Every word written to describe Roger Federer's incredible game was true, every misguided attempt at prose forgivable. He glided around the court, feet seemingly leaving the ground at his serve and not touching again until the point was over. He boasted the game's best and most precise serve for nearly 20 years. He hit winners at angles his opponents never saw coming, leaving announcers -- often former tennis greats themselves -- to utter syllables like "guh" or simply chuckle.
In 2001, at age 19, Federer famously announced his presence and intent with a five-set upset of 14-time Grand Slam champion (and seven-time Wimbledon winner) Pete Sampras in the fourth round at Wimbledon. By age 27, he had surpassed Sampras' Slam total, and at age 36, he became the first man to win 20.
At age 41, he is officially calling it quits. Unable to come back properly from a series of knee issues that have sidelined him since Wimbledon 2021, Federer announced last week that he will retire after this weekend's Laver Cup.
Federer's impact on the game has never been more clear. In this year's US Open, a tournament Federer won five times, both 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz and 23-year-old Casper Ruud reached the final with their own attempts at combining Federer's offense and angles with the movement and defense of a Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. Tennis' new generation is aggressive and athletic. If it features half the grace that Federer himself developed through the years, the game will be in great shape moving forward.
Before we say goodbye to Federer, however, we should take a look back. Let's rank his 20 Slam titles, celebrating each of them one last time.
Big-swinging Gonzalez put together a lovely career. He won three Olympic medals and 11 tour titles, reached the quarterfinals of every Slam at least once, and peaked at No. 5 in the ATP rankings in 2007. When the stars aligned and Gonzalez took down Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake on the way to the 2007 Australian Open final, Federer, at the peak of his powers, was waiting for him.
To his credit, Gonzalez threw some haymakers. He created a pair of set points in the first set but couldn't close it out, and Federer put him away in two hours and 20 minutes. It was his 36th win in a row, and Federer became the fourth man to win a Slam without dropping a set. It honestly looked like he was going to win at least 25-30 Slams at this moment, maybe more.
19. 2004 US Open
Result: def. Lleyton Hewitt 6-0, 7-6, 6-0
There was a power vacuum between the Sampras/Andre Agassi era and Federer's run, and Hewitt filled the void well. He won a pair of Slam titles in 2001-02, reached two more finals, four other semifinals and spent 80 weeks at No. 1. But after dominating Sampras to win the 2001 U.S. Open (7-6, 6-1, 6-1), he reached another final three years later and got equally outclassed by Federer.
Federer survived a five-setter against Agassi in the quarterfinals, but he was by far the fresher player, winning the first eight games of the match and securing the easiest finals win of his career. He hadn't advanced past the fourth round of the US Open before 2004, but he would go on to win five straight titles at the event.
After his initial Slam breakthrough at Wimbledon the previous summer, Federer was the No. 2 seed in Melbourne. He dropped two sets en route to the finals -- one to Hewitt, who had just beaten Nadal, in the fourth round -- and faced a surprise contestant there. The 24-year-old Safin missed most of 2003 with a wrist injury but defeated Todd Martin, top-seeded Andy Roddick and Agassi in five sets to reach the final at the Australian Open..
After dropping a nip-and-tuck first set in a tiebreaker, Safin faded. Federer rolled and moved to No. 1 in the ATP rankings for the first time. He wouldn't relinquish that spot for 4½ years.
17-16. 2008 US Open and 2010 Australian Open
Results: def. Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 (2008) and def. Murray 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (2010)
Murray scored some early statement wins in his career against Federer, winning six of their first seven meetings outside of Slams. But on the biggest stage, Federer, six years Murray's senior, had a big edge. He won five of their six Slam encounters, including these two, their first such meetings.
Only two of these six sets reached even 5-all, though in retrospect, you could say that the final set in Melbourne, in which Federer won a 13-11 tiebreaker to seal the win, was a warning sign of sorts. Both of these matches were part of maybe Federer's most impressive run: Starting with 2005 Wimbledon, he reached the final in 17 out of 18 Slams, winning 12, losing five to Nadal and dropping the 2009 US Open final to Del Potro.
Seventeen of 18! He was just always there. But after laboring to finish off Murray in Australia, he would reach only one of the next nine Slam finals.
