It does not matter how many Grand Slam titles you have won – and Roger Federer has now won 16 of them – they do not get any easier.
When the Mighty Fed first set out on his romp through the history books, rewriting records left, right and centre, he made it all look so easy. He could win major titles without dropping a set; he could rip sets from the grasp of his rivals without dropping a game. Federer in his pomp was a sight to behold.
But Federer was his own worst enemy. He raised the bar in the sport he loved and forced everyone else in the locker room to work harder and play smarter to try and catch him. They may not have overtaken him – he is still the No.1 – but they are snapping at heels.
This year’s Australian Open was once again touted as the tournament where the tennis tide would change. An event where the boys would surpass the game’s ultimate man; and where Roger Federer would prove he was vulnerable once again.
Andy Murray, the young and feisty Briton who has been tipped for a Grand Slam victory for years, was chosen to be the opponent to the ultimate champion in the final.
As experience goes, a player can’t be much wiser than Federer. Before the Open, Federer had won fifteen Grand Slam victories, including triumphs at all four majors and on every surface in the game, plus the record-holder supreme of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, 22 Grand Slam finals and 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1, giving him a total of 268 weeks at the pinnacle of the men’s game. Intimidating stuff. Mission improbable for potential challengers?
However, by relinquishing his US Open title last September to the 20-year-old Argentinean Juan Martin Del Potro – after being the only man to have held the title for five consecutive years – tennis fans and journalists began to wonder if Federer had any more motivation and if the new tennis generation were finally making inroads into the champion’s arsenal.
One cannot forget the recent landmarks in his personal life, too. Federer married his long-time sweetheart, Mirka, last April and celebrated the birth of twin girls, Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, in July. With his personal life at the zenith, people had real reason to doubt the Swiss’ competence and concentration on tennis.
Moreover, the sun-soaked fortnight in Melbourne showed that Murray would be in no way just putting in an appearance in the final. Dropping only two sets in the fortnight, he produced awesome displays of his grit and talent, with his dismantling of Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals a particular showcase of Murray’s determination, aggressiveness, and endurance. Many thought that a similar performance in the final against any opponent – even Federer – would be enough to crown the Scot the Australian Open Champion.
Before the tournament, there were whispers that Federer was not at his silky-smooth best. Shaky performances, too – well, at least by Federer’s elevated standards of play – against Russians Igor Andreev in the first round and Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinal increased the jitters among Federer fans that perhaps the champion didn’t have the optimum conditioning needed to win seven hard-fought matches in two weeks.
Nevertheless, a Grand Slam holds significant and unparalleled resonance within the Federer psyche.
A stunning victory against Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round and an even more impressive, almost faultless display against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals set the perfect scene for a battle of mind and body in Rod Laver Arena for the final.
And so it transpired. From the offset, each service game was closely contested, with both Murray and Federer reaching deuce and breakpoints several times over. Federer gained the advantage in the first set; another break shortly followed at 2-1 in the second set, in a game where Federer orchestrated a stunning symphony of his all-court skills to reach 0-40 and then finish Murray off with pure talent. By this stage Federer was firing on all cylinders; every shot was timed to perfection, hit with precision and power, forcing Murray to run incessantly from corner to corner of the baseline and forward into the net. The Scot’s relentless – and increasing – power shots were swiftly and effortlessly swatted away by the Swiss magician with his magic wand. A jaw-dropping 155-0 record in Grand slam matches when Federer has been two sets to love up only cemented the feeling that another victory was on its way.
British journalists who had made the long ‘dash’ to Melbourne – in the fantastical hopes of reporting on the end of Britain’s 74-year major title drought – were smashed back into reality by the Federer forehand.
Despite a slight momentum change in the third set where Murray won a crucial break, Federer, as a true champion, levelled the score. After a tense exchange of points in the third-set tiebreak, Federer faced his third championship point; a point that he won, sealing his sixteenth Grand Slam victory and fourth at the Australian Open.
Needless to say, Murray was disappointed at his loss, crushed by being so near, yet so far from his dream. The raw emotions that spilled out in his runner-up speech showed the anguish of faltering once again in the high-stakes situation of a Grand Slam final.
But, as ever, Federer was the ultimate champion. He vanquished over the challenges posed from the other side of the net in each and every match during the fortnight, while simultaneously acting with grace, poise, and dignity. Towards the media, towards his fans, towards the tournament organisers, he acted – and will continue to act – like a true champion.
A cacophony of noise – screams, bellows, chants and sighs in equal measure – follows him wherever he goes. A smorgasbord of red and white faces, banners, clothes and flags colour every stadium in which he plays. Once again, the omnipresent banner shouting ‘Shhh… Quiet! Genius at Work!’ rang true in Melbourne.
As he walked around the Rod Laver Arena in his lap of honour, holding the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup trophy aloft and waving at his fans with unrelenting excitement and enjoyment, no one could refute the fact that the man was truly happy, unaffected by professional or personal regret or failure. The happiness etched on centre of his heart radiated outwards to his luminous glow of success.
He continued with press commitments until 1.30am, only to get up the following morning to attend to yet more photoshoots and interview requests. Such is the life of a sporting star, of a global icon who transcends his sport and is now revered around the world.
Let’s not forget that this was the man, the humanitarian, who organised the ‘Hit for Haiti’ in honour of the earthquake that devastated the impoverished nation. The day before a Grand Slam, he enlisted the help of fellow tennis players to participate in a fun and relaxed exhibition in front of a full house of 15,000 in Rod Laver Arena and raised over 600,000 Australian Dollars in the process.
Now, he stands as not only the human champion, but the sporting champion.
So what to expect now?
Federer’s path to greatness is a reminder of tennis’ past era, when players competed well into their 30s without losing their talent or motivation. Ask Rod Laver, Margaret Court or any of the seasoned greats who made their presence felt at the majors. But with the increasingly physical game and lengthy tennis seasons, leading to frequent burnouts and extended injury breaks, this mentality leaves more contemporary generations in shock.
But through it all, the remarkable Federer perseveres. His game is effortless, fluid, light, less punishing on the body than like warrior-like, pounding techniques of Rafael Nadal and Del Potro. The motivation, especially in Grand Slams, remains as true as it was before the Swiss won his first major. The skill, stamina and endurance to beat the best also remains, allowing fans to anticipate Federer’s seventeenth, eighteenth, even nineteenth Grand Slam triumph with feverish excitement.
Could Federer reach a target like Court’s 24 major singles victories? Some would describe it as a crazy ambition. What is certain is that the peerless Swiss possesses the requisite insanity – and talent.
It’s important to keep things in perspective with Federer, or else you may end up falling to your knees in his presence and offering him your first-born child. But there isn’t a player out there more deserving of our respect, or one who, despite his glorious game and remarkable achievements, so frequently and thoroughly acts in a way that reminds us that he’s as regular, in the best and deepest sense of the word, as you or I. He just is.
At a time when the greats of the global sporting stage are falling into disarray on account of transgressions, misfortunes and misconduct, there is a desire – no, need – for us to savour this great; arguably the greatest of them all. Who knows when we will be delivered another like Federer.