Contrary to popular belief, time has not left Roger Federer untouched.
After he won his record eight Wimbledon and 19th Grand Slam title, there were the usual odes about him being the ageless athlete, withstanding the tides of time, a monument to pristine perfection.
But has the 35-year-old transcended time at all? Short answer: No.
Yes, he is playing with a fluency of someone in their mid-20’s and is almost giving flashbacks of his 2009 heydays – the last time he won more than one Major in a year.
But that is not because he conquered time, but because he and his game have evolved with it. He made peace with age and made time his ally.
In many ways, the eight Wimbledon trophy was far more sentimental than beating Rafael Nadal at Australian Open this year. The last time he was prostrate on the grass of Centre Court was after his fall in the 2016 semifinal against Milos Raonic. That could have been the end, but a six-month layoff later, he turned back the clock. His record in 2017 so far is a majestic 31-2. But the man was very much in the now, the time away from tennis changed Roger Federer a lot. And he changed his game with it.
From the player who would blow opponents away with his graceful game, he has become a player who can overwhelm you with his pointed gameplan. The ballet-like movements are still there but there is a harder edge to them. Never a hard-hitter, he consciously goes for precise placement over power, strategy over speed, in these days of big-hitting tennis. This change of pace was necessary since his body gave him a warning signal in 2016, but he along with his team transformed the necessity into a new approach.
At 35, he doesn’t have the same physical wherewithal for long rallies (that more often than not, end in unforced errors). But what he has is the instinctive ability to cut points short and force errors with sharp angles.
Take the example of the drop shot, a weapon he has used to good effect throughout Wimbledon, but did not click very often, especially in the semi-final against Tomas Berdych. But it also worked amazingly when he played it against Cilic in the finals – a crisp, low drop that dipped just a fraction into his opponent’s net. Watch it in slow-mo, and you will know just how much thought Federer puts into the tactical evolution of his game.
The long list of records aside, Federer also became the first man to win Wimbledon without dropping a set since Bjorn Borg in 1976. This comprehensive campaign was not – as some have pointed out – because he didn’t play a fellow Top 5 player. In fact, his draw was not easy even with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal bowing out.
His opponents, right from the first week, were no pushovers – serve and volley specialist Mischa Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, the big-serving Milos Raonic, the tricky Berdych and the all-returning Cilic. But Federer utilised the entire arsenal accumulated over 19 years of experience to outwit and outplay them.
Playing Mischa Zverev, Federer outclassed the serve-and-volley exponent at his own game. Many players, including top seed Andy Murray at the Australian Open, have been at the receiving end of the quick-footed Zverev. But for the Swiss who cut his teeth on the style, it was a matter of outmaneuvering him. Federer slammed 61 winners to his opponent’s 20, won 74% points at the net to Zverev’s 55% and claimed 83% of his first-serve points to seal the win.
Against Dimitrov, a player who shares so much with Federer including the graceful one-handed backhand, the Swiss maestro was all about that serve – winning 75% of his service points on first serve and 74% on his second. The Bulgarian 13th seed’s ploy to attack Federer’s serve resulted in double the number of unforced errors. It was another classic case of Federer keeping his service game short and taking on his opponent’s serve to systematically accumulate points.
Against Berdych, who took him to tiebreakers in the first two sets, Federer employed a mix of slice backhands and volleys – winning 74% of his net points – to not allow the Czech the time to use his forehand or crack a return as much as he would have liked. This sustained pressure turned the tide in the tiebreaks as well. The third seed kept his service game short with 84% first-serve winners but sought to return most of the Czech’s serve.
For much of the first set, Federer’s average service game time was a minute to Berdych’s four minutes. When in trouble against Berdych, he brought out his big serves – with 13 aces in the match, most of them at crucial junctures. This was his strategy – cripple the Czech’s serve, bring him to the net, force errors and serve out games.
In the quarterfinal against Raonic, who ended Federer’s run last year, he hit 46 winners and made only nine unforced errors. He dominated from both baseline and the net, winning 90% on his first serve and 84% at the net. He saved all five breakpoints and did not give his opponent any time to get his return game going. It was clinical, it was well-thought and it stifled the otherwise hard-hitting Raonic.
The 11-time finalist used all of this and more against Cilic in the final, even though the Croatian couldn’t put up a tough fight. Strong first serve, cross court returns, quick to the net, end points with swift winners, and do not let the opponent get a toe in.
Throughout the fortnight, he exploited the chinks in his rivals. He consciously adjusted his game a little against different opponents to make sure he covered all his bases, even as he attacked across the net.
His serve was his big weapon, as is often the case. Such was his focus on placing it to exact precision; he served up more than a couple double faults in his last few games. Double faults by most other players is a sign of nerves, from him, it seemed like another calculation, albeit gone awry. Federer called his untested run at the Championship “magical”, but there was a range of experienced, mechanical work behind it.
Mental, as much as physical
Talent and technique – especially the kind Federer has – will get you a long way. But to reach where he has, unmatched mental drive and competitive spirit are equally important. Right from the days he broke his racquets after a loss or wept when holding the runner-up trophy, Federer always yearned to win. You could see that it physically pained him to lose. And it is this deep desire that fuels his 35-year-old body to push the limits.
He is ready to give up a chunk of calendar year, but not give up on the tournaments he wants to win. Very few in tennis can match the mental advantage Federer has – the hunger to do better even when he has achieved almost everything he possibly could. He has played 102 matches at Wimbledon, yet he cheers every breakpoint he saves with a fist-pump (no finger wags anymore), and jiggles his legs nervously during breaks.
The oldest men’s Wimbledon winner of the modern era has promised to return to defend his title next year – an indication that he is nowhere close to done. And why should he? With five titles and a 31-2 record in the season marking his return from his longest layoff, he has shown that he can work with time, he doesn’t need to fight it.