Federer wins 98th title to reclaim No1 from Nadal, as remarkable duopoly powers on
Roger Federer recovers his number one ranking from Rafael Nadal after the Swiss ace beats Milos Raonic in the Stuttgart Open
By the time Roger Federer regained the No1 ranking in February, the anticipation had become palpable.
He was 36 years old, had undergone knee surgery two years before, and had seen his great rival Rafael Nadal beat him back to the top in the autumn of 2017.
But once Federer defended his Australian Open title at the start of this season, the target was set. And as soon as he took a late wild card into the ATP500 in Rotterdam, the die was cast.
The Swiss had refused to discuss the pursuit of No1, refused to consider it as a possibility, until after that Australia victory:
“I always said I would only look at the rankings once the Australian Open was over… I thought that by not winning the World Tour Finals that the No1 was never going to happen again, or it’s going to be out of sight… But I always had the flexibility in February. [Now] our team is very excited that I’m here and giving it a go.”
On that occasion, then, the chase for No1 was deliberate, and came with special milestones. It was not simply a question of reaching the top: Federer had long held the record for weeks at the top, 302, and for the longest consecutive streak at No1, 237. But he had not held that top spot since Wimbledon 2012, just before he turned 30.
Such was the achievement in returning to the top after so long that the Rotterdam tournament supplied all the statistics, just to make sure the sporting world was under no illusions.
It had been 14 years since Federer’s debut at No1; more than five years since he last held the top spot—the longest gap on record; also the longest gap between his first and most recent day as No1; and the oldest No1, three years older than Andre Agassi, one older than Serena Williams.
Subsequently, the No1 ranking has changed hands several times, and partly as a result of ‘failure’ rather than victory.
Federer did not defend his title at the Miami Masters, and that was enough to hand the No1 ranking back to Nadal. The Spaniard did not defend his title at the Madrid Masters: the absent Federer went back to the top—until Nadal claimed the title in Rome, and he would hold on to the top ranking with his Roland Garros defence.
Defence, then, had become the watchword—until in Stuttgart this week, where Federer aimed to win the title for the first time.
He had to reach the final to pick up the 100 points by which he trailed Nadal—and he did so in determined style over the charismatic Nick Kyrgios in a final-set tie-breaker.
But that was not enough: Federer’s demeanour spoke volumes through that match and into the final against Milos Raonic. Nothing less than the title would do, and he became the first man this week to break the formidable serve of the Canadian to win the first set, 6-4—with return-of-serve winners, no less—and dominated the second-set tie-break, 7-6(3), with his signature attacking tennis.
So Federer heads back to No1 come Monday, the fifth change of hands this season. Rarely, though, has the baton so often been passed back and forth between the same two men, and the tussle is not over yet. If Federer fails to defend his Halle title, Nadal will be back on top without striking a ball.
Perhaps it is understandable, therefore, that this swapping of places has become old hat. More extraordinary by far are the overall achievements of these 30-somethings.
Take Nadal winning an unparalleled 11th French Open last week. Take Federer targeting his ninth Wimbledon title—and most pundits’ favourite to do so. Take the fact that these two have won the last six Majors, plus seven Masters through the same time-span.
Now the Swiss has won in Stuttgart for the first time, and with it, the No1 ranking, but the achievement this time is both a cumulative one—through 18 months—and a particular one.
Cumulatively, Federer extends numerous records of his own—weeks at No1, now 310, age at No1, and the all-time record for grass titles, 18.
Particularly, he adds Stuttgart to his resume of tournaments, which happens to be his 98th title. If he defends in both Halle and Wimbledon, he will reach 100, and close in on the all-time record of 109.
Federer talked in Rotterdam of the dual ambition that had brought him to the Dutch city. He put it thus:
“World No1 would be very special, that’s what I’m fighting for this week… But of course, you need to have goals to be successful.”
And what were those goals after No1 had been ticked off? He paused, thought, and settled on his choice:
“Right now, it is to try and win this tournament—and then maybe get to 100 titles, that would be super special.”
Now, that 100th title looks more than just a pipe-dream, and who is to say he will not then target that record 109 set by Jimmy Connors?
It will no longer be a surprise if Federer and Nadal swap places again through the course of 2018: both are clearly in the form and in the mood to keep throwing down the gauntlet to those who follow.
But remember this: the No1 ranking can only be earned by winning over the long haul—and since the start of 2017, Federer and Nadal have won the lion’s share: 10 titles by Nadal, 10 by Federer—including all the Majors.
Marin Cilic, in London today, talked of his ambitions to one day reach No1. But he was pragmatic. He said:
“That would mean having to win a couple of Grand Slams in order to be No1—look at Roger and Rafa winning most of them: You can’t be No1 without winning one of those.”
For now, the most famed rivalry in tennis continues to dominate—whatever the yardstick.