The Lion in Winter: Roger Federer’s Roaring Return to Relevancy

By Anusha Rasalingam

Even in defeat, Roger Federer roars back.

Aside from a few shanked balls at 4-5 in the fifth set during Sunday’s final, Roger Federer is right where he wants to be.  True, the disappointment of failing to win the Wimbledon title was subtly etched on his face as he held his runner-up trophy and waved to his daughters.  And, a stuffy nose at his runner up press conference betrayed a possible post-match cry.  But, after the match, Federer, ever the realist, noted:

“I already have seven. It’s not like I need another one.”

Skeptics may point to this as a sign of Federer’s lack of grace in defeat, though his full statements demonstrated his respect for his opponent and the quality of the match.  But, make no mistake, in the midst of answering the expected questions regarding the loss, his ability to win another Slam, and his future, Federer made his message clear: I don’t need your pity.  I didn’t need this title to solidify my place in tennis history.  And I’m not going anywhere.

Just a year ago, Federer was nowhere near SW19 during Andy Murray’s historic win.  By the end of the year, which featured shock losses to Sergiy Stahkovsky, Daniel Brands, and Federico Delbonis, Federer was in danger of becoming irrelevant.  Typically tight-lipped about injuries and illness, Federer was visibly hobbled in his loss to Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells, and continued to struggle with his balky back for much of the season.  For the first time since 2003, Federer did not advance to a Grand Slam final, and the only discussion of him at the latter stages of the Grand Slams was limited to obituaries for his career.

After achieving everything he could have ever imagined in tennis, no one would have blamed Federer for moving on – he and his agent, Tony Godsick, have recently founded a sports management firm and landed Grigor Dimitrov and Juan Martin del Potro as clients.  Similarly, if Federer wanted to continue on the tour, enjoy the applause, content himself with the occasional win at smaller tournaments, and playing the role of spoiler from time to time, he would have been well within his rights to do so.  After all, his rivals were younger, bigger, and maybe hungrier than he was, and there was a good chance that he would still be considered the GOAT when all was said and done.

But, following his defeat at last year’s Wimbledon, Federer started retooling.  First, there was the racquet change to a larger, more forgiving racquet that would help him generate more power.  Coached by Paul Annacone at the time, and friendly with Pete Sampras, Federer surely knew that Sampras’ main regret of his later career was that he did not change to a more powerful racquet.

Despite some obvious growing pains as he got used to the racquet, Federer committed himself to a change that few players of his level would contemplate at that stage in his career.  Then, following a disappointing US Open loss to Tommy Robredo, and a relatively lackluster indoor swing, Federer amicably split with Paul Annacone and recruited his childhood hero, Stefan Edberg to coach him, alongside his long-time coach, Severin Luthi.  Just as the racquet change would enable him to compete physically with his younger competitors, the coaching change would keep his mind fresh and continue to inspire him – preventing him from burning out as he reached the final stages of his career.

Despite his losses to Nadal and Ernests Gulbis at the first two Slams of the year, Federer has had a noticeable spring in his step from the beginning of the 2014 season.  He noted that his back injuries and subsequent losses had caused him to lose confidence at times in 2013, and proclaimed that he was back.  And the results were encouraging – he won two tournaments, appeared in three more finals, and got his ranking up to #3.  Surprisingly, he rededicated himself to Davis Cup – one of the few gaps in his resume, helping the team reach the semi-final, to be played this fall.

But the true litmus test of Federer’s tinkering would be Wimbledon.  Based on his form and his history on grass, Federer was among the favorites to win the tournament.  The lone bogeyman – Rafa Nadal was drawn into his quarter as he had been in 2013.  But, the rematch of the fabled 2008 final was not to be.  Nadal lost to an insurgent Nick Kyrgios, and Federer played nearly flawless tennis to reach the final, defeating Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic on the way.

As he spoke to the press throughout the tournament, he was pleased to be in the mix – noting how difficult it had been to lose early in 2013 and not be in contention.  By the time Sunday’s final arrived, Federer was picked by many to grab that elusive 18th Slam.  The match and Novak Djokovic had other ideas, however.

Unassailable on his service games until the final, Federer found himself in more tight service games than Djokovic.  Indeed, rather than focusing on the lost Slam opportunity, Federer expressed disappointment after the match with his own inability to break down the Djokovic serve through three sets.  And, even though he squeaked by in the first set tiebreak and led the score for a set, it always felt as though Federer was hanging onto the match by his fingernails.  In his on court interview after the match, Federer alluded to the match points he saved in the fourth, noting “it wasn’t looking good for a while.”  Yet, as he had against Andy Murray at the Australian Open in 2013 and against Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final, Federer found a way to force a fifth set and nearly take the match.

