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The ageless, imperious Federer

• Posted in Tennis • By JoeBaker

Players past and present, pundits and fans have simply run out of ways to describe, or even simply understand, the brilliance of Roger Federer.

At almost 36 years of age, he has just become the eldest man to win Wimbledon in the Open Era, a record eighth triumph taking him clear of Pete Sampras five years after the last time he lifted the trophy on the famous Centre Court. The straight sets procession over Marin Cilic also makes him only the third man to win multiple Slams without dropping a set and the first to go through a whole Wimbledon without losing one in over 40 years. He now has 19 Grand Slams to his name, more than any other player, and will surely break the 20 barrier. This Wimbledon final was his 11th and his 29th Slam final in total. It all verges on the ridiculous.

What makes this Federer renaissance so incredible is that he is arguably now playing the best tennis of his career – he’s won more tournaments this year than anyone else – at a time when most normal players would be quickly heading into, or already in, retirement. What’s more, until this year he hadn’t won a Slam since 2012, although he had come close. People thought that the end was nigh for the Swiss yet instead he is just as strong, if not stronger, than ever before.

So, why is it that age has really become just a number for Federer? How is he able to still be playing at this truly stratospheric level so late into his career?

The first, and probably most publicised, reason is that he has mastered the ability to manage his body and schedule so well. After his heartbreak at the semi-final stage of Wimbledon last year, he took a six-month break to rest his back and knee before returning to shock the tennis world by winning the Australian Open in his first tournament back. Then after winning at Indian Wells and Miami, the two biggest Masters tournaments on the ATP Tour, he decided to skip the whole clay season to get himself in peak condition for the grass court season. Such breaks don’t work for everyone – the likes of Murray and Djokovic like to have lots of games and momentum to hit top form – but Federer has taken some very big decisions over the past 12 months and they have paid off. He knows his body and what it needs; his run to Wimbledon number 8 wasn’t a sudden return to form but the result of careful planning and judgement.

People often say that watching Federer play is like watching an artist in full flow. It’s not just that he has been so successful but the way he has achieved it; in a compelling style full of grace, fluidity and precision. And aside from how aesthetically pleasing it is to watch, this way of playing has also helped his longevity. Whilst Nadal, Murray and Djokovic are more reliant on big-hitting and working hard to cover every inch of the court, Federer is about finesse in the way he glides into his shots. Is it any wonder that those other members of the famed ‘big four’ have all broken down at certain points in their careers, whilst the older Federer has not? Both Murray and Djokovic had to pull out of Wimbledon through injury yet Federer barely broke any sweat on his way to the title. He is so well balanced with such quick feet that his court coverage is supreme, allowing him to reach shots most can’t and keep in rallies when under pressure. He just doesn’t seem to have to run as much as his opponents. This ease of movement enables him to get into position quickly when anticipating shots and ultimately helps with conserving energy – it shouldn’t be a shock to see him getting stronger as tournaments go on whilst his opponents get gradually more fatigued.

With age comes experience and with that improved game management. During matches it is apparent that this is just another area of his game that Federer has nailed over the years. He builds and constructs points; a puppeteer with those on the other side of the net at the end of his string. Each shot is hit with a different level of spin or pace, never allowing the opponent to get into a rhythm. The glorious one-handed back-hand in particular remains devastating. This is perhaps another reason why he is physically still so strong – he is almost always dictating the play and rarely having to dig in and work hard on the back foot. As shown by his service returns and many passing shots, Federer’s reactions are still as sharp as ever, so even when he is under pressure he is able to respond with interest.

All the great champions are defined by a relentless drive to improve; to constantly push and enhance themselves and keep securing more and more titles. There has perhaps been no athlete in any discipline with a hunger greater than Federer’s. It is why he is always working on his game, always analysing what he could be doing better even when to most mere mortals he has it all. The unquenchable thirst for titles is as strong as ever, having lasted and grown more intense during his Grand Slam barren years between 2012 and 2017. Just look at the way he celebrated that 18th Slam title in Melbourne, or the way he broke down in tears as he took in the scale of what he had achieved as he sat in his chair on Centre Court.

We’re lucky to still have Federer gracing courts around the world, playing at such a high level. And what makes it all the more special is that he may be around for a lot longer than most of us thought was possible. The ageless, imperious Roger Federer.

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