What I witnessed in the early hours of Sunday morning can’t have been real. Allegedly, I had just seen Roger Federer win his fifth Australian Open at the age of 35, his first grand slam in four and a half years. And it came when we least expected: his first tournament back after a six-month injury layoff against his arch-rival, Rafael Nadal, against whom he had not won a best of five-set match in nearly a decade.
And yet it must have happened, because when I fell back asleep, woke up several hours later, then quickly checked the internet, every news site was flooded with pictures, videos, articles, and tweets about Federer’s unbelievable feat. Now that it’s been a few days and I’ve slowly come down from cloud 9, I decided I needed to take the time to reflect upon what I had witnessed. I’m going to try to frame it all within a context that will allow me to fully appreciate the gift that is watching Roger Federer play tennis.
I started following professional tennis avidly in 2007. Like millions of others around the globe, I was instantly drawn to Federer. Everything about him exudes excellence: the whip-like forehand, the flashy one-handed backhand, the balletic movement, the grace under pressure, the many victories, and above all else, the cool, confident, gracious yet somewhat false-modest personality that embodies the sport so well. He is known as the Maestro, the Federer Express, or simply Fed. The Aussie commentators refer to him as “the Great Man.” To the French, he’s “le maître” or “le magicien.” Brad Gilbert, for reasons best known to Brad Gilbert, refers to him affectionately as “Fedfan.” For me, Federer is and always will be the essence of professional tennis.
But because I only started following in 2007, I actually missed Federer at his most-dominant best. From 2004 to 2007, Federer continuously maintained the #1 ranking and won 11 of 16 men’s grand slam singles titles. This was the Federer who blazed through 2006 with an unfathomable record of 92-5, with four of the losses coming against an emerging Nadal. This was also the Federer who obliterated the field at the 2007 Australian Open, winning the tournament without the loss of a single set through seven matches. That victory, Federer’s tenth grand slam, was the last one I failed to witness live. I have been there ever since his 2007 victory in the Wimbledon final, which incidentally was also a five-setter against Rafa – the first of what is now four epic duels in the final round of a slam.
Tennis fans will know what soon followed; 2008 dawned with Federer failing to reach the finals of a slam for the first time in his last 11 appearances, falling in the semis to a 20-year old Serbian by the name of Novak Djokovic. Not long thereafter, Federer lost what many consider to be the greatest tennis match of all time, another five-set thriller in the Wimbledon final to Nadal. This was soon followed by Nadal’s taking the number 1 ranking away from Roger, ending a streak of 237 consecutive weeks at the very top. The era of absolute dominance was over, never again to return in full.
And thus began what you could call the second phase of Federer’s career. He closed out 2008 with his fifth consecutive win at the US Open over a young Andy Murray and finished the year at #2 behind Nadal. Imagine for a second that Federer had called it quits then and there. It seems unfathomable now, but in fact, it would not have been without precedence. Had Federer retired at the end of 2008, his career would look remarkably similar to that of Bjorn Borg, the Swedish legend of the 70s and early 80s who famously called it quits once his iron clasp on the sport was usurped by the fiery John McEnroe. At the time of his retirement, Borg had amassed 11 grand slam titles, including five in a row at Wimbledon and six out of eight at the French. He, not unlike many other players of the day, hardly ever competed at the Australian Open, so his lack of major titles Down Under can be somewhat forgiven. Less easily forgiven is his failure at the US Open; try as he did, Borg never could cross the finish line in Flushing Meadows. By the age of 26, he had announced his retirement from the sport.
By that measure, a Federer retirement at the end of 2008 does not seem so strange. At 27 years of age, he would have left the game with 13 major titles to his name, though admittedly without the French. The absence of the Roland Garros crown definitely damages Federer’s legacy in this hypothetical universe, but consider for a moment the other side of the story.
