“I can cry like Roger, it’s just a shame I can’t play like him.” – Andy Murray uttered these magical words in the post-match press conference after losing to Federer in the finals of the 2010 Australian Open. Roger Federer has always been more than a name, more than an icon –an enigma of sorts.
There have been many greats in the game of tennis-Rod Laver, Bjon Borg, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal; but all of them fall short of Roger Federer in terms of talent and greatness. Tracy Austin, the former three time grand slam champion, perfectly sums up Roger’s qualities and abilities by exclaiming that, “Roger can produce tennis shots that should be declared illegal!” Most children of this generation have grown up witnessing Federer effortlessly gliding through his opponents, toppling one after the other.
Federer is so good that even if he falters for a few matches all kinds of rumors start flowing. Roger’s play took some serious hit as he failed to sweep through any ATP tournament in 2016. People were beginning to say that old age had finally caught up with him. His ranking fell to an all-time low of 17 which did nothing but further consolidated the fiction that he was becoming slow and injuries were far more frequent. Federer, on the other hand, has always been a humble man, focused on rectifying his errors rather than paying any heed to what the journalists were saying about him. In fact he was known for being a guy who thanked journalists and reporters for coming to his press conference and bought drinks for the photographers as so clearly mentioned by sports writer Rene Stauffer.
We all know about Federer’s service and of his forehand – the former “a weapon of mass destruction” because he hits a majority of them for aces with an unerring accuracy and the second one is as beautiful to behold as the “Monalisa” but equally menacing.
A Federer loyalist had to often wonder as to what was exactly the weakest link to the Federer game- that is if ever there was one. The obvious answer to that would be his back hand, which is responsible for many an unforced error. That monstrous forehand of his helped Federer to cover up against right handed opponents, but the odds changed when a left handed Nadal was pitted against him. Nadal has one of the most powerful and treacherous forehand which is known for the amount of top spin put on it by him.
Federer had an air of invincibility about his playing style, the only Achilles’s hill to his game was his back hand. Roger Federer has always played his backhand with one hand on the racket-making it look sort of careless in a game defined by elegance and brilliance. The one handed backhand is always less stable when compared to a double handed back hand which is deployed by most players in the current era. Federer’s back hand has taken a rebirth like Jesus and has made its way into becoming one of the most powerful weapons in his reinvented arsenal. He now plays the back hand with a firm front foot which has increased his power and accuracy manifold. Roger himself now seems assured when he plays that shot, a shot which at one time was taken apart by Nadal’s forehand.
For a person who has won 33 ATP major tournaments, 18 Grand slams and has been the world number one for a total of 302 weeks, overcoming this one fault in his game was not that difficult. Roger Federer re-emerged in 2017 as a completely different player than the one his fans had witnessed in the previous seasons. He was determined to prove that he was like wine that got better with age. He looked much more fit, was quicker and his backhand looked absolutely bang on point. He won the ATP masters in Miami and Indiana Wells before proceeding to lift the much coveted Australian Open. The credit, as much as it goes to Roger, must also go to his new coach, Ivan Ljubicic who has incorporated the new back hand and made some finer adjustments. Ljubicic’s must be rightly applauded for helping Federer regain his “Midas touch”.
The path to the finals was not easy. Federer scored three top 10 wins, which comprised of a brilliant and hard fought 5 set struggle against Kel Nishikori. With this mammoth victory, Roger became the first person in the history of world tennis to have had 200 wins against players seeded inside the top 10. Another tough and gritty opponent in the form of countrymen and Olympic team mate Stanislas Wawrinka awaited Federer in the semi-final. This too was an explosive five set encounter which saw Federer edge his fellow compatriot.
The stage was set and age old rivalry was about to be back in action almost after 6 years. Rafael Nadal, his nemesis and the then world rank 9, awaited for him in the finals. The duo created history and rewrote record books by facing off in a Grand Slam finale for the 9th time. This was their first meeting in a grand slam final since the 2011 Roland Garros final. What made the match more interesting was that Nadal had very effectively discovered the “chink” in Roger’s armor and used it to his advantage. Nadal had forced Federer to play the erroneous back hand on certain occasions and used it against him. Nadal, however, was in for a surprise as the Swiss legend packed some delicious back hands off the base line.
Federer won the first set 6-4, to only find Nadal making a comeback by winning the second one 6-3. Roger thundered past Nadal to win the 3rd set by 6-1 and Nadal aptly replied to the bombardment by winning the 4th set 6-3. Federer meanwhile had the last laugh and won the final set by 6 games to 3.
On statistics, the Swiss legend hit a mind boggling 20 aces when compared to the 4 hit by Nadal, with a staggering 76% first service success rate. He edged Nadal on both forehand and back hand winners, the former 28 to 20 and the latter by 14 to 9. Aussie great Rod Laver said that the improvement and subtle changes made by Federer to his back hand took way the advantage that Nadal had with his forehand. It was as if we were witnessing the familiar version of the Roger Federer we all knew so well.
This is just the beginning of the season and Federer has clearly indicated that he means business. It was his 5th Australian Open in total that propelled him back into the top 10 rankings of the ATP. Currently seeded 4th in the rankings he has his sights firmly set on the remaining three grand slams of the year. Even though he has already had a great “comeback” year ever since he returned from his injury – he would still be looking to improve his records upon the clay courts at the Roland Garros where he boasts of only one title. Wimbledon has always been a Roger masterclass. The grass center court is to Federer what the Sunderban is to the Royal Bengal Tiger, both move about unhindered and unchallenged.
The final tricky fixture is the trip to the flushing meadows at the end of the season for the US Open. Victorious or not, Federer has already staged a comeback which is elephantine in proportion and in terms of history as he broke his own world record of 17 Grand slams by winning the 18th. Roger Federer has no one left to compete against apart from himself and how he does it will be really fascinating for the fans to witness in the coming months.
“In an era of specialists, you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist…or you’re Roger Federer!” -Jimmy Connors.