In the face of the sublime, you are always left without expression. Writing about Roger Federer after this Wimbledon final is an arduous task. Over the course of a storied career, everything has been said and written about. The superlatives have run out, the eulogies become repetitive. And yet, Federer never seems to tire of reaching new heights.
Redefining Tennis Records
At the age of almost 36, having taken a break of six months with a career-threatening injury, Roger Federer has come back this year to play two Grand Slams, the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and has won both. The manner of his victory in both tournaments could not have been more different. He had to battle through the Australian Open as the world no. 16, an unfamiliar position, defeating 4 Top 10 players and playing three back-to-back five set matches, pulling off an unlikely win against his great friend and oldest bane, Rafael Nadal, after being a break down in the fifth. From there on in, it has been a year of unlikely, improbable, unbelievable achievements. In making history this year, Federer has gone against the teachings of history. He has defied the tyranny of both age and common sense. Common sense would say that no player should be able to do these things at this age, but there is nothing common about Roger Federer.
With his victory on Sunday, Federer became the first male player ever to win 8 Wimbledons. He has now won 19 Grand Slams, going five ahead of Pete Sampras and four ahead of Nadal, who is complementing Federer with an excellent comeback of his own. At an age when most tennis legends are either retired or struggling to win matches against younger and hungrier challengers, the ageless Swiss Maestro has won two slams in a year. Federer won Wimbledon this year without losing a set, a feat he did not achieve even in his prime, and became only the second person to do so after Bjorn Borg in 1976. Not only has he finally left William Renshaw and Pete Sampras behind on seven Wimbledon titles, he is now the oldest man to win the Wimbledon in the Open Era. He has compiled a 31-2 record this year with five titles from the seven tournaments that he has played. Scheduling has been key to his resurgence, and while many doubted the wisdom of skipping the entire clay season, he has justified his decision with an incredible season on grass courts, winning back-to-back record-breaking titles at Halle and Wimbledon. He has won 30 straight sets, one short of his best ever set streak, and 12 straight matches. He has extended his own record in reaching his 29th Slam final, besides registering his 42nd semifinal at the level and 50th quarterfinal and broken his tie of 11 quarterfinals at Wimbledon with Jimmy Connors. He has also won more matches(91) than anyone at Wimbledon and extended his record of Grand Slam victories to 321. Simply by playing the first ball against Alexander Dolgopolov, Federer equalled Fabrice Santoro’s record of 70 Grand Slam appearances in the Open Era.
Roger Federer shatters time and space each time he touches a racquet. Every time Federer plays he breaks records by the fistful, records that have stood for decades, or even from the very beginning of the sport. Each time he plays, the pages of the record books are turned over, cancelled out, rewritten. He throws the game out of its accustomed figure, and reshapes it with his liquid whip of a forehand and his gliding single-handed backhand, wielding the racquet like a fine scalpel, a tapering paintbrush, a conductor’s baton, or even a magic wand. He readjusts the limits, he redraws the lines that limit the game, giving it an entirely new topography. He shifts the sport beyond the borders of accepted reality, and into a space where only dreams exist. Roger Federer is the realisation of tennis fantasy.
The Dramatic Comeback
In 2013, as he crunched and ground his way through the draw, defeated in the second round by Sergiy Stakhovsky, and then to cap a horror-show year, in the fourth round of the US Open by Tommy Robredo, who had only taken three sets off him in ten previous meetings, it seemed that Federer’s Grand Slam dreams were over. 17 was an amazing number, but it was not going to be increased. Hope rose as he came back strongly in 2014 and 2015, only to be defeated heartbreakingly in consecutive finals by Novak Djokovic, a figure scaling scary heights in tennis at the time. The opportunity to take the 2014 US Open after Djokovic had been defeated by Nishikori was put paid by this same Marin Cilic, who crushed him in straight sets in the semifinals. But, much like the fabled elephant, Roger Federer too, can remember. The memory of that defeat was still fresh in his mind, as was the five-set battle last year, where he had to come back from two sets down to deny Cilic in the quarters. This time, he was prepared, neutralising Cilic’s strong forehand with slices cross-court, and mixing up his baseline tennis with a number of approaches to the net. Federer’s serving has been incredible this last fortnight, and it was rock-solid on Sunday, as he churned out incredible numbers behind both the first and second serves. Federer’s greatness lies in his ability to adjust, and Cilic was at the wrong end of the stick. When he took a timeout in the second set, visibly distraught at the hammering he was receiving and possibly slightly injured in the foot, the air of the inevitable filled the stadium. Nevertheless, Federer did not let his guard down. He had waited five years for this, and he was not going to allow himself to relax his grip on the trophy before he had it safely in his hands.
Five years is a long time in a sport that moves as quickly as tennis. Five years Roger Federer watched as Grand Slam trophies were held aloft by Djokovic and Nadal, and challengers like Murray or Wawrinka turned into champions as time passed him by.
Having waited five years for his 18th Grand Slam, suddenly, unbelievably, he starts this week with 19. The inevitable questions about retirement keep coming, and Federer answers cheekily these days, saying that he will retire whenever his wife wants him to. There will not be many more years to celebrate this unique blip, this glorious aberration in the history of the sport, but for all he has given us, for the way that he has redefined tennis and its limits, for the joy, the pleasure, the disbelief that he has gifted us, he deserves the thanks and the admiration of every tennis fan in the world. Roger Federer has ascended to the sphere of the sublime, and it is our task to get rid of our tongue-tied feeling of awe to write about him, to document this unique player and moment in tennis history, in the hope that some day it will be torn down and rewritten by another even greater. But one gets the feeling that it will be some time before that day finally approaches.
One must feel for Marin Cilic, who should have had a much better day and whose confident display till the final was possibly aided by Federer’s praise. The final turned out to be too big an occasion for him and became a bit of an anti-climax. But Marin will find himself forever enshrined in history because of the man on the opposite side of the net, and he played his part as bravely as possible. On a Sunday in the July of 2012, Roger Federer had last held the Wimbledon title. It was even then something of an expected, everyday, even boring sight in the world of tennis. So many years later, the familiar has returned in the shape of the extraordinary. Roger Federer is the Gentlemen’s Champion at Wimbledon again. And if only for a little while, time and history have bowed to the genius of the man.