Before the rise of Nadal and more recently Djokovic, the case could be made for Borg as one of the three greatest tennis players of all time. Even now, it’s hard to place him anywhere less than 6th. The strength of Borg’s case lies in the fact that while he may have exited the game too soon, he left while still the second-best player in the world, only a year removed from his highest height. Thus, his career record against other top opponents and overall win percentage at the big events are insanely good. Unlike many of the other great players like Connors, Lendl, Agassi, and now Federer, Borg’s numbers aren’t tainted by late-career results that don’t shine as consistently bright as the glory of their respective primes. In some respects, Borg is actually rewarded for leaving the game as abruptly as he did. 11 slams by 26? Imagine how many more he’d have won had he kept going.
I have never subscribed to the “could have been” theory. Call it a personal bias considering my love of Federer, but I am much more inclined to reward enduring consistency over a hot flash of brilliance. Thankfully, Federer did not stop there. His 2009 season may have been his finest moment in terms of the overall legacy he built as a player and ambassador to the sport. It began with a crushing defeat to Nadal in the Australian Open final. This was another epic five-setter, one that saw Federer break down into tears on the runner-up podium as a sinking reality sunk in: no matter how hard he fought, he just could not beat this guy. Rafa was number 1. He had always owned the clay of Roland Garros, but he had proven himself over Federer’s domain of the All England Lawns, and now here in Australia he had denied Roger again in what was becoming a familiar nightmare. Stuck on 13 slams, one behind the all-time mark set by the great Pete Sampras, Federer faced what must have been the most powerless, hopeless feeling a professional athlete can experience.
And then of course, the miracle happened. Nadal, who had never once lost a match at the French Open, was stunned in the fourth round by the unassuming Robin Soderling, he of the awkward goatee and 23rd seed. Federer, who had lost four years in a row to Rafa at the French, thrice in the final, had a clear path. He famously dug back from a two-set hole against Tommy Haas (how in the hell is THAT guy still playing?!) and after a thrilling five-set clash with Juan Martin del Potro in the semis, defeated Soderling to claim his lone French Open crown. In so doing, he not only matched Sampras’ haul of 14 major singles titles, he completed the Career Grand Slam, a capstone achievement in any player’s career to seriously be considered as the best ever. After his epic Wimbledon win over Andy Roddick, Federer stood alone. In the eyes of many, he was the GOAT.
Federer won the 2010 Australian Open for his 16th major. Back at number 1, and seemingly back to his imperious best, it looked as though Federer would plow on full steam ahead. There was a hitch. At 28 years old, Federer was now definitively at an age where most tennis players are considered past their prime. That age line has shifted in recent years, with aging legends still reigning strong at the top of the game and other veterans finding their best form as they approach and bypass 30. But the prevailing wisdom of the day was that once a player reached 28, his days of winning grand slams were effectively over. In his next grand slam tournament, Federer lost to Soderling in the quarterfinals of the French, breaking a streak of 23 consecutive semifinal appearances. This was followed by another quarterfinal exit, this time at Wimbledon to Tomas Berdych, a player against whom Federer had typically dominated. For Federer fans, this was unfamiliar territory. Slowly, over the course of the next twelve months, it became clear once and for all that the great Roger Federer would reign supreme no more.
Fast forward to the 2016 Australian Open. In the span of nearly six years, Federer had soldiered on, still dazzling with his trademark elegance, but with signs of mere mortality creeping in. From the 2010 French Open through the 2016 Aussie Open, a span of six years and 24 majors, Federer claimed the trophy just once. Though nearly always a fixture in the game’s top 4, he never approached the dominance of days gone by. An injury-marred 2013 saw a drop in both ranking and form, as Federer lost his streak of 36 consecutive major quarterfinals in a stunning 2nd round loss at Wimbledon to journeyman Sergiy Stakhovsky. When Federer made some adjustments to his racket and style at the beginning of 2014, he reassumed his position in the game’s top 3, but now the problem took the form of the 6’ 2” Serb with superhuman powers of flexibility, focus, and recovery: King Djokovic. Three times, Federer battled his way to the finals of a major, only to come up short against the impenetrable wall of Nole. This pattern took on the feel of the new normal for Roger, the tour’s elder statesman and favorite son who always hung around long enough to come up short once again to his youthful, modern rivals.
