The 2017 ATP World Tour recently wrapped up, and the biggest story of the season was also one of the more unlikely: Roger Federer had a remarkable year.
Entering the 2017 campaign, there wasn’t much basis for thinking the elegant Swiss maestro was primed for a career renaissance. Yes, Federer is the greatest of all time in men’s tennis (or way up there, anyway) and one of the most sublime athletes in all of modern sports, but here’s where you dust off the cliché about Father Time’s unblemished record.
From 2011-2016, as Federer was ripening into his thirties, he only won a single Grand Slam title (Wimbledon, 2012). That came after winning 16 such titles going back to 2003. Federer knocked on the door a few times in ‘14 and ‘15 but came away empty-handed at every turn. It seemed that the ATP’s younger bucks—Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, etc.—had permanently relegated Old Man Federer to the rearview.
Inevitably, injuries played a role. Federer dealt with a recurring back ailment and a knee issue that materialized while he was preparing a bath for his twin daughters (quite the way for a god-level athlete to be reminded that he’s truly flesh and blood). The knee injury later forced Federer into a six-month rehab layoff that ended his 2016 season. On paper, the stage was decidedly not set for Federer to pull off a run of high-level success in 2017.
So Much for That Idea
Then a strange thing happened: in January, Federer won the Australian Open. Not only did he win, he toppled his personal kryptonite, Rafa Nadal, in a thrilling five-set final. After that, it was off to the races. Refreshed and riding high, Federer just kept winning and winning.
He eventually rose to number two in the world rankings and compiled a 52-5 match record en route to seven titles, including the Slam Down Under and an eighth Wimbledon crown, which pushed him past Pete Sampras for most men’s titles at the All England Club and increased his Grand Slam haul to 19 (compared to 16, currently, for Nadal). Federer made mincemeat of his competition at the hallowed grass-court tournament and essentially turned “the Fortnight” into an extended coronation ceremony. He didn’t drop a single set, and even reduced Marin Cilic, his opponent in the final, to tears during the match once it had devolved into a thorough drubbing.
Federer’s triumph at his favorite tournament was one of the crowning achievements of his finest season in at least a decade. ESPN’s Brad Gilbert even ventured to say that certain stretches of the year represented the best tennis Federer has ever played. Lest we forget, all of this happened during the calendar year in which he turned 36.
Chalk It All Up to His Injuries
So what was Federer’s secret? What accounts for his dramatic rejuvenation? The simplest explanation: he upgraded his one-handed backhand. He turned what was once his chief weakness—the best strategy against Federer has long been to pound away on that wing with heavy top-spin forehands, forcing him to play defensively—into something much closer to a strength.
According to The New York Times Magazine, Federer’s breakthrough was the product of countless practice reps over the course of his injury layoff. Far removed from competitive action, he felt free to swing away on the backhand side “with very little regard for where (the shots) landed.” It eventually produced confidence and the mentality that he could take returns earlier and play a more attacking style with his backhand. Also, Federer had grown more accustomed to the larger racket that he’d switched to several years prior, which gave him more power. Thus was the “NEO backhand” born.
All of the highlights in that linked video are from the Australian Open. Notice what a weapon the backhand was against Nadal especially. It’s to Oz that we’re going to return, because I don’t want to undersell the significance and difficulty of Federer’s victory over his rival in Melbourne.
The Whipping Boy Turns Around
First, a personal perspective. As match play progressed Down Under, I’m sure I was one of many hardcore Fed fans whose excitement about our guy’s excellent form later curdled into dread as we watched Nadal gain a head of steam and clinch the other spot in the final. My thoughts went something like, “No. No. No. Not good. We all know how this is going to end.”
Especially in high-stakes confrontations, Roger has been Rafa’s whipping boy. At that point, Nadal had taken 9 of their 11 Grand Slam encounters, and the last time Federer had won was way back in 2007 at Wimbledon. The previous time they met in the Australian Open final, in 2009, it was Federer who broke down in tears after a crushing five-set loss. Not much grounds for optimism.
In my head, I kept returning to one question: how much psychological damage will it cause Federer if he loses yet again to Nadal on the biggest stage and has to confront the fact that, after pouring his blood, sweat, and tears into the comeback and making a tremendous run, it simply wasn’t enough and he still didn’t have the game to beat Nadal over five sets?
There was also the issue of Federer’s legacy and his jeopardized standing as the G.O.A.T., but I was trying to focus more on the human element. After the fact, I realized I was doing nothing more than projecting the anxiety of a hysterical fan onto Federer, a guy who seems pretty well-adjusted and couldn’t possibly have scaled the heights he has without serious mental fortitude.
Look no further than the deciding fifth set in Oz for proof. Federer won the hard way, against an opponent who doesn’t let you win the hard way. First, he dropped serve in the opening game. Translation: Game over, man. Game over. Especially in the late stages of a match, if Nadal gains the upper hand, he rarely relinquishes it.
Federer stayed tough, though, and went on to force four break-point opportunities in Nadal’s next two service games. He whiffed on each one. The glass half-full perspective: “Okay. I’m right there. Keep after it.” Glass half-empty: “I wasted my chances, and now I’m toast.”
Federer continued to battle and finally, improbably, miraculously leveled the match on his sixth break point of the set. He then held serve and raced out to a love-40 lead in Nadal’s next game. Nadal responded by erasing all three break points, which easily could’ve swung the momentum back in his favor. Federer again kept his nerve and went on to secure the break and set up a 5-3 game to serve for the match. For the championship. For death and glory.
The final obstacle: Fed quickly found himself in a 15-40 hole, on the verge of choking away perhaps the biggest match of his storied career. At this point Fed fans all across the world were praying to every god, goddess, life force, and guardian spirit that would lend them an ear. Their prayers were answered. Through a combination of ultra-clutch serving and a few big forehands, Federer finally put Nadal away. It was over. This time, tears of joy.
The Most Satisfying Win of His Career
It’s not how history suggested things would unfold, but Federer decided to rewrite history that day. To quote Patrick McEnroe, Federer “out Rafa-ed Rafa.” There were a handful of moments when the physical toll (this was Federer’s third five-setter of the tournament) and Nadal’s immense psychological advantage might’ve proved too much, but Federer didn’t falter when it mattered most. He showed insane mental toughness under grueling circumstances, and his fighting spirit won the day.
His reward: probably the most satisfying win of his career, a resounding addition to his Greatest of All Time resume, and the kickstart to a dream season. Afterward, John McEnroe suggested that the G.O.A.T. title had been at stake in the showdown and Federer could now convincingly claim it. Such was the tenor of the match. It had momentous, historic, legacy-shaping implications.
Federer went on beat Nadal (who also had an amazing season) in each of their next three contests, including two finals, making it a clean sweep on the year and five wins in a row overall. That’s the truest indication, along with the success at Grand Slams, of what an extraordinary turnaround it’s been for Federer. I’ve run out of superlatives. Cheers, Roger, on a marvelous year!
P.S. Never change.