A seismic event in tennis is about to happen this week. I am exaggerating of course, but when Roger Federer is primed to step on the tennis court again after being away for what seems an eternity, hyperbole to some degree is justified, perhaps even warranted. It is no accident that Federer’s much anticipated return to tennis coincides with the return of good weather. You could not ask for a better metaphor than flowers and sunshine, considering we just endured several months of the most horrendous global health crisis in living memory, not to mention the brutal winter that followed. It is prophetic that the year when an unyielding pandemic forced all of humanity to take an indefinite timeout from life and living was also the year that forced Federer to step away from the game he loves so very much.
The question now on everyone’s mind is whether Federer’s tennis will return to Spring mode, with all of his fantasmagorical shot-making brilliance and balletic movement intact. His adoring fans will want nothing less of course, and the more optimistic ones among them might even hope they will see a new and improved version of the old Federer. What better way after all for the crafty magician with the racket to have whiled away his free time retooling his considerable arsenal and adding a glorious twist or two to his game.
Far fetched? Perhaps. Improbable? More likely. Impossible? The jury is still out on that one knowing that at least destiny if not age was firmly on Federer’s side not too long ago. While his detractors might scoff at the very idea that he will simply waltz back into his winning ways, Federer’s remarkable resurgence in 2017 — when he returned from a four-month hiatus and won the Australian Open title in a classic come-from-behind fifth-set victory against his legendary Spanish nemesis Rafael Nadal — is a stark reminder of why he remains the game’s favorite dark horse, even at age 39 (and counting). For Federer age is but a number, and when he steps on the tennis court this week in Doha, his first foray into competition in thirteen months, all bets are off. He still plays to win.
But nothing in all of sport is a sure thing, and even for Federer deja vu is anything but a sure thing. Competition in the men’s game has become a lot tougher in the last few years and a rusty Federer will have to deal with the Old as well as the New. The Spanish Bull and that Serb Machine Novak Djokovic (I use the monikers in appreciation) took the last two grand slam titles, so the Old is not only going strong, it is encroaching into Federer’s once exclusive domain. The indefatigable Spaniard is now on par with Federer on the grand slam titles count, while the relentless Serb is lurking two titles behind and has just taken the lead on the coveted total-weeks-at-number-one sweepstakes. Meanwhile the Young and Restless — there are too many of them to count — are huffing and puffing and closing in rapidly. One of them won the year-end contest last November in emphatic fashion and there is surefire optimism that the days of the old guard are numbered.
What comes out loud and clear from all of this is that the old Federer, however great or godly he appears, might not find it easy anymore to get past the first week in the majors, let alone win the big trophy. The year 2021 is not 2017, age 39 is not 35, and history will not always be so kind as to repeat itself. Which is why that retooling idea is gaining traction in Federer’s fandom…for therein lies their hope and his salvation. Remember the aptly named SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) which Federer conjured up a few years ago to alarm, rattle and unsettle opponents? Word on the tour is that Federer hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs during the long break, that he has in fact added a few more trademark Federesque moves to shorten the rallies, gain the advantage, and maybe, just maybe, finally convert some of those darn match points. Will that prove to be the proverbial clincher for a guy who has earned and squandered more break and match point opportunities especially on the big stage than any other player in history (including two which literally cost him his ninth Wimbledon title in 2019)? For Federer fans, hope is eternal, and their faith in his ability to garner more glory is deep. That said, if things still don’t pan out on the tennis court and there is no last hurrah on the horizon, no worries. The ultimate thrill of tennis for the Roger Federer fan is just watching him play.
One final thing…2021 could be the year when the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) debate takes center stage with each of the Big Three laying compelling claim for the top honor. The Spaniard and the Serb will take the conventional wisdom route and rest their case on uniformly accepted relative measures — number of grand slam titles, weeks-at-number-one, head-to-head competition and so on. But for the imperial Swiss numbers tell only half the story. How he plays the game is the rest of the story. He has his very own meticulously cultivated yardstick wherein greatness is measured in absolute terms. William Skidelsky in his book Federer and Me makes the startling point that “there is nothing old school, nothing pre-graphite” about Nadal and Djokovic, where as the Swiss’ appeal is both a throw-back and a catch-all, a perfect amalgam of the past, present and future that evokes wonder and leaves giddy fans asking for more. “One way to think of Federer is as a palimpsest,” writes Skidelsky, “a text on which the various stages of tennis’ development have been successfully inscribed.”
The GOAT debate will linger on forever, which is not a bad thing for us mere mortals. For now however we should leave philosophical and arbitrary arguments aside and focus on the tennis that will be served up this year. The terrible pandemic will soon be relegated to the rear-view mirror, touch wood. Spring is almost here — with the birds and the bees and the flowers — to remind us to replace fear with faith. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are all set to resume their dogged single-minded pursuit of GOAT-hood, while an army of young tennis hopefuls — from Theim to Medvedev to Kyrgios and Rublev — are salivating at the gateway, eager and ready to uproot an established old order. And last but not least, Roger Federer is back…to play tennis and enthrall us as only he can.
Let the matches begin!