Just ahead of Wimbledon 2015, Grantland’s Brian Philips authored a remarkable take on Federer’s legacy. He called it, The Sun Never Sets: On Roger Federer, Endings, and Wimbledon. In it, he remarks on the unique trajectory of Federer’s career; how Federer, whose remarkable run of dominance lasted roughly 4 to 5 years, had now spent an even greater amount of time as simply “a very good player.” And it’s true. Somehow, Federer’s remarkable, rich career — in my opinion, the best ever — has taken place predominantly as one of three major powers constantly battling one another for ultimate supremacy. This is the Federer I know best, because this is the Federer for whom I’ve woken up at 4 am on a school day to watch a semifinal showdown with Rafa in Australia, for whom I’ve advocated against friends who prefer Novak or Nadal, for whom I cried tears of joy when he managed to lift the trophy at Wimbledon 2012, which even then had the feel of a once-in-a-lifetime throwback. This Federer overstayed his welcome. Champions are supposed to crash out in a blaze of glory, not simmer gently on the backburner. It’s a testament to Federer’s passion and fitness that he was able to maintain this level of pseudo-brilliance as long as he did, because not many would be content to hang around the way Federer has. Borg certainly wasn’t. Pete Sampras never played another match after his unexpected run to the 2002 US Open title at the advanced tennis age of 31. Critics of Federer have suggested more than once the time had come to hang it up. They said he was only hurting himself to keep at it, allowing the likes of Djokovic and Rafa to close the head-to-head gap and overall legacy respectively.
But you won’t find a single, true Federer fan among that group. We accepted Federer’s dominance had become a thing of legend, at odds with the comparatively pedestrian figure before our eyes. We didn’t care. Watching this man play tennis is, as David Foster Wallace once famously put it, “a religious experience.” My knowledge of tennis comes from the years I spent taking lessons at the local sports club and my time on my high school and college club teams. That’s enough frame of reference for me to appreciate just how mind-bogglingly awesome Federer’s tennis is. He makes shots other players wouldn’t dare attempt in their wildest dreams on a regular basis.
There are more tools in his toolbox than the average carpenter’s, and he does it all with a regality that borders on the divine. He’s like Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali; an icon of his sport who dwarfs all others by comparison. Even in defeat, Roger is a joy to watch. His attitude is always the same; “I love winning more than I hate losing” is his common refrain. This glass-half-full mantra, coupled with an unrivaled love of the game keeps Federer young at heart, if not in reality. And we’re grateful for it. You will never find a Federer fan complain that he stuck around too long.
Then came 2016. It started off as routinely as any recent Federer campaign: a good run to the finals of the Australian Open warmup event in Brisbane, followed by a semifinal showing against Djokovic in the main event. Federer lost that contest in four relatively uneventful sets. He, like his legion of fans, most likely went to bed that night feeling a mild sense of disappointment, but understanding that more often than not, that’s the way it goes these days.
That’s when things changed permanently. I remember clearly the horror I felt as I read that fated post on Federer’s Facebook page the following week:
“I want to inform you that yesterday I underwent arthroscopic surgery on my knee.”
This was a jolt of reality. A reminder that even the great Roger Federer is only human. One of Roger’s calling cards is his remarkable run of consistency. The 2016 Australian Open was Federer’s 65th consecutive grand slam tournament contested, an all-time record. Federer has famously never retired from a live match, and contrary to many of his chief rivals, had never succumbed to injury that required surgery. But all that changed as he turned awkwardly while running a bath for his twin daughters the day after losing in the semifinals of the 2016 Australian Open.
It only got worse from there. Federer came back, perhaps too soon, to a slew of underwhelming performances against inferior competition. He withdrew from the French Open — breaking his record run of consecutive slams — in a desperate attempt to heal up in time for Wimbledon, always the top priority. The plan failed – Federer came into the grass court season with the knowledge his knee wasn’t 100% right, and only now do we realize how frustrating this was. Federer played a decent Wimbledon, saving match point in the quarterfinals against Marin Cilic, before coming up short in the semis to big-serving Canadian, Milos Raonic. It would prove to be his last match of the year.
