A month short of his 31st birthday, and nearly 10 years after he claimed his first Grand Slam, Roger Federer is still winning them, and he’s still winning them the way he always has. His 17th, a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 win over Andy Murray for his seventh Wimbledon title, reminded me most of his second win on Centre Court, when he beat Andy Roddick in four sets in 2004. Both times, Federer waited through a first-set storm from an inspired opponent. Both times he struck back at just the right demoralizing moment late in the second set to even it.
How Federer struck today may have come as a surprise. He hadn’t volleyed well in this tournament, but he has seldom done it any better than he did today—Federer came to the net 68 times and won 53 of those points. His two most important trips there came with Murray serving at 5-6 in the second set. Until that moment, Murray had been the better player, the player controlling the rallies and soaking up everything Federer had thrown at him—as late as the middle of the second set, Federer had hit managed to hit just two forehand winners. After winning the first set, Murray had knocked on the door through the second. At 2-3, he had a break point and a look at a forehand pass, but couldn’t get the ball past Federer. At 4-4, Murray had two more break points, but Federer again saved those with aggressive play. Now it was 6-5; when Murray went up 30-0 on his serve, it looked like they were heading to a make-or-break tiebreaker.
Maybe Murray did look ahead, because he sent a loose forehand long to make it 30-30. It was the let-up that Federer needed. He won the next point with a brilliantly measured forehand drop volley hit while moving backward. At set point, he struck with the drop volley again, this time from the backhand side. Instead of going to a tiebreaker, the match was one-set all. If you had ever seen a Roger Federer match before, though, you knew that psychologically, he had just given himself a commanding lead.
As the Murray storm passed, a rain storm moved in and the roof came on. A master of the great indoors, Federer found his groove in the third and fourth sets and never looked uncomfortable. Now he was the one moving smoothly around for inside-out forehands. He was the one finding his spots with his serve when he needed it. He was the one mixing slices and drives and keeping Murray off balance with his returns. He was also the one stubborn enough to lose five break points at 2-3 in the third, yet stay in there long enough to win it on the sixth, with a devastating one-two forehand punch. The match had, at last, settled into the expected pattern—Federer dictating, Murray scrambling.
Murray, knowing what was at stake, knowing how hard he had worked to get to this point, never went away, but by the fourth he looked weary, and his back started to ache. Federer stuck the final knife there by snapping a backhand crosscourt pass to break for 3-2. The crowd tried to rally Murray, but Federer never lost his cool, or surrendered his grip on the match. After losing the first point of the final game, he came back with a service winner and his 12th ace. He looked, as you might expect, like he’d been there before.
Some wondered if Federer would ever get back there, into the Grand Slam winner’s circle and back to the No. 1 ranking, which he reclaimed with this win. It had been two and a half years since his last major. But Federer had stayed patient, hired a coach, kept working, kept winning tournaments, and most important, kept putting himself in a position to win the biggest ones. If anything, with his volleys clicking today, his game appeared to be complete than ever. If anything, as he tracked down every one of Murray’s drop shots, he looked more agile than ever. We know now that it was just a matter of time before Federer put it all together. And we can be pretty certain he’ll do it again. You have to like the chances of a guy who, at 30, is still No. 1, still winning majors, and still doing it much the way he did when he was 22. He really is timeless.