’re publishing this column about a recent tennis week that offers precisely zero matches played.
Finding a topic has been challenging every week, but we’re starting a new series in this space today. Over the next four weeks, we’ll look at the so-called Big Four one by one and try to answer one simple question: if you could change the result of one match to most change this player’s career, which one would you pick?
Here’s our pick for the great Roger Federer, starting with a few honourable mentions.
2008 Wimbledon Final – Rafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer: 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7
Years from now, folks will look at this result and ponder how can it be the greatest match in history if the supposed greatest player ever ended up on the losing side? It’s probably either that the match isn’t the greatest one played, or that the loser in this match isn’t the greatest player of all time—or possibly both? (That’s what we’re going for lol.)
2011 US Open Semifinal – Novak Djokovic defeats Roger Federer: 6-7(7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5
For such an accomplished hard-court player, it’s pretty staggering to know that Federer has not won a US Open title since 2008—or put another way, Nadal has won four times at Flushing Meadows since Federer last did.
We all know which match this one is, the fifth US Open in a row where Djokovic and Federer battled each other and the second straight where the former saved match points against the latter. This was the one with the raucous pro-Federer crowd, folks who had seen their favourite jump out to a two-set lead only for Djokovic to tie things at two apiece. The one where the Swiss managed to weather the fifth-set storm and break the Serb for his chance to serve things out for a place in the final. The match against Djokovic in all-conquering God mode and in the midst of what’s still probably the best season of the last decade in men’s tennis.
But mostly, this was the match where Djokovic pretty much just proved to everyone watching that no one in men’s tennis had and has the big cojones that he does possess. Just look at this.
2019 Wimbledon Final – Novak Djokovic defeats Roger Federer: 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3)
On just about any other day, Federer would have been crowned a worthy champion but last year’s men’s Wimbledon final was no ordinary day. The top two seeds battled for almost five hours in what’s still the second-longest Grand Slam final ever and Djokovic somehow defending his Wimbledon title after, we don’t know if you’ve heard this one, being down two match points and facing Federer’s serve.
You could understand the Swiss for feeling so broken in the aftermath of the result, considering the match listed above. What we love most about this result is that Djokovic managed to absolutely break Federer’s resolve by hitting him where it hurt most: not only on grass, his best surface, but also by capturing three tiebreaks against the player who’s historically won the highest percentage of tiebreaks in men’s tennis.
2009 French Open Final – Roger Federer defeats Robin Soderling: 6-1, 7-6(1), 6-4
Though Djokovic might have said differently as far back as 2006 after their first encounter on the surface, Rafael Nadal was by all intents and purposes unbeatable on the French clay by 2009. He had won everything every year leaving, most of the time, little doubt as to what the outcome of every match was every time.
Then Robin Soderling of all people absolutely shocked the world, defeating the four-time defending champion in four tight but ultimately decisive sets in the fourth round. The days rolled on and it seemed like, if he could simply just keep winning (which he did despite a scare in the fourth round against Tommy Haas, who went up two sets to love), then Federer would finally have his shot at winning the French Open against someone other than the greatest player ever on clay. Soderling, meanwhile, also kept winning until the final, where he crashed and burned because he couldn’t replicate and control his aggression in the same way he had until then.
But just think for a minute if it had been Nadal across the court against Federer, the same man that the Spaniard had defeated in their previous three French Open finals in three one-sided encounters. Would Federer have managed to grab his elusive Roland-Garros title had this been the case?
Most importantly, how different, if at all, would the tennis world regard the Swiss if he had all those Grand Slam titles but had never won on clay? Would he still be the quote-unquote greatest of all time or a mere afterthought in the discussion in the same manner Pete Sampras is these days?
Thankfully for Federer fans, it’s a mere hypothetical—but oh, what could have been.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG