The concluding part of Akin Dawodu’s feature on the career of probably the greatest Men’s tennis player, Roger Federer. Part 1 is here
DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK, HE’S BEEN HERE FOR YEARS
Federer kept his head down and focused on his recovery. He also hired a new coach, the Croat Ivan Ljubicic, he of the famous one-handed backhand. By the Aussie Open, in January 2017, Mr Federer was ready for his close up, though he himself didn’t know it yet. Two diffident performances in the early rounds against Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin confirmed the rust that even an ultimate natural like Federer would have to endure after such a long time out.
However, there were signs of the old genius in both matches. It was not until the 3rd round, when he destroyed the no. 10 seed, and his occasional nemesis, Tomas Berdych 6-2,6-4,6-4, that people began to take notice. He followed this up with a hard fought 5 set win against another top 10 player, Kei Nishikori, before blitzing the elder Zverev, Mischa, in straight sets in the quarters.
By this time, both Djokovic and Murray had fallen by the way side and only Federer and a resurgent Nadal (who had also fallen off the map in the previous two years) remained of the traditional Big 4. He outlasted his fellow countryman and one-handed backhand exponent Stan Wawrinka in the semis, thus setting up the final with his old nemesis. The tennis world could scarcely believe its luck. “Fedal” was back and it was 2007 all over again!
Federer prevailed in five cathartic sets that saw the match swing one way and then the other. His tactic of utilizing the bigger “sweet spot” on his new racket to constantly hit over the ball on his backhand side while often aggressively positioning himself inside the baseline worked. In truth, he would have probably won that final in four (or even three) sets, had the opponent been anyone other than Nadal, such was the psychological damage done by the Spaniard’s legacy head-to-head dominance over him. He had finally solved the tactical conundrum that Nadal had posed him all those years and learnt how to deal with the Spaniard’s high bouncing topspin cross-court forehand. All of a sudden, the “bush meat had become the hunter” and Federer’s own attacking backhand, especially cross-court, won him the match rather than breaking down as was usual against Nadal up to this point.
The initial sense was that Federer’s unlikely Cinderella run in Melbourne might prove to be a “goal irole”, a la Sampras’ 2002 US Open win i.e. one final rage against the dying of the light before promptly shuffling off into the sunset in one of those smug monogrammed cream jackets he had been so fond of in his Wimbledon heyday a decade earlier. He quickly dispelled such notions by winning the “Sunshine Double” at the Indian Wells and Miami Masters tournaments (widely considered the unofficial 5th and 6th majors). He dismissed Nadal in both tournaments in straight sets, cutting a broad swathe through the Spaniard by using his “neo” backhand to maximum effect.
THE RETURN OF THE KING
He ended up adding an 8th Wimbledon crown to the Aussie Open (putting him one ahead of Sampras for the Open era record). In total, he won 7 titles in 2017, his highest tally in a decade. He also defeated Nadal four straight times during the season while holding off even younger challengers like Dimitrov and Sasha Zverev.
Djokovic and Murray, meanwhile, continued to struggle for physical health while the old man continued to gambol serenely on, bar a brief flaring up of the back problem late in the US hard court season. The only reason he didn’t reclaim the number one ranking as well was the equally impressive renaissance of Nadal (he won the other two slams, in Paris and in New York) and Federer’s own decision to skip the grind of the clay court season to protect his body.
Still, he was suddenly the man to beat again and it almost felt as if the previous five years had never happened. That he has now retained the Aussie Open this year (the first time he is retaining a major since the US Open in 2008) only serves to underline the astonishing depth of his re-emergence.
I have always felt that the heights reached by Nadal and Djokovic, in a way, represent the greatest tributes to Federer’s achievements. He forced the two of them to attain insane levels to catch up to and, for a time, surpass him. And, just when it looked like their work was done and they had done enough to make his legacy uncertain, he casually goes on to raise the bar higher still. Like Eneke, the famous bird of Ibo mythology, he concluded that since the hunters had learned to shoot without missing, he was now compelled to fly without perching.
NOBODY DOES IT BETTER
His restoration is no happy accident or quirk of natural genius alone. It has been underpinned by hard work and a deep love for the sport. Federer is a student of the game who knows tennis history better than anyone. He has shown willingness, and, more unusually, the ability, late on in his career to adapt his game to changing conditions and circumstances. He freely admits that certain aspects of his game, like his renowned second serve and his own return of serve, are better now than they were in his prime.
This is without acknowledging his greater aggression, when required, on his backhand side. His on-court “Tennis IQ” is as high as ever and has only been made more acute by experience. While not as lightning quick as he was in his youth, his sublime footwork and efficient movement make his court coverage as formidable as ever. Underpinning all this is his work ethic and his dedication to a punishing fitness regime. There should be no mistaking the fact that it takes a lot of hard work to make tennis look as easy as he does.
Roger Federer is bidding to become the oldest men’s number 1 of the Open era, five and a half years after he last reached the apex of the game. This is Federer continuing to dominate a sport that has always been a young man’s game as he approaches middle age! And all the while remaining as entrancing to watch as ever, floating across the court like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.
The Ali allusion is no accident…this is the company Roger has kept for a long time. Ali, Jordan, Nicklaus, masterful technicians and fierce competitors all, each and every one of whom transcended their sports to become global icons. Even as a long term “Fed Head”, I find the adulation he gets everywhere almost embarrassing. It doesn’t matter who he is playing against or where, it seems. Roger is always the crowd’s favourite. I gave up when I saw him get more cheers than Murray during their last meeting at Wimbledon!!
And why not? People love his unique blend of old school all-court shot-making and modern power tennis and recognise that they may never see his like again in their lifetimes. Not in tennis, maybe not in any other sport. A record breaking entertainer, as impeccable off the court as he is on it? It sounds too good to be true. No wonder David Foster Wallace felt moved to (almost) blaspheme all those years ago. For a man of his complex spirituality, watching Federer play was probably as valid a religious experience as any!
By Akin Dawodu (Twitter @Alimustapha)