I’m a Federer fan. I’ll tell you that up front. But hold on Nadalokovic fans, don’t leave just yet. I found Roger’s triumphant 20th Grand Slam victory… well…kinda boring.
Federer fans: WHATTT!! this is sacrilege!!! How dare you call yourself one of us?
I know. For some reason when Federer hit that millimeter-perfect second serve, I felt little joy. I know. When he raised his arms aloft, I didn’t shout, nor throw my own arms up. I know.
By all normal Federer benchmarks, Sunday should have been a joyful day. Marin Cilic put up a good fight, but capitulated in the final set. Roger served well, hit a delectable forehand half-volley, and improved his final set record (a chink in his armor in the past). But I think the records were the problem for me. Roger Federer’s wins of late have felt a little too statistical. 20 Grand Slams is special. But why should I care about #20 in particular? Why not the 15th? Or the 10th?
As I watched Federer weep happy tears with the Brookes trophy in his arms, I felt not joy, but awe. Federer is a shining example of human potential. He has an all-encompassing love of tennis, still bright after over a decade of Grand Slam victories. And more than that, tennis seems to love him back, keeping him strong and supple and quick over 1300 professional matches. He is the greatest men’s player of all time, indubitably, and one of the greatest athletes on our planet. When you watch Federer, you are watching history in the making.
Federer’s perfection would not be very good sports movie material. We expect our protagonists to clear steadily higher and higher hurdles, tripping, but getting back up and eventually finishing a hair’s length ahead of their rival. At the moment, Federer doesn’t have rivals. Watching him this tournament, I was aware of just how much better he was than anyone else. The man has an A game, a B game, and a C game. For example, when Federer lost the second set against Marin Cilic, I expected a change up. I thought perhaps he would come to the net more. Or perhaps he would hit his “neo-backhand”, the flat penetrating shot that has worked so well against Nadal. Instead Federer ‘simply’ started serving impeccably, hitting 81% of first serves. Cilic got a bit nervous, and that was the third set.
Roger Federer’s dominance can be boring because of it suffocates other players. He has too many options, too many weapons. His aura seems to make his opponents tighten up in crucial stages (think of Tomas Berdych’s collapse up 5-2 in the quarterfinals). And Federer’s the best front-runner of all time. As soon as he gets a break, the set feels all but over.
But Federer has long been famous for making dominance so beautiful and engaging. He can be beating a guy 6-1 3-1 and the crowd still won’t root for his opponent. The underdog rule doesn’t work in Federer matches. Why didn’t I find his dominance engaging in this tournament?
At 36 years of age, Federer can’t afford the sort of beautiful whimsy he used to have. When he gets a break he often doesn’t try very hard in his opponent’s service games, content to serve it out. Think back to the match in the 2009 Australian Open when he beat Del Potro 6-3 6-0 6-0. Federer delivered an absolute master class, going beyond the necessary, hitting delicate forehand flicks and backhand passes. Today’s Federer would have won in just as certain fashion, but probably by a scoreline more like 6-4 6-4 6-4.
Today’s Federer also doesn’t play long baseline rallies. He probably wouldn’t hold up through a grand slam if he played grueling, 20-shot rallies. They also weren’t very effective, hence his remarkably even rivalry with Andy Murray. Roger Federer’s much better when he plays quick strike tennis. But boy were the long rallies beautiful.
I love these rallies because I get to see Federer’s forehand in action. That lethal, multifarious shot doesn’t exist today. We rarely talk about his forehand anymore. Rarely is his “liquid whip” the difference-maker in a match.
Instead today’s Federer ends points earlier. In the final on Sunday, 76% of rallies were under 4 shots. He relies heavily on his serve (he out-aced Cilic 24 -16). The Swiss legend has achieved something remarkable over the last couple years. He has forgotten his tendency to engage in long, deleterious rallies. With Stefan Edberg, he learned to serve-volley (and the Edberg Shuffle). With the help of Ivan Ljubicic and a bigger racket, he transformed his backhand. Federer proves an old dog CAN learn new tricks.
The new and improved Federer is lethal. He slid through the Australian Open like a knife through butter. But I didn’t find his dominance as beautiful as the days of old.
I didn’t write this piece to insult my favorite player, or to begrudge his accomplishments. Federer’s new game has been remarkably effective, netting him 3 GS’s in 12 months.
Instead, this Australian Open made me realize how much my love of Federer is built on losses as well as victory. I felt joy watching Federer in 2014 and 2015. Federer was fighting back against the critics telling him to retire. He had a new coach, a new volley game, and an impossibly good opponent, Novak Djokovic. The two had rip-roaring battles, full of slashing attack and grueling defense. Federer occasionally put together perfect performances like Dubai 2015, and I would sit back and watch with a slack jaw.
Or think of the Australian Open 2017. Federer played perfect tennis to beat Berdych, then survived five-set battles with Nishikori and Wawrinka to make a Fedal final. He then beat Nadal in miraculous fashion in the final. The rally at 4-3 in the final set is forever embedded in my memory. This was a Federer scrapping for survival. When Federer faces adversity, he reaches peaks one can’t imagine.
Federer’s battles against Djokovic and Nadal have spoiled me. I want the fighting Federer back. I want to see players stave off Federer’s aggression and stave off his aura. I want Federer to lose a match and say afterwards “he was just too good”. In my utopia, Nole and Rafa and Andy would return. Or the next generation would step up. Maybe Marin Cilic can carry his momentum further and beat Federer next time. Maybe Nick Kyrgios can replicate his hyper-focused, hyper-aggressive performance in Miami last year. Maybe Sascha Zverev can finally find form in a Grand Slam.
Roger Federer can hit any shot. Age is just a number for him. His passion and dedication is unparalleled. Federer is tennis embodied. And tennis at its best when its competitive. Here’s to the return of Federer’s rivals.