19th Grand Slam Lifts Federer Further Into The Tennis Stratosphere

Roger Federer’s fairytale 2017 continues with a straight-sets-all-the-way sweep to a record 8th Wimbledon title and 19th Grand Slam. And he did it without needing to hit top gear.

Photo: Federer's Twitter Account.

Photo: Federer's Twitter Account.

2017 is proving that Roger Federer can add ‘decision making’ to his extensive list of talents, as evidenced by his perfect responses to two pivotal choices over the past twelve months.

The first came last July. When he tumbled out of Wimbledon, beaten in five sets by Milos Raonic in the semi-final, the enduring image was of Federer in a heap on the floor, his injured knee preventing him from moving with his trademark fluidity and ultimately leading to his downfall.

Afterwards, Federer arrived at one of the most critical junctures of his career, and he confronted a new type of challenge: how to deal with that irksome knee? With Federer’s advanced tennis age, an unforced error in judgement could have spelt the end. Athletes can often rush back too soon from injury, eager to avoid falling behind their rivals. But Federer opted to rest. He could probably have played a few events in October, but he went for the complete shutdown. It was certainly a bold decision, but one made without panic.

During his time away, while peacefully enjoying the sensual pleasures of the Swiss mountains and spending some precious time en famille, Federer got a taste of life outside the ATP World Tour and found he enjoyed it. Nevertheless he dreamt of a return to the tennis court, but this time with lowered expectations. Even Roger Federer, Mr Self-Assured, didn’t see his scintillating 2017 coming. In Melbourne we were treated to all the benefits of rest and recuperation, and then some. He didn’t just pick off where he left off, he had somehow got even better. He returned ranked №17, but with a turbo-charged backhand, a big-match sharpness, a renewed attacking instinct and a liberated mind. It was a combination that led to a thrilling 18th Grand Slam, and he then surged to the Indian Wells-Miami double in the spring.

It was at this point, in early April, that Federer took his next big decision: to skip the entire clay-court season. This was an unprecedented move for a top player in the modern game. Federer wasn’t injured, but he felt that missing the clay swing would give him the best possible preparation for the grass. It was a gamble — Federer risked resting away his untouchable form and losing his newfound edge. But it paid off — after losing to Tommy Haas in his first match back in Stuttgart, Federer shook off the rust with a title victory in Halle and entered Wimbledon as the clear favourite.

He lived up to that billing. For the first time in his career he won Wimbledon without dropping a single set, the first man to achieve that feat since Bjorn Borg in 1976. At 35 years and 342 days, Federer is also the oldest man in the Open Era to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon. And, just for good measure, he became the only man to win eight titles on the hallowed SW19 lawns, moving ahead of William Renshaw and his teenage idol Pete Sampras.

In week one, Federer made serene progress through his draw: Alexandr Dolgopolov retired injured mid-match, Dusan Lajovic persisted but lacked the weapons to hurt him, Mischa Zverev fell victim to his spell for the third time this year and Grigor Dimitrov largely flopped in round four.

Federer had been good, but not exceptional. He hadn’t needed to be. Still, spectators might have been a little disappointed by his reluctance to unveil his full box of tricks. It’s a harsh complaint, particularly with Federer suffering from a cold, but it stems from years of being spoilt by Federer’s genius. Part of the joy of watching Federer is that you expect to see something that takes your breath away, something you’ve never seen before, something that seemed impossible to pull off. It might be a sudden injection of pace, a subtle flick of the wrist, a burst forward, a divine touch, a 45-second service game or a leaping backhand smash. Whatever it is, it adds to the feeling that you’re watching the greatest racquet wielder of them all.

Often, the best time to witness such mastery is the opening weeks of majors, which Federer typically uses to show off and fine tune his full repertoire of shots. He is a notoriously fast starter in tournaments, quick to settle into his rhythm and display his best tennis. As a result his matches in week one of a Grand Slam can take on exhibition feel as he toys with lower-ranked opponents, gives them a dizzying ride, beats them handily, gladly accepts the public’s adoration and moves smoothly into the business end of the tournament without even a hint of trouble.

This premature showing of one’s cards is a Federer trait. For instance when Djokovic was dominating the sport 18 months ago, he would grow into a tournament gradually and hit his stride at the end to blitz his biggest rivals. The same with Serena. Their early round matches could range from the business-like to the bizarre. They were rarely thrilling but often clinical, and Federer adopted this approach last fortnight.

Federer’s two biggest tests en route to the final — as you would expect — came in the quarter-final against Raonic and the semi-final against Berdych. Sensing the need to up his game, Federer did just that. It still wasn’t peak Federer — if he has seven gears, he was probably coasting in fourth — but it was sufficient for two more straight-set wins. His demolition of Raonic, in particular, was a clear indication of how much better he was playing than last year. Berdych, meanwhile, pushed Federer to a couple of tie-breaks. He resisted the Swiss’ relentless pressure well, but ultimately he was outclassed and beaten comprehensively.

In the final was Marin Cilic. While Federer led their head-to-head 6–1, Cilic had thrashed Federer at the 2014 US Open en route to the title, and last year at Wimbledon he led the Swiss by two sets in the quarter-final but was unable to close. He certainly possessed the firepower to hurt Federer, and he began the final pretty well. Landing some heavy blows, he engineered an early break point and appeared dangerous.