15-14. 2005 Wimbledon and 2004 Wimbledon
Result: def. Andy Roddick 6-2, 7-6, 6-4 (2005) and def. Roddick 4-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-4 (2004)
The big-serving Roddick reached the final round of five Slams during his career. He swept Juan Carlos Ferrero -- now Alcaraz's coach -- to take the 2003 US Open title, but in each of the other four finals, he ran into Federer. In all, they met eight times in Slams (seven in the semifinals or later), and Roddick lost all eight. In an alternate universe, in which Federer follows a basketball or soccer career, Roddick would have perhaps stood to gain the most.
Of course, in an alternate universe in which it just rains slightly less in London, Roddick perhaps takes Wimbledon in 2004. At one set apiece, he took a 3-1 lead in the third before a rain delay sent the two back to the locker room. Upon their return, Federer took a third-set tiebreaker and rolled in the fourth, jumping on the slightly sluggish Roddick. He was the more aggressive player from the start, barely letting Roddick into the match. These were titles No. 2-3 during a five-year Wimbledon streak.
After falling to Safin in an epic Aussie Open semifinal in 2005, Federer labored to reach the final in 2006, blowing a two-set lead to Tommy Haas in the fourth round before winning in five, then dropping sets to both Nikolay Davydenko and Nicolas Kiefer in the following rounds.
The final started poorly, too. The fiery and unseeded Baghdatis looked to finish off one of the most incredible underdog runs in memory -- he had beaten four seeded players (including three of the top seven) and survived two five-setters to get to Federer. He broke Federer twice in a row to take the first set and go up 2-0 in the second. But serving at 5-6, he blew a 40-love lead, lost the set and crumbled. Federer won 14 of the last 16 games.
12. 2006 US Open
Result: def. Roddick 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1
After a sketchy run, Roddick hired Jimmy Connors in 2006 to help restore his confidence, and it paid off. He reached the final as the No. 9 seed, beating Hewitt along the way. Federer had lost just one set (to James Blake in the quarterfinals) and rolled through Roddick in the first set as well, but Roddick fought back to take the second and created three break points at 2-2 in the third. He couldn't convert, and the match soon felt like a formality.
Perhaps Federer's two most famous US Open matches were losses. His 2009 final defeat to Del Potro -- and more specifically, Del Potro's amazing forehand -- was a five-set classic that felt a bit like a changing-of-the-guard even though it turned out to be del Potro's lone Slam win.
In 2011, he blew a two-set lead to Djokovic in the semifinal but earned a match point at 5-3 in the fifth before Djokovic unleashed an absolute "screw it, I'm hitting this as hard as I can" rocket off of a Federer serve. It landed in, and Djokovic won the last four games of the match. These two seemed to be among the most bitter defeats of Federer's career.
His five-year US Open title streak didn't feature a single finals classic. He won 15-of-17 sets in all -- but the matches did end up serving as generational moments in both directions. Hewitt didn't win another Slam after getting swept in 2004, and 2006 was Roddick's last decent chance to score another title in New York. In 2005, at age 35, Agassi made his last great run, winning three five-setters (and benefiting from Blake's upset of Nadal) to reach the final, then splitting two sets with Federer and taking the third to a tiebreaker. But Federer's victory was inevitable, taking the tiebreak 7-1, then steamrolling Agassi in the fourth.
Federer's US Open wins also served to show the younger generation what they still lacked. Murray couldn't overcome him in 2008, and a 20-year-old Djokovic lost nearly every key point -- including seven set-point opportunities in the first two sets -- in a taut but one-way final in 2007.
At the end of 2007, Federer was 12-2 in Slam finals and 12-0 when he wasn't facing Nadal in Paris. Neither the previous nor the next generations could reach him. But they eventually would.
9. 2017 Wimbledon
Result: def. Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4
From 2003-09, Federer won 15 Slams, four Tennis Masters Cup titles (now called the ATP Finals) and 15 titles in what have become known as Masters 1000-level events (Indian Wells et al). That's an astounding 34 titles in tennis' biggest events, nearly five per year.
