He may not be at the peak of his powers and is unlikely to reach the exquisite heights he once attained, but Roger Federer showed that there’s still life in the old dog by setting a record at the French Open Wednesday that might not ever be beaten. By defeating the Romanian Adrian Ungur in the second round at Roland Garros 6-3 6-2 6-7 (6/8) 6-3, he won his 234th Grand Slam match, overtaking Jimmy Connors for the all-time career mark.
It’s not an achievement that will resonate as deeply as his 16 Grand Slam tournament wins – also a record – but when Federer does finally call it a day, he’ll surely be proud of the feat (which barring injury or a freakish dip in form will get higher still, possibly into the 300’s). Almost as impressively, his run in Slams has seen him lose just 35 matches; in the top 10 wins-losses category, only Ken Rosewall has fewer defeats (34) but he’s experienced the sweet taste of triumph far less frequently (171).
Connors, who saw his lifetime 233-49 record in Grand Slam matches eclipsed by Federer Wednesday, tweeted a crisp backhand of a response:
Left unspoken was the fact that the 59-year-old only participated in two Australian Opens and missed the French Open for five straight years during his prime, when he wasn’t allowed to play due to his association with World Team Tennis. For those of you expecting a follow-up Tweet noting that Federer had still achieved the feat in five fewer Grand Slams than Connors … well, keep waiting.
But this appreciation of Federer’s brilliance shouldn’t be about Connors, or the men far more likely to win Slams these days (we’re looking at you Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal). As brutal and brilliant as those two players are, it’s unlikely that sentences will ever be written about them such as “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” The late David Foster Wallace penned those words (in the opening paragraph!) for the New York Times in 2006 in an article entitled “Federer as Religious Experience” and it’s required reading because you can’t help but smile when learning that “Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air …” (In fact, go read it now if you promise to come back when you’re done.)
Everyone has their favorite Fed match or moment and, frankly, where do you start? The five-set final at Wimbledon in 2009 against Andy Roddick? The comeback from two sets down that same year in Paris against Tommy Haas? The straight-sets annihilation of Lleyton Hewitt in the 2004 U.S. Open final? Or maybe we need to go as far back as the fourth round of Wimbledon 2001, when his five set victory over Pete Sampras signaled a changing of the guard.
You’ll of course notice that those words “Federer-Nadal” are conspicuously absent so far, and the back-to-back Wimbledon finals of 2007/2008 — the culmination of what some have called the greatest sporting rivalry of all time — demand inclusion in this list. Federer won the first but lost the second in a match which at the time was hailed as the greatest ever played.
“Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner,” wrote Wallace in his Times piece. “It’s just that that’s not all he is. There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.” Indeed. And with his 234th Grand Slam match victory, Federer is also something far simpler, but no less beautiful because of it: he’s the ultimate winner.
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