Until his 2008 Wimbledon loss, Federer’s most enduring image was that of the high flying wunderkind – with boundless talent and an ability win at will.  Many will define Federer’s career for what he achieved during those peak years – winning 12 Grand Slam titles, playing in 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals and 17 of his eventual record of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals.  But, his post-dominance years offer a different sort of achievement – endurance, adaptability, and heart.  Even where his racquet failed him against Djokovic, his mettle carried him through almost to the end.

It’s hard to say today whether he will end up with more Grand Slam titles than Nadal when both have retired, but Federer has consistently made himself relevant in the latter stages of Grand Slam tournaments more than any of his rivals.  His pride as a champion will not allow him to merely hang around the tour as a sentimental favorite or to grind away on the outside courts like his friend, Lleyton Hewitt.

He doesn’t want our pity applause, and he doesn’t need it anyway.  He’s continuing to put the pieces together on this next act of his career and is, as always, more excited about the days to come than those that have passed.  Based on what we have seen this fortnight, he has every reason to be.

8 Responses

  1. kalyv
    kalyv July 7, 2014 at 11:02 pm |

    Lovely article. Thank you.

  2. oracle86
    oracle86 July 8, 2014 at 3:01 am |

    Great article! Really love the stuff that you post, Anusha. Keep writing!

  3. Ken
    Ken July 11, 2014 at 3:55 pm |

    “Federer played nearly flawless tennis to reach the final, defeating Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic on the way.”
    Was Stan Wawrinka physically and mentally ready to play the QF after two continuous days of tennis?? What are Milos Raonic’s return stats for the tournament? Can you recall a single moment of effort to compete from any of his first three opponents?? Do u even recall their names without looking up for the data??
    Federer played flawless like he used to in 03-07 because his draw was weak like it used to be in those years. It’s actually great to write about how Federer won six matches, defeating No. 3 and No. 9 in the world to make the final. But some perspective is also important which unfortunately no one will spell doom for people’s writing ambitions.
    A writer taking on Federer is like someone in the Vatican questioning the Pope. The weak draw and the scheduling are the major reasons that paved Federer’s path to the final but sadly for Stan Wawrinka, he was just another win for Federer on his majestic path to final, not a victim of scheduling.

  4. jonathan
    jonathan July 14, 2014 at 12:26 pm |

    Well said Ken! You read my mind.

    Federer didn’t “find a way” to a fifth set. As in the first set with two set points, Djokovic was a break up TWICE in the 4th and got tight when serving for the title. Each time Djokovic let Federer back in to the match.

    With his easier quarter of post 30 yr olds and clay specialists, Federer had 10 hrs of court time prior to the final compared to Djokovic’s 15 hours due to his much tougher draw. I’m not sure Federer would have made it to the final with Djokovic or Nadal’s draw and, if he did, would have looked as fresh.

    Could have been over in straight sets.

    Fun match to watch though.

    1. Alison
      Alison July 17, 2014 at 8:29 pm |

      I wouldn’t say Fed had played flawless tennis throughout the Championship, either, although he played amply well enough to beat everyone in his path en route to the final. He still seemed to me to be struggling to adapt his grasscourt game to the new racquet, the forehand especially. As it turned out, he did have a relatively easy draw (not that that’s necessarily been a benefit in recent Slams) and I think to some extent that cost him. Djokovic was battle-honed by the final – I’ve never seen him play better on grass, and frankly hadn’t expected it from his performance in previous rounds – and Federer wasn’t, because he hadn’t had *enough* of a challenge, in my view. As Jonathan says, he could quite easily have gone out in straight sets. I’m glad he didn’t, and it was a good match to watch, but I was rather disappointed with his level of play in the final.

  5. A-phat
    A-phat July 15, 2014 at 9:45 pm |

    What can you say to the naysayers.
    Djokovic barely gets by Dimitri and Federer crushes Raonic. Fed is weak.
    Nadal loses to a teenager and can’t even break the fourth round for the 3 straight year.
    Fed is weak.
    Nearly 33 year old man almost beats #1 and to wins his 18th and 8TH Wimby. Fed is weak.
    Good heavens.
    Excuses excuses. This old champion has no business being relevant any longer or a credible world #3. BUT He is.
    What could possibly convince these folks.

  6. jonathan
    jonathan July 17, 2014 at 2:51 pm |

    Before the tournament starts, a draw with three servers who have the potential to take the racquet out of your hand on any given day would be a good start. Has never happened.

    Not. Once.

    1. Alison
      Alison July 17, 2014 at 8:33 pm |

      Probably wouldn’t have mattered that much if he had, would it? I thought Fed generally thrived on playing big servers. I don’t remember it being size of Stakhovsky’s serve which beat him last year, was it, or has my mind just blotted out the pain of it?

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