Transcending Tennis: Roger Federer Ascends to No. 1, Again
Nearly 15 years after reaching No. 1 in the world for the first time, the tennis legend is back on top.
By Jane Voigt
Updated: Feb. 20, 2018 • 9:20 AM ET
Roger Federer has risen back to the top of tennis' crop.
How do you talk about a tennis player who continues to set records at the age of 36? Who ascended to the No. 1 spot in the world on Monday, becoming the oldest tennis player in the history of the game to sit on that throne after first reaching it 14 years ago?
Do we attribute his unheard of success to technique and style of play? To an undefinable mystique that expands like a morning sun dawning on an ocean? Or, do we chalk up his accomplishments to charisma or good old luck?
All those angles are legitimate when explaining the phenomenon that is Roger Federer. Plus, the money, of course. Last week, Forbes reported that “Federer’s endorsement earnings are the highest in the world among active athletes at more than $50 million a year.”
To clinch the No. 1 ranking, Federer defeated Robin Haase in the semifinals of Rotterdam on Saturday. To have gone on to win the title, his third there, was icing on yet another celebratory cake.
“What a week it’s been, absolutely amazing,” he told fans Sunday after defeating a lackluster Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-2 in 54 minutes. “The goal was to make it to the semis but I won the tournament, so of course I’m incredibly excited and so so happy…It’s definitely one of the main stops on the tour.”
Federer could say that about multiple stops on the men’s tour, because he’s won many and holds records at many, like eight Wimbledon titles, a record at his absolutely favorite spot on Earth, at least when it comes to his job.
“I remember playing [Pete] Sampras my first time on Centre Court in Wimbledon,” Federer told The Daily Express on Sunday. “Cold hands, emotions. Out of body experience. It will always be my favorite match.”
And, yes, the then 19-year-old defeated the American in five sets. That was 2001. The Rotterdam win raised his total titles to 97, 12 behind Jimmy Connors’ record of 109. Many believe he has a chance to top Connors.
“He’s only lost five times since he came back in January 2017,” former Andy Murray coach Mark Petchey told The Daily Express. “I was actually thinking how you describe this last period of his [Federer’s] career.”
Roger Federer is defying all previous known knowledge of longevity.
The before Wimbledon injury and after Wimbledon injury, which was a slip on the grass against Milos Raonic in the semi-finals, intrigues fans and pundits alike. Federer left tennis for seven months and returned to upset Rafael Nadal in the finals of the Australian Open, first thing back. He’d gone four years and 15 majors since winning his last slam: Wimbledon, 2012. Then, he went on to win Indian Wells, Miami and Wimbledon. In fact, since his return, he’s won three of the last five Grand Slams when he hadn’t won multiple majors since 2009.
The slip on Centre Court proved that Federer was not superhuman. Yet, to protect the longevity of his career, a goal penned early on, Federer had to change. It’s something he has learned to do. A stubborn prima donna at 18, he was pure serve-and-volley. He abhorred drop shots because he thought they weren’t legitimate.
According to Fabrice Santoro, multiple Grand Slam champion in doubles, Federer “understood that he had to change his racquet, shorten his matches and play even more forward.” What Federer didn’t have to change was his love for the game and playing style, which relies more on body leverage than brute force.
“When you say he plays tennis, the most important word is ‘plays’,” Santoro added.
The quieter secret about Federer, which could’ve added to his longevity, is love of his family. We’ve seen him cry, a public display that has drawn in people rather than perceive him as weak. On Saturday in Rotterdam, after defeating Haase and knowing he’d be number one on Monday, Federer again let that vulnerability peak through as he thanked his team and family. His love for them is his real priority.
Roger Federer isn't ready to walk off into the sunset.
Federer’s record since the 2017 Australian Open is 63-5. He lost to Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai, when the Russian was ranked 116th. Tommy Haas, who is older than Federer, beat him in Halle, Germany. Alexandra Zverev, the #NextGen genius of this group, beat him in the final of the Rogers Cup. Juan Martin del Potro took him out at the U.S. Open, and David Goffin ended Federer’s aspirations of winning a 7th ATP World Tour title in November.
Of those five players, the youngest and one with the most potential to grab glory is Zverev. After losing to him at the Rogers Cup, Federer praised the young German for having a complete game.
Other than those five names, the only players that continually challenge Federer are Nadal and Novak Djokovic, both of whom are over 30 years old. Both players also have a winning record against the Swiss Maestro, but Federer has edged Nadal in their last five matches.
Most tennis legends, of which Federer is still an active contender, were done after they reached 29 or 30 years old. Ken Rosewall and Andre Agassi were different. It was Agassi who was the last “oldest” player to hold the top ranking at the age of 31 — Federer will be 37 in August. The comparison is otherworldly, when considering the upkeep Federer has had to weather: racquet construction; strings that let players swing as fast as they want and still keep the ball within the lines; a premium on fitness; and the increase in the number of tournaments and demands from the press.