In the world of sport, Roger Federer is the gift that keeps on giving.
At 35 years of age, and nearly five seasons on from when he had won his last major, the Swiss pulled off perhaps his most remarkable triumph to-date, by claiming the Australian Open last month to extend his all-time record coup to 18 major wins.
Few people unite a sport the way Federer does and the longer he sticks around, the greater the admiration that pours on him wherever he goes.
The tennis following is still trying to comprehend how he came back from a six-month injury layoff (that saw his ranking drop to No17 in the world) to beat four top 10 players: Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and his fiercest rival, Rafael Nadal, to claim a fifth Melbourne crown.
The whole feat has yet to completely sink in for Federer himself.
“I think I’m still in the whole process. Because the thing is that I haven’t had a tournament since, so my last shot is still the forehand cross-court, you know what I mean?” Federer told Sport360 on Saturday, ahead of the start of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which he has won a record seven times.
“So I look back at that, if I look back at the match. That’s why I think it takes more time to set in. I had more time to celebrate.
“Now I’m back at a tournament so it actually keeps going because nobody has seen me since. So people are telling me how happy they were for me, or just congratulations. On the tour it’s what you do, you’re always happy for somebody else, it’s a nice tour from that standpoint. So it’s been quite a journey and I’m happy it’s still like that. It means a lot to me.”
Federer may never be able to articulate how much that Australian Open success meant to him but he is clear on how he got there: By relying on his family and team.
“Just everything that I’ve gone through the last six months, or even a year for that matter, or the last five years where I didn’t win a slam, where I was doing the right things but you don’t know if it’s ever going to pay off, you know? I feel this was very much a team victory this one,” the world No9 explains.
Ever since Federer comprehensively beat Berdych in the third round Down Under, the murmurs had started about the Swiss’ chances to win the title. And as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray suffered early exits, and Federer conquered one top-10 player after the other, the inconceivable was becoming more and more likely. For Federer, it wasn’t until he reached the last-four that he felt Grand Slam No18 was within reach.
“I thought when I made the semis that I might have a good chance against Stan just because the conditions played fast and I’ve played him well in the past, and I played that really good match against (Mischa) Zverev in the quarters, and a good match against Nishikori too, that I thought ‘you know, I think I’m really right now in a good groove. I could beat Stan maybe’. But still there was a long way to go,” he recalls.
“And then in the finals I truly believed I could win it, the match.
“I didn’t try envisioning the whole ‘I’m going to win, and what I’m going to say’ and all that stuff. I was just really focused on playing Rafa. Playing the ball only and trying to just go in there with a really positive mindset that ‘I’ve been playing so well, still have nothing to lose, what an epic match it could be if I beat Nadal in the finals, what it could mean?’
“I tried to embrace everything from the smallest details to everything else that comes with it – the press, the pressure… and I think that’s why I was so calm even when I was down in the fifth.”
A day before Federer and Nadal contested that final, Serena and Venus Williams faced off in the women’s title decider. Serena was born less than two months after Federer and their age-defying acts have seen them break countless records. Serena left Melbourne with an Open Era record 23rd major singles trophy and you wonder if her longevity ever inspires Federer to keep going.
“For me not so much with Serena to be quite honest, I mean I admire everything she’s doing and has done. Also I’m surprised she’s still actually playing. I thought she was ready to check out there for a while. But she’s hung on and she’s found new ways of doing things,” said Federer.
“She’s gotten healthy again as well, she was very unfortunate on a few occasions.
“I see it more – and Serena belongs to that group – with just a lot of those older athletes who are able to do it again and again and again. I was doing an interview in Prague the other day about Jaromír Jágr, who’s 45 and said he wants to play till 50. I remember him when I was growing up and I was following hockey, he was already a superstar.
“So a guy like him, or Gigi Buffon, or Valentino Rossi, or others who… I’m sure I’ve forgotten a ton now, but people who have done it for a long time and who are older now but are still super eager and super willing and Serena is exactly like that. She’s a fierce competitor and on the way to becoming the greatest of all time. It’s wonderful to see her do it for sure.”
Federer may have had rivals that challenged and defeated him, he battled through a four-and-a-half year slam-less stretch, he got injured and slipped in the rankings… but irrespective of all that, he remains the sport’s biggest draw card and the man who can get 6,000+ people to turn up for what was just a practice session in Perth last month.
He is not immune to the ups and downs of tennis, but seems to be immune to the turning tides that tend to sweep through a given sport. Champions appear to come and go, yet Federer maintains his place as the face of the game.
Does the responsibility every weigh down on him?
“No, not really to be honest. I understand I have a role to play in the whole tennis world. But at the end of the day tennis is bigger than any tennis player,” he insists.
“That’s why even if there is a new generation, new players, tennis will be fine. We have too many highlights during the year. There will always be a future No1, there will be new major champions, the wheel keeps turning.
“There will be some adjustment to be done if Rafa retires, or I retire, or Novak retires, or whoever any… Sampras and Agassi when they retired, it was different, they left a bit of a void. And that’s normal. But at the end of the day it’s also an opportunity for others.
