US Open 2014: ‘Beloved’ Roger Federer holds tennis in the palm of his hand
With Roger Federer, his popularity has never been only about whether he wins or loses, but also how he plays the game
The last Grand Slam of the year is, like the wonderful city that hosts it, big and bold, high octane and high volume, hot and humid, but chilled and cheerful.
The crowds come in their thousands, and pack the biggest tennis stadium of them all, the Arthur Ashe arena, to its soaring rim. It may be the early hours of the morning, but the enthusiasm of fans, of New York itself, seems to know no bounds.
But the build-up to this year’s vibrant, all-consuming sporting occasion has, rather more than usual, seemed to feature one name above all others.
Sure, Roger Federer is a five-time champion, and is back in New York for the 15th straight time, to play his 60th consecutive Grand Slam.
Yes, his durability and longevity have grown one of the biggest followings in sport—enhanced still further by his late membership of the Twitter-and-selfie fraternity.
And then there are the records—more than you can shake a stick at whether the yardstick is Grand Slam titles, time spent at No1, most match-wins in Majors and at the ATP World Tour Finals, nine sportsmanship awards from colleagues, 11 favourite gongs from fans… it goes on.
Even so, this year something has been different. Perhaps it was best summed up by one of the many admirers he has among even the best, the 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert.
She was asked by Justin Terranova in the New York Post about the support Federer gets from fellow players: “Whenever we go off air, I say, ‘Raise your hand if you are a Roger Federer fan right now.’ This guy is the most beloved champion that we’ve ever seen—people love him. And people are pulling for him. Everybody pulls for you at the end of your career anyway. They don’t want to see you go. That’s what he’s going through right now.”
And there you have it. Federer turned 33 a fortnight ago. Three months before, he became the father of a second set of twins. Six months ago, his ranking dropped to No8. A year ago, he made his earliest exit from New York in a decade, having made his earliest exit—the second round at Wimbledon—in 11 years. He was suffering from a persistent back problem, had picked up only one title, Halle, and his confidence seemed to be flagging.
It all brought a chilly blast to the heart of tennis. Perhaps the man who had graced his sport for so long was finally—though it seemed sacrilege to say so—facing the inevitable.
As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone… and tennis most surely did not want Federer gone.
How fortunate, then, that this remarkable athlete did not want to go, either. It would have been easy to leave, was hard to stay, harder still, at 33, with a burgeoning family and a growing numbers of rivals eager to take his scalp, to reclaim world-beating form.
But he took the brave step of changing his racket, the creative step of joining forces with Stefan Edberg, and the gritty step of working harder than ever to regain his fitness. It took something else, too: the kind of determination and passion that produces Grand Slam champions.
He succeeded to such an extent that he is now being touted as one of the favourites for a sixth US Open title. There is even talk of his reclaiming the No1 ranking by end-of-year. Courtesy of finals at three Masters and Wimbledon, plus a sixth Cincinnati crown, sixth Dubai trophy, and a seventh Halle title, he has won more matches this year than any other man.
Yet it was to those chilly months of 2013 that he turned in talking of his hopes at this year’s US Open.
“I think last year I was trying to convince myself I did have an opportunity… [but] I just felt like it was always going to be hard beating top-five, top-10 players. I felt like I had little margin against guys ranked just outside of the top 10 to No30. The rest of the field, I felt I could manage it somehow, but the confidence was going away quickly, too, just because I was just not moving so well. I was scared to have another setback, and so it was not as clear-cut and simple as it is this year.”
And his stats against fellow top-10 players have indeed told a compelling story: Already he has beaten 12 top-10 players this year compared with just one at the same stage last year.
“This year I played a lot of good matches. Not just Toronto and Cincinnati, but really from the first week on I have always played really nice tennis. Then you come into this US Open knowing… well, you remember how it feels to win tournaments. You remember and you get used to that. You almost forget how to lose to a point, and confidence rises. You’re back to winning ways again and everything seems so simple, you know. It’s nice feeling that way.”
He was asked how he has managed to remain so successful for so long. Most spectators point to his fluidity of style, his technique and tactics, the range of options at his disposal, but his view is more pragmatic, more practical: “I feel like I have managed my career well in the sense that I believe in rest in a huge way.
“Whenever I get a chance to rest, I do. Whenever I can go on vacation, I do. I don’t want to keep on playing all the time and feel like I’m always doing something, because I think the body and mind, they need time to heal. I’d rather skip a tournament here and there than miss three or six months, which has never happened to me. That served me well.”
It has also served tennis, and a still-growing fan-base, well. Another former player and now Sky presenter, Mark Petchey, spoke for many after seeing Federer win his first Masters title in two years last week: “Why would anybody who loves this game want this guy to stop?
“When are you ever going to see another guy who plays the game this way? You don’t want any of the great players to stop… but this guy plays with an elegance that is a throwback. It almost joins up every decade that we’ve had since the Open era.
“He’s left enough indelible images on a tennis court that whichever one you pick as your favourite is how you’ll remember him, regardless of whether he goes on a two-year losing streak and doesn’t win another title.
“He’s still not going to dilute my passion for what I’ve seen over the years, of how he’s played this game and the joy that it’s given me to see someone move a tennis ball and compete as hard as he has.”
For with Federer, his popularity has never been only about whether he wins or loses, but also how he has played the game.