The tennis record books are filled with the accomplishments of Roger Federer, beginning with his 17 singles titles at Grand Slam tournaments.
Almost all those records can essentially be attributed to his awesome skills and ability to consistently dominate his peer group. But, when he strikes his first ball at the 2014 Australian Open, Federer will achieve a new milestone that is unique and not strictly related to the superior calibre of his play. It is one that has more to do with remarkable perseverance, fitness and commitment.
He will be playing his 57th Grand Slam tournament in a row, eclipsing the mark of 56 he currently shares with retired South African Wayne Ferreira.
Though he played his first Grand Slam event at Roland Garros in Paris in 1999, the current streak dates back to the dawn of the year 2000 when he beat Michael Chang in the first round of the Australian Open.
Since then, there have been 14 complete and uninterrupted cycles of the four cornerstone tournaments of the sport, and now he is back to Melbourne Park where it all began at a time when everyone was just getting over the apprehension of “Y2K.”
Ferreira’s run of 56 Grand Slams also began at the Australian Open, in 1991, and continued through the 2004 US Open and a first round loss to Lleyton Hewitt.
Not to diminish Ferreira’s achievement, but he played only 160 matches (104-56) over his the course of his streak, reaching two semifinals – at the 1992 and 2003 Australian Open tournaments.
Federer had almost twice as many matches – 301 (260-41) – over his 56 Grand Slam tournaments and reached 33 semi-finals. Twice over his career, he played the maximum 28 matches possible in a Grand Slam season. The first was 2006 when his only loss was to Rafael Nadal in the French Open final. The second was 2009 when he lost the Australian Open final to Nadal and the US Open final to Juan Martin del Potro. (There would likely have been a third, but in 2007 he finished one shy of 28 when he got a walkover against Tommy Haas at Wimbledon.)
The magnificent Swiss, who has ranked No. 1 for a total of 302 weeks during his career, played under much greater pressure and at a consistently higher level than Ferreira, whose career highest ranking was a No. 6 in 1995.
Here is how Federer’s 56 (soon to be 57) Grand Slams over 15 years compares with the longest individual streaks in some other professional sports.
NFL: Brett Favre: 297 games (1992-2010 – 19 years)
NBA: A.C. Green: 1,192 games (1986-2001 – 15 years)
MLB: Cal Ripkin Jr.: 2,632 games (1982-1998 – 17 years)
NHL: Doug Jarvis: 964 games (1975-1987 – 13 years)
* Jarvis did not miss a single game in his entire career.
In Australian Rules Football, the late Jim Stynes holds the record with 244 games played over 12 years from 1987 and 1998.
With the exception of Favre and Stynes, none of the other record holders were genuine superstars in their sports. But Federer was not only the best player in his sport for many years, his durability was such that he has never retired from a single match among the 1,142 he has played over his career.
And tennis, unlike the other major sports, is a grueling trek played on six continents over a yearly calendar lasting 11 months. The wear and tear of travel is an ongoing challenge.
The only thing remaining for Federer, 32, to achieve in terms of Grand Slam longevity is the record of 70 Grand Slams overall held by retired Frenchman Fabrice Santoro.
If he is able to maintain his current pace, that would take another three and a half years and he would be nearly 36 years old.