However, from 2010 to '16, he won 11 such titles. Only three came after 2012. He had ceded the sport's edge to first Nadal, then Djokovic (for a while, Murray, too), and in 2016 he had missed significant time with a back injury and knee injuries. Even his streak of 65 straight Slam appearances ended. It was safe to assume his Slam title tally would forever be stuck at 17.
In 2017-18, with healthy knees and some new tricks to end points more quickly and avoid wear and tear, Federer ripped off a run of three Slam titles in five. Among them were his eighth and final Wimbledon championship. It was like he had turned back time. He didn't drop a set in the tournament, and with Murray (the top seed), Djokovic and Nadal all falling in the fourth round or quarterfinals, the draw opened up. Federer took advantage, easing past Tomas Berdych in the semis and then pummeling a blistered Cilic on the final Sunday. The match itself wasn't memorable; the fact that he managed to lift the Wimbledon trophy one more time was.
8. 2006 Wimbledon
Result: def. Nadal 6-0, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3
It quickly became clear that the 20-year-old Nadal would be the biggest impediment blocking Federer's path to a Career Slam and a particularly gaudy title total. He took Federer down in the 2005 and 2006 French Opens and won six of their seven meetings to date. In their first meeting on grass, Federer's domain, Nadal served notice that it wasn't going to be easy on that surface either.
Federer blazed through the opening set in just 25 minutes, but Nadal soon put him on his heels. Nadal served for the second set at 5-4 before clamming up, then took a third-set tiebreaker as well. He eventually capitulated, and Federer won Slam No. 8. But it was obvious that some classics lay ahead in this series, even on grass.
At 21 years old, Federer was a top-five player, but after his famous upset of Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, he fell off course a bit, failing to reach a Slam quarterfinal. In fact, he lost in the first round three times in his five Slams prior to this one. He was still young, but it was increasingly disappointing.
It all clicked in London. He dropped just one set on the way to the final -- despite suffering back spasms in his fourth-round match -- and easily defeating Roddick in the semis. And while the oft-injured Philippoussis had the perfect type of big-serving game that can win on grass, Federer, still sporting a ponytail and minimal facial hair (still very much 21, in other words), stayed on the front foot. He controlled two tiebreakers, and after a backhand error from Philippoussis on match point, he fell to his knees in an almost muted celebration. He called the win a "relief" afterward.
Sometimes even a Grand Slam champion needs to catch a break. Despite an unprecedented run of success, Federer had not yet closed out his Career Slam with a French Open title because Nadal wouldn't let him. Heading into 2009, Federer had gone 23-4 in his previous four trips to Roland Garros -- 0-4 against Nadal and 23-0 against everyone else. It was fair to wonder if he would ever be able to get over that hump. He later confessed to the same concerns.
Federer got help from Soderling. The 24-year-old Swedish player was one of the biggest hitters the game had ever seen, and he blew Nadal off the court -- and handed him his first career loss at Roland Garros with a four-set win in the fourth round. And Federer nearly blew the opportunity. He dropped the first two sets to Tommy Haas in the fourth round, then dropped two of the first three to Del Potro in the semis before rallying each time. Soderling also survived a five-setter against Gonzalez in the semis, and spent his last ounce of magic in the process.
Federer was not going to let this opportunity pass. Aside from a strange moment in the second set when an intruder came onto the court and tried to put a hat on Federer's head, he held his nerve, hitting 40 total winners to Soderling's 21. He saved the only two break points Soderling created, and rolled in straight sets. Despite the ease of the match, his emotional celebration showed just how important the win was.
With Djokovic falling to Chung Hyeon and Nadal retiring in the fifth set of his quarterfinal with Cilic, we got one of the strangest sets of semifinals in recent memory -- Cilic vs. Kyle Edmund, Federer vs. Chung -- and we got a Wimbledon final rematch in the final. Chastened by his poor showing in London, Cilic got another opportunity and nearly took advantage of it.
Federer sailed through the opening set, but Cilic found his nerve and took the second set in a tiebreaker. Federer took the third with relative ease, but Cilic again responded, winning the fourth and quickly creating a break point in the fifth. Tested for the first time all tournament, Federer met the moment, holding, then immediately scoring a break of his own. He cruised from there and won Slam No. 20 at age 36. He cried, and his dad cried in the stands. Luckily, you can't prove that I cried watching from my sofa.
