JULY 18 ― In a logical and rational world, Roger Federer’s achievements this year should not be possible.
Less than a month before his 36th birthday, Federer really should be allowing himself to gradually wind down, starting to reflect upon a stunning career which will without any doubt see him remembered as the greatest tennis player of the modern era.
Instead, he is somehow playing better than ever, and on Sunday he added yet another major title to his overflowing trophy cabinet with a comfortable victory in the Wimbledon final against outclassed Marin Cilic.
That triumph saw Federer set a new all-time record by winning at Wimbledon for the eighth time, and the most remarkable thing about his success in London over the past fortnight was how easily he achieved it by not dropping a single set throughout the whole tournament.
True, Federer was helped by the fact that he didn’t have to play against any of his biggest direct rivals as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal all made early exits from the tournament.
However, Federer still had to complete overcome seven highly talented and motivated professionals, including the players seeded number 6, 7, 11 and 13, and he was able to beat all of them without even losing a set.
It continues an incredible career renaissance for the Swiss, who this time last year had failed to win a major title in five years as age apparently started to take its inevitable toll. But he has now managed to reverse the ageing process to win two of the last three major titles – starting the year with success at the Australian Open and now adding another Wimbledon crown.
Those victories have allowed Federer to take his tally of Grand Slam victories to 19, four more than his nearest challenger Nadal and a total that may perhaps never be beaten even if he doesn’t add any more honours before finally retiring.
I’m happy to go along with the opinion of Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique, who reacted to Federer’s victory at Wimbledon by tweeting: “Leo Messi, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer. The best I’ve seen.”
Messi, Jordan, Federer… they have been the greatest three sportsmen of my lifetime in terms of their ability to dominate their chosen sport over many years ― although American Football quarterback Tom Brady, a five-time Superbowl champion with New England Patriots, perhaps could be added to the list.
Federer’s place among that elite is surely now unquestioned in the wake of his recent revival, and exactly how he has been able to return to his best is a fascinating question.
Part of the explanation, according to tennis analysts, is that he has relieved his physical burden by placing a greater reliance upon aggressive backhand shots to make the length of rallies shorter, giving younger rivals less opportunity to beat him through physical endurance.
It’s surely also the case that he has made the most of his sublime natural talents and canny game plan by calling upon awesome reserves of sheer willpower ― a refusal to accept, even in his mid-thirties, that his greatest days were in the past and a commitment to work without compromise, day after day after day, to recapture his former glories.
The greatest players in all sports make everything they do look easy, but that only happens because they have pushed themselves relentlessly to perfect their techniques: hard work is the only way that Messi’s magical left foot, Federer’s smooth as silk backhand, Brady’s arrowed passes and Jordan’s soaring leaps to the basket can look so natural.
But there has to be more to it than that, doesn’t there?
In addition to working hard, employing effective tactics and possessing ruthless self-discipline, there has to be something else which sets Federer apart from Djokovic and Nadal. A magic extra ingredient that makes Messi better than Cristiano Ronaldo; Brady superior to Dan Marino; Jordan tower above LeBron James.
That extra ingredient, I suspect, is something inherent and difficult to define. A natural ability that raises up one performer above any others.
Watching Messi, for example, I’ve often felt that he somehow sees and understands the game of football in a different way to anyone else. He is almost playing a different sport because of a unique interpretation of what he can do ― he tries things which nobody else could even imagine, and that is why he is better than Ronaldo and the rest.
Federer, perhaps, is similar. I’m no tennis expert but don’t you get the impression, when he plays like he did at Wimbledon this month, that he somehow possesses a unique perception of what can be achieved on a tennis court?
Federer sets himself apart from Djokovic and Nadal not only because of his will to win, his hard work and his scintillating backhand, but also because of something extra that defies logical explanation. Something magical and something special to him. Something that makes him just… well… better.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.