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This Is Not a Fluke

At age 35, Roger Federer is in top form once again. It’s his second spring — just as his younger rivals enter their own autumn.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Boris Becker knows why he stopped playing tennis.

At Wimbledon in 1997, Becker, the three-time winner at the Championships, made a run to the quarterfinals, where he received a four-set drubbing at the hands of a 25-year-old Pete Sampras. The last point, in classic Sampras fashion, was over ever so quickly; the thumping serve, the brief exchange of strokes, the quick death off of a rushed backhand. Becker jogged to the net afterward with an expression on his face that could have been either a smile or a pained cringe. He put his hand on Sampras’s shoulder and muttered a few words to his opponent.

“I don’t remember the words exactly,” Sampras said, recalling the moment. “But it was … he was honored to play me and that he was not playing anymore.” In his multiple retellings, Becker has emphasized the same point about the driving force behind his decision to retire. At 29 years old he had realized that even on his best day, Sampras would always be the slightest bit better than he was.

Becker would return to Wimbledon one more time before his permanent retirement in 1999, but that fortnight was one of closure — a last hurrah for the love of the game. By then he had accepted that he was no longer the king of grass.

The idea that “Father Time is undefeated” is usually interpreted in a singular, individual context: No matter how great a champion may be, the body or the mind will begin to show its wear. It’s strange how easily we forget that the challengers will, eventually, fall as well. In 2001, Goran Ivanisevic, a three-time runner-up, triumphed at 30 years old, becoming the only man ever to win Wimbledon as a wild card. Ivanisevic had twice been beaten by Sampras on the tournament’s final Sunday; the year before, he’d been knocked out in the first round. Father Time had come for Ivanisevic, whose ranking had dropped out of the top 100 by the beginning of 2001. But as Ivanisevic dueled his own mortality at Wimbledon, he was given a reward that had seemed unfathomable just a year earlier: Time came for Sampras, too. Strangely enough, it came in the form of a 19-year-old Roger Federer.

That legendary fourth-round Wimbledon match between Sampras and Federer, the only meeting between the two greats, was no fluke. We now remember it as a symbol, their handshake at the net almost a literal passing of the torch from one seven-time Wimbledon champion to the next. Sixteen years on, a 35-year-old Federer has yet to willingly relinquish his place at the cultural center of the sport. Even as younger players have usurped him, Federer has labored on, staying fit for a murky future, undeterred by his diminished results and rankings. This year has been his reward. His victories at the Australian Open, the Indian Wells Masters, and the Miami Masters are — like his win over Sampras generations ago — no fluke.

The latter two tournaments may not attract cultural attention in the same way majors do, but they each host 96-player draws and, with exceptions for injury, all of the best competitors in the world. It is exceedingly rare for any player outside of the Big Four to win either event; since 2005, only two such players (Nikolay Davydenko in Miami in 2008 and Ivan Ljubicic in Indian Wells in 2010) have broken through. It’s telling that even Federer has won all three tournaments in the same year only once before: in 2006, at his imperial peak.

The clear caveat in all of this is that this year, Federer hasn’t had to contend with Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic. In Melbourne, both were upset by unseeded players, and in Indian Wells, Murray was again knocked out in his first match by an unheralded opponent. Djokovic had a better excuse for his loss in California. He ran into an inspired Nick Kyrgios, who brutalized Djokovic with his nuclear serve and attacking mind-set. Both Murray and Djokovic skipped Miami to nurse injuries (Djokovic’s months-long title drought suggests his issues may be more serious than he’s letting on), but also, maybe, their broken sense of immortality. They will both turn 30 this year, and now they may finally be looking over their shoulders to make sure the Reaper is otherwise occupied.

Federer’s fans will call this spell of weakened competition inconsequential. His detractors will surely call it a gift. It’s neither and both. The Swiss’s path to each title has been no cakewalk. In Australia, Federer went through four top-10 players to win the title, something that hadn’t been done since Mats Wilander’s unseeded win at the 1982 French Open. At Indian Wells, Federer was gifted a walkover when Kyrgios pulled out of their quarterfinal match with food poisoning, but he still had to face Stan Wawrinka, a perennial bridesmaid but a voracious competitor nonetheless, in the final.

