Sunday, January 28, 2007

Federer Faces the Future

January 26, 2007

In this weekend's Australian Open finals, Roger Federer hopes to take another step in his quest for tennis history. If he can win the tournament for the third time in four years, it will be his 10th Grand Slam singles title, tying the great Bill Tilden. It will also make him only the sixth man to break into double figures in Grand Slam wins.

But the really historic number that Mr. Federer is aiming for is 14 -- Pete Sampras's record number of major wins. As one way of handicapping Mr. Federer's odds of achieving that goal, we'll use Slam Average (SA). Slam Average measures the ability to win the big ones by taking a player's career slam wins and dividing it by the number of slams he entered. This stat looks at a player's accomplishments the way history does -- where a tough semifinal loss really doesn't mean more than a lackluster first-round exit. Viewed from a distance, winning is indeed everything.

Picking Up Steam

And Mr. Federer has done that, winning nine slams in 30 tries, for a .300 slam average. Among players who played their entire careers after tennis's Open era began in 1968, Mr. Federer trails only Bjorn Borg, the Swedish champ who won 11 out of 27 slams for a .407 SA. But Mr. Federer took his time breaking through, playing 16 slams before his first major victory at Wimbledon in 2003. Since then, he's captured eight majors in only 13 tries, including three of four last year.


Among male players of the Open Era, Roger Federer trails only Bjorn Borg in slam average, a player's winning percentage when he enters one of tennis's four major championships. A potential concern for the 25-year-old Mr. Federer as he pursues Mr. Sampras's record of 14 career Grand Slam wins is that many top players stopped winning majors at a very young age.

He's also keeping pace with Mr. Sampras. After 30 slams, Mr. Sampras had eight wins, and would win his ninth slam in his 31st major. Since Federer is 25 years old (the same age that Mr. Sampras was after 30 slams), he would seem to be a good bet to break Mr. Sampras's record. But history suggests that it's hardly a given. While 25 is young in a sport like baseball or basketball, it's middle-aged in men's tennis.

Recent history shows just what a young man's game tennis is. Of the 11 players with four or more Grand Slam singles titles who played entirely in the Open era (not including Mr. Federer), six won their last slam before their 26th birthday. That includes Jim Courier, who was finished at age 22; Mats Wilander and Bjorn Borg, who won their last slam titles at age 24; John McEnroe, who was done at 25, and Stefan Edberg and Guillermo Vilas, whose last major titles came at age 26. These players won 83 slams in total, and 61 of them -- or 73.5% -- came before their 26th birthdays.

In short, Mr. Federer's best days could well be behind him.

Federer fans can point to the example of two recent American champions, Mr. Sampras and Andre Agassi, who won majors after their 30th birthdays. However, Mr. Federer faces an obstacle that they were able to avoid -- a great young rival. Tennis is largely a game of rivalries, and by their mid-20s players invariably start losing to younger rivals. Mr. McEnroe got the best of Mr. Borg, and Ivan Lendl, in turn, figured out how to beat Mr. McEnroe. Messrs. Sampras and Agassi took advantage of a relative power vacuum in the game around the turn of the millennium, as the flaws in feisty Lleyton Hewitt's game were quickly exposed, and the supremely talented Marat Safin suffered with injuries and a lack of focus.

Mr. Federer however, has a more-than-worthy foe in 20-year-old Rafael Nadal, despite his loss in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open to Fernando González of Chile. Mr. Nadal has won back-to-back French Opens, beating Mr. Federer in Paris en route both times. And he has shown a versatility in his game -- he gave Mr. Federer a serious scare in last year's Wimbledon finals -- that's reminiscent of Mr. Borg. Plus, he owns a 6-3 career edge over Mr. Federer.

So if Mr. Federer wants to replace Mr. Sampras as the most prolific winner in men's tennis, he's going to have to make the most of his opportunities while he's near his peak -- and before Mr. Nadal reaches his. For all Mr. Federer's greatness, he's facing another rival, Father Time, who simply won't be vanquished.

Bjorn Borg 11 27 .407 24
Roger Federer 9 30 .300 ??
Pete Sampras 14 52 .269 31
Mats Wilander 7 44 .159 24
John McEnroe 7 45 .156 25

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