But a tough task for Cilic quickly became an impossible one, and a highly-anticipated final quickly became a damp squib. Matches involving Federer are usually centred on Federer. He controls the tempo of the match, its rallies, its feel…its outcome. At his best he’s a puppeteer. He makes his opponent move where he wants them to move, he knows their next shot before they do, his opponents get caught in his web while he keeps spinning.

But Sunday’s final was not like that. Instead it was all about Cilic. The Croat was physically hampered by a huge blister on his foot and, sobbing into his towel while trailing 3–6 0–3, it was clear that he was emotionally scarred by being unable to produce his best. The contrast between Federer (full of spring in his legs) and Cilic (seven years younger but struggling to move uninhibited) was telling

The result soon became inevitable. There were flashes of brilliance from Federer. He drove his backhand return, as he has done all year, with punch and aggressive intent. His serve — perhaps the only aspect of Federer’s game which is under-appreciated — was as accurate as ever and kept Cilic at bay. He beat a hobbling Cilic 6–3, 6–1, 6–4 in under two hours with subtlety not power.

But on the whole Federer’s level this tournament probably hovered around 70–80% of his full capacity — a scary thought when you consider that he didn’t drop a set. There were moments of genius, there are always, but we didn’t see the expansive, artful Federer for sustained periods. He played within himself and it was plenty good enough.

The danger of playing sport for so long is that you tarnish your legacy, but Federer is just adding to his, and to his trophy collection. At various points from 2013–2016 the naysayers declared Federer ‘done’, ‘finished’, ‘past it’. At times Federer’s play did vindicate those claims. There were matches where he looked under-powered, a step slow, fraught with doubt. His ranking did slip, he did pick up injuries and he did lose a host of big matches. But generally he was ageing gracefully, still playing well and still reaching major finals — he just wasn’t winning them. With a Novak Djokovic-shaped obstacle in his path, many felt Federer had reached his limit. He was going to bow out as the all-time greatest with 17 Grand Slam titles.

Others maintained that he could squeeze out another major victory. They were right. His quest for an 18th was a five-year one, and it reached a glorious conclusion at the Australian Open in Melbourne. It was his Jack Nicklaus at Augusta in 1986 moment. Beating his nemesis Rafael Nadal in a thrilling five-set final, it felt like the crowning achievement to cap a stellar career. But Sunday’s Wimbledon triumph forces us to re-asses. His Australian Open victory can no longer be celebrated as a defiant final act, instead as an improbable prelude to more.

When a player has won this many major titles — Federer now owns 93 career titles, 19 of them grand slams — it might seem that each one should mean less. In fact, the opposite is true. Each Grand Slam that Federer wins lifts him further into the tennis stratosphere, ahead of all his current rivals and all those before him. Nobody is limitless. But Federer is pushing the boundaries. With the US Open just six weeks away, he will stroll into New York as the favourite for the title once again. While №18 seemed a long-shot just twelve short months ago, №20 now seems not quite a formality, but a distinct possibility.

There are people, admittedly not many, who are irritated by Roger Federer. Appearing for his media duties in a T-shirt bearing his own name, with the ‘g’ of ‘Roger’ shaped like an ‘8’ to symbol his number of Wimbledon titles is the sort of stunt which annoys some. And it’s true that Federer takes up more column inches and gets showered with more evocative praise that most other athletes. But most of the compliments are offered out of awe and respect. His tennis puts smiles on faces and the closest thing tennis has to a pilgrimage is the surge of fans dressed in red who flock to all his matches.

There was plenty of much-needed debate about the scheduling at Wimbledon this year, and how it favours the men over the women, the big names over the best matches. Federer played all of his seven matches on Centre Court. It may seem unfair, and logically it is, but it makes sense. Federer is the headline act. He carries an aura and transfixes spectators with his play. In music terms, he’s the biggest artist in the world. At Glastonbury he would play the Pyramid Stage. He relegates every other player to the role of support act. Centre Court ticket holders — who have paid the most — expect the best. They would feel short changed not to see Federer perform. And that’s exactly what a Federer match is — a performance. He’s long been tennis’ answer to Baryshnikov.

While the BBC’s decision to announce the 13th Doctor Who during the coverage of the men’s final may have seemed a little out of place, it turned out to be a fitting metaphor. Because Federer is tennis’ ultimate time traveller. As Tomas Berdych said: “I don’t see anything that would indicate really Roger is getting older.”

He won his first Wimbledon in 2003, serve-volleying his way past Mark Philippoussis. In the years since he’s lost the ponytail and adapted his game. In his 19 Grand Slam wins, he’s overcome 12 different opponents in the final. He’s outlasted his generation — the likes of Hewitt, Roddick, Ferrero and Safin — and now he’s dominating the sport at 35.

It begs the question, what keeps him going? Even Federer himself can’t quite be sure. “I don’t know, I love to play. Wonderful team. My wife’s totally fine with me still playing. She’s my number one supporter. She’s amazing. I love playing the big stages still. I don’t mind the practice. I don’t mind the travel. Because I’m playing a little less, I actually get more time in return. I feel like I’m working part-time these days almost, which is a great feeling.”

This was originally published on Matt's Medium account.