During the latter stages of the Raonic match, Federer stumbled uncharacteristically as he changed direction to cover the ad-court. His surgically-repaired knee buckled, and Federer, the most graceful athlete of all time, fell flat on his face. Even in that moment, the sight of Federer sprawled across the Centre Court lawn with his head in his hands was loaded with symbolic meaning. It recalled the image of Ozymandias, King of Kings, lying broken in the sands he once ruled. Though he recovered to finish the match, Federer knew the time had come to make a big decision.
Federer took the long approach. In retrospect, it’s no surprise he did. The homepage of Federer’s own website puts it succinctly:
“When you do something best in life, you don’t really want to give that up & for me, it’s tennis.”
Thank God for Roger Federer. It isn’t enough he’s the most talented player to ever wield a racquet, nor that he’s the greatest ambassador the sport has ever known. Federer loves tennis more than any player I can think of, and in recognizing his unique position within the sport, has made it his mission to play as long as is physically possible. When I learned after Wimbledon Federer was taking the rest of the year off to heal properly, I convinced myself it was for the best. It stung, but I knew he had done it to give himself the greatest possible shot to come back strong and hopefully stick around a couple more years.
The 2016 tennis season continued. Federer stayed out of the spotlight, spending time with his family, making inroads on his rehabilitation. In the meantime, fans of the sport got a sneak preview at life in a post-Federer tennis world. It wasn’t horrible; Juan Martin del Potro provided a wonderful story at the Olympic games, women’s tennis enjoyed some genuine competition at the top for once as Angelique Kerber rose to challenge the legendary Serena Williams, and Stan Wawrinka delivered a US Open showstopper that only Stan the Man can. The year rounded off on a unique note, as for the first time ever, the last match of the season determined who would finish the year at number 1. Murray won that match over Djokovic to the delight of his home crowd at the O2 arena in London.
But something was missing, or rather, someone. Tennis will survive the post Federer world. No one person is bigger than the sport, and such as it always has been, so it always will be. Once the current crop of legends is gone, a fresh face will rise to capture the awe of millions and inspire a new generation of children to pick up the racquet. Maybe it’s German teen Sascha Zverev, a talent most pundits agree will one day reach number one. It probably isn’t Nick Kyrgios, but there’s no denying the refreshingly new angle he brings to a tennis court. Or maybe we haven’t met him yet, and we’ll just have to wait and find out who he is when he’s ready. One thing is certain though. There will never be another Roger Federer.
Enter the 2017 tennis season. 2016 was a tough year on many fronts, so the return of the Maestro couldn’t have come at a better time. Federer retook the court at the Hopman Cup, an exhibition tournament that saw him flash some of the classic form his fans know and love. The results weren’t important; it was all about the long wait to see him back where he belongs. As the Australian Open approached, my mentality was simple: it doesn’t matter if he loses in the first round or the quarterfinals; the important part is he’s playing tennis again. There was no point in projecting beyond the quarterfinals, because as the 17th seed in the event, he would have to beat two top 16 opponents just to get there, where he’d lose to a Djokovic or a Murray. No, the Australian Open was supposed to be the first step, the springboard back into action as Federer primed for one last shot at Wimbledon. In Federer’s own words, the important part was simply being back on the court, injury free, playing his preferred brand of attacking tennis.
When the draw came out, everyone was up in arms about Federer’s “nightmare path” to the title. My question was: what did you expect? As the 17th seed, Federer was never going to have it easy. It could have been lightyears worse – he had a 1 in 8 chance of facing the prospect of a showdown with Rafa in the – wait for it – 3rd round. No, the overreaction to the draw was just that, an overreaction. As Federer put it, “it’s a good draw because I am in it.”