In Miami, Federer spent over five hours on court in his quarterfinal and semifinal matches, fending off match points against the dangerous-on-his-best-days Tomas Berdych and edging Kyrgios, who is playing the best tennis of his life, in three tiebreak sets. (The match with Kyrgios is, in my mind, the match of the year thus far — or it was until a partisan crowd interfered with line calls, goading Kyrgios into his familiar racket-smashing, error-laden play. That, if anything, was Federer’s undeserved gift of 2017.)

Each tournament has also brought a matchup with Rafael Nadal that, in the past, would have meant at least one loss, if not three. But Federer, who has finally grown into his bigger racket, is now confidently attacking Nadal’s heavy shots, banging backhands for winners and hitting ringing serves with an eye on moving toward the net. The Australian Open final was a tight toss-up of a match that Federer managed to grab in its final moments, but the subsequent meetings were embarrassingly easy victories. Federer didn’t drop his serve once; every ambitious winner that should have fired long or wide seemed to catch a piece of the line. Before this year, Federer had never beaten Nadal in three consecutive matches. Now, he’s won four straight.

For Federer, a spell like this, against Nadal and the field, would have been unlikely 10 years ago and unthinkable five years ago. At the 2013 U.S Open, Federer’s ranking had dipped to seventh, just one place ahead of Becker’s position at the 1997 Championships. The Swiss lost to Tommy Robredo in the tournament’s fourth round while Nadal topped Djokovic for the title.

Federer was still a presence; he rebounded and regularly reached the second week of majors. He even played in a handful of slam finals, but it was accepted that Federer’s dominance of the sport, or even his ability to close out a major final, was a hallmark of the past. But one thing that nobody seemed to consider is what the shallow curve of Federer’s glacial decline would enable. While fans applauded achievements that would have been considered failures in a champion’s prime, Federer did what, perhaps, no other athlete has ever done: He waited out the primes of his historically-good younger rivals.

“In recent years they’ve boiled down to a basic dynamic, with Nadal bludgeoning Federer’s one-handed backhand with lead-weighted topspin balls until the Swiss is driven to frustration,” Ross Green wrote in 2014. “It looks increasingly unlikely that Federer will ever again seriously challenge Nadal in a best-of-five-set match.”

Few would have imagined that Federer would be able to keep his body in fighting shape long enough to catch Nadal and Co. during their downswings, or that no new prodigies would come along to usher in their own era of dominance. More so, in a game as psychologically taxing as tennis, the mental tide that gathers with years of losing to a rival often becomes insurmountable. The Australian Open final was as much a display of Federer banishing his demons as it was a presentation of his new, confident backhand.

Djokovic and Murray’s absences from Federer’s 2017 schedule are, to an extent, a gift. But they are also natural; as stars age, shocking losses become unremarkable, periodic failings. Federer’s 2017 is Ivanisevic’s 2001 Wimbledon in exaggerated form. With Federer’s rivals now struggling, and his head and shoulders still above the non–Big Four participants on tour, the ATP’s power structure is in violent flux, to his advantage.

Federer said after his win on Sunday that he doesn’t intend to play another match until Roland Garros in May. In the intermediate tournaments, Nadal, who himself is playing better tennis than he has since 2014, could surely gain confidence on his beloved clay. Djokovic and Murray, who each played three slam finals last year, are far too resilient to continue their run of poor form. But Federer is playing as well, and as confidently, as he has in recent memory. And coincidentally, the shield that has surrounded all the important trophies has become uniquely volatile. Federer’s attacking tennis will not fare as well on the dirt as it has so far on hard courts. Even if he has a rough outing in Paris, it won’t be much of a sign of anything in particular; expectations have always been muted for Federer during that time of year. But the clay-court swing lasts for only a handful of weeks. Federer’s favorite tournaments — Wimbledon and the summer events on the speedy North American hard courts — loom enticingly in the distance. Federer may never be singularly dominant again, but we already see that, at 35 (or 36) he could become the best player in the world. Most are happy to grapple to a standstill with Father Time. What we are seeing now is his near-submission.