February 17, 2018
Once again, an emotional Roger Federer buried his face in his hands and tried to take in the significance of what he had done.
In itself, the victory shouldn’t have wowed the world. The only surprise, perhaps, was that Robin Haase won the first set in the Rotterdam Open quarter-final, which finished 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 in Federer’s favour.
But the mathematics gave this otherwise low-key triumph an historic value. Roger had reached the summit of his sport once more, some fourteen years and seventeen days since he first admired the view from up there.
And just in case we allowed ourselves to believe that Federer cared little for rankings and only had true love for Grand slam titles, the great man set the record straight after his win.
‘Reaching number one is one of, if not the ultimate achievement in our sport. You have to wrestle it back from someone who’s worked hard to get there, who deserved to be there, and when you’re older you feel like you have to put maybe double the work in.
‘So this one maybe means the most to me throughout my career. It’s a dream come true.
‘It’s been an amazing journey and to clinch it here, where I got my first wildcard in 1998, means so much.’
Yes, back in the last century. Twenty years ago. That’s when Federer started his journey towards the history books. Now he is 36 – three years older than the previous oldest holder of top spot.
Andre Agassi was that man back in 2003, and he wasn’t slow to tweet his good wishes and pay homage to the figures. ’36 years 195 days…Roger Federer continues to raise the bar in our sport. Congratulations on yet another remarkable achievement!!’
Serena Williams was 35 when she regained the high ground in the women’s game, and maybe she will do so once more, who knows? But right now Federer is the oldest man or woman to do it.
Maybe the most extraordinary statistic is that Federer hasn’t been world number one for five years and 106 days – the biggest gap between top dog stints in tennis history.
What does that tell us? Simple. Time was doing its usual thing, catching up on a great player, slowing him down a little, dulling his edge…and then suddenly it wasn’t. Time was turned on its head, sent into reverse, Federer started getting better again…and better…until he was the very best again. What the ???!!!
How has he defied nature and logic? How has he turned what might have been a flash-in-the-pan Australian Open win last year into three Grand Slams out of five, plus another five big titles for good measure, and an undefeated 2018 so far?
Many factors have come together. Switching to a larger racquet head back in 2014 started the ball rolling because it gave Federer a better chance of returning to greatness. ‘The larger racquet suits my attacking style, allowing me to play more aggressively and with less risk,’ he explained.
By being ruthless early, Federer can make most opponents crumble even before he is truly tested. That helps him to stay fresh – an important device, when it takes two weeks to win a Slam.
Then on a personal level there is the constant support of his wife Mirka, and the successful way Roger has adapted to being a father. Connected to that, of course, was the knee injury he acquired while running a bath for his children. Six months out. That was perhaps the biggest factor of all in his climb back to the summit.
Federer began to appreciate what he’d had before. He didn’t want it all to end. He wanted his kids to see him as the champion he had once been. And now they have!
This has all happened, you could argue, partly due to the demise, temporarily we all hope, of Novak Djokovic. Novak’s kicker serve to Fed’s backhand exposed a technical weakness in the Swiss master’s game during their relatively recent Wimbledon finals.
Perhaps for that reason, Djokovic at his very best also makes Federer unusually nervous, and Roger’s renowned psychological strength has been known to evaporate in key moments against the Serb.
But hey, tennis is all about staying the course, being the last man standing, managing age, injury and personal circumstances the best. Guess what? Federer wins that management game hands down. No one else compares.
Roger has been super-selective and super-smart in his choices over the last fourteen months or so.
Look what good decisions have gone and done? They have put Roger Federer back at world number one! Now he faces a new challenge – not to value top spot too much.
Federer needs to be careful not to play when he shouldn’t. He mustn’t be tempted to ask too much of his body just to strengthen his position as number one. Keep listening to what that body tells you, Roger. It has given you great advice so far!
Let’s face it, getting there should be everything when you reach the top of a mountain. Trying to stay there too long can be dangerous. If Federer has to let number one go again further down the line, in order to stay fresh, play longer and therefore keep winning key titles, he shouldn’t hesitate.
Cherish the moment now, though, great man. Stay smart. Keep winning. Above all, enjoy. Roger, you are a legend and we all congratulate you and salute you and can’t wait to welcome you back to Wimbledon.