What’s in a name? Not much, if one were to go by Shakespeare’s words. What’s in a number? Everything, if one were to go by recent events in tennis. Before this Monday, the number 287 would barely have registered with sports followers as anything more than a quaint, insignificant old number that was neither too large nor too small – it was definitely not a subject worthy of an intellectually stimulating discussion, and certainly not a figure that could launch a thousand ships. But ever since the clock struck 12 on Monday, the 16th of July, and the ATP updated its official computer rankings, 287 has been the most talked-about number in the world of sports. Roger Federer has now held the No. 1 spot in the official ATP rankings for a record 287 weeks, eclipsing the previous record of 286 weeks set by Pete Sampras. But you knew that already, didn’t you.
At some level, we are all obsessed with numbers. Statistics mean the world to us. Deep down, we all feel that despite the intangibles and the aesthetics that enhance our perception of things, at the end of the day, numbers and records are the only validating factors. Validating factors for what, exactly? Success. Achievements. A player’s greatness. A champion’s brush with immortality. And immortality is what Federer has been flirting with for quite some time. His list of records has now moved from being merely impressive to downright scary; it seems that every time he steps on the court he creates a new record. Here’s a count of the most notable records that Federer has racked up so far:
- Most Slam titles (17 and counting)
- Most weeks at No. 1 (287 and counting)
- Most consecutive Slam semifinals (23)
- Most consecutive weeks at No. 1 (237)
- Most Wimbledon titles (7 and counting)
- Most consecutive Slam quarterfinals (33 and counting)
- Most year-end championship titles (6 and counting)
- Highest grasscourt winning streak (65 matches)
These are, for lack of a better word, insane numbers. And they sound even more remarkable when you consider the extent by which he leads in some of them – the second highest in the most consecutive Slam semifinals is 10, and the second highest in the most consecutive weeks at No.1 is 160. Federer hasn’t just made his way into the record books; he has trampled all over them.
As impressive as Federer’s stats are, though, they beg the inevitable question, the one accusation that every great athlete has to face at some point of his career or another: does he play merely for the records? Does he keep chugging along for the sheer joy of playing tennis, or is he obsessed with all the million milestones that have slowly been falling by the wayside over the years? If statistics mean so much to us ordinary spectators, is it really a stretch to imagine an all-time great athlete attaching just as importance to those vulgar numbers?
Federer has never shied from openly declaring his liking for the No. 1 ranking, that’s for sure. When he was first deposed from the top spot back in 2008, he was heard saying that he hated being addressed on the court as the No. 2 seed. And all of last year, he made no secret of his ambition to reclaim the top ranking. In fact, at the start of almost every year, he announces to anyone who’d listen that winning Wimbledon and being World No. 1 are his main goals for the year.
So is it really true? Does Federer put records above everything else? It’d be easy to jump to that conclusion if it hadn’t been for the fact that when Federer says he wants to be No. 1, he is actually articulating what every tennis player on the planet feels, but is unwilling to declare. In an individual sport like tennis, winning matches and dominating your peers are the only things that really matter. No tennis player worth his salt would ever admit that he doesn’t deserve to be at the top of the pile, lording it over everyone else. It’s only how much a player wants it that makes the difference. Over the years, Federer has shown that his desire for success is greater than that of any other player in history. It’s only natural, then, that the titles and the records followed.
Then there’s also Federer’s severe, almost old-fashioned sense of ideals. I have lost count of the number of times Federer has stressed, in very unambiguous words, that for him, it’s all about tradition and respect. Upholding the traditions of tennis, and respecting the greats of the past – that’s pretty much been the crux of nearly every post-match victory speech by Federer.
And the man is not all talk either. At the 2006 Australian Open, his tears of joy on winning the tournament were more profuse than usual. Why? Because he was presented the trophy by his idol Rod Laver. The tremendously high regard in which he held Laver dwarfed everything else for Federer at that moment.
Then in 2009, he dug deep and refused to yield the Wimbledon crown to an opponent who was clearly outplaying him. Admittedly, that victory could be seen as an example of many things: Federer’s resilience, his stubbornness, his sheer determination. But it could also be seen as a nod to the host of great players who were in attendance that day in anticipation of his record-breaking 15th Slam. When the men who defined tennis beckoned him to make his mark on history, Federer refused to shrink from the challenge, even if it meant playing gritty, ugly tennis (which is not usually his style, you know).
Breaking the records of the players he grew up idolizing is not an end in itself for Federer; instead, it is his way of paying tribute to those champions of the past, as weird as that may sound. After winning that 2009 Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick which enabled him to break Sampras’s record of 14 Slams, Federer said, “It’s not one of those goals you set as a little boy but it’s been quite a career and quite a month. This is not why I’m playing tennis, to break records, and this doesn’t mean I’m going to stop playing tennis. I hope to come back for many years.”
And come back he did, three years later, breaking another Sampras record in the process. When he crossed Sampras’s mark of most weeks at No. 1 on Monday, this is what he had to say – “I am extremely proud and honoured to have beaten Pete’s record as he was my childhood hero and I have always looked up to him.” In Federer’s mind, Sampras is still a hero to be revered. Federer still considers it an honor to be spoken of in the same breath as Sampras – an honor that he knows he has worked very hard for.
So does Federer play for the records? Yes he does. He also plays to win; he plays to give respect to past greats; he plays to uphold tradition; he plays to earn honor. And he has proven all of that throughout his 15-year-long career. Not once or twice, but 287 times.