The Federer-Rossi Conundrum: Greatest of All Time, over the hill?
Sports fans are quick to show the door to players in team sports. But in individual sports, personalised fan following and romanticism ensure that these players go on for a little longer. And when the players are of the calibre of ‘The Swiss Maestro’ Roger Federer and ‘The Doctor’ Valentino Rossi, whose cult following borders on the fanatic, the time extension can seemingly go on forever.
Roger Federer is, on current evidence, the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen. He has won the most Grand Slams in history and has been a force on the tennis court for well over a decade.
Valentino Rossi, similarly, is the greatest bike racer to grace the racetracks. He has won the most premier class championships and is second in the standings for number of races won. Both of them are household names and the universal mascots for their sports. Both have millions of fans across the globe and are extraordinary talents in their own right.
Both were said to be done and dusted. Their careers had seemingly gone into a downward spiral, the likes of which every sportsperson fears but ultimately succumbs to. Age had seemingly caught up with both, and there aren’t many resurgent stories of sports professionals in their mid-thirties.
Admittedly, neither was performing too shabbily. It wasn’t like Federer was not progressing into the later rounds of the Grand Slams, or that Rossi wasn’t challenging for the podium every few races – in fact, the Italian stallion did so nearly every single race.
Except we are talking about two of the absolute greats here. Once you have scaled the summit and taken in the heady air as a winner without an equal, an unparalleled talent, being top five doesn’t quite cut it.
Both of them went into the 2015 season ranked second in the world. Federer was actually ranked second in the year-end rankings while Rossi had finished the last season ranked second in the MotoGP championship. Both had been overtaken by younger rivals. Rivals who are now fighting to get in the argument of ‘Greatest of All Time’.
Federer is now continually faced with a phenomenon called Novak Djokovic, a Serb who combines extremely accurate groundstrokes with an ironclad defence. Djokovic turned pro in 2003 but has really come into his own during the last couple of seasons.
Rossi, on the other hand, saw the 2014 championship taken by Marc Marquez, a rookie rider fourteen years his junior. Marquez has won the championship twice in his two years in MotoGP and will be considered one of the greats long before his career winds down to a close.
It is not as if the two legends have had it smooth sailing all through their careers before this. Rafael Nadal made his claim to the crown by defeating Federer on grass, supposedly Federer’s stronghold. However, consistent injuries have meant that the Nadal challenge has veered off course as he succumbed to early round losses in recent Grand Slams.
Rossi has had rivalries with Casey Stoner, a man considered by many the most talented bike racer of all time and Jorge Lorenzo, his current teammate at Movistar Yamaha MotoGP. Stoner retired at the end of the 2012 season, Lorenzo has powered on and is Rossi’s main rival in the 2015 championship.
The 2015 season
Federer’s 2015 season didn’t exactly start with a proverbial bang. It reads like a work in progress as he exited the Australian Open in the third round at the hands of Italian Andreas Seppi and the French Open in the quarter-finals, where his compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka defeated him (and indeed all others as he won that Grand Slam).
It is only when the grass season started that things got interesting. Federer defeated Seppi (his vanquisher in the Australian Open) in the Halle Open to win it. He went into Wimbledon in great form and with great expectations. It was after all his favourite surface. As Rafael Nadal went out in the second round and Federer himself took care of Andy Murray in the semi-finals, the stars seemed to be aligning for a record-breaking eighth Wimbledon and his first Grand Slam since 2012. Only one man could stop Federer.
Alas, that one man did.
Djokovic was the superior player on the night and indeed through the year. Federer lost the final and the chance to once again be the best tennis player in the world.
Except Federer wasn’t done yet. At the start of the hard court season, he defeated Djokovic at the Cincinnati Masters and added a new shot to his armoury called ‘Sneak Attack By Roger’ which for a time seemed to be the X-factor which would propel him to that elusive Grand Slam. The US Open was a Roger Federer story right till the end where he was denied again by Djokovic.
Rossi started strong with a win in Qatar and stayed on the podium for every race till Round 13. The staying on the podium (and indeed staying on his bike in a sport where retirements due to crashes are common) has ensured that he leads the championship.
Defending champion Marquez is pretty much out of the title race as he has failed to finish the race five times this season. Lorenzo’s weak start has meant that even winning four consecutive races has not allowed him to run away with the championship.
A pattern seems to be emerging as Lorenzo has been setting a blistering pace in the dry races and has indeed been winning them with ease. But once it rains, Rossi’s experience has made a remarkable difference as he has been ahead of Lorenzo in the wet races. This fascinating see-saw means that the title race has now become a two-horse race as the two Yamaha riders battle for the championship.
Age might matter, but not all that much
We have seen something remarkable happen this year with two veterans take the challenge to younger rivals in sports which have traditionally dominated by the young. While the example is more forceful in case of Federer as he has overcome age in a seemingly more physically draining sport, Rossi too races with constant movement and absolute concentration while putting his body under intense pressure on bikes going well over 300 kmph.
Despite the heightened expectations, Federer’s season did not end as well as he might have hoped as his Grand Slam count after 2012 still sits at zero. However, at 34 years of age, he showed us that age can be just a number as he produced some of the best tennis that he or indeed anyone else has ever played.
As the Moto GP season is still underway, Rossi has a real chance to win the championship at the ripe old age of 36. But then again, their nationalities ought to have given us a hint that age might not be a hindrance for them, for Swiss cheese and Italian wine, both get better with age.