Roger Federer, Jack Nicklaus and the magical 18
By Thomas Dodd
- Roger Federer’s 18th Grand Slam title all but confirms his status as greatest tennis player of all time
- Swiss Maestro now has four more major titles than anyone else in the history of the game
- Win ties Federer with golfing great Jack Nicklaus, who also claimed his 18th major after a barren run.
Roger Federer’s 18th Grand Slam title at the 2017 Australian Open ties him with golfing legend Jack Nicklaus, and a look back through history reveals the pair’s 18th majors were very similar in nature.
So good has Roger Federer been for large parts of his career, and so impressive are some of his stats that it has been fundamentally unfair to those chasing him to offer up a comparison. The natural step has been to line the Swiss up with the best of previous generations, though even that eventually becomes severely one-sided in favour of the man from Basel (Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver all fell retrospectively by the wayside).
Federer’s 18th major title at the Australian Open last weekend elevated him another step up the ladder in tennis history, pushing him almost certainly out of reach of his nearest challenger, the man he beat in Melbourne Rafael Nadal, in terms of Grand Slam trophies won.
So, who now, if anyone can Federer be compared to? En route to greatness, the world’s press liked to track the progress of the Swiss against another player who made his sport look effortless and who was able to simply swat away any new challengers to the throne like Federer himself would put away an overhead, Tiger Woods.
A Nike advert in 2007 was a stroke of marketing genius, and featured Woods poking fun at Federer for only having ten Grand Slam titles to his own tally of 12. It is perhaps ironic almost ten years later that the 35-year-old has arrived at a number Woods has dedicated his life to matching and then beating when it comes to the major tournaments first – 18.
It says a lot about a sportsman when even the stats of Tiger Woods are inferior.
Federer’s triumph ties him with golf’s most successful major player, Jack Nicklaus, and it’s not just 18 where the comparisons between the two ends.
Both men are the second on the list in their respective sports of oldest major winners – Ken Rosewall was 37 when won the Australian Open in 1972, while Julius Boros at 48 was a shade over two years older than Nicklaus when he triumphed at the PGA in 1968.
Nicklaus was 46 when he defied the odds to win a fifth Green jacket at the Masters in 1986, an event which in itself bore an uncanny resemblance to the recent two weeks down under.
Federer’s drought between Melbourne and number 17 at Wimbledon in 2012 was four years and five months, a stretch spanning 17 major tournaments. Five years and eight months passed between Nicklaus’s 17th triumph and his Augusta fairytale, equivalent to 20 events.
Both had been written off too, particularly Federer after taking six months out at the end of 2016 and missing a majority of the first half of last season. Nicklaus on the other hand was deemed to simply be too old, christened the ‘Olden Bear’ as a sign of his ageing away from his once renowned status as the ‘Golden Bear’.
Then there had been the close calls. Federer’s final appearance was his fourth since 2012, while Nicklaus finished second or in a tie for second three times during his barren run from 1980, proof, if ever it was needed, that raw talent and a competitive instinct are a powerful combination no matter what the stage of a career.
Neither had an easy ride, as the fate transpired to put as many obstacles in the way of one last shot at glory. Despite seeing the top two players in the world fall in the early rounds, Federer, seeded 17, had to battle his way past four players ranked inside the top 10 (Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Nadal) to lift the trophy, a list which includes a three-time major winner and his biggest nemesis. Five of the six golfers immediately behind Nicklaus on the scoreboard at the end of the final day in Georgia would collect a total of nineteen majors throughout their careers and two of them, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson, already had thirteen between them heading into the tournament, while Tom Kite, Greg Norman and Nick Price were all highly-fancied talents who would eventually knock down the door standing between them and golf’s biggest prizes.
Last but not least there was the performance of the men themselves. Both Federer and Nicklaus were able to lift their games to a sentimental, yet impenetrable new high , while riding the crest of destiny’s wave. With much the same level of attraction that Nicklaus’s golf ball seemed bound for the pin on the tough par 3 16th or turned back towards the hole as if magnetised to the bottom of the cup on the 17th green in the last round, did Federer pull off an array of stunning forehands which left even Nadal flapping at air. The 26-shot rally in the eighth game of the final set at Deuce will go down as one of the best of all time.
After Federer’s Wimbledon success fans across the world immediately started the campaign for number 18, and all throughout the final in Australia ‘#bel18ve’ was trending on social media. Twitter didn’t exist in the days of Nicklaus, but you can bet anything it would have been banded about as the 46-year-old made his way down the stretch on that hot Georgia afternoon over 30 years ago.
The one big difference may be where the go following number 18. Nicklaus never had the stars align for him again, and the 1986 Masters was his final victory on the PGA Tour. Federer on the other hand might well fancy his chances at number 19 on the lawns of Wimbledon off the back of two finals and semi-final in the last three years.
Nicklaus himself tweeted to congratulate Federer on the achievement in light of last Sunday’s epic, a sort of ‘Welcome to the Club’ type message.
— Jack Nicklaus (@jacknicklaus) January 29, 2017
The Swiss is in pretty exclusive company. Then again, Federer is rarely associated with mere mortals.
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