Federer’s first two rounds were… underwhelming. His very first game against Jurgen Melzer was particularly bad – four complete shanks in a row. In his on-court interview after defeating world #200 Noah Rubin in three, tighter-than-they-should-have-been sets, Federer even made fun of himself, acknowledging the movement wasn’t there and conceding he had a long way to go. I was pretty deflated. I tried to tell myself it was all part of a bigger picture, that it was too much to expect him to play like his old self in the first tournament back, that just because the level of tennis I was seeing wasn’t what I was used to from Roger didn’t mean it was going to be this way forever. My concern was less for this tournament, but for the possibility that the promised comeback might fall far short of expectations. That much as had been the case back in 2010, us fans were just going to have to accept this version of Federer as the new normal, and find a way to enjoy it for as long as it lasted. I told my dad it just wasn’t gonna happen and to expect a rout against Berdych in the next round.
And I was right. Well, not really. The Federer-Berdych match was a one-sided blitzkrieg, just not the one I anticipated. Federer brought the goods against Berdych and when I say the goods, I mean the good-old goods. Berdych called it “a lesson of how to play tennis” and flat-out acknowledged he never had a prayer. When Federer plays like that, he’s unstoppable.
The party continued. Federer outdueled Kei Nishikori in a physical five-setter to reach the quarters, where he caught a bit of luck with Andy Murray’s stunning loss to Mischa Zverev. Federer took care of Zverev to advance to the semifinals, and suddenly, the magic was back in the air. After the first two sets of the semifinal against Wawrinka, I was convinced Federer would breeze into the final without drama. Unfortunately, it would not be so simple. Wawrinka fought back, playing like a man with nothing to lose, and before I knew it, it was two sets all, with Federer looking old, weary, and woebegone. Mirka, Federer’s wife and biggest supporter, had her head in her hands, which told me that she too sensed danger. It seemed that Federer’s unexpected run was at an end – another opportunity to add the elusive 18th missed. Somehow, Federer found a way. When Wawrinka’s return landed long on match point, Federer had only enough energy to raise his arms dazedly and walk up to net to hug his opponent. Incredibly, Federer was back in the finals.
On the other side of the draw, Rafael Nadal was enjoying an unexpected success of his own. His run, coupled with those of Venus and Serena, not to mention the Bryan brothers, make the term “Throwback Slam” only too easy. Rafa survived an epic semifinal showdown with Grigor Dimitrov to set up the impossible scenario we never in a million years dreamed would come to pass: the Federer-Nadal Final.
The most anticipated match of all time. That’s what people were calling it, and as outlandish of a claim that is, it’s likely not wrong. Federer had the benefit of an extra day’s rest plus a “nothing to lose” mentality. Rafa had five years of youth, plus the weight of his historical advantage against Federer. Both players had survived two five setters this tournament. Both were returning from an extended injury layoff. Despite the history between the two, they hadn’t faced off in a slam final in nearly six years. It was as close to a coin-toss as ever to say who came in the favorite.
Darren Cahill, one of my favorite commentators from the ESPN crew, claimed that Rafa looked the better of the two in the early going. I disagreed wholeheartedly. To my eye, Rafa still looked a bit hungover from his ringer against Dimitrov, whereas Federer looked smooth. Therefore, I was gratified when Fed claimed the first break of the match midway through the opening set. He sealed the opener with an ace out wide and a fist pump.
Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy. Against Rafa, it never is. Nadal stormed back to take the second set and make it a best-of-three affair. In the opening game of the third, Federer saved several break points to hold for 1-0. That sparked a dazzling run of brilliance to hammer out the set 6-1 and bring Roger within a single set of the most remarkable win of his career.
Tennis is a game of ebbs and flows. I’ve watched Federer for a decade; I know the patterns of his contests on a subconscious level. Going into the fourth set, I knew things were about to get uncomfortable. Sure enough, Nadal took advantage of a poor Federer service game to snag an early break he would not relinquish. A Federer backhand to the middle of the net sent the epic final to an epic final set.
At this point, it was roughly 6 am. Up until then, I had been watching on my laptop under the covers in bed. But as the fifth set got underway and Nadal seized an immediate break, I had too much nervous energy to remain in one place. Without waking my roommate, I crept to the living room to finish the match. I told myself, “ok, Rafa needs to hold five service games to win. Federer just has to break once in the next five Rafa services – he can do that.” In the first two, he got to break point, but Rafa snatched them away with some big-time shots. Then, in the third game, Federer’s persistence finally won out, as a Rafa forehand just missed the sideline to level it up at 3-3. Federer held to love in trademark Federer fashion, and in that moment, I felt certain he was going to win.
