Fans of the Swiss have recently learnt to be grateful for relatively small mercies. His 2013 season was punctuated by a series of defeats, as Roger Federer suffered not only against his traditional adversaries but also succumbed to journeymen barely fit to string his racquet, never mind lace those famous Nike trainers.
John McEnroe, so often the voice of sense in tennis, chimed with prevailing opinion when, in December, he gave a brutish assessment of Federer’s aspirations in Grand Slams: “[Federer will] be a factor for as long as he steps on a court but to win seven best of five set matches and against at least two of the top three guys, that’s going to be extremely difficult. To win one? I personally don’t see that…I just don’t think that physically at this stage he is going to be able to overcome the hurdles of those younger, hungrier guys.”
The American pundit may well be right. The clock is ticking on Roger’s career, and, in any case, competition for places at the business end of the Grand Slam fortnight is fiercer now than ever before. However, I take issue with the reasoning of McEnroe’s judgement. He implicitly questions Federer’s hunger. The new breed want it more, apparently. I’m not quite so sure.
Federer, as he did in late 2008, has something to prove. When Rafael Nadal seized his crown at Wimbledon, Federer responded by winning four of the next six slams, in the process cementing his place at the pinnacle of men’s tennis. Six years later, however, the challenge is very different. Who knows what his goals even are now? It looks as if he is just enjoying the thrill of proving people wrong, something he tasted in Melbourne and continued to show an appetite for in Dubai.
The Swiss maestro won’t be able to stave off decline forever. But he is learning to manage it. The forgiveness afforded by his new, larger racquet has seen Federer commit far fewer unforced errors than in recent times. Furthermore, the appointment of Stefan Edberg is proving shrewder with every volley he dispatches into open court. Importantly, these measures demonstrate that Roger, now a father, philanthropist, and global icon, is keen to reassert himself at home, on the court.
Most encouragingly of all, Federer’s motivation has translated into results. He leads 4–1 in his matches against top ten opponents this season. Last season his equivalent statistic read 4–10. Overcoming Tomas Berdych in the final of Dubai on Saturday gave Federer his most significant tournament victory in 18 months. It was Federer’s 78th career title, which, interestingly, moved him into third place on the all-time list, surpassing a certain John McEnroe.
It might be argued that Federer’s resurgence comes at the dawn of a new era in men’s tennis. For the last three years, athleticism and baseline consistency have dominated tennis. Nadal and Novak Djokovic, in particular, were lauded for raising the bar in men’s tennis so soon after Federer had hoisted it out of the reach of his contemporaries. But with Stan Wawrinka’s victories in Melbourne, Federer’s recent form and the improvement of rising star of Grigor Dimitrov, is the winning formula in tennis mutating once more? The battle between flamboyance and reliability in the coming months will doubtlessly be an intriguing one, especially with Roger determined to be at the heart of it.
Federer may never win another Slam. But believing that he can is very exciting.