When Roger Federer retires from tennis – and we all know that dreaded day is going to come sooner or later – what will we remember the most about him?
Will it be his ever-reliable serve, whose hypnotic accuracy left his opponents wincing in despair? Will it be his on-the-rise forehand, which flew across the court and sent players flailing in futility? Or will it be his magical drop volleys that spun and curled and hissed, making everyone close their eyes in awed befuddlement?
Federer’s career is filled with more memorable elements than you can count; everyone will likely have a different way of remembering the great man. But the time to ‘remember’ him may still be a little way off, because he isn’t tired of winning just yet.
By defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Dubai Championships final, Federer has reached the momentous mark of 100 career titles. This is a staggering feat by any standard; only one man had ever done it before Federer, and that was Jimmy Connors – in the days when players participated in upwards of 20 tournaments a year.
And yet, the biggest story today may not necessarily be the numerical harmony of Federer’s title haul. Instead, the most striking aspect of his week in Dubai was how little his hunger to compete and win has dimmed. In fact, if I wasn’t worried about being accused of insanity, I’d even say Federer looks more hungry to win now than he did in his glory years.
Of course, mere hunger to win is not enough. With advancing age, Federer’s game has markedly declined, to the point where his biggest strength – his forehand – frequently turns into his biggest enemy. His receding reflexes and foot speed have also occasionally left him vulnerable to big hitters – like the match against Fernando Verdasco in the second round, where Federer looked distinctly second best in the prolonged rallies.
But despite struggling for form, consistency and power in his first three matches, the 37-year-old never showed signs of shrinking from the fight. He stuck to his guns, summoned his best serves to keep himself afloat, and ultimately came away with tough wins against Philipp Kohlschreiber, Verdasco and Marton Fucsovics.
That was less than half the job done though. His next two opponents were slated to be Borna Coric and Tsitsipas – two 20-somethings who had very recently made him look his age. In fact, Coric had won two straight matches against Federer, and that too on the Swiss’ favorite surfaces – the grass of Halle, and the uber-quick hard court of Shanghai.
Against these two super-talented young guns, everyone knew that nothing less than Federer’s best – his best at the age of 37, anyway – would suffice. He couldn’t afford to get bullied from the back of the court, and he couldn’t afford to leak forehand errors by the dozen. He had to serve well, move well, and keep them off-balance with his variations; in short, he had to play as close to perfect as possible.
Did he himself feel the same way about the threat that these two players posed? Because ‘close to perfect’ is exactly how Federer played in the semi-final and final.
He was cool and clinical against Coric, hitting cleanly from the back of the court and unsettling the Croat with several well-timed drop shots. And he was sharp and inventive against Tsitsipas, reading the Greek’s serve beautifully and rushing the net every half-chance he got.
Those last two matches were Vintage Federer in more ways than one. But just to show us he wasn’t an ‘old’ dog that had lost the capacity to learn new tricks, Federer played one point in the second set of the final that seemed to make time stop.
Tsitsipas was serving at 4-4, 30-0, and struck a fairly powerful first serve out wide. Federer lunged to his right and sent a loopy return back into play, and Tsitsipas seemed in perfect position to crush a crosscourt backhand into the open court. Anticipating a wide shot into the corner, Federer started sprinting to his left, but the Greek chose to hit a deep backhand down the middle instead. Suddenly, Federer had reached the ball much quicker than he had expected to; with the ball bouncing near his shoes, he had no option but to reflex a half volley and pray that it went over the net.
It didn’t just go over the net. It fell bang in the middle of the court, preventing Tsitsipas from putting it away with one strike. The 20-year-old still somehow whipped a strong crosscourt forehand, but this was the ‘prestige’ moment of a magician reaching the crescendo of his show. Federer took a couple of steps to his right, swung his racquet above his head, and thundered an inch-perfect forehand pass that landed as a clean winner.
Tsitsipas couldn’t recover from the shock value of that point. Clearly rattled by the superhuman skills he was seeing from the other side of the net, he proceeded to make three errors and hand Federer the break, and ultimately the match.
After the match, nobody was really interested in talking about the tennis that Federer put on display. All everyone wanted to do was pay homage to the legend’s legendary achievement, and the presenter David Mercer kept peppering both Federer and Tsitsipas with questions about what 100 titles means. Tsitsipas joked that he’d be lucky to win 100 matches rather than titles (and quickly corrected himself, probably because he realized he already has 65), while Federer said reaching 100 was “an absolute dream come true”.
Lost amid all that brouhaha was how fresh Federer still sounded, how doggedly he still moved, and how ready for the fight he still looked. The man has been pestered with questions about retirement for nearly a decade now, but not even once has he looked likely to reply in the affirmative. And why would he, when he clearly still relishes the grind so much?
Despite winning everything there is to win in tennis, and scaling every peak there is to scale in the sport, Federer still gets up for every match of every tournament looking like it’s his first. And that’s just not normal.
Yes, his tennis is magical; almost supernatural. And sure, his list of records is starting to border on the ridiculous now. But the fact that he still loves the sport so much that he is willing to patiently wait out a faltering game and a fiery assault (from the likes of Verdasco in particular) is just as worthy of applause, if not more.
Federer was also asked the inevitable question about whether he thought he could overtake Connors’ all-time title record of 109. “I’m just happy I’m still healthy,” Federer replied. “If I reach milestones like this along the way it’s wonderful, but I’m really not here to shatter all the records.”
If he’s not here to shatter all records, and still somehow finds the motivation to keep trying his best to win tournaments, then we’re really looking at a person the like of which might never be born again.
“I won my first title in Milan. It’s been a long wonderful journey, it’s been great and I wouldn’t do it any differently. I’ve loved every minute,” Federer also said.
When Federer does eventually call it quits, and I know that day will come sooner rather than later, I will remember his magical shot-making and his unwavering focus and his incredible self-belief. But I will also remember the way he taught an entire generation to keep going as far as humanly possible, and to enjoy the journey more than the destination.
100 titles is nice. But to keep pushing yourself like Federer has over the last few years, is even better.
Updated Date: Mar 03, 2019 09:01:12 IST