Roger Federer is, to many, playing the best tennis of his life. That is a brave statement to make, simply because there was a time when he was playing the sort of tennis that won him 16 Grand Slams in six and a half years; a time that saw him pick up three majors in a calendar year on three separate occasions, the only man to have ever achieved the feat.
It was a time when he reached at least the semi-finals of 23 consecutive Grand Slams, from Wimbledon 2004 to the Australian Open in 2010, and a time when he made the final of 18 Slams out of 19. A time, for heaven’s sake, when he won 16 of 27 Grand Slams that were played between his maiden Slam title at the All-England Club in 2003 to Melbourne in 2010.
And yet, it is in vogue to say Federer is playing better than he has ever played before. The period in question over which such plaudits are delivered is generally recognised to be the time from which his childhood hero Stefan Edberg joined him at the start of 2014, after, by his standards, a horror season the previous year.
The 2013 season had seen Sergiy Stakhovsky, of all people, end Federer’s nine-year streak of quarter-final appearances at every major, outclassing him in the second round of Wimbledon. It was no less surprising than Eric Hollies bowling Bradman out for a duck that day at The Oval in 1948. Federer had then lurched to a galling defeat at the US Open in the fourth round, the veteran Tommy Robredo dispatching him with disconcerting ease.
While many were writing eulogies of the remarkable career the Swiss had had (the use of the past tense is nothing if not telling) Federer was busy scripting the next chapter of it. He was struggling to outlast top players in an era where all courts appeared to play to the same, slowed down speed, where baseline rallies, and their length, determined how good of a tennis player one was. Federer had been trying that for a while.
It wasn’t his game. He wasn’t going to beat Rafa, Novak, or even Andy Murray like that. So he got Edberg on board, switched to a slightly bigger racquet, and started charging the net almost with the frequency, and effectiveness, of a fast-court player from the previous century. It worked like a charm. He found consistency in his game, and found himself back in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments. Now, he’s reached three Slam finals in six; before that, it was two in 17.
It is almost inarguably harsh that Federer’s reward, in terms of Grand Slam trophies, has been virtually non-existent for so long. He’s world number 2, and playing like it. He’s been on the fringe of major silverware all along. And yet, this magical 34-year old, this freak of nature, motivated by the sort of fire in his belly not normally associated with his docile, easy-going country, has won a solitary Grand Slam in nearly six years, coming at his beloved Wimbledon in 2012 against home favourite Murray. That 16th major title at 2010’s Australian Open came when Federer was 28, Djokovic’s age right now. Who would believe that Djokovic will win just one more Slam in half a decade? Who’d have dared to think it about Federer?
We’ve used statistics throughout Federer’s career to illustrate his brilliance, almost wowing mathematicians with his success, and here, numbers strike a vicious, cheap blow at the heart of this champion. How does one make their peace with this?
Federer is unlikely to be remembered in these later years for his Slam-winning prowess, obviously. No one, for starters, in the Open era has ever won one at his age, and there is no guarantee Federer will be able to add to his 17 either, no matter how well he plays. He seems to find Djokovic at the other end in every final he reaches, and outlasting one of the fittest athletes of all time is a big ask for anyone in their mid-30s, even if they’re Roger Federer.
However, it would be unfair not to remember him as someone who has never let anything get in the way of his consistency, not even Father Time. He has appeared in every single Grand Slam since the turn of the millennium (64), comfortably ahead of the next best. He has never in his career retired from a match due to injury, or any other reason, for that matter. He finds himself at the business end of Grand Slams multiple times every year, and there is no sign of that stopping in 2016. With the exception of 2013, he has been ranked in the top 3 every year since 2003.
So while he isn’t at the top of the tree anymore, he certainly isn’t far behind. His contemporaries, and even those that came after him, have begun to wane already. Andy Roddick, James Blake, Marat Safin, David Nalbandian, Tommy Haas, Lleyton Hewitt have long-since departed, or are disappearing into the sunset. Mario Ancic, who was three years younger than the Swiss, is an investment banker by now. This was his generation. They seem long gone, don’t they? Wouldn’t it be gobsmacking if one of these boys was in the world’s top two? Even Rafael Nadal, senior to Djokovic and Murray only by a year, seems to be on the wrong side of his best days.
Is he playing his best tennis? Absolutely not, I’d say. He’s probably playing better than any 30-something has played in history, and his ability to come up with new tactics to counter his opponents, his intelligence and understanding of the game, and his inspirational love and insatiable hunger to succeed are perhaps all unparalleled. Mere mortals like ourselves marvel at someone his age playing so well, and assume this must be his best, but a Federer at his best would have put paid to Djokovic yesterday at the US Open final, let’s be clear about that.
The Serb certainly didn’t play his best match, his serve looking like a struggle nearly every other game. Federer’s failure to kill off the third set, or inability to get that second break back in the fourth, are things that wouldn’t have happened to a younger version of the 34-year-old. That the final was won on Federer’s break point conversion is not an over-simplistic analysis. A younger Federer may well have won that final, but no other player his age would ever have gotten close to the 28-year-old Serb.
That is not a legacy worth scoffing at. It might never get him an 18th Slam title, but it affords him the sort of respect that ensures he brings a home crowd with him wherever in the world he plays. St-Jakob Park, Stade De Suisse and St Jakobshalle travel with him in his suitcase. And he delights them every time. Switzerland’s favourite son is always at home, wherever in the world he is.