“I would love to be in that position again, to be able to win my first Major for the very first time,” said a smiling Roger Federer on Friday, in reference to Saturday women’s final between Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, the winner of which will be crowned a Grand Slam champion for the very first time.
Federer won’t quite feel the thrill of winning that first Slam again. He might have to be satisfied winning his 20th.
The blockbustre semi-final against Hyeon Chung, on Australia Day no less, hadn’t gone to plan. The hype around the battle of generations popped with a foot blister for the young Korean, who had to retire from the match at 1-6, 2-5 (30-30). Even though there was an overriding sense of sympathy for Chung, playing his first Slam semi-final, and the disappointment of a non-contest, tennis fans in the Rod Laver Arena cheered on because Federer had made yet another final — his seventh in Australia, and a record 30th overall.
The Swiss master’s sustained brilliance is shining even brighter as the rest of the field is falling apart.
Last year’s finalist and Federer’s biggest rival, Rafael Nadal, retired from his quarter-final clash against Marin Cilic after a brutal outing that lasted three hours and 47 minutes. Former champions Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka completed their matches, but did not look like they had completely recovered from the elbow and knee injury respectively. Andy Murray was forced out of the year’s first Major with a hip injury.
Meanwhile, semi-final debutants Kyle Edmund, who lost to Cilic, and Chung hadn’t really expected to get this far in the tournament and rode the wave for as much as possible. Never having gone this deep in a Grand Slam, the collective load of all their matches seemed to have taken a toll. While Edmund was hampered by a hip injury, Chung’s blisters brought the second semi-final to a hurried end.
Federer, meanwhile, continues to defy time and logic.
Ten years ago, the Swiss had admitted to “creating a monster” after losing to 20-year-old Novak Djokovic in the semi-final of the Australian Open. It had been the first time that Federer had failed to make the final since losing the 2005 Australian Open semis to Marat Safin.
“Of course, I’ve created a monster, so I know I need to always win every tournament,” he had said.
Over the years, that aura of invincibility had started to fade. There was a period, starting with 2012 Wimbledon title, that Federer did not win a Major for over four years. The Swiss was still around the second week of the tournament, but the chances were shrinking. Was he getting too old to actually win a Major?
Federer surprised himself, and the tennis world, by taking down his nemesis Nadal in the five sets in the final of the Australian Open last year, to kick off a season of revivals. Vintage Federer, with a sharpened attacking nous and a whip for a backhand, stirred up a storm again.
In a game that has become increasingly physical over the years, neither his body nor his mind is showing signs of wear and tear. He has preserved his body with smart scheduling and kept his mind fresh by occasionally going off the circuit. A six-month injury lay-off had preceded his Australian Open triumph, and he skipped the clay season entirely to come out fresh on Wimbledon’s grass.
“I never thought I was going to play a bit of a lesser schedule, which actually is quite enjoyable,” Federer said. “I always thought I'm just going to keep on playing from January to November every single year, 20 something tournaments. But I was able to adapt to it. Maybe that's also one of the reasons I'm still out there.”
At the Australian Open this year, Federer is gliding along court with ease and grace, and finding that happy medium between power and precision. He has played, and won, six matches against opponents ranging three different generations. In the first round, he played 27-year-old Jan-Lennard Struff, then Richard Gasquet (31), Marton Fucsovics (25) of Hungary in the third round, Tomas Berdych (32) in the quarter-final, and on Friday, 21-year-old Chung came as Next Gen ATP Tour Finals champion. He beat them all without dropping a set.
Federer, and his full repertoire of shots, would have been more than a handful even for a fully-fit Chung. Fourteen years and 284 days, and the most blazing run in men’s tennis history had separated the two at the start of the match. And Chung soon found out that, against Federer, there was nowhere to hide on court.
The Korean’s feet had been his biggest weapon through the fortnight, helping him zip around the baseline and break new ground. But with “blisters upon blisters” blighting them, Chung didn’t have a leg to stand on.
On Sunday, Federer, oldest man to reach the summit clash since 1972, will take on Cilic and his mighty big game. The Swiss has played against him nine times, winning eight of those contests, including the Wimbledon final last year.
“I just have to play a good match. At this point it's not about having to improve anything in particular. I think I've done everything pretty well, you know,” he said. “I just hope I'm going to have a good start to the match. I hope I can mix up my game. I hope I can start serving well from the get-go, not get into too much trouble early. I hope I can read his serve and all these things. I'm just pleased that actually my game has been good from the very beginning of the tournament so far. I mean, I've won all my matches without dropping a set.”
Another year, another final, and Federer will enter it yet again as a favourite. Somehow, the grand old man, at 36, has re-conjured the monster.
Updated Date: Jan 27, 2018 09:42:59 IST