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Roger Federer and the Athletes Who Completely Redefined Sports Records

Recognizing the jocks who didn’t break records so much as burn them down and salt the earth.

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In 2002, Pete Sampras won the US Open and promptly retired from tennis. It made sense. He had failed to reach the quarters in the other Grand Slam tournaments that year, had just turned 31, and had won 14 majors in singles—two more than any male tennis player ever. Surely he could sit back and know his record was secure for a generation or so.

Enter Roger Federer. Exit Sampras legacy.

Federer won his first major in 2003. By 2009, he’d reached 15. With his five-set victory at the Australian Open, King Fed now stands at 20… and at age 36, he shows no signs of stopping. In honor of the endless journey of the Federer Express, here are other athletes who took it to the limit and just kept rolling.

Babe Ruth

Record Before Ruth: 138 Career Home Runs (by Roger Connor)

Ruth’s Final Total: 714. (Broke the mark in 1921 and played until 1935.)

Main Reason for the Revolution: Crushed the conventional wisdom. “The long swingers with their terrible haymakers seldom get the money nowadays,” Hall of Famer Ty Cobb declared. “I stick to the sure system of just meeting the ball with a half-way grip.” He then watched as the Bambino became the highest paid player in the game and won seven World Series to Cobb’s zero.

Don Hutson

Record Before Hutson: 61 Career Receptions (by Dale Burnett)

Hutson’s Final Total: 488. (Broke the record in 1937 and played until 1945.)

Main Reason for the Revolution: Convinced his team to throw the damn ball. Hutson’s career comes with two big qualifiers: he played not only when the NFL was segregated, but mostly while WWII further diluted the talent pool. That doesn’t change the fact this Green Bay icon led the league in 1942 with 1,211 yards, 17 receiving touchdowns, and 74 catches. In each category, he generated more than the next two receivers combined as teams began to recognize maybe there was something to be said for passing. Winner of three NFL championships during his career, the “Alabama Antelope” was in many ways the Babe Ruth of football: he proved the sport’s future lay in going long.

Jack Nicklaus

Record Before Nicklaus: 11 career majors (by Walter Hagen)

Nicklaus’ Final Total: 18. (Broke the mark in 1973 and won the final major in 1986.)

Main Reason for the Revolution: Money. Quite simply, there was more of it. In 1930, Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open and collected $1,000 (a bit over $14,000 today). In what was not a coincidence, Jones retired that same year to become a lawyer at just 28. When Arnold Palmer won in 1960, he earned $14,400 (well over $100,000 today). The money’s only increased since then, with a prize in 2017 of $2.16 million. The result was Nicklaus could not only make a comfortable living golfing but build his career specifically around majors. (From 1970 on, he played in less than 20 PGA events a year.)

Wayne Gretzky

Record Before Gretzky: 1,850 career NHL points/2,358 if World Hockey Association stats included (by Gordie Howe)

Gretzky’s Final Total: 2,857/2,967 with WHA stats. (Broke the mark in 1989 and retired in 1999.)

Main Reason for the Revolution: He simply was the Great One. Gordie Howe is a genuinely mythic figure. He played pro hockey for an astounding 32 seasons, a career so epic that in his WHA days he was on a team with his two adult sons in a league where the MVP trophy was named after him. He was also absurdly tough—the Howe hat trick celebrates a player scoring a goal, getting an assist, and having a fight. Then comes along Wayne, a spindly 6′, 185-pounder, and he does things no one has before or since. Even allowing for playing with the Oilers when they had a frightening amount of talent (including Mark Messier), Gretzky’s numbers read more like typos than a career by a human. Gretzky remains the only person to reach 2,000 points in the NHL—if you cut his career total in half, he would still be in the all-time Top 20. (Do that with the NBA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and he plummets out of the Top 50.) No one knows quite how this happened, but Edmonton will be forever grateful it did.

Jerry Rice

Record Before Rice: 126 Career Touchdowns (by Jim Brown)

Rice’s Final Total: 207 Touchdowns. (Broke the record in 1994 and played until 2004.)

Main Reason for the Revolution: Did the work. Rice has 33 more touchdowns than the next player on the list (running back Emmitt Smith) and 51 more than the next receiver (Randy Moss). Moss was bigger than Rice (6’4″ and 210 to 6’2″ and 200) and faster (4.25 seconds in the 40 to 4.59 for Rice), plus he played in a more pass-happy era. So why is Rice on the mountaintop? For one, he literally ran up it each day—his training included a daily 2.5-mile uphill run. For another, he mastered tricks other receivers wouldn’t even think to attempt. When I interviewed former All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis, he said every receiver had a tell: they do something that tips you off the ball is about to arrive. Everyone, that is, except Jerry Rice, who somehow trained it out of himself. (Revis had no idea how Rice did this.) And that’s why Hutson was way ahead of his time as a receiver, but Rice seems destined to remain far in front of the NFL forever.

Roger Federer

Record Before Roger: 14 (by Pete Sampras)

Current Total: 20 and counting. (Broke it in 2009 and who knows when this party’s gonna stop?)

Main Reason for the Revolution: Health. Federer has a lot of Grand Slam-related records. Most Wins: 20. Most Finals: 30. Most Consecutive Finals: 10. Most Semifinals: 43. Most Consecutive Semifinals: 23. Most… it goes on like this for awhile. It’s easy to forget his marks include most consecutive Grand Slam appearances (65) and most total Grand Slam appearances (72). And he’s done this as his four biggest rivals fell to pieces: Nadal had to retire mid-match at the Aussie Open, Djokovic struggles with his elbow, Wawrinka battles with his knee, Murray isn’t playing at all. Despite being by far the oldest of the group, there’s only been one serious injury during his career and that didn’t come on the court, but while preparing a bath for his children. (To the rest of tennis: if Federer ever decides to let his kids go dirty, watch out.)

And so the Federer Express keeps rolling, knocking down all challenges to his greatness, even if they’re just theoretical. (Most recently, Fed’s 20th topped Rod Laver’s 19 “majors”: 11 Grand Slams plus another eight of the “Pro” events that existed before the Open Era began in 1968.) Below, witness a shot that would be absurd if attempted while goofing around in practice—naturally, Federer pulls it off at the US Open against Novak Djokovic.