Federer: the magician returns

Illustration: Ramachandra Babu, Gulf News


What makes Roger Federer’s Wimbledon win special? It helped raise his haul to a record eight Wimbledon titles and 19 Grand Slams! At 35, he became the oldest winner at the All England Club; now that’s incredible.

It is a mystery too. Grass courts are slick. Tennis ball skids, it comes fast and keeps low. And the bounce uneven. It’s brutal on older legs and slower reflexes. That is why Federer’s triumph is all the more remarkable. And it came without the loss of a set, a feat last recorded by Bjorn Borg in 1976.

Wimbledon is the cathedral of tennis. It has also been Waterloo for many. Ask Ivan Lendl, Thomas Muster or Mats Wilander. But Federer thrives here. The Swiss served notice of his prodigious talent here, humbling the lord of the turf, seven-time winner Pete Sampras, in 2001. It was here that Federer won his first Grand Slam singles title in 2003. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since he grew up in Basel, Switzerland, idolising Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Sampras – all Wimbledon legends.

Federer, however, didn’t turn out to be a serve-and-volleyer. He went on to become a complete player. A player who could stay back and out-duel the best of baseliners. A player who could charge the net to put away volleys. A player with technique straight out of the coaching manual. When he plays his one-handed backhand, the racquet stays almost perpendicular to the ground at the start of the backswing, pure copybook style. He could hit it flat, slice it and pack plenty of top-spin.


Federer’s forehand was a powerful weapon. It fizzed and dipped. His serving was not thunderous, but fast enough. More importantly, his serves hit the corners of the box. Aces flowed. He could always serve his way out of trouble. His second serve was potent too. The kick-serves even caught Sampras off-guard.

He brought a deft touch and subtlety not seen since the days of John McEnroe. He was fleet-footed and athletic; his court-craft astounding. More Grand Slams and ATP titles followed. Comparisons with tennis legend Rod Laver only served to highlight his sublime skills. Federer was at the peak of his powers; it was pure joy to watch.


Federer’s racquet played like a Stradivarius, as the Guardian writer Sean Ingle put it, and the American writer David Foster Wallace compared watching him play to a religious experience. There were moments of sheer genius. Wallace called it Federer Moments.

“The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do. Here is one. It’s the finals of the 2005 US Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes…until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to centre, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centreline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot into the net at an angle from the backhand side…and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him.” This is Wallace’s description of a Federer Moment.


One-handed backhand has become an anachronism, but it is Federer’s trademark shot. It was not as steady as his forehand. It soon became his Achilles heel. First Rafael Nadal and later Novak Djokovic pummelled his backhand relentlessly to elicit mistakes.

Nadal’s methods were so effective that he soon became Federer’s nemesis. The Spaniard merely had to turn up to defeat Federer. The Swiss master lost the psychological battle. He wallowed in self-doubt, losing matches from winning positions. To Djokovic, to Juan Martin Del Potro in the US Open finals. The magic vanished, the master turned into a mere mortal. But Federer kept bouncing back, even winning the occasional Grand Slam. But the cloak of invincibility was gone.

After 2012, Federer hit a slump. A Grand Slam drought ensued. And worse, he was beaten by virtual unknowns. The end seemed near. A knee injury forced him out of the circuit for five months. It was time to pen his tennis obituary. But what followed was Federer’s miraculous rebirth.

The 2017 Australian Open title, which included a victory over arch-rival Nadal in the final, was the turning point. The Swiss maestro won 32 of his 34 matches this year. He skipped the French Open to preserve his aging body. Wimbledon brought him the 93rd singles title of his career.


So, what has changed? He’s leaner. Meaner. Gone is the hesitation. Here’s a man enjoying the game in the twilight of his career. No pressure. Every win is a bonus. He has adapted too. From a racquet with a head of 90 inches, he now plays with a bigger head (Wilson Pro Staff RF97 Autograph). He’s become more aggressive, keeps the rallies short.

Federer’s game is still intact. He is still ripping his backhand; still finding the edges with his serve; still covering the court effortlessly. He is still a purist’s delight. And, he is still winning Grand Slams. That surely makes Federer the greatest tennis player of all time.

This was first published on gulfnews.com on July 21, 2017. http://bit.ly/2vZdJQi
Illustration: Ramachandra Babu, Gulf News

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