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.”