ROGER Federer is back at world No1 after winning his sixth Wimbledon title yesterday, and nothing could be more fitting. By taking his 15th grand slam title yesterday, the Swiss player showed himself to be not only the best exponent of tennis on the planet at present, but also surely to be the greatest player ever.
When he won the French Open just four weeks ago Federer became the sixth man to win a career grand slam – one title at least from each of the four, the Australian, French and US Opens and Wimbledon too. That was his 14th slam, which equalled Pete Sampras's record.
Sampras, who made Centre Court his own for much of the 1990s, was watching from the Royal Box yesterday as Federer made it slam No15. He is out on his own now. For versatility, consistency, durability, grace under pressure and many other qualities besides, Federer is simply the best there has been.
It may seem facile to discount some of the great names of the game from 70 or 80 years ago, and those such as Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver – both also in attendance yesterday – who proved themselves the best in their own eras merit a lasting place in the tennis pantheon. But the sport has moved on so much since Sampras's day, never mind since the Swede or the Australian were in their pomp, that it is almost incontestable that Federer is the greatest ever.
One caveat should perhaps be added. Had Rafael Nadal been fit enough to defend the title he so memorably wrested from his great rival in 2008, instead of succumbing to tendinitis, we might not be talking now of Federer's 15th title, and of his status as the all-time No1.
Indeed, the Spaniard, a younger man, could well come back fitter and tougher than ever, restrict Federer to just a couple more big titles, and then go on to surpass a total of 17 or 18 or whatever the total ends at. But at the moment, however, it is just as plausible that Nadal will never be the same again, and that he will continue to suffer chronic, nagging injuries for the rest of his career.
In other words, Nadal may already have squeezed so much effort into such a short career, and squeezed so much out of himself, that he will be remembered as a shooting star rather than a permanent fixture in the tennis firmament. Federer, on the other hand, is remarkable for the consistency not only with which he plays to such a high standard, but also with which he is able to keep presenting himself for the start of big tournaments time after time.
In another era, in another walk of life altogether less privileged than the one he inhabits, Federer would be the factory hand who reported for duty year after year without ever requiring a day off for illness. When he beat Ivo Karlovic in the last eight, he extended his run of consecutive grand slam semi-finals to 21 – in other words, for over five years he has never failed to make it into the last four of the big four.
When he beat Tommy Haas in the semi, Federer became the first player to reach seven straight finals here since the abolition of the challenge round – in which a champion was given a bye to the following year's final – in 1922. He is now also out on his own for the number of grand slam finals reached, having previously been equal with Ivan Lendl on 19.
There is one obvious goal for Federer to aim at here, and that is the record of seven Wimbledon titles held by Sampras and William Renshaw, the Briton who was the dominant figure of the 1880s. At 27, he has time on his side.
"It's staggering that I've been able to play so well for so many years now and stay injury free," he admitted when asked what it felt like to win 15 slams. "Of course there's a certain routine that's been happening the last few years since I became No1 and since getting the experience that comes with that. It's crazy that I've been able to win so many in such a short period of time."
Federer's first grand slam title was here in 2003, when he beat Mark Phillippoussis in the final, and he said it was appropriate that he should establish the new record here as well. "I'm happy I broke the record here in some ways," he continued.
"It's always the tournament that has meant the most to me. It feels like I've come full circle, with the start and end of my wins being here – but of course my career is far from over.
"It was great to know so many legends were sitting there today, especially Pete. I feel like we still share the record. It's nice that he shows appreciation for what I'm doing."
Although he broke down in tears in previous years, Federer was more stunned yesterday, perhaps in part because of mental exhaustion at the end of a contest with an opponent who pushed him all the way.
"I thought Andy played great," he said. "I know how it is to play a fifth set in a Wimbledon final, but it felt different from the last few years against Rafa.
"It was frustrating at times because I couldn't break Andy till the end, so the satisfaction is bigger. The second set was key to what came after," he added, referring to the four set points he saved in the tiebreak at the end of that set.
"The way Andy was serving 2-0 (down] would have been a very difficult situation to be in. Going two sets down is not impossible to recover from, but (winning that set] definitely increased my chances of winning.
"Tennis is cruel sometimes. I've lost five-setters too and it's hard. Andy did great. He's not going to let his head hang down and he will come back stronger. He played well. I had to play my very, very best to come through."
• Roger Federer is 10-1 with Ladbrokes to win 20 or more grand slam singles titles before retirement.
The bookies have already make the Swiss player the 6-4 favourite to successfully defend his crown next year. He went into yesterday's final as the red-hot 1/8 favourite.
David Williams of Ladbrokes said: "Since the turn of the century Federer has bashed the bookies more than any other athlete and the end is not in sight."
Roddick is 5/1 to win Wimbledon at some point in his career, while Andy Murray is 5/2 to win Wimbledon next year following his semi-final defeat last week.
ALL-TIME MAJOR TITLES
(A F W US Total)
Roger Federer 3 1 6 5 15
Pete Sampras 2 0 7 5 14
Roy Emerson 6 2 2 2 12
Bjorn Borg 0 6 5 0 11
Rod Laver 3 2 4 2 11
Bill Tilden 0 0 3 7 10
Andre Agassi 4 1 1 2 8
Jimmy Connors 1 0 2 5 8
Ivan Lendl 2 3 0 3 8
Fred Perry 1 1 3 3 8
Ken Rosewall 4 2 0 2 8
A > Australian Open, F > French Open, W > Wimbledon, US > US Open