Is Federer Really Better Now Than He Was In His Peak Years?
This is a topic which has come up quite a lot of late and in this post I will attempt to settle it once and for all. We will probably never reach a point where everyone agrees because opinions differ and it’s not that easy to answer, but I think there is data available and it is worth an attempt. I believe Federer is currently playing some of the best tennis of his career and if not better than in his peak years then at least as well.
Federer is Better Now by His Own Admission
“I think I’m a better player now than when I was at 24 because I’ve practised for another 10 years and I’ve got 10 years more experience,” Federer said. “Maybe I don’t have the confidence level that I had at 24 when I was winning 40 matches in a row, but I feel like I hit a bigger serve, my backhand is better, my forehand is still as good as it’s ever been, I volley better than I have in the past. I think I’ve had to adapt to a new generation of players again.” Source
I think Federer’s own opinion is a good starting point. Who would know better than the man himself, right? Yes, Federer likes to sound positive and confident and he’s not going to say he is playing worse now. That doesn’t make his statement automatically false, however. He may truly believe that he is now a better player. This statement was made right before Cincinnati this year by the way.
And I think anyone who watched him destroy Murray in the Wimbledon semis would agree that it was as good as Federer has ever played. Just a complete masterclass which gave Murray no chance whatsoever. It’s not that Murray played poorly. He just got destroyed by the far superior grass courter. The same can be said for the final where Federer was routined in the third and fourth sets by the superior grass courter Djokovic. The opinion was that Federer had peaked early and that he didn’t play as well in the final, but at the US Open the same thing happened against Djokovic in the final and I don’t think there should be much doubt left that Djokovic is just a better player. The fact is Federer played incredibly well from the Wimbledon semi-final onward all the way through to the conclusion of the US Open. He didn’t lose a single set throughout Cincinnati or in the run-up to the US Open final. He also lost his serve only twice during that entire period.
Federer US Open 2015 vs Federer US Open 2007
Now let’s compare that with how Federer fared over the same stretch in 2007. He was 26 back then not 24 but still in what was considered to be his peak years from 2004-07. In Cincinnati in 2007 he dropped sets against Almagro and Hewitt before defeating Blake in the final. At the US Open in 2007 he dropped sets against Lopez and Isner before defeating Djokovic 7-6(4), 7-6(2), 6-4 in the final. And although I don’t have the stats for how many times his serve got broken it is at least twice but probably many times more. You can also see he played Isner and Djokovic the same as this year which provides us with a good comparison. Against Isner, he dropped the first set in a tie-break whereas this year he straight-setted him. Against Djokovic, on the other hand, he won in straight sets. But there is a whole host of things that need to be taken into account about this result. First, it was Djokovic’s first slam final at age 20. Second, he was serving for the first set at 6-5 and 40-0 and had four set points. He was also up 4-1 in the second set and had another two set points at 6-5 and 40-15 on Federer’s serve this time. Federer served an ace on the first set point and on the second Djokovic missed a nervous forehand long. It is no wonder then that he defeated Federer in the final this year after 8 more years of experience and 17 more slam finals under his belt. He had also defeated Federer in the Canada Masters final that year so we can hardly conclude that Federer is not as good as he used to be because he lost to Djokovic in the US Open final. It would be more accurate to conclude that Djokovic is a much better player now which is why he won.
I think in the stretch from the Wimbledon semi-finals to the US Open final this year Federer played as well as ever. I don’t mean to propose that he is playing as consistently well as he did in 2006 which was arguably his peak year. In 2007, he was already on the downslope of his peak but he still won the World Tour Finals that year where he destroyed his nemesis Nadal 6-4, 6-1. He was still playing very close to his peak level. Many people made the argument that Federer’s forehand is not what it used to be and that he lost a step and, therefore, is playing well below his peak, failing to mention that he changed racquets and coaches to improve other areas of his game. His forehand may have lost some pop(although he is still spanking it hard of late if you ask me) but his backhand and serve improved in the process. And so has his net game. As far as the movement or stamina is concerned he is still moving awfully well for his age and I don’t see how stamina is going to play a role when you win everything in straight sets. You don’t decline that much physically in your thirties. I think people are making a much bigger deal of physical decline than it is and that most of it are flat out excuses. Last year Federer got tired because he didn’t schedule properly. This year there were no such issues. I myself am astounded by how well Federer is still playing. To make two consecutive slam finals at 34 and playing as well as he is is something I did not necessarily expect. He destroyed everyone in the field but Djokovic, and that includes two of the best players right now Murray and Wawrinka. I thought he would win both Wimbledon and the US Open, but Djokovic is a monster.
You have Federer and then the rest of the field exactly the way it was in his prime, with him utterly dominating the field. The only difference is that now Djokovic is even above him. That is, of course, difficult for many Fedfans to accept because it was always believed that Federer is the GOAT and that his peak is higher than anyone else’s. The problem with that is that if Federer won Wimbledon and the US Open they would probably have agreed that Federer is playing as well as ever. If not better. The difference is that the competition has caught up. Djokovic is not the inexperienced 20-year old who is playing his first slam final anymore. He is already a legend of the game who is playing at an unbelievably high level. He’s got all the angles covered. The mental strength, the physical strength, and the technical aspect. He can do it all. A kind of tennis superman. Even the great Federer does not have the answers. That is just where we are right now in tennis folks. Djokovic came up in the toughest of conditions with the two most dominant tennis players in history and because of it, he evolved into something unheard of. He learned from both, combined their strengths, and evolved into something better than either. Yes, I do believe Federer is right now playing as well as ever. He is simply losing to the upgraded version of tennis greatness.
What is Next for Federer?
Federer turns 35 next year so time is not on his side, but his tennis to me looks as good as ever. Therefore, you can’t count him out for another slam title but it is not on his racquet anymore. Djokovic is now better and he’d have to avoid him to win another slam. Nadal will no doubt make a comeback at some point next year as well. Possibly around the clay court season. That is not a great time for Federer. Clearly the faster slam surfaces favor Federer these days and it’s very unlikely that he will win the Australian Open or French Open. So if Nadal is back for Wimbledon and the US Open that is bad news for him. Even a mediocre version of Nadal can give Federer serious trouble. He is that deep in his head. And Djokovic is not far behind these days. With Nadal’s ranking outside the top four these days, he can also meet Federer at quarterfinal stages of slams. If there is one thing that makes Nadal confident it is stepping on the court with Federer and a win over the world #2 could go a long way toward restoring some of his confidence. Then you have Stan and Murray who is dangerous for Federer at the slower slams as well. With Nadal almost completely out of the picture I thought Federer should have made one of the slam finals he made count. Especially at the US Open where he had a distinct advantage with the crowd. From here on it will only get more difficult. Nadal is so much in Federer’s head that even him making deep runs in big events is enough to unnerve Federer. 2016 should be another very interesting tennis season anyway and probably the last year where Federer still has an outside chance of winning a slam. It will be interesting to see how long he can keep up his current level as well. It will be hard and the clock is ticking all the time. He needs to have a good indoor season to get some confidence going for 2016. If he keeps losing to Djokovic at the Masters and World Tour Finals that won’t be good news for him. He needs to salvage at least another Masters but preferably the World Tour Finals after the missed opportunities in slams this year. Otherwise, he will lose even more confidence. Can’t wait to find out how it plays out! Ps. If the Djokovic of today played Federer in that 2007 US Open final I think he would have defeated him probably even easier than he did this year. Think about it. All those wasted chances from Djokovic and he is a much better player now. In fact, he may well have destroyed the 2007 version of Federer. Thoughts? Opinions? Facts? The is in your court.