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.