End of the Federer era? Don’t bet on it

By Styli Charalambous 19 October 2011

On Monday, 17 October 2011, something happened in the world of tennis that was last seen in July 2003. For the first time in just over eight years, the number four appeared beside the name of Roger Federer on the ATP World Rankings list, prompting his detractors to predict the end of an era, and the single-handed backhand. By STYLI CHARALAMBOUS.

Roger Federer’s breakthrough year was in 2003, when, as a temper-prone 22-year-old, he overcame Mark Philippoussis in straight sets for the first of his 16 Grand Slam titles.  It didn’t take long for the form of 2003 to propel his rapid rise up the rankings even further, attaining the coveted World Number One ranking just seven months later, in February 2004. A ranking he would go onto keep firmly in his western-style grip for an astonishing 237 consecutive weeks, surpassing Jimmy Connors’ previous record of 160 weeks.

There are not enough superlatives in the English lexicon to list all Roger Federer’s tennis accomplishments. Probably the loftiest tribute of his skill is that many past and present professionals readily acknowledge him as the G.O.A.T of tennis. Greatest of All Time. But in a physically demanding tour, spanning every continent and 47 weeks of every year, tennis is very much a young buck’s sport, with FedExpress himself now considered somewhat of a granddad on tour at the ripe old age of 30.

At the start of this year’s US Open, we suggested that Federer was probably about to enter his last chance saloon to extend his record-breaking achievements at Grand Slam events. And bar a “Hail Mary” return by Novak Djokovic, on double match-point in the fifth-set that sparked a Lazarus-styled comeback, Federer certainly looked like the player of old that would have managed his great rival, Rafael Nadal, in the final.

By going onto to claim the US Open title, Djokovic’s third Grand Slam for the year, he is well set to claim the best season in modern tennis history, which should put Federer’s narrow five set loss to the Serbian superstar into perspective.

A stellar Asian campaign for Andy Murray saw him scalp three consecutive tournament victories, including a Masters title that allowed the talented Scot to dislodge Federer from third place in the rankings, behind Nadal and Djokovic.

So is the end of the road for the tennis great, who holds both Swiss and South African citizenships? The same vultures calling a premature time of death on Federer’s career, were crowing about the nigh end back in 2008 when he lost the premier ranking to his younger rival, Nadal. Even back then, as a 27-year-old, people were quick to call him past his prime, yet Federer responded in the most appropriate manner possible, by becoming the second man in history to regain the top ranking. For 48 more weeks, Roger reigned over the tennis kingdom, before resuming his game of musical chairs for the top spot, with Nadal.

Many would argue that the tennis landscape is quite different from three years ago when the Swiss magician pulled a rabbit out the hat to reclaim the top spot. Back then tennis was dominated by only two players, with clay courts owned by Nadal and pretty much every other surface turning to water for Federer to walk on. As Djokovic has come of age in this landmark season, dispatching Nadal with ease on several occasions, on every surface, keeping up with the fitter, younger rivals oozing with talent and confidence is a different prospect for Federer.

The ripe old age of 30 looms over Federer’s comeback chances like a dark cloud, even as a quick look to the not-so-distant history books provide inspiring tales of old-timers kicking butt on the tour. If Federer is considered past his sell-by date, then one can only imagine what they called Andre Agassi when he appeared in a Grand Slam final at 36, and held the number one ranking at 33 years old. Admittedly, tennis was in poorer company when he achieved those feats, although it still goes to show, age is the not the single most important factor in a player’s prowess.

Yet age is not the only physical attribute weighing down on Roger’s comeback aspirations. As one of the few remaining single-backhanders on tour, Federer will always be at a disadvantage to double-backhanded players, as players attempt to deal with the increasing amount of top-spin generated by exaggerated grip techniques and oversized racquet head technology. As the balls bounce higher on impact, the single-backhand becomes a more difficult shot to control and generate return ball speed than the double-handed exponents.  A scenario accentuated on the slow red clay courts of Europe where Nadal has dominated Federer.

Even though Andy Murray has not quite graduated to the levels of the tennis to warrant the inception of a “Big Four” term, he has already beaten Federer eight times to claim his supporting role in the greatest episode of men’s tennis. Never before has men’s professional tennis seen the likes and quality of so many players, all competing at the same time, so close to their prime.  Men’s tennis has often only been characterised by single rivalries, where two players dominated a period. Think back to Borg-McEnroe, McEnroe-Connors, Becker-Edberg, Sampras-Agassi, and now realise how fortunate we are to see this cluster of once-in-a-generation talent adorn the top of the rankings table.

This is a fact which still leads me to believe that Federer will not be hanging up his Wilson tennis racquet anytime soon to participate on the seniors tour. Just two months ago, Federer was within a hawk-eye call of participating in yet another major tournament final and just because he is now falling in nail-biting semi-finals to the world number one instead of lifting silverware, doesn’t mean it’s the end of the FedExpress era. Not by a long shot. DM

Federer’s achievements in numbers

  • Prize-money: $63,657,621
  • Weeks at No 1 (total): 285
  • Weeks at No 1 (consecutive): 237
  • Career Titles: 67
  • Grand Slam Titles: 16
  • Number of years in Top 10: 10
  • Wimbledon Titles: 6
  • US Open Titles: 5
  • Australian Open Titles: 4
  • French Open Titles: 1

Photo: Reuters.



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