4. 2012 Wimbledon
Result: def. Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4
Federer lost in four sets to Berdych in the 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinals, and he blew a two-set lead to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters in 2011. Federer was still a constant quarter- or semifinal presence in Slams, but his confidence seemed wobbly for the first time since his initial breakthrough. In the third round at the All England Club in 2012, he found himself down two sets to Julien Benneteau.
Federer rallied -- because of course he did. He won nine of his next 10 sets to reach the semis, where he took down Djokovic in four. Murray awaited Federer in the final, and while it was easy to declare that this was the Scotsman's time to finally break through and score his first Slam title, Federer had other ideas.
Murray took the first set and held serve throughout most of the second, but Federer broke at 6-5 in the second, 3-2 in the third and 2-2 in the fourth, serving out the set each time. A tearful Murray said "I'm getting closer" in an emotional postmatch interview, and he was -- he would take down Federer on the same court in the London Olympics a few weeks later -- but Federer finally had Slam No. 17.
3. 2007 Wimbledon
Result: def. Nadal 7-6 4-6 7-6 2-6 6-2
Aside from the French Open losses, the ninth of Federer's 10 straight Slam final appearances was the hardest one yet. After grueling five-set wins over Soderling and Mikhail Youzhny, Nadal had picked up steam at Wimbledon, plowing over Berdych and Djokovic on the way to the final.
Federer was as dominant as ever through six matches and immediately broke Nadal for a 3-0 first-set lead. But Nadal didn't wait long to respond this time, as he broke back and saved four set points before losing a 9-7 tiebreaker, then evened the match at a set apiece. Federer eked out another tiebreak win, and Nadal evened the match again in the fourth set.
Federer had the advantage on serve at 3-2 in the fifth when Nadal finally blinked. Federer broke twice and closed out the title with an overhead smash. It was a fitting precursor to the 2008 Wimbledon final, a Nadal victory that is now known as the perfect tennis match.
2. 2009 Wimbledon
Result: def. Roddick 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14
After a nearly three-year absence from Slam finals, Roddick took down Berdych, Hewitt and Murray to earn yet another shot at Federer. Roddick was only 26, but it felt like his last great chance. It was, but not for lack of effort.
For a third straight campaign, the Wimbledon final was the best men's match of the year in 2009. With Sampras on hand to see Federer top his career Slam titles record, the Swiss player won both the second and third sets via nip-and-tuck tiebreakers and served 50 aces. But it took him more than four hours to break Roddick's serve. After saving two break points at 8-8 in the fifth set, Federer finally broke at 15-14 when Roddick shanked a forehand off of an odd bounce. His favorite turf had helped him out, in other words, and he lifted a Slam trophy for the 15th time.
1. 2017 Australian Open
Result: def. Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3
Federer had missed most of 2016 with injury and hadn't won a Slam since Wimbledon 2012. Nadal had battled both injury and form issues for two years and hadn't reached even a Slam semifinal since winning the French Open in 2014. The game seemed to have momentarily passed them by, at least at the highest level. But losses by the top-seeded Murray (to Mischa Zverev in the fourth round) and second-seeded Djokovic (to Denis Istomin in the second) at the 2017 Australian Open opened a door.
Nadal outlasted Alexander Zverev in five sets in the third round, Federer won in five against Kei Nishikori in the fourth, and they both won five-set epics in the semifinals -- Nadal over Grigor Dimitrov and Federer defeated Stan Wawrinka after blowing a two-set lead. Ticket prices for the final were going for more than $10,000 on the resale market.
This was not the best match ever between the two rivals, but it was one of the most tense. And at the time it felt like the most important -- Federer tweaked his game to catch up to Nadal and would win six of their final seven meetings, and with Nadal at 14 Slam titles, it felt like Federer needed at least one more Slam to fend him off. (As it turned out, he would get three more, and it still wasn't enough.)
They combined for 37 break points and countless key moments in this impossibly anxious encounter. They traded breaks early in the fifth, and Federer needed five break points before converting and going up 5-3. Nadal immediately created a 15-40 edge in the final game, but Federer rallied with an ace and an inside-out forehand winner.
Following a nervy first championship point, Federer hit the line with a forehand winner on the second. After a replay review, the match was his.