The next game saw Roger create a 0-40 hole for 5-3 and the chance to serve for the match. I held my breath, knowing it wasn’t over till he actually had it in hand, but with the sense it was only moments away. But Rafa dug in yet again, pushing it all the way to deuce. Then, a 26 shot rally, full of agonizing twists and turns as both players seized and relinquished control of the point, culminated with a moment of pure brilliance from Federer: a scorching forehand winner on a dime up the line to set up break point. It was the shot of the tournament, perhaps one of the best shots of Roger’s career. An ecstatic Chris Fowler exclaimed, “you gotta love this!” Back and forth it went, until finally, finally, a short, angled Federer return forced Nadal to go for broke on a difficult ball he couldn’t handle. 5-3 Fed. Serving for the championship.
That last service game held a sense of unreality. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Roger Federer serving for the championship? How ironic that the sight of a man who has served for the championship in a grand slam more than any man in history can seem so foreign. He wasn’t out of the woods yet. Nadal worked him to 15-40, double break point. Federer responded with an emphatic ace up the tee, then a forehand inside out winner to make it deuce. A missed Nadal return made it match point. Federer missed his chance and it went back to deuce. Then an ace out wide, setting up a second championship point. As Federer’s serve found its mark and Nadal’s return landed short in the middle of the court, I experienced a rush of adrenaline I can’t honestly say I’ve ever felt before. Fed whipped the ball beyond Nadal’s reach, so close to the line, Nadal had no choice but to challenge. The crowd held its breath as the world waited for the Hawkeye review.
And it was in! Federer leapt into the air, a look of pure jubilation on his face. Suddenly, he looked more like a 17-year-old boy than a 35-year-old father of four, as his eyes flooded with tears of joy as wave upon wave of relief broke down upon his shoulders. For my part, I just sat there smiling and wiping my eyes.
Never in a million years could I have anticipated this moment. It may have been the only time I ever felt like a fatalist. Roger Federer, the great Roger Federer, champion of the 2017 Australian Open against Rafa Nadal. Federer, who had stuck around to witness first-hand the dismantling of his once unassailable aura of dominance, back atop the podium to receive the winner’s trophy from the legendary Rod Laver. It was a once-in-a-lifetime treat; I just have to believe it. The tennis gods smiled upon us all to deliver this beautiful spectacle that at times felt more like a stage production than an actual competition. That’s just how beautiful Federer makes it look.
In his final remarks to the crowd upon accepting the trophy, Federer broke from his typical motto: “see you next year.” Instead, he went with, “I hope to see you next year. If not, you know, this was a wonderful run here and I can’t be more happy to have won tonight.” It was a quirky little reminder from the man himself that despite all the evidence to the contrary, Roger Federer is in fact a human being. He’s 35; he has a family; he knows it cannot last forever. Since 2008, critics have been writing him off in one way or another, saying he’s past his prime, that he’ll never win another slam, that he should retire. Federer has always rebuked those voices with a swish of his Wilson wand, proving time and again he still has the ability and willpower to remain one of the best players in the world. Here now was the most recent piece of evidence to suggest we can expect even more. And yet this time, it’s different. Federer has always been vague about retirement, stating openly that he hadn’t planned for it, that it had never really entered his mind. Now, he keeps referring to “the next two years.” Though he hasn’t said it openly, the consensus is that Federer intends to play the rest of 2017, and if possible 2018, before calling it a career. It’s not my favorite thought.
But as I’ve tried to convince myself time and again, tennis will go on without Roger Federer. There will be new stories to follow, legends to be written, history to be made. Who knows, maybe someday, someone will eclipse Federer’s mark of 17 – I mean 18 slams. In the meantime, I write the final sentences of this article with the comforting knowledge that for the time being, Roger Federer is still playing professional tennis. And amazingly, somehow, he’s once again a Grand Slam Champion. In my eyes, he is – and will always be – the greatest champion of them all.