It’s July 2016. Andy Murray has just won Wimbledon – he goes onto finish the year at the top of the rankings. Novak Djokovic has just completed the career Grand Slam at the French Open, and the once-gladiatorial Federer-Nadal rivalry that, in many ways, represented what men’s tennis was for the past 10 years, was in tatters.
Fast forward 18 months, and it may as well be 2008, not 2018. Federer and Nadal are back at it, tussling for the number one spot in what surely has to be one of the most astonishing, long-standing rivalries in modern sport. Yet despite their unrelenting will to win, both men have a mutual respect for each other, with each classing the other as a genuine friend. Nadal is undeniably a great of the sport, his 10 French Open wins a completely unprecedented accomplishment. Federer though, at the age of 36, is back at the top of the tree, and quite frankly, looks better than ever.
“Roger was 34 years old, and everyone was asking the same question: is this the end? Many thought so, including myself – we couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Ahead of the 2017 Australian Open, Federer ranked 17 in the world, having not played a competitive match since losing in the semi-finals of Wimbledon against Wimbledon against Milos Raonic the year before. He had a knee issue, and it was a significant problem. The Swiss maestro had never had a serious injury in his career before, usually effortlessly playing his way through the year without a retirement or withdrawal anywhere in sight. This was different though. Roger was 34 years old, and everyone was asking the same question: is this the end? Many thought so, including myself – we couldn’t have been more wrong.
Federer went onto win the Australian Open, beating Nadal in the final in a clash of the ages over five gruelling sets. Then, following an inspired double title win in Indian Wells and Miami. Federer took himself away from the sport for two months, not playing any of the two-month clay court swing. Looking back, it was an inspired move. Federer knew the red stuff was his least favourite surface, and although competent on the surface, allowing his body and mind to rest ahead of Wimbledon would reap its rewards at SW19. Federer strolled to the title, his eighth at the All England Club, without dropping a single set. An extraordinary, unequivocally remarkable achievement.
Granted, by his own lofty standards, Federer tailed away as the season concluded – a title win in Shanghai was overshadowed by surprise losses to Juan Martin Del Potro and David Goffin, at the US Open and ATP World Tour Finals respectively. Yet he went away, rested, regrouped and rejuvenated himself for another season on tour.
And so here we are now in February 2018. Last month, Federer successfully defended his title in Melbourne – his 20th Grand Slam win, an open-era record. Two weeks later, in a shrewd move, the ‘FedExpress’ (as he is known to his truly global fan base) accepted a late wildcard into the ATP 500 event in Rotterdam. Despite repeated insistence that titles were his priority, not ranking points, he knew that a semi-final showing would get him back to number one – somewhere he hadn’t been since 2012. He reached the semi-finals; unsurprisingly, he won the tournament. Roger Federer’s incomprehensible return to the top of men’s tennis was complete.
“Federer’s brand of aggressive baseline tennis, alongside his flair at the net, continues to defy logic at the stellar age of 36”
This is far from the end though. Federer, with the grace, aura and class of a figure skater performing on the ice, shows no sign of relenting. His popularity across the sporting world is forever increasing, as is perhaps more importantly, the high regard he is held in within the locker room. He is an extremely likeable figure – tell me, do you know anyone who actively dislikes Roger Federer? I didn’t think so.
Though he is still very much the present, discussions regarding his legacy have already taken place. The greatest ever men’s singles tennis player is a statement that can no longer be disputed (he was adorably asked by a kid at a press conference last year why his fans call him the GOAT… look it up on YouTube). Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova may have something to say about the best player ever – but in an age where tennis is becoming a more physical game, with an emphasis on consistency and out-lasting your opponent, Federer’s brand of aggressive baseline tennis, alongside his flair at the net, continues to defy logic at the stellar age of 36. He gets my vote.
But can he be talked about alongside other sporting greats? The Pele’s, Ali’s, and Phelps’ of this world? Absolutely. Federer’s longevity stands out, having effectively been at the very top of men’s tennis for 15 years now, starting with his first Wimbledon victory in 2003. As Aussie great Rod Laver stated, “He’s stood the test of time – that’s probably the one thing that puts you in that category of best ever”. A master of his craft, Roger Federer is a sporting great, maybe even the most talented and successful ever. Best not to touch on that now though – let’s enjoy and treasure his genius on court whilst we still can.