In the dark times in sports, when serial doping, cheating, greed, bad sportsmanship and corruption make you want to switch off for good, there has always been an unfailing rock of good hope to cling to this millennium: the sight of Roger Federer turning tennis into art four times a year at the Grand Slam tournaments.
Never pulled out with injury. Never sent in a sick note. Never couldn't be bothered. Not only is Federer the most successful male player ever, he's also becoming one of the most durable, the iron man of his, indeed any, generation. His presence is as constant at tennis' major tournaments as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon and spectators with bad etiquette at the French Open. (Yelling "Ole!" between points and doing the wave so frequently at changeovers should be punishable by a naked swim in the cold, brown Seine).
From the Australian Open of 2000 to this French Open, Federer has always turned up for work. His streak of 54 consecutive major tournaments, comfortably the longest of any active player, is another trump card in the tennis parlor game "Who is the greatest player of all time?" It's a debate that never gets old, because choosing a clear winner is nigh impossible.
Federer's very strong claim with a record 17 major titles is undermined by the fact that, unlike Don Budge in 1938 and Rod Laver 1962 and 1969, he hasn't completed the Grand Slam, winning all four majors in the same year. Unlike in football, where basic ingredients — 22 players, two goals, one ball — remain constant, comparing eras in tennis is more difficult. Laver doesn't see much resemblance between the game he played with a little wooden racket and modern power tennis, where players thump winners from the back of the court.
Even Federer can't be sure how he would have fared against another "greatest-ever" contender, Bjorn Borg, on the powdery red ochre clay courts of Roland Garros, where the Swede won six titles from 1974-1981.
"It was a different time," Federer said this week. "That's why I never quite know who was the greatest of all time. We will never know how we would have all matched up, because Borg would have played totally different in today's age."
But for consistency at majors, Federer is becoming untouchable. With the French, then Wimbledon and, in August, the U.S. Open, Federer will have played 56 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, sharing the men's record with South Africa's retired Wayne Ferreira. Federer will have the record to himself if he maintains his streak to the Australian Open next January. The men's Open-era record for non-consecutive Grand Slams is 70, played by Fabrice Santoro of France from 1989 to 2010. Federer would have to play every major from now to the 2016 U.S. Open to equal that — not impossible given that he's spoken of wanting to compete at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in that year, when he will turn 35.
Among the iron men of sports, it's hard to convincingly put Federer on the same pedestal as Cal Ripken. To establish his record of 2,632 consecutive baseball games over 16 years, the third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles had to play almost every day during the six-month baseball season. Federer, in comparison, had to be ready, willing and able to compete for a total of eight weeks from January to the end of the U.S. Open in September for what is now the 14th year of his streak. Because of the physical battering and injuries he sustained, another astounding iron-man feat is Brett Favre's 297 straight starts, 321 counting playoffs, as an NFL quarterback. In English football, Ryan Giggs' soon-to-be 24 seasons with Manchester United are mighty impressive, too.
Federer's coach, Paul Annacone, said comparing iron men in team sports and tennis is tricky.
"Cal Ripken's numbers are ridiculous," he said in an interview. "A team sport is different, too. I think sometimes you can get away with playing a little bit injured and, in tennis, it's difficult, because there's no one else out there except you. So it's a little bit like apples and oranges."
"It's worth a conversation but I don't know how comparable they are."
What is clear, however, is that Federer sweated for his longevity. It isn't a mere combination of God-given good genes, good fortune and having a good body for tennis — which are important, too. He has made his own luck. He manages his playing schedule intelligently to avoid physical and mental burnout. He clearly lives and trains well. One can argue about whether his seemingly effortless tennis is mostly the fruit of nature or nurture. Less disputed is that his fine technique spares his body wear and tear. He glides and floats where others strain muscles and sinew.
"He has perfect technique," Santoro said in an interview. "With good technique, you get fewer injuries."
U.S. Open champion Andy Murray missed this French Open with a back injury. Seventh-ranked Juan Martin del Potro also isn't here, laid low by a respiratory virus. Eighth-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga missed the 2010 U.S. Open with a bad knee. Ninth-ranked Richard Gasquet missed Wimbledon in 2010 with a bad back. Rafael Nadal, tennis' Mr. Brute Force, missed the last two majors with a creaky left knee. One cannot help but worry that the pounding Nadal gives his body, chasing every ball, always in top gear, makes it only a matter of time before the 11-time major winner breaks down for good.
"Rafa has to play 100 percent always. He needs to be fit 100 percent to play his best," said Feliciano Lopez, who is playing his 45th consecutive major at Roland Garros, the second-longest active streak after Federer's 54.
"Roger, with the way he plays, he can play winners from everywhere, he can serve incredible, he can go to the net. So the effort is less."
Federer doesn't play one or two matches before being knocked out. Far more often than not during his streak, he played into the second week at majors, reaching the very last day — the final — 24 times. That mountain of matches — 288 before this French Open, to be precise — is many more than Ferreira played in his 56-major tournament streak (winning zero titles) which Federer looks set to soon overhaul.
"He's done a great job throughout his career of taking care of his body and prioritizing his schedule so that he gives himself the best chance at the majors," Annacone said.
"Who knows how long it will go on. You do need a little bit of good luck and things do get harder as you get older."
Although, with Federer, it never seems quite as hard as for everyone else.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester