“You guys have tried to kill Roger, often. But he's always come back and proved you wrong. So one thing I would not do is make the mistake of saying Roger is dead.” - Rafael Nadal in July of 2010
Watching Roger Federer beat Andy Murray in Sunday’s Wimbledon final, fans and commentators alike could be excused for briefly wondering if they had somehow found themselves back in 2006. So much of what had made Federer a dominant, transcendent figure in men's tennis was on display: the mesmerizing ease of his unparalleled footwork, the staggering variety of shot-making, the impossible court vision, the sweatless brow It was termed a “vintage” performance, an example of The Greatest Of All Time rolling back the years. But these cliches, designed to invoke the past, should have had the opposite effect for anyone who's been paying attention to the last few years of men’s tennis. They should remind us that Roger Federer is only thirty years old, that the year is 2012, and that Federer is still playing at an elite level that few players have matched during the course of the sport’s history.
Yesterday, after Andy Murray's tearful speech to an adoring crowd, Federer was asked what it felt like—after all of three years—to once again hold the Wimbledon trophy in his hands. “Like it never left,” he replied. What we saw yesterday was that while the Grand Slam titles had evaded him—Federer was title-less in his last nine, by far his longest drought since winning his first in 2003—his game can still be elevated to an absurdly high level, and that Federer has by no means spent the last two years thinking he'd never win another. In fact, what Federer's success at Wimbledon shows us is that despite his age, he has taken the long view of his career, and that the winless run, while filled with many disappointing moments and defeats, suggests that he was adjusting, not fading.
Sports narratives often sacrifice complexity for drama. One trope of the dominant athlete follows a basic path: athlete shows promise, athlete fulfills promise, athlete takes over sport, new challengers emerge (it is here where much of the drama ensues), athlete is eventually bested, athlete retires. A slight variant of this is that after the champion is toppled, he reemerges one last time (always briefly), to make us remember, to make us pay our respect to both the athlete's legend and legacy before he goes away, this time for real.
The first attempt to place Federer into this storyline came in 2008, when he showed up at the Australian Open fresh off a bout with mono and only managed to make it to the semis, where he lost to Djokovic. He followed that up with a loss in the finals at the French to Nadal, where we were told he would likely never complete the career grand slam. The fear of his demise peaked after Nadal dethroned him at Wimbledon that same year in a match many call the greatest ever played. Some (even Federer himself) began to wonder whether he would tie or break Pete Sampras' record of fourteen grand slams. Federer responded by winning four of the next six majors, including his first French Open, with two five-set losses in finals preventing him from winning them all.
His second drought seemed to have more legs. Before Sunday, Federer had only even made it to one of the last nine finals. Nadal and Djokovic, meanwhile, won all nine of those events. The sheer physicality of their games are nothing like the apparent effortlessness of Federer. They were pushing Federer around, and this time most believed they were pushing him to third-wheel status. Yet today Roger is ranked first in the world, and his seventeenth grand slam pushes the finish line even farther away from Nadal and Djokovic’s career marks.
While the win against Murray revealed how expansive Federer's game can still be, it was his defeat of Djokovic in the semifinals where we saw a more accurate idea of where he has taken his style of play. After back-to-back quarterfinal exits at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2010, Federer hired coach Paul Annacone, and together they obsessively crafted methods with which to compete with both Djokovic and Nadal, who were busy taking turns dominating the tour (Djokovic did most of it). Federer shortened his game, became far less willing to engage in long baseline rallies, tirelessly improved the backhand stroke that Nadal had ruthlessly punished, and refined his serve so that his ability to change pace and angle make it perhaps the most effective on tour, if not the fastest. Whether it's simply good timing, or a conscious decision, that Federer made these changes while the other two were at their absolute peaks looks to be paying dividends. Against Djokovic, he managed to look fresher and more energetic than a favored and younger opponent. There was less of the spontaneous 'genius' apparent; instead, Federer was punishing and methodical, taking his opportunities when they came along and keeping the Serb guessing the entire time. The beauty of his game was not constant, but it did peak out from time to time, reminding you of its presence. He was different, yet identifiably the same.
That transformation was not without its pitfalls, but it’d be wrong to term it as a wholesale decline. In reality, Federer was just adjusting it to his opponents and his age. After all, he more than anyone on the planet knows what a toll it takes on the body to play long into every tournament and to deal with the inevitable wear and tear. While Nadal and Djokovic have been busy punching each other out, Federer was busy extending his career and now it seems that he's leveled the playing field once more. In all likelihood, had the other two superstars reached this level years earlier, the changes to his game would have also had to be made more quickly.
While we often cling to the broad strokes of an easy narrative, the truth is sometimes even simpler than a readymade story. High-level tennis matches are preposterously close, both on individual points and as wholes. The great Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final of '08 was decided by a mere five points. Djokovic only defeated Federer at last year's U.S. Open by closing his eyes and ripping a prayer of a winner while down match point. In Sunday's match, when Federer looked so good, only fourteen points separated him from Murray. That Federer stayed so close over the last two years, while making so many adjustments and waiting out his rivals, tells us that this title is not about his decline and subsequent redemption. He's just always been there, winning less but staying relevant and hanging around. He had to sacrifice some of what made his game seem perfect, but that only makes him a different kind of champion. His ability to stay the course suggests that he's ready to defend his title as the world’s top-ranked player, not simply enjoy a fleeting return to the top. If he loses at Flushing Meadows in two months, please don't tell us he's dead.