Birthday boy: Roger Federer Still Leads the Pack at 36 Years Old

Birthday boy: Roger Federer Still Leads the Pack at 36 Years Old

Like a fine wine, tennis champion Roger Federer seems to be getting better with age.

Updated: Aug. 10, 2017 • 11:50 AM ET

Roger Federer is adding to his enormous legacy.

Roger Federer turned 36 years old on Aug. 8. Social media met the 19-time Grand Slam champion with memes and gifs finely tuned for his celebrity. One, in particular, was shared thousands of times. A cat perched directly in front of a T.V., its head yanked left and right as Federer showed off his form. The short video fit in perfectly with the twin holidays: International Cat Day and Federer’s birthday.


In 1998, when Federer hit the pro tour, no one texted or tweeted about him (the latter because it wasn’t invented yet). No one knew every crumb of information about the then 19-year-old. Why would they? But by Feb. 2, 2004, he had played his way to the No. 1 ranking for the first time.


That year, he won 11 titles, including three Grand Slams: the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, plus three Masters titles. Many expected him to win a gold medal at the Athens Olympics, as well, but a spry Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic put an unexpected halt to Federer’s ambition. However, and in a portend of things to come, Federer fell in straight sets to a then 17-year-old Rafael Nadal in their first-ever meeting in Miami. 


Federer’s record for 2017 is just as impressive, or better, than the one he amassed 13 years ago. He’s 32-2 overall, 14-0 in Grand Slams, 11-0 at Masters 1000 tournaments, 5-0 in finals and 9-0 against top 10 players. Ironically, the only other player with these types of results is Nadal, who is matches away from capturing the No. 1 ranking yet again. 


Federer’s eye-popping stats from the year are, in part, the result of a six-month layoff. His knee didn’t fare well at Wimbledon last year after a slip mid-court. After consultation with his team, he chose to close shop for the year. When he won the Australian Open in January, expectations were blown out of the water. Federer, himself, was caught off guard. 


“Everybody says they work very hard,” Federer said after winning in Melbourne, reported by India Today. “I do the same, but I try not to shout about it. I’d like to thank my team. It’s been a different last six months. I didn’t think I’d make it, but here I am.”


Federer hadn’t won the Australian Open in seven years, nor a major since Wimbledon in 2012. The victory jolt, which jolted the record book, was heard around the world. Arguably the best tennis player ever to step on any court surface had taken an extended timeout to then return to an astonishing victory. His winning ways didn’t stop there, as we know from his current record. But what we didn’t discern from his season is the effect he’d have on other top 5 players.


Novak Djokovic, who dominated men’s tennis in 2015 and 2016, has called it quits until January. His right elbow and shoulder need extensive rest and rehabilitation. Stan Wawrinka, currently world No. 4, also hung up his tennis racquet a few days ago. His right knee has been consistently bothersome. And after being eliminated in the first round of Wimbledon, talk began in earnest about replicating Federer’s winning formula. Because of these two elite players’ decisions, we have to conclude they had something to do with Federer’s pioneering decision and his magnificent results upon his return.  


“This was the only solution to make sure I will be able to compete at the top level for many more years,” Wawrinka said through his agency via The New York Times.


Federer’s reasoning for his layoff was the same: to extend a career he and his traveling family of four thoroughly enjoy. Djokovic, too, wants the same: a longer career that will rectify his decline that began well over a year ago. 


Nadal knew the advantage of taking off time before Federer’s example. Nadal’s right wrist made competition impossible in 2014 and 2016. His right knee has been somewhat more of a problem than his wrist, as well, causing lapses in competition. But Nadal’s decisions to stop play, once for more than six months, don’t seem to have been motivated by a desire to extend his career. Instead, his decisions have been grudgingly made due to necessity.


The trend of retiring tennis elites may not be over, either. Andy Murray announced today that he has withdrawn from next week's Cincinnati Masters with an annoying hip injury that was apparent as he limped in between points at Wimbledon. His withdrawal also came with a menacing inference about the U.S. Open.


“Unfortunately, I won’t be playing in Cincinnati as I continue my recovery,” Murray said via The Guardian. “I always enjoy playing there and I look forward to returning next year. I’m continuing to work hard on the court with the aim of being in New York.”


He’s not playing at the Rogers Cup, either.


Federer’s dominance on court has now taken another sense — he’s now a leader off court. He’s championed the way for a healthier field that seeks longevity over short-term gain. With the way the game’s played and the inches of differentiation between winning and losing at its narrowest, Federer has shown his peers the practical advantage of just saying no. That taking care of numero uno is a top priority. 


But the pink cloud he felt throughout the first part of the season has disappeared, according to Federer. After Wimbledon and a short break, he’s been thrown onto the hard courts of Montreal and the Rogers Cup with little preparation. In fact, none.


The first part of the season “seems like ages ago,” Federer told the ATP. He’s realistic about his chances, too, having never won a Rogers Cup when played in Montreal. “I hope to start with a first-round victory,” he said.


He did, beating Canadian Peter Polansky 6-2, 6-1 on Wednesday. Wearing pink, as Federer had done at the 2009 Rogers Cup, he floated, danced and stung like a bee. It was his normal activity in a match that really didn’t demand his best tennis. Nonetheless, he won. The victory was match-win number 1,112.

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