Federer playing a different game
Whatever happens, Swiss champ cannot be accused of not trying to keep up
Ten years ago, Roger Federer arrived at the Australian Open about to become No. 1 for the first time, beginning a reign that would last for a record 237 weeks in a row and a record 302 weeks in total.
On Tuesday, when he steps on court for his first-round match at the tournament this year, he will be setting yet another record -- 57 consecutive Grand Slams played, breaking the previous mark of 56 set by Wayne Ferreira. That may be a less lofty achievement, but in the fluctuating world of tennis, it is immensely prized. While in pursuit of the record, Ferreira played Wimbledon after being carried off on a stretcher at the French Open.
Federer has not had to resort to such measures, but can now count as his own a streak that adds up to more than 14 straight years, an astonishing feat of consistency (and lack of injury) that sits well alongside his record 35 Grand Slam quarterfinals, 23 Grand Slam semifinals and 10 Grand Slam finals in a row.
Federer has already played a wide cross-section of players in his career. When coming up, he faced those he had seen and admired on TV -- Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Pat Rafter, Carlos Moya, Tim Henman -- and soon outlasted them. Then he faced his contemporaries -- Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andy Roddick -- and overwhelmingly overcame them as well. Next came a younger group -- Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. First, the task was to hold them off. Now, it is to remain competitive with them despite a wearying body and the increasing physical demands of the game.
But like all great players, Federer has had rivals not just on the court but also in the history books -- the likes of Sampras, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Bjorn Borg and increasingly Nadal. And he has fared relatively well against them, too, winning a record 17 majors, setting a new mark for No. 1 and winning all four Slams at least once. He did not manage the Grand Slam like Laver did (twice), but twice came within one match of doing so -- in 2006 and 2007, when he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open and reached the French Open final.
Now, Federer's focus changes from reaching higher to reaching further, that is maintaining good results for a long period a la Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales. And with that objective comes a whole new set of records to chase. Most familiar to Federer is Agassi, who returned to No. 1 at 32 years old and won the 2003 Australian Open at 33. Not only did that happen in front of a young Federer, but the 32-year-old is now going after a similar feat himself.
Jimmy Connors' record 109 titles is probably out of reach, but Federer is tied for third with John McEnroe at 77 and will be hoping to finally move ahead sooner rather than later after being stuck at that number for the past six months. Ivan Lendl, second with 94, is also well ahead, though Federer could match his record of winning a title for 14 consecutive years by lifting a trophy this year.
The continuing success of the over-30 crowd in tennis means such quests no longer look as outlandish as they once might have, but as was discussed last year, Federer already has a lot of mileage on him. He has logged about 1,200 matches on the ATP and challenger circuits so far -- about a third more than others like 35-year-old Tommy Haas, fellow 32-year-old Hewitt and 28-year-old Nadal, who are still closing in on the 900 mark. But here again he can seek inspiration from the history books. Connors reached more than 1,400 and Lendl more than 1,300 matches, though in a less physically punishing age. Agassi stopped at just more than 1,150 matches.
Federer insists he plans to play at least until the next Olympics in 2016, which means he has time to extend his numbers in these categories. The question is whether he can maintain a level acceptable to his high standards and how long his desire to continue will last if he does not -- or cannot. He admits his body is what will probably decide when he stops.
Credit him, however, for pulling out all the stops so far. After a difficult 2013, he has been neither defeatist or defiant, choosing instead to try to adapt (a new, larger racket, a new coach in childhood idol Stefan Edberg, forgoing end-of-season exhibitions for more practice and training). Whatever happens, he cannot be accused of not trying to keep up with the competition.
"I've wanted to change [the racket] for a number of years, but I kept on playing well in the Slams, kept on playing well on the tour. Things were just going so well I only did minor changes to my racket," he told reporters before the tournament. "Since 2002, I haven't fiddled around the racket head size. After Wimbledon [a second-round loss], I finally had a bit more time and I'd like to do an initial test. I was going to do some more after the US Open, but I wasn't in the mood for that, so I waited for the end of the year and did some more testing there.
"Now I've really been putting in a lot of hours on the racket. It feels good. I'm really looking forward to playing now with that racket here at the Australian Open as well after playing Brisbane already."
Having Edberg around, Federer hopes, will be "inspiring" and bring some freshness to his well-established routines. "That's kind of what's very exciting, just hanging out with him," he said.
Andy Murray, the first in the recent wave of players hiring the greats to coach them, gave an entertaining example of the effect of starting to work with a big name -- in his case, Ivan Lendl. "The first few months when I was working with him, yeah, you're kind of nervous going into practice sessions and stuff. That's a good thing. It shows that you care and want to impress him," Murray said in his pre-tournament news conference.
"It's kind of like, yeah, I guess any relationship that you have. ... I would try to impress my girlfriend a lot more the first few months I was with her than I do now, I guess. I guess that's natural."
Still, Federer's sights are clear. "I want to play the free-flowing tennis I know I can play, the transition game, and then I think many things are possible," he told the Melbourne Age. "I still feel I need a few months and weeks, maybe, but I am on the right track, because the last three, four months have been very encouraging for me personally. The five months before that were very difficult."
Perhaps most important of all, he reports that his back has been trouble-free for about six months. That has visibly allowed some of the flow to return, though consistency is lacking. But if last year's slide has been halted, climbing back up is a different, tougher proposition. Nadal and Djokovic have continued to raise the bar, and though Federer extended both to three sets last year when playing well, he is being forced to look even deeper in his bag of tricks. At the moment, his situation looks to be one of waiting for the occasional opportunity, and trying to be in a position to take advantage.
But that may be enough. Though reaching the highest levels gets harder as players get older, the good news is that less can become more. Making the US Open semifinals as a 39-year-old, for example, may be eight-time major champ Jimmy Connors' most celebrated achievement. Eight-time Slam champ Rosewall often finds himself as remembered for reaching a Grand Slam final at 39 as for anything else. And Gonzales, who won two U.S. championships and dominated the exiled pro tour for many years, is prominently remembered just for winning a first-round match at Wimbledon at 41 -- a five-set battle that went more than five hours over two days.
It is a stretch to see Federer going after those feats, though they provide a comforting reminder of how far the age barrier has been extended in the past. But he is already feeling an easing up of expectations going into this Australian Open.
"I definitely have less pressure this year, less to lose. I'm not the defending champion or any of that. So, yeah, I should be able to play more freely, and other guys are supposed to make their move or defend again, all these things," he told reporters. "So, yeah, things are maybe a little bit more comfortable this year around."
Federer may be setting lower expectations than before, but at this stage, it's no longer a sprint to the top. It's a marathon.
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