Roger Federer: His 30th year
"Birthdays happen," said Roger Federer of the brouhaha surrounding an imminent milestone
Roger Federer clearly has few concerns about the impact of the passing years on his life or his tennis.
“To me it’s a nice time. Do you listen to your body more? Yes, you do. Are you more wise? Yes, you are. Are you more experienced? Yes. Do you have a 1,000 matches in your body? Yes, you do. You just go with what you have.”
Of course, what he has is the envy of many. His style of play resonates with dance and his athleticism summons his birth sign””lithe, effortless, quiet and deadly. His eloquence and ease have set new standards with the media: He conducts press conferences in three languages, took Mandarin lessons in Shanghai to pass a few idle hours.
He keeps a close entourage of family and friends able to provide unwavering support and unquestioned privacy””encapsulated by wife Mirka, his consort since he was 18. He has even slipped into fatherhood””nothing less than twins would have done””with the ease of oil floating on water.
He has established records that many believe will never be surpassed: 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals; 237 consecutive weeks as No1; never retiring from a match that he has started.
But after 13 years as a professional player, he now fends off questions about his desire to play and his will to win. Time, therefore, to let his actions during his 30th year””August 2010 until today””do the talking.
Federer began the US Open series after six months that left many scratching their heads. His year had slid from Grand Slam victory in Melbourne, via a lung infection in the spring, to early exits in three Masters on the bounce to players who had never beaten him before.
His run of 23 Grand Slam semis ended at Roland Garros and his fall in the quarters of Wimbledon marked the first time he had failed to reach the final there since 2002. It also took him to No3 for the first time since 2003.
It was inevitable, the argument went, that a player would struggle to maintain fitness, focus and desire after a decade of such tennis.
Federer thought otherwise, though he afterwards revealed a little more when talking of his decision to take on Paul Annacone as his coach: “I had to regain some confidence. That only comes through winning matches. After having somewhat of a disappointing clay season where I wasn’t able to win any tournaments and didn’t play my best tennis, played a bit passive, it was important that I was able to pick up my game. I started moving better, started feeling well physically and mentally.”
With illness and his poor early season behind him, he hit the hard courts with a new coach, renewed fitness, and an unalloyed desire to win. The “passive” Federer was replaced by an attacking Federer, ready to chip and charge, willing to drill his top-spin backhand into point-winning perfection and to mix up his game around the net.
He won 29 of the next 33 matches through seven tournaments. From the final in the Toronto Masters he went on to the Cincinnati Masters title. After a semi-final exit at the US Open, he reached the final of the Shanghai Masters, won his 64th and 65th titles back-to-back in Stockholm and Basel and made the semis in Paris.
Now back to No2, Federer’s match-packed, hard-court six weeks between Shanghai and the World Tour Finals paid off in spades as he stormed through the London finale on a rising crescendo of wins. First was an hour-and-20-minute trouncing of David Ferrer, then an hour-and-a-quarter win over Andy Murray, topped off by an hour-and-a-half dismissal of Soderling.
In the semis came the crispest, fastest, most incisive display so far, as he conceded just five games to Djokovic in 81 minutes. The Serb expressed it thus: “Every ball kind of listens to him.”
The climax of the year produced the final that London craved: Federer against Rafael Nadal facing off in their 22nd match and their 18th final. It lasted little more than an hour and a half, but it was tennis to make the heart sing. It’s rare to see Nadal wrong-footed and outpaced, but that is what Federer’s first set of tennis achieved to lead 6-3.
Despite Federer’s continued aggression, Nadal lifted his game and broke to level the match, 6-3.
Once more, Federer stepped up the pace and aggression and broke Nadal almost immediately in an exhibition of vicious angles, wide serves, crisp net attacks and a glorious offensive backhand””retooled back in July for this very opponent.
Federer swept to his fifth year-end title, 6-1, to complete 21 victories between the US Open and the year-end event: a personal record.
Meanwhile, Federer enjoyed another record-breaking moment, one that marks his unique appeal to, and respect for, his fans. He was presented, in the O2 arena, with his eighth consecutive ATP Fans Favourite Award.
For behind the scenes, whether winning of losing, Federer carries his responsibilities seriously. He is president of the Players’ Council, has won the ATP sportsmanship award more often than the man after which it was named, Stefan Edberg. He set up his own Foundation eight years ago and instigated the Hit for Haiti initiative along with countless other fund-raisers. No sooner had he beaten Nadal in London than the two men headed first to Switzerland and then to Spain to play two exhibitions for their own charities.
2011: starting over
Within a fortnight, Federer was winning his next””and still his last””title in Doha, without dropping a set. He became many people’s favourite to defend his Australian title but fell victim, in the semis, to the fairytale Djokovic story that was about to unfold.
He lost to Djokovic again in the Dubai final and the semis of Indian Wells. He reached the semis in Miami and Madrid, only to lose to Nadal. And Rome proved once again to be his bogey Masters as he met a resurgent Richard Gasquet.
The high spot of 2011, though, was Roland Garros, where Federer played a tactical masterpiece to end Djokovic’s unbeaten 2011 run. Even losing to Nadal in the final, Federer played better and won more games than in any of their previous Paris encounters.
And so coming into Wimbledon, Federer’s name was once again on everyone’s lips. But no-one could predict the game a certain Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would bring to bear. Federer won more points, served at 75 percent, converted his only break point chance, and then made just seven unforced errors in the final three sets: yet he lost.
The year of landmarks
So his 30th year has come full circle and he embarks on the defence of those multiple titles and multiple points. It was ever thus.
“¢ He played his 900th match in Stockholm””the only active player to reach this landmark””and anticipates reaching a 1,000 before he is done: He’s at 965 already.
“¢ In 2010, he exceeded 50 match wins for the ninth straight year””and he has 39 towards his 10th half-century in 2011.
“¢ In London, he became the only man to win the WTF title undefeated four times: no-one else has done so twice.
“¢ His 67th title in Doha was his 11th consecutive year to claim a title: He won his first at 19.
“¢ In Madrid, he reached more Masters semi-finals””40″”than anyone before.
Federer’s year began with a new friend, Annacone. Let it end with that friend’s words to the New York Times.
“When we first started talking”¦his level of excitement and desire to keep playing and to do it in a way that’s positive, optimistic, energetic and open-minded, really kind of floored me. I felt like I was with a 22-year-old.”
And consider this. Three days before his 31st birthday, Federer may be playing the biggest match of his life: for an Olympic gold medal.