“And I think it’s important for the organisation, the ATP, and everybody else to also look ahead, ‘what if these guys are not around anymore?’ I know they’ve been talking about that for years. They are embracing the next generation, which I think is super-exciting, there’s a lot of great players there.
“But at the same time how do we maintain to keep the older guys like myself and Rafa and everybody longer in the game.
“I think it’s really important too not to force sort of a playing rhythm upon them where they have to play so much that they get tired of it. So I think we found a good middle ground.
“But honestly I don’t feel a huge responsibility but I understand that I have probably an important role to play.”
Retirement is not on Federer’s mind at the moment. He is cautious in giving any particular date as his target to hang up his racquets, but the fact of the matter is, the end is much closer than the beginning for him.
Sometime in the future, Federer will be on the outside, watching tennis like the rest of the world. Is the sport heading in a direction he is pleased with?
“I think we’ve grown overall, if you think about the stadiums, the tournaments have got more and more professional. The Challengers are growing – I still think we could do more there,” he responds.
“We definitely need to clear issues such as the gambling issue. I think it’s real and there’s a report coming out in March now which I’m interested to see what’s coming out there. But I think actually tennis overall is doing quite well.
“I do believe – one thing is that I would like that the players keep up the pace of playing in between points. It’s just because that’s when I catch myself watching a tennis match and if somebody takes too much time between points, and you hit a let serve and you take the same time again to hit that first serve, when it becomes every shot becomes that important you have to take so much time just to get ready, I lose a little bit of interest.
“I would like just that the players recognise they’re not only playing for themselves but for the fans, so it is nice to keep up the good tempo of the point. That’s my only concern.
“Other than that I think tennis will always be super-exciting. Honestly we’re doing really well and I think it’s going to be great in also in 10, 20, 50 years from now.”
Federer is set to make his first appearance since the Australian Open.
Roger Federer has declared himself “super-fresh” mentally as he plans to make his first appearance since his historic Australian Open triumph last month this week at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
The record 18-time grand slam winner is gunning for an eighth title in Dubai as the tournament celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Federer will be participating in the event for the 13th time and is on a 10-match winning streak in the emirate, having captured the title in 2014 and 2015, before missing last year’s edition with a knee injury.
Four weeks on from his incredible five-set victory over Rafael Nadal in the Melbourne final, Federer says he’s ready to step back on the court even though he only just got the all-clear for an inner thigh problem that bothered him during the Australian Open.
“Mentally I’m super-fresh again. I think I refueled the energy tank, on the mental side, being home, spending time with the family, being in the winter in the mountains in Switzerland. It was beautiful to be home in my own house and just enjoy that part,” Federer told Sport360 on Saturday.
“Physically I had a bit of a problem with my leg, that was bothering me for basically 10 days of the Australian Open, I didn’t have treatment for nothing, so I did an MRI after.
“There was a bit of an issue, hematoma. I did it (scan) again last Monday before I came and it definitely was better. So since three days now I’m practicing at 100 per cent. I’m a little bit tired because it’s the first time I’m actually pushing myself again, but because it’s fast court, best-of-three , I will be fine.”
Federer opens his Dubai campaign against Frenchman Benoit Paire and has been drawn in the same half as top-seeded Andy Murray.
A long-time Dubai resident, the 35-year-old is looking forward to making his return to the courts in a city which he considers his second home.
“Maybe very fitting in the sense that yes I do enjoy this tournament. I was not going to risk injury playing here, I think nobody wants to see me doing that. It’s definitely nice you go from home to another home. From that standpoint yes I enjoy being here, that’s why also you don’t mind coming here early and actually getting yourself the perfect preparation,” said the world No9.
Federer recently pledged his commitment to compete in his home tournament in Basel until 2019, squashing any speculation over an impending retirement.
“It is a way, that where I was a ball boy, that people know that I’ll be playing there. As long as I’m playing, I will be playing there,” he elaborated on Saturday.
“It’s like Halle, people know every year I play Halle as long as I’m playing.
“You don’t want to sit down with the tournament director and say ‘Shall we do it? Shall we not do it? What’s your idea?’ and I told him ‘look, I’m going to be playing’.
“Whatever the deal is I’m going to be playing and I want them to have a successful event and by them knowing my commitment they can plan ahead.
“So then they win, I know, the fans win because they know, now they can bank on that, and plus I know it’s a lovely tournament to play in and it gives me also the vision looking ahead which I’ve always talked about, wanting to play for more years.”
The men’s Dubai tournament begins on Monday and will conclude on Saturday March 4.
The inaugural edition of the tournament took place during the first week of February in 1993 and was won by Czech ex-world No8 Karel Novacek, seeded No3 in Dubai at the time and ranked 23 in the world. Novacek beat Austrian Thomas Muster in the semis and France’s Fabrice Santoro in the title decider.
The final was pushed to Monday due to rain and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE, showed up for the trophy ceremony to crown the inaugural champion.
After losing in the first round on his Dubai debut the year before, charismatic Croat Goran Ivanisevic claimed the fourth edition of the tournament. He took out inaugural champion Novacek and title holder Wayne Ferreira en route to the final before defeating the unseeded Albert Costa to claim the trophy.
