Few rivalries in sport divide fans with quite the fervour and wilful lack of understanding for an opposing point of view as does that involving Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
When those whose recall reaches back beyond the start of the millennium to weigh up the merits of Pete Sampras and Björn Borg as the other contenders in a magnificent top five, the battalions of young social media hawks smile upon them as quaintly romantic, with their love of wooden rackets, tight shorts and bad mullets. As great as those two players were, with 25 majors between them, they are regarded as intruders on a private argument.
Guardian readers last week mulled over the credentials of the five women who dominated the sport since 1970 and, after considering the informed opinion of our writers, came to a civilised consensus that Steffi Graf should edge out Serena Williams, with good cases made for Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles. I went with Williams. The men’s debate here has been lively, and generally more measured than the word-wars seen on Twitter.
While the love for Federer can be ill-making in its excess and nasty when it curdles into cold hatred of the other two, there is no denying the lasting impression he leaves on millions of fans. It is on a par with adoration reserved for Elvis Presley or Muhammad Ali. Or God.
Ultimately, novels can tell a tale with more depth than short stories, but maybe less pith. (Joyce or O Henry? Dickens or Steinbeck?) Yet, in Federer, there is substance and vigour rolled into one. Twain, perhaps? Leaving aside the competing numbers for a moment – because they cause as many arguments as they settle – there is merit in contemplating the recurring images of Federer’s barely diminished genius. He is 39 soon, and his knees are begging for mercy, but he has enough left to scare anyone at any level. Having doubted him when he faltered as he passed 30, I am reluctant to do so again as he nears 40. Nevertheless …
Federer – like Sugar Ray Leonard – has the ability to red-line while appearing to cruise, to strain without apparent pain, to give everything and concede nothing, simultaneously beautiful and ruthless: the badge of true greatness.
His cool is no less apparent in defeat – and one in particular. When Federer failed to convert two match points in the Wimbledon final 12 months ago, allowing Djokovic to move to within four (and subsequently three) majors of his all-time record of 20, he boiled inside, yet he held it together until he returned to Switzerland, where he, his wife Mirka and their children went on a caravan holiday in the mountains, hoping the clean air would drive away the disappointment. Months later, he admitted that losing to Djokovic for the third time in a final at Wimbledon, where he has been champion eight times, was a spirit-shaking experience.
It was a championship he wanted as much as his first at the All England Club in 2003, and maybe even more than the one in Melbourne in 2017, when he returned from half a year out after knee surgery to thwart Nadal at the end of a five-set war in the final, one of sport’s most extraordinary comebacks.
Federer, at that point without a slam for five years, had done the impossible then when he did not think he would get past the quarter-finals; at Wimbledon last summer, he had rebuilt his self-belief, yet fell to a rival five years his junior and No 1 in the world. When Djokovic beat him in straight sets in two hours and 18 minutes in the semi-finals in Melbourne this year, the wound was still open.
If Nadal – virtually unbeatable on clay, so inventive on hardcourt and grimly desperate on grass – drove Federer and himself towards the summit, Djokovic might be best placed to fly higher than both of them. He surged in 2011, and again in the past couple of seasons, as hungry as ever. There is no question he is the best player in the world right now.
In an Instagram chat in April, Andy Murray – who might have doubled his slam tally of three in another era – told Djokovic, “Right now you have Rafa’s record on clay – nobody competes with that; Roger’s current record at Wimbledon is the best; and your record on hard courts is the best.” So, who did Murray think was the greatest? “I feel like I’m competing against the best hardcourt player ever, I’ve competed against the best clay player ever and the best grass player ever. So for me it depends on the surface.” A medal for diplomacy, at least.
After all that, Federer deserves to be crowned king of the past 50 years, but by the slimmest of margins from Nadal and Djokovic. They are so close, it would be easy to reverse the order. And, if the timespan were widened by a decade, I would probably vote for Rod Laver. I would not argue. But millions would.