For most people, age is the enemy. For a sportswriter, though, it can be a best friend, or at least a lifeline in a time of need. If we’re looking for a reliably crowd-pleasing column topic, the touching travails of a former champion in decline is a hard one to beat. Everyone knows what it feels like not to be what we once were, right?
Roger Federer, former and current tennis champion, knows this genre of column all too well. He’s been the subject of dozens of them since he turned 30 and stopped gathering up Grand Slam titles by the truck full. When Federer said in January that he hoped to play for two or three more years, part of me cringed at the thought of how many wistful essays with titles like “A Melancholy Meditation on Federer and the Inevitability of Aging” we were going to have to read—and that I was probably going to end up writing.
Two months later, it’s hard to imagine a less relevant topic in tennis. Federer, like a thoroughbred who has been stabled for too long, has broken out of the gates so quickly in 2017 that he has left all talk of age, decline and melancholy behind. When he won the Australian Open in January, there was the requisite amazement that he had done it as a 35-year-old; no player that old had won one in 45 years. But this weekend, as Federer romped his way through the Indian Wells draw with the springy daring of a man in his prime, there was little mention of his age. Over the course of the tournament, there were few references to the number 35, and I can’t recall hearing the obligatory exclamation “vintage Federer!” even once.
Instead, the focus around Federer on Monday has shifted to two other numbers: 1 and 2006.
The first refers the No. 1 ranking, which suddenly seems to be within reach. With his Aussie-Indian Wells double, Federer is leading the Race to London at the moment. And with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray pulling out of Miami, he has a chance to increase that lead next week. The second number, 2006, refers to Federer’s peak season, when he went 92-5 and won three majors as a 24-year-old. The questions have already begun: Can Federer scale those heights again? One article even went so far as to ask whether his career was just getting started.
That’s quite a head-spinning change, isn’t it? In the span of six months, we’ve moved from mourning the sad fact of Federer’s demise to predicting a sky’s-the-limit future for him. This is the way sports writing works, of course; we think only the most extreme viewpoints are interesting enough to hook readers. It’s true that, with Murray and Djokovic both injured and off to slow starts, Federer could reclaim the No. 1 ranking. But that would likely mean he would have to add to his schedule, which in turn would make it less likely that he could continue at his current level.
One big reason Federer is playing so well this year—a bigger reason than his much-cited racquet change of three years ago—is that he’s been rested. When he came to Melbourne, he hadn’t played a match in six months; when he came to Indian Wells, he had only played two in the last five weeks. Federer understands how crucial this is; over the weekend, he talked about how he “made a promise to myself” only to enter tournaments that he was really excited to enter, and to only play when he felt like he could be the “real me.” In other words, while his fans may have visions of 2006 dancing in their heads, Federer understands that he’ll never be 24 again.
And therein lies the beauty of this Federer comeback: It isn’t about the past. It isn’t about an impossible but long-hoped-for return to his peak years and his vintage game. It also isn’t about, thankfully, how he’s battling Father Time. (Have you heard he’s undefeated?) For the moment, Federer’s story has become about the future again, rather than the past.
That’s because he’s doing new things on court. First he experimented with the kamikaze-style SABR return. Now he has suddenly realized that he can hit his one-handed backhand earlier, on the rise, with more extension and with more power. In his win over Stan Wawrinka in the Indian Wells final on Sunday, Federer also volleyed and defended in ways I don’t think I’d seen before from him.
“We’ve never seen you hit backhands like that,” Tennis Channel commentator Mary Carillo told Federer after his blowout win over Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells.
“Me neither,” Federer said with a laugh.
This was only one match, of course, and the season is young; once his time on court starts to mount, he’ll come back to earth and have his share of off days. But for the moment Federer has replaced the well-worn tale of the aging athlete raging against the dying of the light with a new and happier one: the tale of the aging athlete who is discovering things in his game and his talent that he may never have known existed, or believed he could do.
On the one hand, this is about what a unique athlete, and a unique athlete alone, can do. But just as we can all relate to a champion who is going through the aging process, we can also allow ourselves to learn from a champion—i.e., another person, just like us—who turns that process on its head and ignores the accepted notions of what people can and can’t do at a certain age. Rather than a story of inevitable decline, Federer’s story at the moment is about how much lays untapped—not just in him, but in anyone. It’s about the possibilities, rather than the decline, that can come with getting older.
That’s a story I wouldn’t mind reading, or writing, a few more times over the next three years.
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