It was Ivanisevic’s 10th consecutive match win, having taken the Zagreb title two weeks earlier. His streak ended the following week in the Antwerp final against Michael Stich.
Austrian 1995 Roland Garros winner Thomas Muster took the Dubai crown, beating Jim Courier in the semi-finals and defending champion Ivanisevic in the final. It erased the memory from the previous year when Muster arrived to Dubai as the world No1 and lost in the first round to lucky loser Sandon Stolle.
The WTA tour came to the Gulf region for the first time with back-to-back tournaments in Doha and Dubai. Martina Hingis swept both titles, beating Nathalie Tauziat in the Dubai final.
“I really enjoyed my time here for the first time being in the Arab states. It was tremendous, I tried not to get too blinded by the gold that is around here,” said Hingis in her victory speech. Juan Carlos Ferrero won the men’s title.
Anna Kournikova’s sole appearance came in 2002. She faced Tunisian wildcard Selima Sfar in a three-set first round in front of a rowdy night session crowd before falling to top seed Venus Williams in the next round. Amelie Mauresmo won the title while Fabrice Santoro beat Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui in the men’s final.
Roger Federer’s first of a record seven Dubai titles came in 2003. The ‘Swiss Maestro’ did not drop a set en route to the title, which he sealed with victory over Czech No3 seed Jiri Novak. Other victims during the week included Moroccan Hicham Arazi and Federer’s current coach, Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia.
Federer’s title defence campaign started with a tight victory over Russian wild-card Marat Safin. He beat an inspired Feliciano Lopez in three sets in the final to become the first man to win back-to-back crowns in Dubai. Justine Henin also defended her women’s title that year.
Arguably the most iconic tennis stunt video was shot here in Dubai 12 years ago, when Andre Agassi and Roger Federer played tennis on a purpose-built court on the helipad of the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel in Jumeirah. Federer completed a hat-trick of Dubai titles that year, taking out Agassi in the semi-finals and Ljubicic in the final.
The Dubai crowd witnessed what was just the fourth instalment of the famous Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry in the final. Nadal ended Federer’s Dubai streak with a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win. They’ve faced off 31 more times since then.
Making his second appearance in Dubai, and having won his first grand slam title just a month earlier at the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic was the No3 seed at the Aviation Club and looking to take the city by storm. Having grown up in the mountains of Serbia playing tennis at a ski resort, Djokovic, a proficient skier, made sure he hit the slopes at Mall of the Emirates before the tournament kicked off.
A 20-year-old Andy Murray delivered an early shock in the tournament when he knocked out top seed Roger Federer 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-4 in the first round. It was their third career encounter – the start of what blossomed into a close rivalry that currently stands at 25 meetings between the pair.
Murray slammed 10 aces that day and won 91 per cent of the points on his first serve. It remains to be Federer’s only first round loss in 12 appearances in the Emirates.
Murray went on to lose to Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the quarter-finals.
Andy Roddick retired from tennis knowing he had a 100 per cent record in Dubai.
The American former world No1 played the tournament once in his career and won the title, taking out Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic back-to-back before defeating Feliciano Lopez in a thrilling final.
Roddick did not drop his serve throughout the entire week and he faced zero break points in the final against Lopez, who had to leave the city as the runner-up for a second time.
“This is as well as I have ever played. With these great players, to finish a week like this is just great,” said Roddick after his memorable win.
Federer withdrew from the tournament with an illness and Murray was sent packing by Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic in the second round, which left the coast clear for Djokovic to defend his Dubai title.
The Serb ousted Ljubicic and Marcos Baghdatis before defeating Mikhail Youzhny in the final, for his second trophy in the Emirates. Venus Williams won the 10th edition of the WTA event.
This edition of the tournament witnessed some spectular duels. From Juan Martin del Potro’s third-set tiebreak win over Baghdatis in the first round, to Tomas Berdych’s three-set win over Roger Federer in the semis, it truly was a week to remember in Dubai.
One particularly unforgettable moment was when Dubai resident Diego Maradona took to the court to hit with Del Potro after the Argentine’s second round win over Somdev Devvarman. Who knew the football icon had skills with the racquet too?
With a serving masterclass from Roger Federer, the Swiss claimed his record seventh Dubai trophy with a 6-3, 7-5 triumph over Djokovic. Federer saved all seven break points he faced during the match and fired 12 aces.
“Today (his serving) was exceptional. I thought at least I’m going to get one good look at the rally or something like that, but he did a very good job,” said Djokovic.
Before losing the final to Federer, Djokovic entertained the guests at the Players’ Party with what has now become an annual tradition of belly-dancing with Martina the belly-dancer. The two should definitely take this show on the road.
Making his tournament debut, Stan Wawrinka won the title in Dubai with a straight-sets win over a resurgent Baghdatis. The Swiss reached the final after Nick Kyrgios retired injured in the second set in the semi-final. Wawrinka's success in the final was his ninth consecutive victory in an ATP final.
“I was talking to Marcos last night – he’s a great friend – and I told him that every time he steps on the court he has a lot of fans. I really enjoyed the atmosphere tonight,” said Wawrinka after his win.