Almost every match that Roger Federer plays these days is accompanied by the age narrative -- the talk of the 'old, venerable' master, who at 31, has suddenly lost a step to his younger opponents and whose invincible aura seems to be dimming with every passing match; whose time is perhaps up. There is the countdown too and then the camera pans on Federer fans sitting in the stands – a sea of red with RF logos embossed on their caps and t-shirts.
Then, there is applause as the players walk on to the court – more for Federer, some for his opponent too. Then the crowd settles in – some whisper, others remain mostly silent – taking in the moment, watching every little movement, focusing their energies on the match to follow.
So strong has been the media hype around his age and its perceived effects on his game that surely many of them wonder if he can still produce the master class that we all grew up watching.
Then the game starts.
Federer inspires people to watch the game, he makes it interesting – in a way perhaps, he inspires his opponents too. When you come up against Federer you want to give nothing but your absolute best – there is an audience that will appreciate every winner, the fight you put up is appreciated as well. And at least during the early rounds, Federer’s age, usually, doesn’t need to be mentioned. The first week is for tuning and cruising to easy wins.
But on Wednesday, the defending champion and 17-time Grand Slam winner lost 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6 to an opponent, Sergiy Satkhovsky, ranked 116th in the world and who had never previously beaten a top-10 player in his life. And suddenly, everyone was gunning for him again.
But the questions we needed to ask was not whether he was too old. Rather we needed to ask whether Federer was a step slower? Did he make too many unforced errors? Did he play a bad match?
And the answer to all these questions is ‘No.’
Federer, who has 13 grass court titles to his name – the most among active players, simply could not come to terms with Stakhovsky’s bold serve-and-volley tactics. But how much did that have to do with age?
“Some people don’t understand how you can play tennis at 30 years old which is shocking to me because normally that’s still when you’re young enough to play some of your best tennis. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what people say,” Federer had once said.
And there is a certain element of truth there. Take Andre Agassi’s case for example. In 2003, Agassi beat Rainer Schuettler to win the Australian Open at the age of 32. Two years later, Agassi made it to the finals of the US Open, losing to Roger Federer.
Now, if Agassi could do that then Federer surely has a better chance of grabbing a few more Grand Slam titles. Nadal’s struggling with injury, Djokovic’s tennis levels have been incredibly high but they must drop sometime and Murray has only just started winning Grand Slams. Furthermore, Federer is the only man in tennis history to reach the finals of each Grand Slam at least five times.
Then again, if you have a look at the ages of the top ten players, then Federer isn’t in rarefied territory. He certainly isn’t alone.
The top ten in men’s tennis
Federer, Ferrer – 31 years
Tsonga, Wawrinka - 28
Nadal, Berdych, Gasquet - 27
Djokovic, Murray - 26
Del Potro - 24
Outside the top 10 – from 11 to 20
Tommy Haas – 35 years
Tipsarevic, Monaco, Kohlscreiber - 29
Simon - 28
Almagro - 27
Querrey - 25
Cilic - 24
Nishikori - 23
Raonic – 22
The gap isn't that big and it’s a mix. Yes, most of the players are in their late twenties and most of them would have picked more injuries than Federer – who has somehow managed to avoid major injuries during his long career. They haven’t been winning as much as Federer either.
The difference in the points won between Stakhovsky (162 points) and Federer (161 points) on Wednesday was one point – showing just how tight the match was. Federer actually made fewer unforced errors (13) than Stakhovsky (17). But Stakhovsky, with 72 winners as against 57, ran out an easy winner in that category. A few points here and there and we could have been discussing how strong Federer mentally was. (Check out the match summary here)
But instead we are discussing his age and the side-effects of being 31. Come Monday, Federer’s ranking will drop to 5 (or no.6 if Berdych wins the title) – the lowest since 2003 and we will probably hear a few more murmurs. The age narrative will get stronger.
But as Federer has said before, ‘it doesn't matter what people say.’ While we wonder about his age, the questions the Swiss star is likely to be asking himself are far more important.
“I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have,” Andre Agassi wrote in his autobiography, Open. Has Federer got to a point where he too hates the game?
The challenge for the Swiss master is finding a way to reinvent himself. Opponents know him well – everyone zooms in on his backhand and preparing a strategy for Federer isn’t very difficult. So can he reinvent the wheel, so to say?
Pete Sampras is the one player that Roger Federer has always looked up to. Wimbledon before Federer, belonged to Sampras. When the American retired, he had this to say: “I’m not retiring because I'm married or I have a son. I'm retiring because I have nothing to prove to myself. I've always had challenges ahead of me, whether it was staying number one or winning majors. My biggest challenge was last year when I didn't win an event for a year and a half and the challenge of winning one more. Once I did that, I felt, you know, I really climbed a very tall mountain and that was my boy.”
Federer has challenged the way we perceive tennis – his game is hard to describe because he can do everything – a genius who could tailor his game depending on the opponent and he still wants to know how far he can go.
Each player has his own challenges to deal with. Many wonder what Federer has left to achieve in sport – he’s won everything – multiple times. But like Sampras, that challenge could be winning just one more tournament or a Grand Slam title or even simply achieving the perfect backhand topspin lob. It could be anything.
As long as Federer knows he can keep giving it 100 percent, regardless of his age, he isn’t going anywhere.
And who knows by the time he is done, the age narrative might read very differently. We’ve all seen the greats fade away – some slowly, some rather quickly – but rarely have we seen them comeback even stronger. That revival would be something all of us – regardless of our age -- would look forward to.