The eternal. The immovable. A time lord and a sporting great.
Just some of the words used to describe Roger Federer after his record breaking eighth Wimbledon win at the weekend. It wasn’t just the singles record he broke. Oh no. He also became the oldest player to win Wimbledon in the ‘open era’ and the first player in 40 years to not drop a set in the men’s draw. Love him or hate him, an incredible feat and one that has not only cemented him the title, but has him in the conversation of the greatest athletes ever in any sport.
Let’s not forget that not only have we lived through the reign of a player whose legacy will last for decades, we’ve also been witness to one of the most astonishing comebacks that tennis and sport have ever seen.
Rewind to 2002 and a young Roger Federer breaks into the World’s top 10 for the first time. Fast forward a year and he wins his first Wimbledon title at the age of 21.
Thus begin the dominant years.
2004 saw him win three Grand Slams and finish the year as World No.1 for the first time. In 2005 and 2006, Federer won a total of five Grand Slams and statistically had the second-greatest season of all time (in the open era) only coming in behind Rod Laver’s Grand Slam year of 1969. The French Open in 2006 was where he met Rafael Nadal for the first time in a Grand Slam final – a rivalry that would become one of the most illustrious in tennis history. 2007 was notable for a number of reasons. Federer reached the final of all four Grand Slams, losing only to Nadal in the French as Rafa’s clay court dominance continued. It was the year of a Wimbledon final hailed as one of the best ever – a five set thriller, the outcome of which put Federer in the record books, equalling Björn Borg’s five consecutive victories at the All England Club. It was also the year that a relatively unknown Serbian by the name of Novak Djokovic appeared on the scene. He needs no further introduction!
The records continued to fall over the next few years, as Federer broke the all-time record for Grand Slam singles titles and completed his own career Grand Slam – finally emerging victorious on the clay courts at the French. A surface that had proved his nemesis for so many years. Since Wimbledon 2005, Federer had made the finals of 18 out of 19 Grand Slam tournaments, an extraordinary period of sustained excellence unparalleled in the Open Era. The Australian Open in 2010 would however mark a turning point and despite a victory over Andy Murray to claim his 16th Grand Slam title, this tournament was arguably the end of the Federer dominance era.
We saw a brief resurgence in 2012, a Wimbledon win and a return to World No.1 but the cracks were beginning to show and the glory days seemed far in the past.
At the start of 2017, Federer hadn’t won a Grand Slam for five years, he finished 2016 a mere 17th in the world rankings after six months out of the sport following a knee injury and people were starting to ask the question as to whether it was the right time to throw in the towel and retire. He was 35 at the end of the day and it was looking increasingly unlikely that he would ever win that 18th Grand Slam. Perhaps it was time for one of the most elegant tennis players ever to walk the courts, to bow out gracefully and admit his time was up.
And this is where, for me, Federer surpasses so many other sporting greats in terms of quality. Against all odds and when so many around him had written him off, he worked his way back to peak performance, both physically and mentally. He changed his game. Refined his technique. Accepted that he wasn’t the quickest or fitness on courts anymore and drafted a game plan accordingly. More than anything, he has looked this year like he is enjoying his tennis. He’s relaxed, in control and his tennis is as good as it’s ever been because of it.
Some will say that luck was on his side this year in Wimbledon. A lot of the top players have been suffering with niggling injuries that meant they weren’t performing at the best of their abilities. But so what? He still had to win seven matches to lift that coveted trophy and in doing so, he didn’t drop a single set. It’s a phenomenal achievement that no one can take away from him.
I’m not going to pretend I’m Federer’s biggest fan, but I can acknowledge that he is something special. An ultimate champion and one that I have a feeling, isn’t quite done yet.