Hey Roger Federer : Let’s just roll this tennis party on to New York City, shall we?
Why not? It’s the most giddy and remarkable revival act in sports. It’s all anyone wants to see. After a nearly-five-year stretch in which the Swiss legend won nary a Grand Slam, and appeared on the verge of an injury-provoked career sunset, Federer’s now won two of the last three majors. Federer’s 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 dismissal of an injured and tearful Marin Cilic Sunday was his eighth men’s singles title at Wimbledon, topping his teenage idol Pete Sampras for the most ever there.
With Wimbledon and Australia 2017 in the books, Federer now has won 19 Slams. The man is 35 but playing 25. It’s as if Arctic scientists found Vintage Federer frozen in ice and used a heat gun to reanimate him. He’s going to walk into the U.S. Open in late August as the favorite. I don’t care if he’s not technically the No. 1 seed. Roger Federer will be the undisputed pick to win the men’s title, which would be his third Slam out of four this year.
I believe the proper term for this is: Bonkerstown.
New York City is going to be utterly out of its mind. Of course, New York has long been out of its mind about Federer—he may have an aristocrat’s mien, but they treat him like he was born in a walk-up in Brooklyn. It’s like this everywhere he plays. Seeing Federer has become a sport’s obsessive’s pilgrimage, like seeing a religious icon, or the Grateful Dead.
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I think the arid stretch of no-Slams made the public’s affection even crazier. Early in Federer’s career, he was so dominant, it was as if he was superhuman or ethereal—tennis heaven in a bandanna. Losing—and sometimes heartbreakingly so—added a new layer: vulnerability. Federer was still one of the greatest players in the game, but he was human, just like us. He suffered, just like us.
I’m a liar if I say I saw this coming. I thought it was possible that Federer could sneak a Slam somewhere down the line—the man was making Slam semis and finals, still—but not this. The door had closed on a stretch of dominance like what we’ve seen in 2017, I thought. There was Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and too much new talent and fresh legs. Every tick of the clock brought Federer closer to mortality.
Then came Federer’s injuries in 2016 and his dramatic shutdown, skipping the Olympics and the U.S. Open. If it wasn’t the end, it sure looked like the start of it.
I know the skeptics would want a few words about Federer’s good fortune here, about how he’s benefited from volatile stretches by Djokovic and Murray, not to mention Cilic’s unraveling Sunday. Djokovic, a Federer soul-crusher in recent years, seems especially lost. The next generation of Slam champions, meanwhile, has yet to materialize. The young guns still play Federer scared.
But you can’t win two Slams in a season on luck. It’s just not the way this works. It’s too hard.
Roger Federer returns a shot during the Wimbledon final against Marin Cilic.Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Federer’s done some clever re-envisioning here, too. My Journal colleague Matthew Futterman wrote recently about how Federer is the latest aging athlete to take advantage of an old, under-appreciated trick: rest. It’s risky to stop and start in a sport like tennis, but time off has unequivocally helped Federer. It made him fresh in Australia, and after skipping the clay court season and the French Open, he was more than ready for the grass at Wimbledon.
(I imagine there are some among us who are having a moment of What if? about Federer and the French. Could he have won at Roland Garros? Had he done it, he’d now be on his way to a calendar Grand Slam. To this I can only say: No. Nobody was getting past Rafael Nadal in Paris. Federer made the smart call.)
Just look at the man: technically a tennis geezer, but he’s not playing like a geezer. He’s bringing heat on his serve and from the baseline and he’s outlasting younger competition on long rallies. He’s moving so fluidly. His backhand return of serve is completely bananas, maybe better than ever. HE IS GOING TO BE 36 SOON AND DIDN’T LOSE A SET AT WIMBLEDON.
Skill isn’t the only quality fans admire about Federer, of course. They also admire him because he stands for a kind of grace and class that is so hard to maintain over the course of a long career, not to mention the harsh spotlight of public life. Tennis is a sport of small courtesies; he’s never forgotten that.
I’m sure there will be Federer fans who argue that, win or lose in New York, 2017 could be a perfect final chapter—an all-timer’s brilliant walk-off campaign. I get the notion, but I think this misses a fundamental truth about Federer: He loves playing tennis. He likes the practice, the life, the chase. The guy gets super up for playing random Masters tournaments. I don’t think he’s ready to close the door.
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The U.S. Open is going to be nuts. Roger Federer’s rolling.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com