Of all the records that Roger Federer broke in 2017, one of the most remarkable
was surely his achievement of not dropping a set as in winning his record eighth Wimbledon gentlemen’s singles title.
It was the first time any man had achieved that feat at The Championships for 41 years and only the fifth since the abolition of the Challenge Round in 1922. In keeping that perfect record Federer matched the achievements of Donald Budge in 1938, Tony Trabert in 1955, Chuck McKinley in 1963 and Bjorn Borg in 1976.
Although Federer did not face any top-five opponents on his way to the title, the Swiss did not have an easy passage by any means. For the first time in his eight Wimbledon triumphs, Federer had to beat players ranked in the world’s top 15 in each of his last four matches (Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic).
Federer dropped just 74 games in winning the title this year, though he was helped in the opening round as Alexandr Dolgopolov retired hurt when trailing 3-6, 0-3. Even with the benefit of that win, nevertheless, 2017 was not Federer’s most successful title victory at the Championships in terms of games lost. He dropped only 68 games (six fewer than this year) in winning the title in 2006, when he dropped a set in the final before beating Rafael Nadal 6-0, 7-6(5), 6-7(2), 6-3.
Of the 19 Grand Slam titles Federer has won, the 2007 Australian Open was the only other occasion when he did not drop a set. He lost just 72 games in taking the Melbourne title that year, beating Fernando Gonzalez 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-4 in the final.
Until 1922 the previous year’s champion at Wimbledon had to play only one match to defend his title, against the winner of the All-Comers’ competition in the Challenge Round. Only one champion before 1922 did not drop a set in winning the All-Comers’ event and then beating the defending champion; Frank Hadow’s six straight-sets victories in 1878 included a 7-5, 6-1, 9-7 win over Spencer Gore in the final.
Budge’s victory at the Championships in 1938 was arguably the most emphatic in the years since the abolition of the Challenge Round. The American dropped only 48 games in his seven matches that year and his 6-1, 6-0, 6-3 victory over Britain’s Bunny Austin was one of the most one-sided finals in the history of The Championships.
Only two gentlemen’s singles champions have ever conceded fewer games in a final, William Renshaw having beaten John Hartley 6-0, 6-1, 6-1 in 1881 and Fred Perry having crushed Gottfried von Cramm 6-1, 6-1, 6-0 in 1936. Since 1938 no men’s champion has dropped fewer games in a final than Budge, though John McEnroe matched his feat in 1984 when he beat Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-1, 6-2.
Budge had a remarkable record at The Championships in 1937 and 1938. He won the singles, gentlemen’s doubles (with Gene Mako) and mixed doubles (with Alice Marble) on both occasions. Bobby Riggs (in 1939) and Frank Sedgman (in 1952) are the only other men who have won the three titles in the same year.
In 1938 Budge also became the first man in history to win a pure calendar-year Grand Slam of the sport’s four major titles. Rod Laver is the only man to have matched that feat, having done so in both 1962 and 1969.
Statistically speaking, Trabert’s 1955 triumph was second only to Budge’s. The American dropped just 60 games in winning the title, which he secured with a 6-3, 7-5, 6-1 victory over Denmark’s Kurt Nielsen in the final.
Trabert, who turned professional in 1956 at the age of just 25, won two other Grand Slam titles without dropping a set, at the US Championships in 1953 and 1955. The only Grand Slam title he failed to win in 1955 was in Australia, where he lost to Ken Rosewall in the semi-finals.
Of the five men who have won the gentlemen’s singles at The Championships without dropping a set, McKinley was arguably the most surprising. It was the only Grand Slam singles title the American ever won.
McKinley achieved his triumph without having to beat a seed. The seedings were decided by a committee in those days and their choices in 1963 were controversial. Nevertheless, McKinley, the No 4 seed, had a number of tough battles and dropped 82 games en route to his title during one of the wettest Wimbledons on record. His victims included Cliff Drysdale, Arthur Ashe, Wilhelm Bungert and Fred Stolle, whom he beat 9-7, 6-1, 6-4 in the final.
Despite Borg’s wonderful record of five successive triumphs at The Championships, his maiden victory in 1976 was the only occasion when he won the title without dropping a set. The Swede dropped just 70 games that year, though he was pushed hard in both the semi-finals and final, by Roscoe Tanner and Ilie Nastase respectively.
Borg was taken to five sets on at least one occasion in each of his subsequent title-winning campaigns. In 1977 he had to come back from two sets down to beat Mark Edmondson in the second round and was then taken to five sets in both the semi-finals and final, by Vitas Gerulaitis and Connors respectively.
Federer and Borg are the only players in the Open era who have won the gentlemen’s singles at The Championships without dropping a set, but the feat has been performed six times at the French Open: by Nastase in 1973 (when the first two rounds were played over the best of three sets), by Borg in 1978 and 1980 and by Nadal in 2008, 2010 and 2017.
Over the same period no man has won the US Open without dropping a set, while Rosewall (in 1971, when he had to win only five matches) and Federer (in 2007) are the only men who have won the Australian Open in similar fashion.