July 8, 2012

Seven Ages of Roger

They say humans pass through seven distinct stages throughout their lifetimes, from birth to grave. And while Roger Federer winning his record-tying seventh Wimbledon trophy earlier today doesn't seem to signal the end of his career, it seems appropriate to take a look at how his game -- and his impact on the sport of tennis -- has changed over that span.


Federer was only ranked #5 in the world when he beat unseeded Mark Philippoussis for his first title at the All England Club, but he'd already started to make his mark -- two years earlier he'd defeated defending champion Pete Sampras in a historic five-setter to reach the quarterfinals. Up to that point, that had been his best performance at the Slams, and after three first round losses at the eight subsequent Majors he wasn't exactly flying high on the radar.

But then he stepped on the lawns of London and the world started to take notice. With that year's top seed Lleyton Hewitt out in the first round and the pretty Australian tweeter downing an aging Andre Agassi in the Round of Sixteen, the twenty-two year old Swiss made easy work of his draw. Still a relative newcomer to the scene -- he'd only won a handful of smaller titles and one Masters event in Hamburg -- we weren't quite sure what to make of his run, but we were starting to see the signs of something that held great potential.


A year later Federer came back to the All England Club toting the year-end championship, a second Major title from Melbourne and the top ranking to boot. Having backed up his maiden Slam, he'd established himself as a real power in the sport and one we knew better than to overlook. This year he played his first of four Major finals against American Andy Roddick, a rivalry that -- despite its greatness -- would eventually go down as only the fourth or fifth most exciting in the champion's history. In just under three hours Roger had successfully defended his crown, and he went on to capture a title in New York, going three-for-four at the Majors that season. We started to hear rumblings of his destiny, his ability to capture the career Grand Slam, the prospect he could set one record after another.

But we'd have to wait a few years longer for that.


By the time 2005 rolled around, Federer was firmly ensconced among the elite of the sport -- he'd held the top ranking for over a year, had reached at least the semis of the last four Majors, was racking up trophies like he was saving up for a gold shortage. But he was transitioning to a new stage of his career -- the powerhouses of the first half of the decade, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Hewitt, Roddick, were starting to fade, but Roger was there to bridge the gap. As if symbolizing the shift, he beat all three of these guys on the way to his third straight Wimbledon title, seemingly closing the door on the era where just about anyone could win a Slam.


Roger came to the All England Club the next year having played in four straight Major finals, narrowly missing the opportunity to complete the "Federer Slam" at Roland Garros. His foil, of course, was the poster boy for the new age of tennis, hard-hitting Rafael Nadal, now a two-time winner of the French Open at just barely twenty years of age. The Spaniard could easily have been dismissed as a clay courter -- to this day he is, of course, the greatest on that surface -- but his run to the final at Wimbledon that year belied such critiques.

Their meeting in the championship match was already the eighth in their still-forming rivalry and Nadal had an insane 6-1 record on the world #1, with Federer's only win to that date coming in a 2004 five-set marathon in Miami. Even still we were only getting a glimpse of what the competition between Rafa and Roger would mean for the sport, and for the time being, with Federer's four-set win over the then-#2, order seemed to be restored.


By Wimbledon 2007 Federer had held the #1 ranking for a record 177 consecutive weeks. He had won his tenth Major in Australia and was just shy of his fiftieth ATP title. He had improved his record somewhat against Nadal, now three times a winner in Paris and widely recognized as his biggest and probably only foe, but still lost twice as often to him as he won. Still with four straight titles in London, he'd established himself as the current king of the All England Club, and when he successfully captured his fifth -- tying Bjorn Borg's record for consecutive crowns -- he sent a message that, while Rafa might enjoy the clay of Roland Garros, this was his house.

We didn't know then, that was about to change.


Over the next few years the tide began to shift in the tennis world. Nadal upped his game off the clay, ended Roger's streak at Wimbledon, took over his #1 ranking and stunned him in Melbourne. It started to look like Fed's unchallenged reign at the top of the sport was over -- just short of breaking Pete Sampras' Major record. But in the spring of 2009 something amazing happened -- Rafael Nadal lost in Paris, opening the door for the Swiss giant to finally, finally complete the career Grand Slam. With Rafa pulling out of Wimbledon, Federer didn't face a single player in the top ten on the way to his ninth straight final here, and though he was pushed to the very limit by old and flagging foe Andy Roddick, he did manage to surpass the American with a fifteenth Slam. On top of the ranks again, it nevertheless looked like Federer was nearing the end -- when Juan Martin Del Potro shocked him at the U.S. Open final later that summer, the door finally seemed to be creaking open for some new blood.


Roger added another title to his shelf a few months later, but it began looking like that 2009 Wimbledon would be his swan song. Tomas Berdych ended his streak of twenty-three straight Major semis the next year and Nadal reclaimed his place the top and completed a Grand Slam of his own a few months after that. And then started the reign of Novak Djokovic -- you remember the one with ten titles in 2011, four Grand Slam trophies of his own, and an end to the stranglehold on the #1 spot? With two years passing since Federer last claimed a big title, some said his time was coming to an end.

But then he returned to Wimbledon.

After going down two sets to love against Julien Benneteau in the third round and needing a medical timeout for a back problem versus veteran Xavier Malisse a match later, Federer seemed to regain his form. The first Major championship with neither Nole nor Nadal since early 2010, both he and first-time finalist Andy Murray, a loser in his three previous attempts at a title, were chasing history. Hometown favorite Murray had the chance to claim the first Major for the UK since Fred Perry won the U.S. in 1936 and Roger was on the verge of tying yet another record with Pete Sampras -- a seventh career Wimbledon title. Clearly the more experienced of the two, Fed was nevertheless vulnerable, aging, aching and facing a crowd that wanted to end a seventy-six year long streak.

And for some time it looked like this was finally Murray's year -- he opened by breaking the Swiss and closed out the first set after breaking again in the ninth game. But Roger stayed strong, withstanding some solid serving by the Scot and denying all four break opportunities in the second set. After a rain delay and roof closure halted play for about forty-five minutes, momentum could have shifted back to the fourth seed, but Federer's experience eventually triumphed and though Murray played better than he had when any other title was on the line, after three and a half hours it was Roger Federer holding the trophy in triumph -- again.

With the win, Federer did more earn another trip to the winner's circle at Wimbledon -- he ended a two-plus year Slam-less streak, will climb back to the #1 spot in Monday's rankings and, yet again, tie Pete Sampras for total weeks at the top. And the way he's played the last several months, it sure doesn't look like his return will be short-lived.

Roger Federer's had a long and storied career in tennis, and at the All England Club in particular, and if we're lucky it's far from the end. There may be only seven ages of man, but this man is a king, and hopefully that gets him a lot more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very well written