Time is a brutal enemy for sportsmen. Time takes its toll slowly, sneaks up silently without making its presence felt, and gradually grips you in its embrace. The decaying effect of age forces an athlete to take a second longer to react, a step more to cover ground and a day longer to recover.
At 35 years old, Roger Federer has made time his friend.
After struggling with his knee injury and the following arthroscopic surgery for the first half of 2016, the Swiss player decided to shut his season down early at the end of July.
He stressed that he needed to rehabilitate and was putting all his energy towards coming back strong, healthy and in shape to play attacking tennis in 2017. After the ominous exit, a lot of critics and fans alike believed it could signal the end of the 17-time Slam champion’s career.
Fast forward six months, and true to his word, Federer returned to the sport at the Hopman Cup exhibition in January. After his six-month hiatus, few people, including he himself, would have believed that he would still be around come the second Sunday of the Australian Open.
But here we are, after six rounds and wins over three top-10 players, Federer will contest his 28th Grand Slam final on 29 January against a familiar foe – Rafael Nadal.
Federer’s surprising resurgence is a result of the six months that he decided to sit out. After his gruelling five-set win over Stan Wawrinka in the semi-finals, the former World No 1 explained that he wanted to get back to 100 percent to enjoy tennis again, enjoy the practice and not suffer through constantly “fighting the fire”.
“It was a good thing to do. You can only ever do so much treatment to feel decent. What I've just come to realise is when you don't feel well, you have too many problems going on, you just won't beat top-10 players. At some point you reach a limit, and you just can't go beyond that. You can play them tight. You might win one of them. You just can't win back-to-back. Just not feeling free enough, you know, in your mind, in your body,” he said in the post-match press conference.
In these two weeks at Melbourne, Federer has achieved something that he was unable to do in 2016 – defeat the best in the game in back-to-back matches. He had only one win over a top-10 player last year, and lost four matches against them.
In the first Slam of the year, the Swiss player was handed a challenging draw, thanks to the slide in his ranking. Seeded 17th, his first big hurdle came as early as the third round, in the form of 10th seed Tomas Berdych. Federer barely broke a sweat over the 90 minutes that he took to demolish the Czech 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 but he would have been wary of his next opponent.
In the fourth round, No 5 Kei Nishikori stretched Federer to five sets, and this is where most people thought his ageing body would fail him. However, it was the 27-year-old who struggled physically three hours into the match, while Federer looked rejuvenated after his fourth-set slump. He triumphed 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 to set up a quarter-final against Mischa Zverev, who had ousted top seed Andy Murray in their previous encounter.
Against Zverev, Federer was at his vintage best, as both men put up a show in retro tennis. Federer outplayed Zverev’s brand of serve-and-volley and slice-and-dice tennis and showcased a masterclass in old-school techniques and approaches. He cruised past Zverev 6-1, 7-5, 6-2 in 92 minutes to enter a record 41st major semi-final.
However, awaiting him in the last four was his toughest test since his return from injury – a dangerous Wawrinka in his second-Slam-week form. Federer had lost his last two semi-finals at Grand Slams, and when he dropped the third and fourth sets after winning the opening two, it looked like he was on course for his third straight defeat at this stage of a major.
However, Federer decided to take a leaf out his opponent’s book and took a rare medical timeout to stem Wawrinka’s momentum. In the six-minute break, he decided to loosen up and just go for his shots. For the first time in their career, Wawrinka was the higher-seeded player, while Federer was the underdog. And ultimately, this was what made all the difference. The older Swiss player prevailed 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3.
“It's (the comeback) gone much better than I thought it would. That's also what I was telling myself in the fifth set. I was talking to myself, saying like, Just relax, man. The comeback is so great already. Let it fly off your racquet and just see what happens. I think that's the mindset I got to have, as well, in the finals. Sort of a nothing-to-lose mentality. It's been nice these last six matches to have that mentality. It worked very well so I'll keep that up,” he said after his five-set escape.
In the final against Nadal on Sunday, Federer will once again be the underdog, the unfancied player. The left-hander owns a staggering 23-11 winning record over Federer, leads 6-2 in Grand Slam finals and has won all three of their encounters Down Under. Nadal is the overwhelming favourite in this lopsided rivalry -- his top-spin forehand neutralises Federer's backhand, his physical endurance outlasts Federer's agility, and his past record gives a him clear mental advantage.
However, Federer will take his chances on the relatively faster court of Rod Laver Arena. He has had an extra day of rest, and while both players toiled for five sets in their respective semis, Nadal has spent more hours on the court over the six rounds so far (19 hours as compared to Federer's 13 hours, 40 minutes). Federer will be playing with his "nothing-to-lose mentality" and if can let it "fly off his racquet" once again, the Australian Open could turn out to be another classic between these two legends.
The stakes in this final are extremely high. It's not just a clash between ninth seed Nadal and 17th seed Federer for the Australian Open 2017 title; Federer-Nadal XXXV, as it's being referred to, is a clash with plenty of history to play for. Federer is aiming for a record 18th Grand Slam trophy, which will put distance between himself and his rivals. If Nadal wins his 15th, he'll pass Pete Sampras for sole possession of second place on the all-time list, and pull tantalisingly close to Federer's 17. The Swiss is looking to become the second oldest man in the Open era to win a Grand Slam title after Ken Rosewall, the Spaniard is targeting a second victory at the only major he is yet to win at least twice.
The Swiss, who had cheekily tweeted "See ya soon 17... Going for 18" on 31 December of last year, is now one win away from making it a reality. Despite the odds being stacked against him, Federer still has a burning desire driving him. "I'll leave it all out here in Australia and if I can't walk for another five months, that's okay," he said.
Regardless of what happens in the final, it has been an extremely satisfying return for the Swiss player. He has already defied age and expectations by making it so far. Federer’s decision to rest his body and let it recuperate for six months has probably helped him extend his career by a few years. A healthy, resurgent Federer has given enough evidence in these two weeks that he isn't hanging up his racquets any time soon. And with good reason.
“I will probably never be able to play 27 tournaments a year anymore. We know that all. But maybe instead of playing 22 you play 18, instead of 20 you play 17. That could totally happen. You always need the right balance, I feel like, enough practice, enough matches, enough time off. I guess as you get older, everything becomes a bit different,” he told reporters.
This isn’t a man who is playing a final swansong season, these are the words of a player who has planned to compete for the love of the sport for as long as his body allows him to. These are the words of a man who has embraced the march of time, and has decided to deal with it with patience.
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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2017 00:32:12 IST