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Federer is Betterer at 36 - how?
The cliché of “father time” catching up with athletes towards the end of their careers has taken many victims across a variety of sports. Once they reached a certain age, the qualities that separated from the rest were still there in terms of the talent, but the speed, fitness and consistency had deserted them. Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras, eloquently spoke about the end of his own career. “The winning didn’t feel as good, but the losing seemed to hurt more. Maybe it was a sign of mortality.” One would expect this to happen to every athlete who has been successful for the majority of their careers because replications of previous glory years cannot be called at will. This seems true, but for one athlete, it seems literal “father time” has given him a new lease of life. Roger Federer is the world’s best player once again after a period of almost six years, how does he spellbind us again and again?
When analysing Federer’s game, journalists and fans alike point to his talent as something that will never go away. John McEnroe, an artist on the court in his own right with incredible feel and beautiful grace in his heyday, has repeatedly said that Federer is the most talented player the sport has ever seen. But, looking at other sports and even in tennis, having an abundance of gifts from heaven does not necessarily result in exceptional performance. Rio Ferdinand once said that Ravel Morrison was a kid that Sir Alex Ferguson thought was the best talent he had ever seen. Unfortunately, he has not been able to fulfil that potential and deliver on the pressure bestowed upon him. So, how has Federer been able to become successful in tennis? The training blocks he puts himself through in Dubai every off season seems like a good place to start. His contemporaries seem to get a lot more attention for the amount of effort they put in. Be it Rafael Nadal in his academy or Andy Murray in the mesmerising heat of Miami, the desire to improve from them is clear to see. Due to the Swiss legend’s grace and elegance, it does not seem like there is effort being exerted. However, the sweat in the sun of Dubai should not be understated. That relentless strain reaps its rewards in front of millions on the biggest stages of the sport. However, being extremely successful in what you do also has its downsides. Once you have reached the Mount Everest of your respective sport, what more is there to do? Novak Djokovic must have felt this way after winning the French Open in 2016, since he became the first man in more than 40 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. He has not been able to replicate those highs since, either due to mental fatigue or physical disintegration. How has Federer been able to reinvent himself time and again over the past two decades?
All tennis players (maybe except Bernard Tomic) will admit to their love of the sport. The way they became professional has a lot to do with their passion for the sport and the innate nature of a one on one battle. In spite of the inordinate amount of money top players receive, there are certain quirks that can put people off the sport or diminish their passion. Having to travel for 11 months of the year, living in hotel rooms more than at home and for many players, not being with your family for the majority of the year are huge turn offs. It seems as though Federer loves every bit of it. “Sampras used to love to win, Jimmy Connors loved to fight but Federer, loves it all.“ These were the words of Patrick McEnroe on commentary after the 2012 Wimbledon final. Another icon of the sport, Stefan Edberg told a fascinating anecdote which just seems up Federer’s mentality perfectly. The time was the evening of the 2008 French Open final. Federer had been crushed by his nemesis Nadal 6-1 6-3 6-0. Mere mortals would be in a state of shock as to what happened and we would forgive them of not being able to play for weeks on end. In spite of this being the worst defeat of his career in terms of the scoreline, he had a party in Paris. Edberg asked him why he had a party, Federer simply replied “I reached the final, that’s something to celebrate.” Seeing the positives in every situation has been a crucial factor in Federer getting over some of the most painful defeats and moving on has been his greatest strength in the last 20 years. He may have more heartbreaking defeats coming his way in the next year, but the sense of perspective he has on his position in the sport and what those losses mean for his career will stop him from misery. He will take it as motivation to improve as a player, this attitude can only be admired and attempted to transfer into other disciplines.
So, Switzerland's favourite son is back on top of the rankings and has become the oldest player to reach that coveted position. The list of achievements in this extraordinary career shows no signs of meeting a full stop anytime soon. Words are simply inadequate to describe what Federer embodies for tennis and the world, but it's not the time to write obituaries. Savour the elegance, cherish the grace and celebrate the purity of his tennis. People will say he is a once in a generation athlete, but I am taking it one step further. Roger Federer is an athlete that only comes along once every 10 generations.