One year ago today, things looked pretty grim for Roger Federer. He had just lost in straight sets to fellow veteran Tommy Robredo – a man he’d previously beaten ten straight times – in the round of sixteen at the 2013 US Open, his earliest exit from the tournament in a decade.
Unfortunately for Roger, that defeat wasn’t really a blip on the radar. Just two months earlier, he’d lost in the second round at Wimbledon, and he’d finish 2013 ranked number 6 in the world (his worst position since 2002) with one win to his name. Along the way, Federer struggled with niggling back spasms that derailed his progress in quite a few events. Oh, and he changed racquets for the first time in over a decade, a move that not only reeked of “too little, too late,” but didn’t seem to have any apparent benefits in its early stages.
It seemed like the end of the great Roger Federer was upon us: the man often appeared to be a shadow of his former self, and his 32-year-old body seemed to be ready for a permanent vacation from the endless grind of professional men’s tennis. After all, not a whole lot of pros remain competitive past 30, and Roger had already put over 1,200 matches on his odometer.
But fast-forward to the present, and the 33-year-old Federer is ranked number 3 in the world, just dispatched Roberto Bautista Agut in straight sets at the Open and is (at the very least) the co-favorite to win the tournament. You might say his resurgence baffles the mind; a man who has played this many matches – around 60 percent of them on unforgiving hard courts – during a 16-year career should no longer be a contender in such a brutal sport.
So how did this happen? Naturally.
You can argue that Roger Federer is the most gifted male to ever pick up a tennis racquet. Those gifts not only have to do with the way he dominates the opposition with free-flowing strokes: it’s about how that unique body of his has allowed him a mostly injury-free career. If you ever sit in the stands for a Roger Federer hard court match, you will instantly notice how he seems to glide over the harsh surface like there was an electromagnetic field beneath his Nikes. He hardly makes a sound as he covers every corner of the court with dazzling speed.
Don’t believe me? Watch this point from Federer’s third-round win just a few days ago.
Roger Federer still moves around a tennis court like few humans before him have. And then there’s the matter of how the man wields his racquet.
If you focus solely on Federer’s tennis during a match, you’ll start to see why the man is not only relevant, but a serious threat to add to his 17 Grand Slam titles. It’s that serve and forehand combo. Coupled with his incredible defensive skills, these are the three pillars upon which the legend of Roger Federer is built.
Nowhere is the country club ideal of powerful elegance more clearly exemplified than in Roger’s serve. It’s a clean, fluid motion, whose simplicity is shrouded with deception. Even though he’s far from setting the radar gun ablaze, there are very few players on the ATP World Tour who can accurately read Federer’s deliveries. The reason is simple: like Pete Sampras before him, Federer tosses the ball in the exact same way for every single serve. Add to that his ability to hit spots on the service box that are out of reach for most returners, and you understand why even in 2014, Federer has hit over 450 aces – the ninth best total on tour. He also wins an astounding 91 percent of service games (the 4th best mark this year) and no player has won a higher percentage of points played on second serves this season.
And if the serve hasn’t done all the damage, then comes the forehand.
It looks so very beautiful, so very natural, and yet, underneath that artistry is one of the most potent shots in the game. Yes, Federer does put more shanked forehands in orbit than he used to during his prime, but for the most part, that deadliest of strokes will still find its target with breathtaking pace and pin-point accuracy from any part of the court. It’s the prettiest looking heat-seeking missile you’ll ever see.
However, the fact that Roger’s game is humming along is only part of the reason why this particular US Open appears to be his for the taking.
For starters, there’s the absence of Federer’s tormentor-in-chief, Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard pulled out of this year’s event after hurting his wrist (a new body part he can cross off his long injury checklist). Second is the fact that occasional tormentor Andy Murray is yet to fully regain the form that saw the Scot win last year’s Wimbledon title. Andy underwent back surgery months after that most momentous of achievements, and his comeback hasn’t been all that smooth.
To top it off, Murray landed on the opposite half of Federer’s draw, thus becoming Novak Djokovic’s problem, and not his.
So, is this Roger’s last chance at Major glory? That was the question being bandied around the All England Club just months ago, as Federer reached the final of the event he’d won seven times before. On that last Sunday at Wimbledon, Roger faced the ever-unpredictable Djokovic in the final. More than a few thought that a new glorious chapter in the Federer saga seemed inevitable.
It was not to be, though. The living legend fell in a tough five-set affair, and in the aftermath, wistful “last chance gone” whispers could be heard reverberating through the tennisphere.
And yet, here were are, with a healthy Federer faced with a seemingly clear path to the final – he faces upstart Gaël Monfils in the quarterfinals on Thursday – where he’d most likely have a chance to exact revenge on top-ranked Djokovic, and for kicks, deny the Serb the opportunity to level their head-to-head record at 18 wins apiece. Djokovic, the bookmaker’s favorite, had the worst summer hard-court run of his career, and even though he’s looked awfully sharp during his matches at Flushing Meadows, you never quite know which Djoko will show up to a hypothetical final. Novak has won only one of his five appearances in the US Open title match.
The fast courts suit Roger’s game, and a deliriously devoted fanbase will loudly cheer each and every one of his winners in Arthur Ashe Stadium, just like they did when fellow all-time great Andre Agassi made his last run to the US Open final in 2005 (a run that ended at the hands of a 24-year-old Federer).
That memorable Open indeed represented Agassi’s last chance, and there are some parallels with Roger in 2014. In both years, two titans of the sport embarked upon their quest to win the US Open six years after their last triumph at Flushing Meadows. Both men were at a stage in their careers where making Slam finals was no longer a given, and playing with the knowledge that, should they get there, a younger, more dangerous foe would be waiting at the finish line.
However, just as there are parallels between Roger now and Andre nine years ago, there is one crucial difference: health. As in, Andre wasn’t healthy, and Federer is.
This is why the 2014 US Open should not be Roger Federer’s last chance at a Grand Slam trophy. Yes, father time is undefeated, but the match is not quite over yet. The hunger and desire are still there, and Roger is still trying to squeeze every last drop of elite tennis out of his once-in-a-lifetime frame. Heck, he’s even mastered the art of traveling the world with his ever-growing family (not satisfied with one set of twins, Roger and his wife Mirka welcomed another pair earlier this year).
So even if he doesn’t win this US Open, there is no reason why he can’t be a contender for the Australian Open next January, particularly if Nadal, Murray and Djokovic are still mired in uncertainty. And there’s always Wimbledon.
All I can say is relax, Federer Nation (Planet?) Roger’s last shot is still to come.