Editor's note: This article was originally published on 18 January, before the Australian Open started. It is being republished ahead of the semifinal clash between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
“Could he win another one, the number 18?”
“It’s hard to say. Djokovic is a machine and it’s going to be long before he picks up any rust.”
“But he played his heart out last year. He was good, like ‘old’ good. It's like he's young again.”
“Yeah, but then his kind never get old.”
“But he surely can’t keep doing this for long. This has to be the year, his last chance. If he plays his best, no funny business, then maybe?”
“Maybe this year.”
Maybe this year. That has been the general sentiment in tennis circles at the turn of every year since 2012. It's like all of us are in it — millions from all over the planet conspiring for one Swiss to reach a number. But let's be honest. Seventeen, eighteen; how does it matter? Thirty-four. That's the number that matters.
It’s 2016 and the question remains the same. Will Roger Federer get past Novak Djokovic to lift another Grand Slam? One can get the answer, rather an indication, in a few weeks. The Australian open is already upon us, the first Grand Slam of the season. It will tell us where the wind is headed in 2016, even if we already kind of know where. The two will meet in semi-finals in Melbourne if they make it there. Half of Djokovic’s slams have come in Melbourne, it's pretty much his territory.
The kind of dominance the Serbian has imposed on the men's circuit is astounding. He has outplayed and outwilled opponents in the past few years. Sure, there have occasional slips, a Wawrinka here and there, but otherwise he's been unbreakable.
Federer himself had a glorious 2015. He didn't win any slams but he re-won hearts that already belonged to him and wowed fans with quality tennis. He did defeat Djokovic at Cincinnati Masters, but Grand Slams are a different beast. And he came so close at his favourite surface, the Wimbledon. The manner in which he dispatched Murray in the semi-final, gave people not just hope (that’s always there), but (I daresay) a belief that he could upset Djokovic. But that didn't happen.
And you know what, Federer didn't look disappointed at all. He was smiling. He seems to be enjoying his tennis more than we do. Now, it doesn't matter to him that much. His fans just want to see him lift another one, just one more, preferably at the Wimbledon grass, so that they can stand and applaud a man who has enthralled them for over a decade.
He is still playing beautiful tennis, pushing Murray and Djokovic who are in their prime. He doesn’t cry now when he loses a final. Actually, he smiles a lot. He seems pretty happy. He has a great family, kids, pretty much everything there is to win in his cabinet. Eighteen won't make all that better, 17 seems pretty neat. He's playing tennis because it's fun, and he's still good at it. We, in the process, are still getting those 'Federer moments' David Foster Wallace talked about. He is a gift that keeps on giving.
Come to think of it, 2016 probably won't be much different from 2015. Djokovic will stand tall, Federer will stand loved. He'll be 35, and probably 17 will stay at 17. Frankly, no one will care about 34 going on to 35 or 17 going on to 18, least of all Federer, who just doesn't seem to be getting old.
Age is just a number, people say. But it’s not. It’s a real thing and it catches up with you. It makes every physical exertion demand more out of you. It makes your injuries take longer to heal. It makes you old. And suddenly, you become your biggest opponent.
Pete Sampras was 31 and change when he huffed and puffed his way to his number 14, the 2002 US Open. He was seeded 17th. He beat a young Andy Roddick on his way to the final. He retired the next year. Andre Agassi was 33 when he won his eighth and final Grand Slam at the 2003 Australian Open.
Andres Gimeno was 34 years, 10 months and a day old when he won the French Open in 1972. The same year, Ken Rosewall, at the age of 37 years, two months and one day, won the Australian Open. He had won it last year too, when he was 36.
Roger Federer is 34 and playing like he’s 26. Ain't that a beautiful thing.