New York, Aug 30: The greats of every era get more interesting as they get older and the magic gets harder to summon.
So it is with Roger Federer. He shrugged off his 30th birthday earlier this month by saying, “It's just a number that's changed,” though he knows it's hardly the only thing that's changed for the greatest tennis player ever as this U.S. Open gets rolling. Because the titles don't come as often they used to—and in the majors, which matter most, Federer hasn't posted a win in 18 months—the questions have changed, too.
Before the emergence of Spaniard Rafael Nadal, Federer often was asked whether he'd ever find a worthy rival. Now, at the close of a sensational run that has enabled Serb Novak Djokovic to leapfrog past him as well, Federer gets asked how much longer—sometimes, even whether—he can hold up his end of either rivalry. Fortunately, one other thing appears to have changed, too—the pride that always simmered beneath that smooth Swiss veneer is bubbling to the surface on occasion.
More than once over the summer, Federer reminded a questioner that he knows the history of 30-something stars in Grand Slam events (only five wins in the last 100) better than those who bring it up, not to mention the balancing act required to stay at the top of the game with a pair of 2-year-old twins at home. He didn't go John McEnroe on any of his interviewers, but he did set one or two straight, occasionally slipping sarcasm into the mix. For a champion whose public demeanor always screamed vanilla, that qualifies as progress.
Nobody who holds the record for major championships in his chosen racket does it without a supersized ego. So one of the most remarkable things about Federer is how skillfully he's masked his all along. Instead of seething, he dutifully managed it one more time on the eve of the Open—which Federer begins late Monday night against 54th-ranked Colombian Santiago Giraldo—when the line of questioning veered toward his age.
“I'm still as professional. I'm still as hungry,” Federer said at one point.
“I feel my game allows me to still play for many more years because I have a relaxing playing style,” he said at another.
But Djokovic, the defending champion, gave a more expansive and honest answer to a similar question. He was asked whether he could see Federer and Nadal reprising
their battles for No. 1, and pushing him back to third.
“From all of us,” Djokovic said of Federer, “he knows the best how it is to win the major events. ... He has 16 Grand Slams, has a fantastic career, and so I'm sure he wants to come back there.”
As far as motivation for Federer, there is that No. 1 ranking to reclaim, a chance to close the gap on Nadal (who holds a 6-2 edge in Grand Slam final meetings), and the few major records he doesn't already own. If those don't do it for him, well, there's always the critics.
But Andre Agassi, who won the Australian Open in 2001 and 2003 -- at 30 years old and 32, respectively—noted that Federer never really needed pushing, not when he had no real rival and even now that he's picked up two capable of standing up to his best. Earlier this summer, right after Federer broke Djokovic's 43-0 streak in a French Open semifinal and prepared to play Nadal—a match he lost—Agassi said: “I've always been a different cat as it relates to motivations and reasons for playing, reasons for digging deep, reasons for continuing. Roger, I don't know if he's just that good mentally or he's so talented that he can just get away with it.”
“You would think one would lose that edge mentally, and certainly physically. But what he's doing, again,” Agassi added, “I couldn't give him enough credit. I don't know how you continue it, but he looks like he's not stopping in the near future.”
Not the near future, certainly, but the end of Federer's reign, if not complete by now, is coming into view. During the same conversation, Agassi marveled, “I'm thinking this guy can do this for another five, 10 years,” then caught himself.
“Not 10. I'll actually make that prediction. Ten is probably too much,” he said.
At this point, all Federer is concerned with is a good two weeks. In reflective moments, he has acknowledged the changing nature of the game and the pressure exerted by younger lions like Nadal and Djokovic have made it tougher to hang on and he doesn't see himself as a “special case,” able to defy time and tide.
But there's no question he was once and could be again, if only for a fortnight in New York, especially if he is determined not to go into it quietly. AP